The current indie rap scene teems with more life than ever before. Thanks to the World Wide Web’s endless supply of outlets, from your run-of-the-mill tastemaker blog, website and chat room to Tumblr, YouTube, Bandcamp and god knows what else, rappers with no budget but lots of ambition and maybe even a little talent can make an impact, resulting in a bumper crop of stars, from Das Racist, Danny Brown and Killer Mike to Main Attrakionz, Roach Gigz and Action Bronson.
There may be as wide an audience for indie hip hop as there’s ever been, one that rivals the halcyon years of the late ‘90s, when Black Star, Company Flow, Jurassic 5 and a handful of other boldfaced names roamed the earth. However, it’s not as if nothing happened between then and now. Here are ten great artists you might have missed during the last decade.
1. Black Milk
Long-marked for crossover success, this Detroit rapper and producer remains an underground phenomenon unknown to most mainstream hip-hop fans. It’s too bad, because Black Milk makes some of the best electric funk beats since J Dilla’s heyday. Last year, the prolific artist issued two projects: Random Axe, a supergroup with surly street vocalists Sean Price and Guilty Simpson; and Black and Brown, an EP with rising Motor City motormouth Danny Brown.
2. Buck 65
In his native Canada, Buck 65 is widely admired for blending folk and blues with detailed character sketches, and has nabbed several Juno Award nominations, the Canuck equivalent of the Grammy Awards. Yet despite a cult U.S. following and a long friendship with avant-garde collective Anticon, much of his work hasn’t been issued here. The 2005 compilation, This Here is Buck 65, featured his meditation on a man-horse and its unusually long member (“The Centaur”), and a truck driver riding large like a road hog (“Wicked & Weird”).
Rhyming himself into knots and crooning like a madman, Busdriver is more likely to find common ground with freak iconoclasts like Deerhoof, Ceschi and Open Mike Eagle than your standard underground rap star. Fans value his early work like 2002’s Temporary Forever and 2005’s Fear of a Black Tangent, but newer recordings such as this year’s Beaus $ Eros are worth a listen, too.
4. Count Bass D
Dwight Ferrell is a droll, unassuming Nashville musician whose career dates back to 1995 and the criminally under-heard Pre-Life Crisis. He also rocked MPC drum machine pads at live shows long before Araabmuzik became famous for doing it. Highlights from the Count Bass D catalog include 2004’s Begborrowsteal, where he sings off-key “New Edition Karaoke” (and struggles to contain his laughter); a burner cameo on MF Doom’s “Potholderz”; and 2006’s L7, released via livetronica band Sound Tribe Sector 9’s 1320 Records, and the blissful R&B-inflected rap “Neon Soul.”
Formed in Atlanta and currently based in Kentucky, Cunninlynguists specialized in Dirty South nostalgia long before Big K.R.I.T. Beginning with 2006’s A Piece of Strange, the trio used music that evokes OutKast and 8Ball & MJG to explore questions about Christianity, the meaning of sin and living a moral life in a corrupted society. Last year’s Oneirology was an hour-long concept piece that took place in the dream world.
This Gainesville, FL quartet – rappers Akin and Cise Star and producers Enoch and Speck – evoke images of rampaging African elephants in their sinuous, electronically-enhanced blue beats and politically-charged lyrics. More appreciated in Europe, where they’ve recorded for a variety of imprints, their current home is Portland indie label Hometapes, which released 2008’s Pretty Dark Things and last year’s experimental suite Wasteland, Vol. 1.
This Boston fast-rap revivalist and visual artist emerged with 2002’s Primitive Plus and jokey tracks such as “Emcees Smoke Crack,” “Schoolly-D Knew The Time” and the Spoonie Gee homage “Let’s B Friends.” Three years later, he issued Beauty and the Beat, a wonderful conflagration of emo-rap and psychedelic rock. Then Edan seemed to disappear, save for occasional sightings like a 2011 appearance on Cut Chemist’s “Tunnel Vision” tour and 2009’s Echo Party, a super-weird DJ mix lathered with Echoplex tape-delay effects.
8. Jneiro Jarel
One of the unsung innovators of the electronic beats-and-bass scene, Omar Gilyard tends to flip a different alias for each project, from Shape of Broad Minds for 2007’s avant-rap opus Craft of the Lost Art, to Willie Isz (with Goodie Mob alum Khujo Goodie) for the futuristic Dirty South sounds of 2009’s Georgiavania. This summer, he joined forces with MF Doom for JJ Doom and the bewildering rhymin’ slang of Key to the Kuffs.
Thes One and Double K celebrate the good life – L.A. weather, digging in the crates for rare vinyl, and doobies and beers. Their sunshine raps are deceptively simple yet sticky and infectious, and they’ve built an indie empire out of gems like 1998’s The Next Step, 2002’s O.S.T. and 2006’s Stepfather.
10. Rob Sonic
These days, Rob Sonic is best known as sidekick to Aesop Rock, who together (with DJ Big Wiz) formed Hail Mary Mallon and 2011’s quirky Are You Gonna Eat That? But in the early 2000s, he was part of Sonic Sum, a linchpin of the same New York skronk-rap scene that housed El-P and poet Mike Ladd. The group’s 2000 meditation on urban malaise, The Sanity Annex, and Sonic’s 2005 solo album Telicatessen are worth checking out.