“Underground rap music” is a phrase that takes on many different meanings, depending on who's saying it. It’s a term filled with mystique and ambiguity, causing for more questions than it may answer about the well-known yet misunderstood genre.
What does underground rap music even mean? The simple answer to that question is: the song you play on aux that you’re sure your friends have never heard but are going to ask “who’s this?”. However, this answer still leaves a lot to the imagination as to what “underground rap” means. But look no further, because I, Johnny Blaze, am going to try to contextualize the idea of underground rap music.
Now, I know all of you reading this are looking for some insight into the underground rap world and want to hear it from a 22-year-old white Canadian kid. So rest assured, you have come to the right place. I got you covered.
Wikipedia claims that the phrase is an, “umbrella term for hip hop music outside the general commercial canon. It is typically associated with independent artists, signed to independent labels or no label at all. Underground hip hop is often characterized by socially conscious, positive, or anti-commercial lyrics.” But this statement itself seems like a very large blanket to cover all facets of the term, undoubtedly leaving some offshoots of underground rap music out in the cold.
Underground rap may be one of the most beautiful anomalies this world contains. Personally, I don’t think there is one set definition that can cover the elusive genre. It’s rather subjective when you think about it and trying to define it almost takes the fun out of being a fan of underground hip hop.
For me, underground rap is the music you had to dig deep into the record bins for. The song you say when someone is asking you for something fresh. The artist you keep name dropping around your friends in hopes you can turn them all onto the new wave you’ve tapped into.
But why is it so important to us as consumers to spend our time overturning every rock, until we’ve exhausted ourselves? Why do we fill our music libraries up with albums on albums, that we have no chance in hell of making a unique connection with on an emotional level?
That is because we can. To find something new, interesting and innovative is the most addictive component to music. When digging through the world of lesser-known artists, the potential of finding a gem is what keeps you going. The mainstream music industry is over saturated and has been for some time now. It seems to lack the creativity and experimentation it once did. And that’s okay if you’re into that. But there is a whole other realm of music to be explored.
Think of it like a festival, the headlining acts are hype and fun but there’s more to it than that. Sure, you’ll always walk away with a great story about how you and your boys were chucking elbows and stomping people with shell toes at Lil Baby on Saturday night. But go back and look at the poster, get a magnifying glass out, and squint at those names located near the bottom of the poster. Here, you will find some of the newest and most interesting artists on the rise from the underground. In other words, the perfect people to start bridging the gap into the underworld of the music industry.
However, one of the more intriguing things to note about the underground music scene is that mainstream success is not something artists are afraid of. Recently, music pages all over social media have been sharing a picture of a Mount Rushmore with Juice Wrld, XXXTentacion and Lil Uzi Vert’s face on it, asking who should fill the fourth and final spot to round out the top four Soundcloud artists. At one point, these artists were underground, which seems like forever ago, but these three climbed to unimaginable heights in their careers.
I can still remember hearing “Look at Me!” for the first time in my car, the energy seemed to push the Mazda to 200, while me and my friends screamed at each other, flying through the backroads of butt fuck nowhere Nova Scotia… Ahhhhhhh, the good ol’ days.
Soundcloud was the catalyst for underground rap. Forcing an era of free music onto the masses, leaving people to their own devices to virtually dig through those same record bins, into the depths of the new and emerging era of underground artists. In my opinion, this era of music was one of the most memorable and interesting periods of time. The rate at which new music was being dropped was overwhelming, but from the ocean of new tracks arose some of the greatest artists our generation will ever see.
And for what it matters, Trippie Redd or Ski Mask the Slump God should fight it out for that last spot on Mount Rushmore.
On the Down to the Beat podcast, Fixxx and I interviewed Kwanli Beats and chopped it up with him for about an hour on everything that came to mind from one of the underground scenes very best. Kwanli is one of our favourite staples in the underground game here at Down to the Beat, a producer and beat maker who knows no limits and has some of the most interesting perspectives on the industry he is immersed in.
Kwanli is incredibly tapped into the underground scene, as he is a part of it himself. However, his view on breaking through to the other side is one worth keeping in mind. Like I just said, this guy bends the limits of what a beat maker does. He DJ’s, he produces, he makes beats, is a mashup wizard and is one of the most level-headed people I’ve ever interviewed.
However, it is the industry he’s in that has driven him into being so multi-faceted. His well-rounded skills make him desirable in any genre from pop to space soul, a genre he most often associates himself with. He claims that he needs to be this in tune with various genres so that when he has the opportunity to work with increasingly mainstream artists, he will have catalogs of work of all different styles that could never disappoint.
This is the mentality that I feel runs through underground rap. The experimental nature of it outshines the lack of diversity in mainstream music currently. Here you will find artists making music for the sole purpose of making it. They are hungry, they want us to find them, to put them on to the masses, and sell out their shows. There is a whole other world of music out there, one that we as consumers need to be spending our time invested in.
So go out and look with your ears because I guarantee you haven’t listened to your favourite song yet and I know you haven’t found your favourite artist yet. Take it from Johnny Blaze, your friendly neighbourhood music journalist.
Written by John Balser