10. GZA - "Liquid Swords" (1995)
9. Atmosphere - "Seven's Travels" (2003)
In the picture above, Atmosphere's Slug and Ant look more like mobbed-up mafia knock-around guys than successful, ultra-talented indie rap artists. "Seven's Travels" was my first exposure to Atmosphere, as I caught the standout track, "Trying to Find a Balance" on an indie rock station one night. I proceeded to go buy the record to find that Atmosphere was something akin to the Beastie Boys' goofy, indie sensibilities and Gang Starr's two-man, street edge prowess. The Minneapolis, MN native, Slug, raps throughout the duration of the record, while Ant remains silent as the group's DJ and producer. The girls who have crossed Slug seem to be a major theme of "Seven's Travels," and he's angry at them on "Bird Sings Why the Caged I Know," and they're mad at him on "Suicidegirls." The rest of the tracks seem to be about Slug himself, and about obscure, larger-than-life anomolies like "Cats Van Bags" and Liquor Lyle on "Liquor Lyles Cool July." Slug gets goofy on "In My Continental," but shifts the focus to a more visceral, dramatic experience on "Always Coming Back Home to You."
8. Sole - "Selling Live Water" (2003)
It's hard to be considered a true indie hip hop artist if you're not part of the Anticon record label. Greats like Jel, Alias, and Why? have been spawned from this netherworld of underground rap artists, and Sole is among their brightest and best. "Selling Live Water" was produced by label mate Alias, who put out a stellar hip hop record or two himself. Sole, aka Tim Holland, looks more like your favorite drinking buddy than an intelligent, socially-conscious rapper. My first exposure to Sole came on an Anticon sampler, so I then made a dash to download as many of his tracks as I could, finding that the best ones came from "Selling Live Water." My brother-in-law and I also recorded some hip hop CDs for each other, and "Selling Live Water" was one we shared in common without even knowing it. Sole is a mouthpiece for the disenfranchised, and for the avid Bernie supporter. Through cynical metaphors and scathing comparisons, Sole dips into a whole slew of rants and raves on the topics of income inequality and white privilege and Indian removal. Highlights on the social apt whirlwind include "Da Baddest Poet," "Shoot the Messenger," "Selling Live Water," and "Teepee on a Highway Blues."
7. The Society of Invisibles - "The Society of Invisibles" (2006)
TSOI are such an interesting act. Though their self-titled debut album came out in 2006, they wear their influences blatantly on their sleeves. Their overall style and smorgasbord of characters harkin back to the days of Wu-Tang Clan. The Society is basically a supergroup, with three or four different rap groups melding together like Voltron for an earth-shattering contribution to the underground hip hop scene. The key protagonists, or antagonists, depending on how you look at them, are Gutta, Indrid Cold, Joey Baggs, and the enigmatic, ultra-talented but wholly demented Sunn Sunn Szizzorhandz. If the rest of the group channels Wu-Tang, Sunn Sunn channels Gravediggaz, with his maniacal stylings and horrorcore lyrics. The Arizona super team should be heard and taken at face value for their old school delivery, street tough fervor, and crafty trappings of hip hop mastery.
6. Lordz of Brooklyn - "All in the Family" (1995)
House of Pain burst on the rap scene in 1992 to bring a new flavor of Irish-American hooliganism. Hot off the heels of HOP came the Lordz of Brooklyn. If The Godfather and Goodfellas had an official house band, it would certainly be the Lordz. They were a four-man crew, boasting rappers Kaves, Admoney, and Scottie Edge, along with producer and DJ, Pauly Two Times. The Lordz were a crew of Italian-American street toughs from Brooklyn who constantly gave shout-outs to social clubs, mafioso activity, and the Verrazano Bridge. The Lordz also made frequent references to Mack the Knife (Sinatra) and the laudded gang movie, The Warriors, in which Kaves beckons to the listener on "LOB Sound," "Lordz, come out to plaaay." LOB immediately makes their presence felt on "Saturday Night Fever," where the boys channel rowdy nights at the social club, where you need to "bring your boys and your bat 'cause it's a bar fight." The act is a little campy, but it worked for the time, when other ethnic groups were trying to make their way into the rap game. The Lordz did an ultra-gritty track with Everlast from House of Pain called "Lake of Fire."
5. Gravediggaz - "6 Feet Deep" (1994)
Horrorcore hit the rap scene right around '93 and '94, and while Brotha Lynch Hung seems to get most of the credit for flourishing in the genre, Gravediggaz carved out a small niche using their ties with Wu-Tang. The creator of the group, Wu-Tang mastermind RZA, sought to explore the darker side of street life, melding it with horror anthems and monstrous melodies. He even took gold teeth a step further, wearing custom-made gold fangs in his mouth when performing with Gravediggaz. "6 Feet Deep" was group's first, and best, effort. Later studio efforts would see them decrease in their Gothic overtones, never once again reaching their zenith, the torch-bearing "Diary of a Madman." "Constant Elevation" conjured images of a visit to the mortuary, "2 Cups of Blood" is menacing and macabre, and "Bang Your Head" serves up metallic flavorings melded with grungy hip hop. Because of Wu-Tang, and because of Gravediggaz, I now make the attempt to follow the always-innovative RZA into any project he's part of, be it music or movies.
4. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "The Heist" (2012)
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, took conscious hip hop to brand new heights with the release of their major label debut, "The Heist." One of the hits from the album, "Thrift Shop," turned the world of hip hop upside down, delivering a message of finding self-comfort in the old rags and vintage flavors of your local Goodwill. In a rap game so concerned with gold chains and stacks of cash, Macklemore encouraged us to save our money and pop some tags with the 20 in our pocket. The tune was jovial and fun-loving, and it was a breath of fresh air in the slightly redundant modern world of rap. From there, Ben tackles personal relationships with females on "Thin Line," same-sex rights in "Same Love," alcoholism and substance abuse in "Neon Cathedral" and "Starting Over," and the lies and shadiness of record execs on the blatant diss track, "Jimmy Iovine." One of my favorites on the album is track 1, "Ten Thousand Hours," in which Macklemore encourages the listener not to give up on their dreams, the chorus belting out, "Ten Thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands, ten thousand hands, they carry me."
3. Cypress Hill - "Cypress Hill" (1991)
Cypress Hill was an innovative rap trio coming out of 1991, blistering the radio stations and the Juice movie soundtrack with watershed hit, "How I Could Just Kill a Man." Frontman B-Real has a very distinctive vocal tone, especially in the hip hop genre, nasally and seedy and delinquent. Subsidiary member member Sen Dog keeps his bars to a minimum, usually adding background barks to B-Reals clever choruses. DJ/producer Muggs deserves as much recognition as any other in the genre, with his loops and samples of feral shrieks and old, peaked-out guitars. He uses a slow, deadly bongo beat on "Latin Lingo," and old school classic rock riffs for album opener, "Pigs." Muggs' beats, and B-Real's vocals, are highly distinctive in the genre, and for a hip hop group, Cypress has had a nice, respectable longevity.
2. House of Pain - "Same As it Ever Was" (1994)
House of Pain came out of nowhere to change the rap world in 1992. Never before had Irish-American hooligans been cast as hip hop heroes. Members Everlast, the aptly-named Danny Boy, and DJ Lethal brought a familiarity to white inner-city and suburban Irish-American kids looking to unleash their pent up angst. Loud and brutish, House still managed to tread lightly, never disrespecting or trying to completely overtake the occupied rap genre they'd infringed upon. HOP's debut album dropped and dropped hard 1992, and while the group lost some of their initial footing in the 1994 sophomore effort, "Same As it Ever Was," it's actually the more preferred of their albums for me. Before their debut in '92, along with Cypress Hill and Funkdoobiest, House of Pain formed a clique called the Soul Assassins. Every group in the Soul Assassins had their music and beats produced by the revolutionary DJ Muggs. He did a fantastic job of distinguishing beats of the Soul Assassins recordings. He made "Same As it Ever Was" a very horn and classic guitar-heavy endeavor, giving the album a very old world, old school Irish feel to it. The beats of "Back From the Dead," "On Point," and "Keep It Comin'" conjure images of black and white photos in the back of some Irish pub, it's walls littered with shamrocks and Celtic crosses. In "On Point," Everlast even strengthens that image, going off with "Back in the days there were Irish ways, and Irish laws, stand up for the cause." He also goes on to tout his support for Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican government, who's long waged a war with the British occupation of predominately Protestant Northern Ireland. "Same As it Ever Was" is a true Irish-American experience, a little more subtle than the 1992 debut, in which the group had to keep reminding the listener that they were Irish.
1. Wu-Tang Clan - "Enter the Wu-Tang" (1993)