What is the point of underground rap? Different eras have offered different answers. Before hip-hop's mid-'80s boom, when LL Cool J and Run-DMC became bona fide crossover stars, all rap was effectively underground, with early hits by Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow being the novelty-ish exceptions that prove the rule. As the decade progressed, the distinction between mainstream and fringe remained murky, but in the '90s—as profits soared, the "urban" radio format proliferated, and major labels upped their investments in the genre—the line grew firmer: Up there, the big leagues, stocked with stars, flush with cash, and in endless need of fresh faces; down here, the farm league, bustling with undiscovered talent eager for fans and a payday.
That symbiotic exchange has endured, but toward the end of the '90s, as hip-hop went global, the unprecedented floods of money forced an identity crisis. Was it possible to sell out of an art form in which upward mobility was a founding principle? The genre, full of rags-to-riches tales, had always been aspirational, but its vision of social advancement had once involved something beyond a statistically negligible few winning big at capitalism. This conundrum intertwined with another. Hip-hop was created expressly as party music, populist through and through, but now worries arose about how a broad popular audience would corrupt the genre. The wild success of gangsta rap and drug rap, which threatened to narrow the spectrum of experience and modes of expression available to MCs who sought substantial audiences, was alarming. The advent of P. Diddy, resolutely cartoonish avatar of the new avarice, was annoying. And the fact that dusty old vinyl samples—particularly soul and jazz loops, intimately tied to black music's past—were losing ground to glossier, colder synthesizers was alienating.
By the late '90s, "underground rap" had come to signify not just a tight-knit community but an exalted moral stance, and it birthed a cottage industry of counter-programming. The latter half of the decade saw the formation of several prolific independent labels that, unlike the Def Jams and Priorities and Tommy Boys of the 1980s, either ignored the mainstream or spurned it outright. These included Rawkus, a New York imprint that launched the careers of Mos Def and Talib Kweli; Quannum, Anticon, and Stones Throw, in California; Rhymesayers, in Minnesota; and Definitive Jux, in Brooklyn.
The underground's defiance toward, or lack of interest in, mainstream trends made for some great, sui generis music: The warped, woozy sample work of J. Dilla and Madlib; the space-cadet free-associations of Kool Keith and MF Doom; the dystopian urban dispatches of Company Flow and Cannibal Ox. At its best, underground rap was a clearinghouse for outré ideas (not to mention a stronghold for the expansive black bohemianism that De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest had made temporarily big a few years before). At its worst, though, underground rap entailed a stubborn digging in of heels: Listen to a celebrated period artifact like 1999 Rawkus anthology Soundbombing II and you hear not just Slim Shady LP-era Eminem doing a syllable-drunk victory lap on his way to the pop stratosphere, but also verse after verse of stultifyingly "virtuosic" rhymes: unevocative abstractions packed tightly together and set to de rigueur whirls of scratching and samey boom-bap drums. This aesthetic, implicitly opposed to the spacious, hook-driven rhymes, jerky rhythms, and ProTools gleam that were prevailing aboveground, responded to mainstream party music with what you might call a party-of-no mentality—by the '00s, conscientious objectors to "corporate rap" like Little Brother were proudly fashioning themselves righteous buzz kills, savior-scolds.
But mainstream hip-hop had entered in the late '90s into a period of frenzied, heightened creativity that lasted well into the following decade. The Neptunes, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, "Ha," OutKast, Purple Haze, Kanye West, "Grindin'" and a litany of other brain-reorganizing singles too numerous to mention—one ostensible point of an underground is to provide an alternative to the status quo, but (with the exception of the Dirty South's independent circuit, which represented underground rap of a different kind) who needed it? The mainstream, regularly driving its Escalade over the bones of the dead, happily provided its own alternative every other month.
In 2011, however, underground rappers are having a banner year—creatively besting their aboveground counterparts in some cases. One of the years' most notorious albums belongs to Tyler, the Creator, the Los Angeles instigator who formed an art-rap collective, Odd Future, and who has sold 120,000 copies his proper LP debut, Goblin, on the independent label XL. Das Racist's excellent first album, Relax, which the Brooklyn rappers released themselves this week, is a vertiginous jumble of highbrow and lowbrow, personal and political, laughs and invective. Lil B, formerly signed to a major label as part of one-hit wonders The Pack, has reinvented himself as a constantly self-reinventing, one-man meme-generator, capable of plausibly releasing a magnificently strange new-age album here, a boastful mix tape called I'm Gay there. (In a sign of just how topsy-turvy things have become, Justin Bieber is a Lil B fan.) Shabazz Palaces' Black Up, released on the Seattle indie label Sub Pop, is a trippy gem, and the up and coming Harlem teenager ASAP Rocky has delivered a string of hypnotically slow, faintly melancholic singles online.