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Independence Day: Top 30 Independent Acts in the Game

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While some consider the major label world to be the big leagues of the music industry, that doesn’t make independent artists minor leaguers or amateurs. For as long as there has been hip-hop there have been indie artists hustling to get their music directly to the people without the big budgets or fancy distribution deals. Some rappers use the independent space as a stepping stone to major label glory. Others have carved themselves a comfortable niche within the indie world and often manage longer, sometimes happier careers than their major-label counterparts. With our nation’s Independence Day in mind, we wanted to celebrate those who are getting theirs on their own. Here is XXL’s Top 30 Independent Acts in the game.—Calvin Stovall

30. Dom Kennedy

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The Leimert Park, Los Angles MC has released six superb mixtapes since 2008 including From the Westside, With Love II, which dropped last Tuesday.

30. Freeway

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Freeway’s done well for himself in his post Roc-A-Fella career. In 2009 the Philly MC released Philadelphia Freeway 2 via Real Talk Entertainment. He followed up with collaborative LPs with producer Jake One (The Stimulus Package) and Beanie Sigel (The Roc Boys) on Rhymesayers Entertainment and sickness.net, respectively, the next year. Free released Statik-Free, an EP recorded live on XXLMag.com’s Ustream channel earlier this year.

29. Skyzoo

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Despite being only 28 years old, this BK MC is the epitome of a throwback. With a nostalgic flow and penchant for picking soulful beats to rhyme over, the Duck Down spitter has become an underground favorite thanks to quality releases like 2010 Live From the Tape Deck, a collaboration with producer Illmind.

28. Mistah FAB

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The Oakland MC’s eccentric style and prolific output have made him one of the most successful independent artists of the past decade. Beloved in the Bay and respected for his freestyle skills, F.A.B. plans to add on to his already stacked catalog of solo albums, compilations and mixtapes with the release of his fourth studio album, Da Yellow Bus Rydah, later this year.

27. Jean Grae

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Quiet as kept, Jean Grae has put together a lengthy and acclaimed career without any major label ties. From her early days as a member of Natural Resource (when she went by the name What? What?) to her acclaimed Jeanius album with 9th Wonder to her recent mixtape, Cookies or Comas, Jean Grae stays on your best female rapper—and rappers, period—lists.

26. Freddie Gibbs

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The former XXL Freshman has released two stellar EPs since 2010 including last month’s Lord Giveth, Lord Taketh Away with Statik Selektah which they recorded live on XXLmag.com via UStream. Now formally aligned with Young Jeezy’s CTE, the Gary, IN native is currently prepping his debut album, Baby-Faced Killa, for a 2011 release.

25. Foreign Exchange

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Comprised of former Little Brother-MC Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay, this duo has created three genre-bending albums since emerging in 2004 with Connected and are prepping their fourth, Dear Friends: an Evening with the Foreign Exchange, for a 2011 release.

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24. Black Milk

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Detroit’s own Black Milk is one of the most talented producer/MCs in the game today. His soulful, drum heavy sound and throwback flow have made him a staple among underground hip-hop heads since 2007’s Popular Demand. In June, he released Random Axe with Sean Price and Guilty Simpson.

23. Von Pea

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Hailing from Brooklyn, Von Pea made a name for himself as a member of indie hip-hop favorite Tanya Morgan. With the group on a hiatus, the producer/MC solidified himself as one of the indie game’s most talented voices with 2010’s Pea's Gotta Have It.

22. Statik Selektah

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The Massachusetts DJ/Producer has built up an incredible catalog of albums, mixtapes and production credits in his 11-year career. Collaborators include Nas, Q-Tip and Freddie Gibbs, with whom the DJ recorded Lord Giveth, Lord Taketh Away, an EP done live on XXLmag.com via UStream.

21. Fashawn

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This Cali rapper’s remarkable debut album, 2009’s Boy Meets World, earned him a spot on our 2010 Freshmen list. He’s since used standout guest verses and a steady output of mixtapes (including last year’s Ode To Illmatic) to keep himself buzzing as he preps his follow-up, The Ecology.

20. Roc Marciano

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The former Flipmode Squad MC laid low after the release of the slept on UN or U Out album with Long Island reppers the UN in 2004. Roc Marci stormed back in 2010 with Marcberg, a boom-bap heavy endeavor, produced by himself no less, that had heads reminiscing of hip-hop’s golden age and wanting to hear more of his hard body raps. Roc Marciano is working on the follow up to Marcberg with names like the Alchemist and Q-Tip.

19. Blu

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This former XXL Freshman is considered by many to be one of the most skilled lyricists in hip-hop. While his elevated subject matter and eclectic aesthetic make him difficult to market commercially, he’s carved out a reliable fan base thanks to his undeniable talent and work ethic that includes a gang of acclaimed collaborative albums included The Piece Talks (with Ta’Raach), Below the Heavens (with Exile) and Johnson & Jonson (with Mainframe).

18. Brother Ali

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17. Sage Francis

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The man born Paul Francis has been putting in work since before winning the Scribble Jam MC battle in 2000. Having had the distinction of being the first MC signed to storied, indie rock label Epitaph, the Rhode Island drew critical acclaim for his 2010 album Li(f)e on Anti-Records, which showcases his skills for complex lyricism and witty wordplay.

16. Saigon

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Earlier this year, the Brownsville representative defied all odds and successfully released his debut studio album The Greatest Story Never Told via Cali-based independent label Suburban Noize. The album had suffered a four-year delay thanks to issues with former label Atlantic Records but nevertheless received critical praise upon its release.

15. Joell Ortiz

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Though signed to major label Shady Records as a member of the group Slaughterhouse, the Puerto Rican MC is indie as a solo artist. A former Aftermath Records signee, February’s Free Agent was his first album in four years but the punchline specialist has kept his name ringing through his work with Slaughterhouse and a constant onslaught of quality mixtapes.

14. MURS

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A 14-year veteran, the eclectic Los Angeles MC has built his underground rep by making consistent, quality hip-hop. MURS, a member of the Living Legends rap crew, gained critical acclaim for the four collaborative albums he did with producer 9th Wonder as well as his solo work (2008’s Murs for President).

13. Pastor Troy

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Georgia Boy and crunk legend Pastor Troy has been releasing a steady stream of southern heaters for the past 12 years. His prolific output (He’s released nine albums since 2009, with another one set to drop this August) and contagious energy on the mic make Troy a fan favorite and has earned him the respect of his peers.

12. Joe Budden

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While it’s hard to deny Joey’s skills on the mic, he hasn’t had the best luck with major labels. Since parting ways with Def Jam after nearly six years in major label purgatory, the Slaughterhouse MC has satisfied fans with a steady output of mixtapes and digital albums including last year’s superb Mood Muzik 4: A Turn 4 The Worst.

11. Trae Tha Truth

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Persistence in the face of adversity is a necessary trait for any artist in the indie game. No MC can attest to that more than Houston’s Trae Tha Truth, who’s succeeded not only without the support of a major label, but also in spite of his local radio station. As if it weren’t hard enough for indie artists to get spins, a beef with DJs at Houston’s KBXX "97.9 The Box" got Trae blacklisted from the station, causing him to file a lawsuit against “The Box” last year citing damages to his career. Never one to give up, Trae has continued releasing mixtapes and collaborations with Screwed Up Click partner Z-RO as he preps his next album, Street King, due later this year.

10. Sean Price

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Always a premier lyricist, the Duck Down legend and one-half of the duo Heltah Skeltah has become a solo star in the indie game in the past few years. Though he hasn’t released a solo album since 2007’s Jesus Price Supastar, P has kept his name buzzing on the streets and the blogosphere with steady servings of freestyles, collaborative projects (Random Axe) and features as the game eagerly awaits his upcoming Mic Tyson project.

9. E-40

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The Bay-Area legend and slang pioneer has used the independent game to set an unmatched example of longevity in hip-hop. Through his Sick Wid It label, The Ambassador of the Bay has slung music to fans nationwide since 1987. He released double albums in each of the past two years (From his Revenue Retrievin’ series) and is currently working with fellow Bay originator Too $hort on The History Channel which is slated to drop later this year.

8. OFWGKTA

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It’s no surprise that the anti-establishment LA-based collective known as Odd Future has for now chosen to forgo the major label system and do the independent thing. While front man Tyler, the Creator gets most of the attention, members Frank Ocean, Hodgy Beats and Earl Sweatshirt have all contributed to the crew’s current stranglehold on popular culture’s consciousness with quality music and rebellious energy.

7. Lil B

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The Based God’s recent behavior has shown that he has no qualms about being an individual. His unique style, puzzling lyrics and controversial decision to name his album I’m Gay have all solidified B as an independent thinker. His tireless Internet grind and charismatic personality have made the XXL Freshman one of the most recognizable figures in hip-hop today, despite not being signed to a major.

6. Talib Kweli

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The Black Star member and Rawkus Records legend is one of the most respected MCs in the game. Though his mainstream success has been stunted by inconsistent output and media pigeon-holing, he reminded everyone of his undeniable skills with the pen last February with the long-awaited release of his superb Gutter Rainbows LP.

5. Killer Mike

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The ATL rapper first got our attention in the early 2000s, lacing some of our favorite OutKast classics with his clever bars and domineering flow. In the years since, he’s split from his fellow ATLiens and established his own Grind Time label where he’s released four solo albums, including PL3DGE this past May.

4. Raekwon

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Wu-Tang’s chef has laid the blueprint for rap legends looking to give their careers new life. After the lackluster follow-ups to his classic debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Rae left the major-label game and consigned EMI Records to push his Ice Water Records projects. He’s since released two stellar albums (2009’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II and 2011’s Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang) independently and continues to build on his legacy as one of hip-hop’s greatest ever.

4. DOOM

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The artist formerly known as MF DOOM (and Zev Love X) has been an underground favorite since establishing himself as rap’s super villain on 1999’s Operation Doomsday. Though not always acknowledged in the mainstream, the man also known as Metal Face, Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah’s influence on the game is undeniable. Mos Def calls himself DOOM’s no. 1 fan and you need your ears checked if you’re not reminded of his gravelly voice and unorthodox flow when listening to Odd Future ringleader Tyler, the Creator.

2. Atmosphere

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The Minneapolis-based duo has been on the independent grind since the late 1980s and have enjoyed one of the longest, most successful indie careers in hip-hop history. Members Slug and Ant released a double EP last year (To All My Friends, Blood Makes The Blade Holy: The Atmosphere EP's) which hit no. 2 on iTunes charts, and their 2011 album The Family Sign reached no. 13 on the Billboard 200 this past April.

1. Tech N9ne

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The co-founder and star of Kansas City-based independent giant Strange Music, Tech Nina has sold over one million records without the help of a major label. In June, he dropped his twelfth studio album, All 6’s and 7’s, which featuring the likes of Lil Wayne, B.o.B and Snoop Dogg, and debuted at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart with over 55,000 units sold its first week in stores.