As we take today to celebrate our nation’s day of independence, it’s only right that we also pay tribute to Hip-Hop’s crop of independent emcees. Sans the support and deep pockets of a major, these artists have managed to thrive, both as mainstream acts and those with niche followings. Whether it’s from touring, selling merchandise, or moving units, succeeding in the independent grind is no easy feat. So enjoy your 4th of July and join us as we tip our hats to the Top 30 Independent Artists in the Game. — XXL Staff
While his buzz seems to have suffered from a decline, The Based God continues impacting the blogosphere day in and day out. His tireless Internet grind (Have you checked out his recent 848 track mixtape?), puzzling style and charismatic personality have kept the Berkley, CA native as one of the more recognizable artists in the game, whether we like it or not.
29. Trae Tha Truth
Trae Tha Truth had a monstrous 2nd half of 2011, poking his head out of the underground to work with everyone from Rick Ross, to Big Boi to Wiz Khalifa on his June 2011 independently released, Street King. His resurgence was particularly impressive after his 2010 beef with local Houston radio station, KBXX, which blacklisted him from his station. Since Street King ‘s release, Trae has remained a staple of Houston rap, releasing a slew of mixtapes and popping up as a featured guest on the records of mainstream favorites like Jadakiss.
28. MF DOOM
MF Doom 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. Despite having already cemented his place in the indie hall of fam, Doom drops down this year's list, having not released a project since 2009's Born Like This
27. Jean Grae
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. Brother Ali
Brother Ali, who’s known and praised for the sincerity of his verses, has been steadily molding his stature as one of indie rap scene’s most recognized voices. The Minneapolis rapper’s allegiance to Midwest powerhouse, Rhymesayers, immediately placed him amongst some of the game’s most recognized names including Atmosphere. Both 2007’s The Undisputed Truth and 2009’s Us have garnered critical praise, and reached respectable positions on the Billboard charts. With his long-awaited Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color expected to come out on August, the legacy of the poignant MC shall continue to thrive (beyond his albino complexion).
The gravelly voiced Duck Down legend has left fans eagerly awaiting his upcoming LP, Mic Tyson. Despite not having released an album since 2007’s Jesus Price Supastar, P struck gold again in 2011 with Random Axe, his critically acclaimed collaborative LP with Guilty Simpson, produced entirely by Black Milk.
24. Immortal Technique
While the Harlem MC’s independently released outputs have never sold large numbers, Immortal Technique was able to leave a dent in hip-hop’s infrastructure with his left-wing, social-political, and revolutionary lyrics. His expose of the U.S. government’s dirty deeds, and history-driven references are unmatched by any other artist claiming to put out conscious or politically driven music. His latest output, The Martyr, received positive reviews, and Technique continues to draw large crowds of avid supporters worldwide. Plus, him actually building an orphanage in Afghanistan, and actively partaking in rallies, showcase Technique’s belief in taking things beyond music.
23. Statik Selektah
The Lawrence, Massachussetts native has worked with the likes of Eminem, Nas, Q-Tip, Saigon, Termanology, Freeway, Freddie Gibbs, Action Bronson, Mac Miller and Obie Trice just to name a few off his who’s who list of collaborations. He’s also made himself viable as the CEO of Showoff Records, even hosting a Showoff Radio program.
22. Smoke DZA
Smoke DZA lands on this year’s list after a particularly impressive year highlighted by his joining Curren$y’s Jet Life roster and two particularly notable releases, Rolling Stoned and the Harry Fraud produced Rugby Thompson. The latter of which resulted in his strongest outing yet, a darker project featuring cuts with other indie mainstays such as Sean Price and Action Bronson
20. Danny Brown
"Slobbing on that pussy after that I don't cuddle/I put that dick up on her make her sleep in the puddle"
19. Styles P
P has been killing it on the independent circuit for some time now. Since releasing his Time Is Money in 2006 on his then Interscope label home, Styles has went on to release a slew of independent projects including 2007’s Super Gangster (Extraordinary Gentleman), 2010’s The Green Ghost Project and last year’s Master of Ceremonies—among others. Despite never matching the commercial success of his 2002 debut A Gangster and a Gentleman and it’s “Good Times” single, SP has managed to stay afloat through his continuous output of music.
Forget not having a major label. Without a manager, publicist, or label of any sort—independent, major, imaginary, or otherwise—Macklemore threw his home city of Seattle on his back, with the Pacific Northwest and later other parts of the country not far behind. With a spoken word-like delivery and knack for storytelling and brutal honesty, the 2012 XXL Freshman has sold shows across the country and secured a substantial and growing following. His new album, alongside producer Ryan Lewis, is due out later this year.
Left coast lyricist MURS has won acclaim over the years for his acrobatic lyrics and high-energy live act. However, his solo show is only half of the equation: collab projects with 9th Wonder, Terrance Martin and Dame Dash's DD172 have helped to upped MURS' profile, along with his involvement in the underground fest, Paid Dues. Looks like that (indie) marketing plan is him.
15. Chris WEbby
After crashing Datpiff's servers from a mixtape release, the self proclaimed "Best In The Burbs," Chris Webby has been on a bit of a tear of late, releasing his first digital album There Goes The Neighborhood, and embarking on a 40 date National Tour this past Spring. His December digital album hit the No. 1 spot on both the iTunes Hip-Hop charts, as well as the Billboard Heatseeker chart.
14. Dom Kennedy
The West Coast local legend's fame has slowly but surely grown since his 2008 debut, and he's amassed something of a cult following in his hometown of LA. His From the Westside with Love skyrocketed his notoriety, and its followup From the Westside With Love II peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Rap Album charts.
13. Kid Ink
Like many of the today's new-age indie artists, Kid Ink built his buzz largely through touring, and an online presence focused on fan interaction. That paid off for the 2012 XXL Freshman this past June, when he released his debut album, Up & Away. With major labels heavily courting the Los Angeles native, who currently reps Tha Alumni Music Group, there's certainly a chance he'll remove himself from the running for a spot on this list by this time next year.
11. DJ Drama
Drama ended the month of June like he hopes the rest of the summer will go—with a bang! That’s because he released “My Moment,” a bubbling banger featuring 2 Chainz, Meek Mill and Jeremih, which is scheduled to be a part of his upcoming album, Quality Street Music. Add his growing penchant for delivering solid music under his name and the fact that doing a Gangsta Grillz mixtape with him still holds weight and fans can realize pretty rapidly why Drama is who he is to the independent scene and hip-hop overall. He stays on what’s hot.
Without (until recently) much recognition but with plenty of fanfare, Lecrae has built an indie powerhouse of sorts with his Reach Records over the last half decade. Offering up a roster of technically gifted rappers who happen to value their Christian faith greatly, the Reach team boasts successful acts like Trip Lee and Tedashii. The anchor, though, is 'Crae, who has topped the Billboard Gospel, Christian, and Independent charts since dropping his first album in 2004. Quickly gaining acceptance into more mainstream circles of hip-hop over the last year or so, the Houston native dropped the Don Cannon-hosted Church Clothes, his first mixtape, earlier this year, and will be follow up with his album Gravity later this year.
The Minnesota duo of Slug and Ant is a not only a perfect musical team, they've also paved the way for a lot of independent artists in their on-their-own-terms success. Their most commercially successful record came in 2008 with When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 charts.
8. Fat Joe
Joey Crack’s radio presence has hardly diminished since the Bronx Bomber has made the transition from majors to indies. His 2010 release, The Darkside Vol. 1 was well received, and he’s garnered steady spins for his two singles, “Another Round” featuring Chris Brown and the star-studded, “Pride N Joy.” His as-yet-titled 11th album will surely continue to cement Crack as an oft-overlooked indie powerhouse.
Indie hip-hop stalwart, EL-P, has experienced a renaissance recently thanks in part to contributions to works by Killer Mike, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire and his own solo effort, Cancer 4 Cure (Fat Possom Records). The former Company Flow front man and Definitive Jux head helped usher in the golden era of independent hip-hop as a Rawkus recording act, along with Mos Def and Talib Kweli, among others. His second act has been just as impressive.
6. Odd Future
"One song, 'Trashwang,' features normally nonrapping Odd Future affiliates rapping, the sort of tossed-off concept a group of teenagers come up with during a late night basement sleepover. And the Odd Future show on Adult Swim, the protean-but-improving 'Loiter Squad,' is pure juvenile slapstick, not much more than a few friends, their inside jokes and some cameras to capture it all."
5. Killer Mike
Once thought of as an heir to OutKast, Atlanta's Killer Mike has prevailed not with the Billboard dominance of the Dungeon Family's favorite sons, but instead with a tried-and-true formula: Grindin' it out. After a series of impressive mixtapes and releases, notably KM's Pledge series, this year he teamed with Brooklyn's El P to work on a full-length collaborative LP that won over fans and critics alike. His latest reinvention has proven to be his best: Underground king.
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. After releasing double albums two years in a row, 40 stepped it up in 2012, releasing 3 albums on the same day (All three of which landed on the Billboard charts). Next up, he's got a double disc album with fellow Bay originator Too $hort entitled The History Channell. 40 Water's not going anywhere.
3. Childish Gambino
"Dad lost his job, momma works at Mrs. Winner's/Gun pulled in her face, she still made dinner/'Donald, watch the meter so they don't turn the lights off'/Working two jobs so I can get into that white school."
2. Tech N9ne
The Strange Music general’s No Days Off motto is still intact. Riding the momentum of his successful All 6’s and 7’s, Tech dropped, Welcome to Strangeland, a compilation of collaborations primarily showcasing his camp. Tech continued to raise the bar with his live show. He closed 2011 by performing for the U.S. Troops as part of the USO tour and set a record for his Hostile Takeover trek—a run that had Tech and Machine Gun Kelly perform 90 shows in 99 days. Tech also continued to strengthen his Strange Music brand with successful releases from ¡MAYDAY! Krizz Kaliko and Stevie Stone.
1. Mac Miller
Mac Miller took independent success to new mainstream heights in the past year. He scored two certified gold singles in “Knock Knock“ and “Donald Trump.” His highly anticipated debut, Blue Slide Park, released last November, became the first indie release to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food in 1995. The LP has moved 331, 245 units to date. Mac’s also landed coveted guest spots on Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger (Remix)” and Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend (Remix)” alongside 2 Chainz and Asher Roth. The Pittsburgh MC’s also been relentlessly touring the world with his 70-city Blue Slide Park run last fall, domestic and oversees legs of his Macadelic tour at the top of the year and more recently, his Under the Influence trek with Wiz Khalifa. Let’s not forget his Mountain Dew endorsement. Last fall, XXL reported that Mac raked in roughly 20 to 25, 000 per show. Word is that figure has significantly ballooned since then. With numbers that rival that of major-label artists, Mac’s proven himself as the top independent artist in the game this year.