The return of backpacker rap

Confession time: I enjoy quite a bit of so-called backpacker rap. I never really bought into the idea put forth by Village Voice blogger Tom “Southern Strategy” Breihan and XXL’s own Tara “Bol’s Charity Work” Henley that backpackers are boring because all they do is complain about shit. In fact, there’s hardly anything I enjoy more than to complain about shit.

I suppose I do fit the backpacker profile to a certain degree in the sense that I read and write well, spend an insane amount of time on the Internets (for which I get paid, thank you very much), and can count myself among the only 1 in 4 people this age who have a bachelor’s degree, a statistic I read recently in Anya Kamenetz’s fascinating Generation Debt.

That said, you won’t catch your father rocking a headwrap or any other kind of clothes that can’t be purchased at Chesterfield Mall. I get the majority of my meals from fast food joints and try not to drink any water that doesn’t have beer in it. I reject political correctness out of hand and enjoy nothing more than to treat a woman as an object.

In general, I’d like to think that I can enjoy any kind of music based on the actual merit of the music itself rather than whatever bullshit societal expectations. But the fact of the matter is that this year most of the best hip-hop albums could be best categorized as backpacker rap. Most non-backpacker rap these days, meanwhile, kinda sucks balls.

Already, Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale, probably the year’s most critically acclaimed hip-hop album, featured production by the likes of MF Doom and J Dilla, who’s dead now. Later this year will see the release of albums by Lupe Fiasco, The Roots, and Nas (a backpacker of sorts), all of which are being co-signed by the CEO of hip-hop, Jay-Z.

Meanwhile, radio (though not so much hip-hop stations) looks like it will be dominated this summer by the likes of Fort Minor, Gnarls Barkley, and possibly Jurassic 5, who have a song out with Dave Matthews. I could care less about any of them, but whatever commercial success they experience can only bode well for alternative forms of hip-hop.

In an age when radio and TV are overrun with god-awful southern rap, and when it’s not uncommon to see Billboard’s top 10 with nary a single hip-hop album, is backpacker rap due for a comeback?

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  • 2chéLupe

    FIRST & Fifteenth

  • 2chéLupe

    In my mind there is only two types of music, bad music and good music. There is no such thing as genres, its all sources of expression. real talk

  • khal

    its all Kanye’s fault. he made it cool to like common and rapping about being broke.

  • Blaq Thought

    How did having a backpack become such a sign of nerdiness and softness? When I was in school, the nigs with backpacks usually were up to no good; like selling something or hiding weapons (not books because you would just throw those in your locker and do your homework in homeroom class at the start of the day). Boot Camp klic talked about putting their Desert Eagles and baggies of weed in their backpacks. I love Kanye’s music but I swear he has the gayest persona since Common got turned out by Erykah Badu (yes the pussy changed a brothers whole steelo). If I remember correctly, only girls had MCM bags in the 80′s not boys. next thing you know some nigga will be trying to justify wearing a dress saying his balls are so big he needs to let ‘em breath!? Backpack people, no brokeback people

  • Bol

    >next thing you know some nigga will be trying to justify wearing a dress saying his balls are so big he needs to let ‘em breath!?

  • yup!!

    The perfect balance–> SAIGON “The Greatest Story Never Told”

  • MosBang

    Kanye isn’t backpacker rap, he’s more like brokeback fudge-packer rap NO HOMO. Kanye doesn’t really posess lyrical skill like pharoeh monch or whatever. He has other people help him write his lyrics. ALSO what up with these metrosexual backpackers wear the most expensive name brand backpack doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

    Is T.I. a backpacker now since he keeps his work in a Louie nap sack?

  • Zilla

    Lupe–I’m glad you’re hitting up the blogs.

    Bol–Backpack rap won’t make a return because as soon as J5 go double platinum, their core fans of okayplayers will scream “sell out!” since 12 year old white girls will be singing that DMB song. Backpack rap can never prosper because no one in that crowd wants to see their favorite artist become—gasp!—popular. I don’t mean backpack like Nas or Mike Shinoda. I mean backpack like MF Doom and Kweli–you know, those UNDERGROUD guys. It’s not smart or a secret or upper echelon once it’s selling out at Best Buy, so the backpack fans will latch onto the next thing that is “that next shit.” Rinse, lather, repeat.

  • I Fux

    what the fuck i dont evern listen to the radio, sometimes i will take off my ipod and listen I.E. this past weekend, here was what I heard, Lil Jon snap yo fingers, Young Joc whatever his song is calle, E-40 groovin that booty or something, then I just plugged my Ipod back in and listened to Fishscale and some Lupe mixtape, anyways i did the same thing a day later and in particular order here is what i heard, Young Joc, E-40 and Lil Jon, come on radio is the worst and I see that some of my tendencies my sister is catching on, as soon as she gets in my car she is going for my Ipod to listen to whatever she wants as opposed to listening to whatever the machine wants us the consumer to listen to. I hope I made some kind of sense, lets boycott radio or something I dont care if a wack disc Jockey losses his job they all suck balls

  • gluvnast

    just like artists like jill scott, bilal, musiq, and india.arie HATE it when they are look up as “neo soul” artists

    true emcees that happens to go against whut mainstream is doing hate to be considered “backpack rappers”

    all they are are emcees’s that same characterization that made de la soul to come out with “de la soul is dead”, because they wanted to dead away the stereotype that was being placed on them….

    good music is good music, no matter whut’s the content or the emcee’s background….same with bad music…

    in every TECHNICAL sense, black eye peas is considered a backpack rap group, but due to their mainstream pop appeal, they dismiss it…

    same with eminem and xhibit, even rah diggah when she was part of the outsiderz…all of them were looked upon as “backpack rappers”, but just because they achieved some sort of mainstream appeal…those same people that supported them, turn their backs on them…

    we look at slum village and dilated peoples and they’re doing commercials and having slight norteriety…now those original fans want to call them “sell-outs”

    go figure…


    aNYTHING TO save us frm snap, crap music is good in my eyes. common and kanye over lil john and D4L ANY DAY!!!!
    the South need to take a REST!

  • Ken

    I agree…These guys are real tight:


    ya, and is T.I a nerdy backpacker now? probably, he’s fake..


    Give me my Lupe and Saigon..bye bye laffy taffy…



  • Young J

    People,what is wrong with rappers like Kanye, Lupe, or Common. I always bring my ipod with me whenever I go anywhere. Nowadays on the radio, all you can hear is horrible southern music from the likes of Lil Jon, Yung Joc, DFB,D4L, etc. I mostly listen to real hip-hop like Kanye, Lupe, Papoose, Lloyd Banks, Jae Millz etc. T.I., Luda, Weezy, Jeezy, Outkast, Little Brother are mostly the only southern rappers that I listen to. Some of the rest are shitty-ass artist.

  • Southpeezy

    i sure hope so

  • Rey

    Damm, Bol.. You’re making it difficult to fuck with you-nullus-with these posts that I agree with. I dig backpacker rap cuz I’m a fan of lyricism and with the exception of Mr. Carter, Mr. Mathers, and Nasir, there aren’t many high profile lyricists out there. I know the south and curtis jackson have conspired to eliminate actual talent from the hip-hop equation, but hopefully lyricism will make a comeback. Also, punchlines DO NOT COUNT AS TALENT! Yes, it takes skill to make someone say ‘OHHH!’ -nullus- but that’s something anyone can do. Gimme Kweli, Kanye, Mos, and Common over anyone south of the Mason Dixon.

  • I Fux

    I hate back-packers them mothersuckers are quick to hate and quick to over-rate cuz Talib Kweli has been releasing some real mediocre shit as of late and his voice sounds like shit, Masta Killa > Talib Kweli > Young Joc

  • Lee

    wtf again i hate say this. but once again i agree with you. BUT Yellow Nig still kills your blog

  • J

    Why does EVERY blog have to turn into another rant and rave about southern music?!?! ok, ok, OK already! You dont like it. Turn off your radio, get your ipod, or better yet, PUT OUT YOUR OWN SHIT. Whatever you decide to do, keep it moving. that topic has been beat into the GROUND……..

  • prodigynius

    i feel some of y’all because i cannot stand to listen to the radio anymore because the music they play is regurgitated period juice. (i got that phrase from my fav. undergrounder “Immortal Technique, by the way) i keep my MP3 player on atleast seven or eight hours a day and it is choc full of literally every song by pac, nas, big, papoose, common, talib, mos def, lupe fiasco, and jay. I only really listen to reasonable doubt and the black album when it comes to jay though and i only listen to the kno v. jay version by kno from the cunnin lynguists. for two weeks i let my cousin borrow my MP3 and the nigga put all kinds of D4l, DFB, and other southern bullshit on their. i spent a week filtering my MP3 to get it back to its pure form. for real, knaye did bring conscious rap back even though he is a little idiosyncratic at times. the internet has become a double edged sword because on one end it allows people to reach underground hip hop that would be otherwise impossible to ascertaine but on the other hand, it allows horrible rappers who come predominantly but not completely from the south to bombard and saturate the industry with garbage. the reason people continue to refer to southern rap when talkin about the absence of lyricism and originality in hip hop is because they fuckin caused it so of course we are gonna bitch about the south. i know they are just tryin to have fun but their having fun at my exspense because every day i have to argue that not all rap is materialistic, mysoginist, devoid of originality and is actually an artform not just the trap. southern rap isn’t killin hip hop, teenage caucasians and ignorant minorities that act as enablers to southern crap hop is killing the once noble artform.

  • Fuck ya

    im from the south n i like southern music…but thats all the radio plays…it would be nice to hear some new type of music…but what u call “backpacker rap” i call it “normal people” rap…backpack rappers rap about normal shit…like phonte from lil brother say…theres more niggaz workin at k mart than there is sellin drugs…and people that scream “dope boy” know this shit…common,kanye are regular blue collar niggaz…and they make good music…and if they dont sell drugs or hold a gat or wear a vess…good…they admit they are not gangstas so they are keepin it real

  • so what?

    I turn off my ipod in the ride and listen
    to Hot 97 sometimes…

    The Return of Backpacker Rap?

    Where did it ever go to make a return?
    backpack rap had been around, no one cares
    though but a bunch of white kids who think
    their listening to some underground shhhh..
    no one knows how hot these cats are GARBAGE..
    some shit stays underground for a reason
    no one else cares to listen to it

  • lone1

    Shit….I been a backpacker(underground head) …always listened to whatever was opposite of the norm…bumping Del when everybody else was listening to Ice Cube…bumping MF Doom when niggas never knew a Zev Love X existed…so with that said…I hope the backpacking movement goes a little more mainstream…shit…you can’t even listen to the radio anymore…it’s all diluted with fuckers Leaning and Rocking…flossed out Icey type cats with mad gold in their mouth shooting up houses…getting type old…yessir…backpackers stand up…peace.

  • Philly Black

    Everyone forgets that hip hop music started with “Backpacks”. Back in the days some dudes rocked backpacks because they either carried cans of paint, burners, vinyl & all sorts of shit in their bags. Niggaz that used to break dance sometimes rocked back packs too. So when I hear someone say “Oh I hate backpack rap” then I know they are ignorant & are only dissing themselves. It’s not “Backpack” music its “REAL Hip Hop” music & not these dismissive terms everyone tried to apply to “REAL HIP HOP” music. Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, 3rd Bass, Nas, & many others if they came out today would be labeled as “BackPack” rappers. Run DMC because of lines like “I went to ST. Johns University….” & “…after 12th grade I went straight to college.” What’s wrong with wanting to be more than just a dumb ass nigga?! What’s wrong with enjoying music that makes your really think?! What’s wrong with not wanting to shoot myself in the arm or butt for street credibility. The powers that be want you to listen to the dumbed down shit “Commerical rap” (fast food rap) because they can control you when you’re ignorant.

  • blackman

    There is good rap music and bad rap music it all depends on the listeners ear.How come we always have to separate our people in to little groups and then pit them against each other.Someone can like,get rich and die tryin,reasonable doubt,low-end theory,mis-education,illmatic, chronic.

  • gluvnast

    that’s real talk, blackman

    before 1990, there was no such thing as underground and mainstream…it was all hiphop…i mean, DE LA SOUL toured with NWA..and nobody had an issue…

    you have public enemy do ICE CUBE’S 1st album…

    and to del1, i must remind you it was CUBE that put del on in the 1st place…same way it was king T that put the alkoholiks on….it didn’t matter

    i think the moment common put out “i used to love h.e.r.” that’s when a segregation was realized, because before then groups like black moon wasn’t looked at as a backpack group and in most cases were just as street and gangsta as those in the mainstream…but then all of the sudden it became a standard of characterization of whut’s underground and whut’s mainstream…and you have to fit that uniform…

    hiphop is hiphop, it’s suppose to be diverse and universal, true hiphoppers embrace EVERYTHING, even if they don’t partake it themselves…so i respect the bay vets that say they’ll support the hyphy movement because it’s that’s whut the youth are doing and it’s their movement….or with the south, it’s their movement, they’re having fun with it, in a time where HIPHOP NEEDS to be fun again…

    so there’s no need to knock whut the other man is doing and keep doing you…if little brother can go on tour with paul wall and do a joint with bun b, then whut’s the problem with that????

    hiphop is hiphop…fuck this categorization

  • khal

    I didn’t say Kanye was backpacker rap, did I? I said it was his thought… the fact that he was on Def Jam and had Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common and that spoken word ass nigga on it is reason enough. Add Consequence and his Dilated Peoples affiliation, and it’s his fucking fault that backpackers are getting more mainstream shine.

  • Julia_Claudine_Deveraux

    Another great topic Byron! I didn’t realize great hip hop music was considered “backpack rap”. But whatever you call it, I’m there. I’ll strap on my pink backpack and follow these artists into the stratosphere. Fishscales is ridiculously hot and I’m anxiously awaiting Lupe’s cd, I’m hoping that similiar artist change the game…what’s out for the masses now is garbage.

  • XRAY3000

    I agree that “true hip-hoppers should embrace everything” but I think more people embrace music that they can relate to..don’t get me wrong..when I’m in the club I get my “boogey” on when I hear that southern kill-a nigga- slap a bitch song…but when Im chilln at the crib..I aint tryn to hear those ABC 123 lyrics..give me something that has some soul in it..something that took more than 1 blunt and a styrofoam cup of “purple stuff” to write..the backpack is where its at main!!

  • bhillboy

    the reason backpackers are considered underground is b/c NOBODY REALLY LIKES THEM. if people really thought underground or backpackers were talented they would buy the disc. the fact that people don’t really like ghost as much as they like E-40 is lost on most people. me, I like mid 90′s bay area mob music. i ain’t got to say i like little brother to sound smart and music forward.

  • Projectnrm

    I’m going to have to go on record saying that I feel most backpacker rap is incredibly boring. While the lyricism is there in spades, the beats and subject matter oftentimes makes me feel like going to sleep.

    The reason that Common’s “Be” and Kanye’s “Late Registration” did so well last year (both commercially and critically) is that those albums were capable of getting messages out, but not at the cost of putting together good pop songs (for the sake of this post, “pop” just means popular, not like Britney Spears and *NSYNC-type music).

    Until backpack rap albums learn that good production is just as important as the lyrical end, Lil Jon is gonna beat Talib to the bank everyday.

    And yes, I can’t wait for Lupe’s album, either.

  • UnFaded Disciple

    Projectnrm, you is rigth and I agree with you 100%

    Sometimes (you have to admit) lyricism with backpack rigth is often times borin to listen to though, the messages gives out useful insight among other things that opens ya mind.

    Really, if backpack rappers put some hot beats and not no monotone beats with the same lyricism skills…its a wrap IMO.

  • khal

    most “backpacker” rap is underground b/c those niggas can’t get money to properly promote their albums!

  • Pingback: » The trouble with backpack rap - XXL

  • alleyeCNtower

    ‘and enjoy nothing more than to treat a woman as an object.’
    it’s “jokes” like that, that make me not respect you as much. you say you’re intelligent, then say some sick shit like this? negro, please. :)

    anyways, I can’t believe how much people describe music with such narrow definitions. American media, I hate you!!! LOL

    maaaan, these days if A Tribe Called Quest came out, people would call them wack backpackers. THINK ABOUT THAT. How fucked up are people’s perceptions?


    its as if a hustler would beat them down if he got caught with a ‘Gnarls Barkley’ album, LOL

    it’s pathetic.

    listen to what you love. 80′s pop. rock. hip hop. jazz. funk. 70′s soul. whatever you feel, just listen to it, who cares what others think??? only a weak mind.

    c’mon… do we have to keep telling hip hop heads shit they shoulda known long ago? APPARENTLY WE DO.

    well, I’ll tell you why “backpack rappers” are about to “blow up”. Because the world’s going to hell, and most people don’t want bullshit music anymore. Ying Yang Twins ain’t gonna protect you or enlighten you about the evils of the world today, but Immortal Technique will… which is why HE’LL be relevant next year, and half these snap-and-crunk rappers will be a forgotten memory

    all that matters is SUBSTANCE.
    anyone with that, will have a career in hip hop.

  • Tipper Gore’s Inner Sex Pot

    Oh dear. Obviously blogging while intoxicated. Again.
    tsk tsk

  • Kama-Qazi

    yo for real. the boom-bap is comin back 10 fold. Nas, The Roots, Immortal Technique, Canibus, Royce, Rakim, Raekwon, and of course ghostfaces album was CRACK! they all droppin albums soon! ppl are gettin tired of hearin that southern garbage all the time. time for a change! use sum real instruments for a change! instead of using these fucking synthisized beats n shit. hip-hop sounds like what happend to rock n roll when it went pop in the 80s. ps, anyone remember what a drum n snare sound like? instead of a chop or a clap? fuck the south! i hate em! BOOM BAP! ORIGINAL RAP!

  • drethegreat

    I wish we had somethin’ better to call it than backpack rap. The label has a tendency to make it territorial which may be on purpose. anyway I’m a cat from Southeast TX I love what’s considered as backpack rap at the same time I was brought around hard times,hustlin’ & dope sellin’ so my taste for good music ranges. Everything on the radio ain’t good at the same time stations won’t let cats like LB or Defari get into the radio programming unless they talkin’ about what they doin’ to hoes, what new dance step they’ve come up with or who’ll they’ll shoot & why. I got a lot respect for the back pack rap because it signifies folks stay true to themselves rather than a formula that changes with the masses.

  • chris_the mos

    Well “backpack” rap is much more in touch with the overall real life problems. I hate “southern” music and dammit im from houston, and if the question comes up i live in Hiram clarke. Well I hate the fact that all you need today is a synthisized beat and a hook and a little stupid dance. Man with that you on top of the charts. Really tell me this why are we talking about “backpack” rappers like Brand nubian, a tribe called quest, rakim, etc. Its been year since any of these people have made an album. Still their music is considerably more relevant and still amazing as the day they made it. This is how funny the industry is they let aron carter make a hip hop album and this shit got more play than a Kweli joint would now ha think about that. Peace


    The J5 ain’t that great – but the Gnarls Barkley & the Ray Cash is worth the time/money

  • Timmy

    Dr. Octagon…
    Deltron 3030…