Wards Of the “Underground”

Aight so…

I have both the luxury and burden of getting to listen to tons of new music every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every….you see where I’m going with this.

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get to talk to some of the artists who make this music either face to face, over the phone or through the internet.

Alot of these conversations are with newer, unsigned artists. Other than terms like: “I’m on my grind,” “I’m the hottest nigga in my city,” “I’m better than {insert the benchmark rapper of the moment here},” popping up in the conversation, I hear alot of folks say “I rep for the underground” or something along those lines.

I mean, I’d like to think that I have a decent command over the English language, but the more I hear that word “underground” thrown around, the more it confuses me. Can someone please help me understand what exactly it means to be an “underground” artist in this day and age?

When I first started getting into Hip Hop, I grew into the assumption that “underground” meant whatever my parents would whup my ass for listening to or whatever was too harsh for radio or television. So shit, NWA and Geto Boys was underground to me in some respects.

Then, I have to think about some of the music that was being made around me. Folks like Success-N-Effect, Raheem The Dream, [pre-StepDaddy] Sammy Sam, [pre-Organized Noize] Kilo, Kizzy Rock, The Hard Boys, Oomp Camp, Ghetto Mafia…all that shit. I mean pretty much, in the 90′s, if you were from Atlanta and weren’t signed to or affiliated with LaFace or So So Def, you were considered underground.

Then of course, you have to mention everything that was coming out of Memphis: Triple Six, Playa Fly, Tommy Wright (the third!), Gangsta Blac, Gangsta Pat, DJ Squeeky, Criminal Mane, Tom Skeemask, Al Kapone…all that shit. Yeah, they had some distribution with Select-O-Hits that would get them in a good number of stores, but, they was still considered underground.

You can’t overlook what rappers from Houston (not signed to Rap-A-Lot) were doing pre-2005 neither. Well, really, judging from how their promote their artists, shit, if you’re signed to Rap-A-Lot you might as well be underground.

Sorry, for the trips down memory lane, but, I do you see where I’m trying to go with this?

All of those folks I named, including the Supherbs, Chino XL, Deltrons, Casual, Hiero, etc. of the world were all considered underground even though they were marginally known.

Their “underground” status came about moreso because they all had pretty direct connections with their fanbases. I like to think that it came about also because of the kind of music they were making and the shit they were saying. It wasn’t that it might have been too harsh for radio or television, its that that shit might have been too real for radio or television. Or it was just that that shit wasn’t getting played because it didn’t fit the format. They indeed relied on the underground, the streets, the people to fuck with them to the point that they could eat off their crafts.

That being said, I’m get kinda thrown when someone comes at me with their “I rep the underground” sales pitch. Do you really?

Most of the artists that I hear throwing that word around are dudes who sound as if they are already signed. (No, that is not meant to be a compliment.) What I’m saying is, alot of these cats swear up and down that the radio won’t fuck with them because “I’m too street, I’m underground,” when in actuality you sound just like half the shit that’s getting played on the radio anyway. I mean, radio and television programmers have pretty much made it known what artists they’ve chosen to be their resident “thug trap rapper.” Same goes for the cats making the strip club songs and the dance songs. How do you really call yourself underground when you either aspire or already sound and look like what’s getting played in the mainstream?

Just because you don’t get played on the radio, doesn’t make you underground. Just because you aren’t signed to a major label doesn’t make you underground either (in my soon to be commented on opinion).

Sheid, I don’t even know man, I’m starting to confuse mydamnself, talking about this shit. I guess “underground” means a certain type of sound or look to me. I can’t quite place my finger on it. But, I just know, that most of the cats calling themselves “underground” are far far from it. They are commercial as hell, its just that it ain’t getting played anywhere.

Somebody help me out here, I’m confused. Maybe “underground” should be laid to rest next to “grinding.” Well, that may be a stretch. Perhaps some folks just shouldn’t be allowed to use it.

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  • Gooch

    The underground is artists who make progressive music but don’t get as much mainstream attention yet. I think it’s as simple as that.

    If you make the same shit everyone else is making, then you aren’t being progressive. So if the radio ain’t playing you, it’s not because you’re underground, it’s because you suck.

  • http://www.uptownempire.com trouble


  • http://www.uptownempire.com trouble

    Now rappers think underground=hardcore. Back in the day it meant more independant than anything. like low budget shit, now its gangsta to be underground. alot of those artist HAD to be underground to get money and fans. now its just a cop out to be gangsta

  • Fire

    I think the term underground should be laid to rest because too many people have misused and bastardized the word’s original meaning. Today’s definition isn’t even close to what it was.

    RIP “underground”.

  • Dub Sac

    First of all, thank you for throwing up the Thelonious cover. One of the all-time greatest covers for any album.

    Anyways, I always thought “underground hip-hop” referred to Anti-Con, Atmosphere, Del, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Cannibal Ox type shit. I don’t know what all these groups share to join them under a common classification – maybe a tendency toward lo-fi beats and not rapping about drugs and shooting people. But that also seems to be the same distinction certain people draw between “rap” and “hip-hop.”

    I agree, though. If you’re trying to sound like the mainstream and just aren’t getting picked up, you aren’t underground. “Unknown” is a better word.

    I remember an old Black Eyed Peas interview (maybe ’99 or ’00) where dude was saying that most “underground” rappers aren’t there by choice. Their shit just hasn’t been picked up by a major label. If you’re going out of your way to cultivate major label attention, you’re not underground.

  • http://www.picturemedia.co.za I RUN THIS..

    Basically wat dez artists are tryin 2tel u izdat dey don hav resouces dat can get der shit playlistd on radio, videos playd on mtv en reviewd on xxl..In other wordz, deyv got no one 2 market der shit basically.

    It killz me how dez catz r “always betta dun hu eva” iz hot atda moment..lol..At da end ofda day, packaging a product 2b sold en actualy selling it 4rom a shelf or da boot en it actually moves means dat da product iz COMMECIALY VIABLE…bt im tellin u, juz dare tell ne of diz “undaground” catz dat der album(product) iz commecial(viable), deyl hang u..lol

  • boi-dan

    I say underground is somebody who is “the man”/”a legend” in their city or state, but not known anywhere else for the most part.
    Playa Fly
    Pistol (Nashville, TN)
    Pachino Dino (Charleston, SC)
    Those Protons guys u showcased earlier represent a new kind of virtual underground. I assume they have just as much net sales as they do in ATL.

    To be underground is to mean, most of ur fans are obtained through word-of-mouth. That means ur albums are legendary in ur city and when someone from ur city relocates, they spread the music in the “let me put you on” fashion.

    //B/c of lack of promotion fans of underground music tend to seem inclined to promote the underground artist way more than a nat’l act.

  • http://www.myspace.com/chronikill ROX ONE

    “Just because you don’t get played on the radio, doesn’t make you underground. Just because you aren’t signed to a major label doesn’t make you underground either (in my soon to be commented on opinion).”

    Too many people confuse underground with unpopular or unknown or unconventional.

    To me underground always meant that if you are making music, or even really writing verses because you love this sht primarily and perhaps secondarily think you can make something of it. I.e. your motivations determine your underground status.

    So some cat no one ever heard of who is making songs that copy whatever is hot at the moment, isn’t underground.

    Whereas someone (sadly can’t think of any recent examples off the top) who may take a lot of their cues from popular rap, but approach it in a way that makes you think if they were in another line of work, they would still freestyle with their boys, they are underground.

    I would cite Big L, who, while he was slept on outside of NY before he died, made ‘traditional’ sounding music with ‘traditional’ topics (drugs, violence, ho’s, Harlem) -but his approach was such that you could never imagine he doing that whole ‘im not a rapper’ posturing…

    my buck fiddy.

  • i am the gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe

    ain’t no such thing as underground any more. the Internet stole the word, processed it and shot it out the sky with synthesized mp3 blasts, ill-advised digital flyers and garbage filled comment boxes.

    underground has now become synonymous w/ “underrated”– 2 different things.

  • ri067953

    Yo, underground is for those MC’s that are making progressive music and aren’t concerned with making radio hits. To a certain extent, those ATL and Memphis groups were underground because their sound wasn’t popular at the time. Once their sound became mainstream, without them trying, they are no longer “underground” per se. I mean, listen to 3-6′s “Stay Fly”. It doesn’t have that instant radio appeal but it caught on without them really trying or changing subject matter. To me, underground is staying true to who you are as an artist and if it happens to catch on so be it. Those that emulate a popluar style or are not original are biters and mine as well be considered pop artist.

  • King David

    In indie rock music, one does not refer to their band as “indie”. Underground hip hop should go by the same rule. A lot of rock bands sound the same, but a real unique one that comes at the right time always changes the flavor. Like Nirvana or Led Zeppelin or dat boy Neil Young or whoever. I wish rappers could just be unique but it’s tough. It really is.

  • Timbo

    “What I’m saying is, alot of these cats swear up and down that the radio won’t fuck with them because “I’m too street, I’m underground,” when in actuality you sound just like half the shit that’s getting played on the radio anyway.”

    An interesting point. So you could argue that a lot of cats use the term “underground” as an excuse for their own lack of success? Create a track aimed at mainstream exposure; if it’s a hit it’s a hit, and if it’s not you just say “it’s not my fault, I’m underground”. Ingenious!

  • P-Matik

    The term “underground” was coined by PMD (of EPMD) back around 1990. It was another term he used to describe rap music that couldn’t get any radio play before 8PM.

    Who knows what younger kids think “underground” is today? It’s like hearing some fool say some ten year old track is “old school”, then again if you are 20-21, it would be old school to you.
    The term “backpacker” burns me up more that anything though. That work has helped marginalize some of the best music of the late 1990′s.

    • Fire

      Thanks for reminding me, I think that backpacker is one of the most biased and full of shit terms that hip hop has ever spawned. A lot of smart music gets lumped in that category with self righteous fake activists, and like you said, it sucks. Artists like Talib Kweli shouldn’t get put in with that.

  • http://www.myspace.com/big_dee_el Dee El

    I think, it’s matter of a few variables. Think about it. First and foremost (imo) underground is a matter of subjectivity. Region plays a major part of it as well. Not to be racist, but it seems that some white guy defined underground (the webmaster for ughh.com)shown by the name of the website and the music sold and championed there. As BI said, I distictly remember NWA being considered underground, because they were too hard for radio, FOR REAL! Dub Sac’s comment cements it for me, His definition of underground is “Anti-con, El-p etc.” Why? I’d dare to say because of the someones narrow defintion of the term told to him (no disrespect). Ask a black kid from FL. about underground, they might say something like “Jam Pony Express” Ask me, I might say Mullyman…I guess it’s a matter of subjectivity above all.

    Dee El Sends

    • Dub Sac

      No offense taken.

      I by no means think that the groups I listed encapsulate what “underground” is. That’s just the first batch of artists I think of.

      I totally agree that region plays a huge part. Like Bay area rappers such as Mac Dre and Keak Da Sneak qualify as underground though they may be well known to people in that area. But they have their own style that doesn’t have mainstream cross-over appeal. And for people from different parts of the country, the artists are going to be different.

      Dunno. Guess I don’t really have an answer to the question. Just speculation.

  • FLIP

    “So if the radio ain’t playing you, it’s not because you’re underground, it’s because you suck.”

    That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.

    By that logic, AZ, Cormega, Killer Mike, El-P, and GZA all suck.

  • http://www.theunderwriters.blogspot.com THE UNDERWRITER

    Big Oomp could be considered underground, before Unk finally broke nationally. That’s kind of the only group I can think of, besides Cash Money in New Orleans before the Universal deal.

    Shout to Ghetto Mafia. Real Gs. Feel good. Smoke good. Drink good. Old cash. New Car. New Crib. Same hood.

  • Trey Stone

    do people actually believe this “love for it first, money second” BS?

    how ’bout they wanna make money doing something they love? this whole idea that you’re more “pure” if you don’t wanna make money making music has gotta stop

  • Chaka

    For me I think the term underground signifies an artist who is keeping it real and making dope hip hop music but who has not managed to cross-over to mainstream.Hence,those who are using the term for an artist are infact saying that artist is only known by true heads and not by everyone.He is just under waiting to blow.AZ is one artist who will perfectly fit this my definition of the term underground.Peace an hip hop head in Africa wrote this.

  • Da Bizness

    Underground used to be linked to an act having a following or fan base without a major label push. Thus meaning for one to have a “fan base” or “following” one would have to earn the title by touring or selling a decent amount of units, again, without a major label. A lot of these “artists” we are talking about have not sold any units, nor have they toured outside of they own hood…which means it is impossible for them to be deemed underground. These self proclaimed “artists” are the one’s ruining the game by making these torrible (terrible+horrible) songs just to get on the radio..usually some type of “battleground” feature, only to have their entire family call in to vote for the song…thank god the labels are short on money, hopefully these types of “artists” quit recording and go back to being consumers.

  • http://tibetnymod.blogspot.com/ DuBOSE

    jay electronica = underground

  • Killer mike

    Underground is music that serves as an alternitive to the status quo. underground artist r directly liked to there fan base and the most effective promo is fan pushed ie word of mouth and even internet.
    I love the Underground. Murs, J Dilla, And GRIND TIME RAP GANG BANG BANG BANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Underground lives lets keep supporting. Dope Blog too Maurice

  • http://sufferboulevard.blogspot.com Slav Kandyba

    Good subject to tackle, MG. IMO, underground in hip-hop is that “next” shit that has not bubbled up to the mainstream.
    Rappers or cats that say they they’re underground are clueless. They’re not upward-mobile thinkers. Shit, they probably don’t know what upward mobile means. Read a book or a newspaper would be my suggestion.
    Anyway … within underground there are variations, so you have that to consider as well. I mean, Copywrite could’ve had a chance to leave underground behind if he chose to go with Dame Dash at one point and vice versa.