4 Underground Rappers Who Went Mainstream
If you ask 4 different people outside a show what the term “underground rap” means, you’re going to get a variety of responses. It’s no wonder; the label has spanned across many generations of artists and sounds. Some say it’s the content of the music, conscious lyrics that don’t beg to be played on the radio. Others will reference the way said artists release their projects, opting for independent labels, or completely solo drops. Many rappers begin in the underground, but some set their sights higher after achieving the first stepping stones of success. Rappers such as Aesop Rock, Del The Funky Homosapien, and MF Doom have achieved notoriety while staying underground, while other artists ride the commercial success to the moon (for better or for worse).
Born in 1972, Common Sense (as he was known in his early days) rode the wave of classic hip hop instrumentation and iconic flows from the underground with his first album Can I Borrow A Dollar? This was the project that sent him on a trajectory taking him higher and higher with each release. It speaks for itself that Relativity Records, the independent label that published the album, is now defunct. Leaving behind the underground more and more with each year, he went on to collaborate with major artists such as Ms. Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Q-Tip. He landed a major label debut in 2000, and won a Grammy in 2003 for Best R&B Song. Perhaps these are some of the more convincing moments showing the world that Common was a commercial success. He would capitalize on this fame through various types of entertainment during the rest of his career.
Talib Kweli was a student of the underground, inspired by the contemporary black musicians of his time and their commentary. Finding his footing in the underground with Ohio group Mood’s album Doom, he would continue to link up with member DJ Hi-Tek. Together they would drop the collab tape Scandalous a year before his name would explode in popularity. 1998 was the year that Kewli joined forces with Yasiin Bey to release the infamous Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. This project would give the duo a lane to capitalize on their fame. Mos Def withdrew slightly, releasing more sparsely and focusing on other facets of the industry. Meanwhile, Talib Kweli would keep on moving, pumping out 14 albums in the following years. Turned off by the handling of his content by large labels like Warner Bros, he would eventually turn back to underground and independent labels to get the freedom and control he missed from earlier in his career.
Chance The Rapper
Few can compare their rise from the underground to that of Chance The Rapper. Born to a middle-class family in Chicago with some connections, he may have not come from the classic “underground” background, but his business strategy reflected that of an independent rapper. Beginning with his high school raps mixtape 10 Day, he would make a name for himself locally, performing in publicly funded shows and garnering small media attention. This would all change with the iconic album Acid Raps, the famous mixtape that would put his face on the nationwide map. The widespread coverage would propel him towards his goals of commercial success and fame. Maintaining his commitment to an independent appearance, he would release his albums and mixtapes for free up until the debut of The Big Day. This was a project that would be the final straw in breaking his underground image while bringing him his highest-charting position to date.
Inspired by the burgeoning underground Florida community on Soundcloud, a young Denzel Curry would follow in the footsteps of SpaceGhostPurpp (with who he was an avid fan of online) and release a mixtape titled King Remembered Underground Tape 1991-1995. This project would spark the flame of his career, leading to him joining the hip hop group Raider Klan, led by SGP himself. Denzel’s first breakthrough came from the viral success of his song “Ultimate,” which you might remember from the hundreds of bottle flipping videos that filled social media for months in 2015. This song came from the album of the same year, 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms. Rereleasing it as a deluxe version of Spotify in 2016, he was named to XXL’s Freshman Class and quickly became a recognizable face in the industry. His success then was furthered by the commercial success of albums like TA13OO, 13, and the Kenny Beats collaboration Unlocked. A short animated film accompanying the latter, and placement in Madden NFL 21’s soundtrack would only solidify Curry’s name as a success from the underground.
The underground is a wide scene, with rappers and producers of all subgenres of hip hop. From the golden eras of rap to the modern-day Soundcloud mixtapes, there are constantly artists rising in acclaim. Some find their pocket, their niche, and establish themselves in the underground. Others chase larger accomplishments and seek to expand their footprint on the industry as a whole. Luckily for us, there’s incredible talent throughout the entire spectrum.
Let us know in the comments below who you think will be the next to make it out of the underground, or who you hope will stay put and deliver the priceless gems that are born out of independent raps.