The Most Iconic Underground Hip Hop of Each Decade since 1980
Hip hop has come a long way. In the earliest days of the genre, it was only a small movement. Characterized by heavy sampling and the first recordings of rapping and MCing, the musical innovation blossomed into a worldwide industry. As is custom when garnering attention in the rap game, many artists claim to be the best. The fact of the matter is, each year is a different landscape on the scene, let alone each decade. Regardless, we can take a wide look at the biggest albums, stories, and runs to determine who was really on top. In this article, we select the most iconic underground artists of each decade. Without further ado…
1980’s – Eric B. and Rakim
Eric B. and Rakim grew up in 70’s New York (Queens and Long Island, respectively), watching the roadmap for their musical success begin to unfold. The golden age of hip hop was on the verge of beginning as the duo began to release projects. Their debut album was a slightly rushed effort to showcase their chops, Paid In Full. The album would go on to sell over a million copies. Eric B. and Rakim would go on to dominate the 80’s with hits such as “Lyrics of Fury,” and “Set ‘Em Straight.”
This duo will be remembered not only for their lyrical talent and ear for beats, but for their style as well. The two were devoted to the art of real hip hop, and it showed through their releases. Despite their unfortunate split, their legacy as a group continues to make an impact.
1990’s – Scarface
The Houston, Texas Geto Boys group is one of the most memorable acts of the 90’s decade. Scarface, Bushwick Bill, and Willie D became industry standard names when they achieved multiple certified albums. You may know “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” from the groups We Can’t Be Stopped 1991 album. Although this is where the MC carved out a space for himself in the beginnings of his career, he would go on to dominate the next 10 years as well.
Mr. Scarface Is Back is the solo project that elevated him to great heights. Piggybacking off the success of the Geto Boys, Scarface showcased his ability on multiple albums such as The Diary and Last of a Dying Breed. Commercial acclaim wasn’t the only cementing evidence for his importance in the game. He is often referenced as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” for his eclectic flow and devotion to real, traditional gangster rap.
2000’s – Black Thought
Conscious rap was and always has been the backbone of hip hop. Black Thought is the founder and face of The Roots, who filled the 2000’s with quality album after quality album. With parents killed while he was still a young kid, Black Thought spent his teenage years in a Philadelphia high school. Here, he met Questlove and began performing around the city. Organix was the debut of the group, quickly gathering them a following. The Roots were received well on their sample-free project Do You Want More?!!!??! and enjoyed more and more exposure following more hits and Grammy awards.
Black Thought himself is respected not only for his role in The Roots, but for his MC skills as well. While you can find his best verses on the group’s albums, he has made many appearances as a feature on tracks with artists such as Dilated Peoples, Linkin Park, and Common. He is still lauded to this day as one of the best rappers to ever grace the game.
2010’s – Freddie Gibbs
If you’ve been in touch with major releases over the past 10 years, you must recognize the name of Freddie Gibbs. A rap workaholic that seems to house an inexhaustible library of flows and rhymes, he has slowly grown through strategic collaborations and consistent output. The Madlib-produced album Pinata boosted him into the spotlight. This 2014 installment contained classic features such as Raekwon, Scarface, and Danny Brown.
The Gary, Indiana native has grinded from the bottom to the top. From his first full length mixtape Full Metal Jackit to the hit single with Big Sean “4 Thangs,” Gibbs has long since stepped foot outside the underground and traditional boom bap, but even 2020’s releases from the man were infused with that necessary hip hop DNA. Freddie Gibbs is as genuine and talented of a rapper as you can find nowadays. Although the Golden Era may be long over, I throw my headphones on to listen to “Something To Rap About” from Alfredo and start to feel like the new era isn’t all too bad.