Although the aesthetic of Hip Hop is still a strong and thriving vibe — think about Billie Eilish’s appropriation of the gold hoops, the baggy clothes, the Jordans — hip hop has moved beyond the South Central LA, Boys in the Hood, low riding beats heavy music that we might think of when we think about the best of the genre.
Of course, that’s a narrow view, and it’s not representative of the genre and the culture that has developed from the Bronx, DJ block parties and braggadocio and moved through a variety of iterations, from the socially conscious rappers like Talib Kwali, A Tribe Called Quest and Chance the Rapper to the trappy Southern synth hip hop of Gucci Mane and Lil Jon. From the Gangsta Rap or Reality Rap of KRS One and Ice Cube, to the G-Funk made by Snoop Dogg and Warren G.
Hip hop is incredibly fluid and amorphous, despite the specific tropes one might associate with the genre. In fact, it has to be: the whole point of it is that it responds to its circumstances. And now, halfway through the weirdest year of my lifetime, Hip Hop continues to adapt to remain at the most cutting edge of cool.
What is alternative hip hop?
So, what is alternative hip hop exactly? Well, first, we need to understand that hip hop and rap music are not interchangeable terms. Whilst rap music is a facet of hip hop, hip hop is actually the overarching culture from which rap music emerges.
Hip hop culture was conceived in the Bronx, in New York in the 1970s, but the spirit of hip hop, the alternativeness of it, had been bubbling away for decades before Afrika Bambaataa ever span a record. Hip hop existed in the first place as a response to life as a Black person in New York in the 70s, it was a means for expression for a group of people who needed an alternative outlet to the homogenised, white-centric culture prevalent in New York in the 70s. And now.
So, when we talk about hip hop in 2020, we are talking about a movement that has shapeshifted through several decades to remain relevant and important. Alternative hip hop ten years ago might have meant hip hop group OFWGKTA, specifically Tyler the Creator, whose lyrics were hard for the media to comprehend. He was writing about his darkest thoughts and his lyrics were not just explicit, but violent, even hateful.
Today, alternative hip hop is a completely different vibe. ‘Alternative’ essentially means anything that defies the expectations we have of a specific genre. These are artists or groups that rework existing models for their own ends or who introduce a completely new aspect of rap to the culture. Here’s a brief list of who to look out for on the alternative hip hop scene in the next few months:
Baby Keem has well and truly harnessed the power of the modern world, embracing social media as a way to gain recognition and as such, Keem can count Kendal Jenner, Drake, and Cardo amongst his fans. Most impressive, Baby Keem has credits with Schoolboy Q on Crash Talk, Kendrick Lamar on various projects including record label pgLang and with Black Panther and Jay Rock on Redemption. The best rap conglomerate in the game has embraced him as an up and coming new voice. You know Keem is worth keeping tabs on with endorsements like that.
King Von was another member of the Chi Town alumni, however, in contrast to Ye, Von emerged from the drill scene. After a short-lived career, however, Von was tragically murdered on 6 November 2020 in a shooting in Atlanta, where two others were also killed. Von’s voice is melodic and at odds perhaps with what we might expect from a drill rapper. His narrative capabilities set him apart from other rappers making him a particularly interesting alternative artist.
Don Toliver leans more toward R n B than hip hop, but he’s signed to Cactus Jacks (Travis Scott’s label). You might not recognise his name, but you will know his track “No Idea” if you use Tic Tok at all where it blew up no long ago. Don might be aligned with some major players: The Weeknd and Scott for example, but his voice just hits different to other singers, making him fresh and enchanting.
Alternative hip hop is kind of tricky to pin down, but the excited feeling you get when you hear some of the artists who are just following their own ideas and creating their own vibe helps to pin it down. In a world where anyone can release music online we are in the fortunate position whereby we can engage with millions of unique, unusual and original artists, broadening our musical horizons immeasurably.