Mainstream hip hop gets all the love, but alternative hip hop artists deserve our respect and attention. So in this article, I’m going to provide you with my favorite hip hop artists that are considered to be alternative or different in various ways, yet still absolutely integral to the hip hop art form.
Male Alternative Hip Hop Artists You’ll Love
Let’s begin with an artist named ZEP.
ZEP is one of the newer alternative hip-hop artists in the game, seemingly coming out of nowhere in 2021. He swept up hip-hop and Trap lovers in just a couple of EPs, reminding listeners that Trap music does indeed share similar roots to Hip-Hop.
And he blends the two genres so well!
One of my favorite tracks by ZEP is “DON’T BREAK YOUR NECK.” This track has an ominous bass line. ZEP not only throws in some bass, but trumpets too—albeit a little muted.
While everything I’m describing sounds like traditional hip-hop, the absolute sick beat he pairs with the instruments give off a Trap vibe – a dangerously delightful edge in this instrumental.
ZEP may not be as well-known now, but it’s only a matter of time before he takes the world by sound.
We love an alternative Hip-Hop artist who enjoys anime and samples nu-metal. A fellow music junkie recommended me the insanely talented ZillaKami, a member of the Hip-Hop group City Morgue, one evening after a concert—and it changed my life forever.
I had never heard such an effortlessly smooth blend of Hip-Hop and nu-metal since Linkin Park in the 90s and early 2000s, but ZillaKami introduced himself to the world in the 2010—and has been thriving ever since.
I have a few favorite songs by ZillaKami, but one that can be cherished by so many is “Bleach,” featuring Denzel Curry. The beat is reminiscent of the Grunge-Goth Metal music often featured in the beloved anime, Bleach, and the lyrics are astute and riddled with imagery.
My life is straight racing
I speed away, hopin’ that I lost whoever’s chasin’
Chaser, he is always gainin’
Ready to use my NOS if he gets closer, I’m just waiting
I cannot stay neutral, I f***** my clutch (Okay)
Do I go forward or do I back up? (Okay)
Do I lay down or do I just stand up? (Okay)
The only thing I know is that I don’t know (No)
ZillaKami describes the exhausting practice of running from his demons, as if he’s a street racer speeding away from his own demise. His lyrics are relatable and his delivery, a familiar rasp that is often portrayed in Rap and Nu-Metal. The beat is a Hip-Hop blast from the past, but the track sounds more modern than ever.
Ghostemane is a perfect title for an esoteric and alluringly disturbing artist. I learned about Ghostemane through Poppy, a similarly hauntingly enchanting artist.
Fans and spectators have claimed Ghostemane is trailblazing his path in the music industry by creating his own genre that pairs his unique rapping style with a fascinating blend of alternative Hip-Hop, Industrial Metal, Electronica, and Heavy Metal. One of my favorite songs by Ghostemane is “Fed Up,” a deliciously dark track that touches on how his success has contributed to his many woes in life.
Fed up, I’m fed up with the drugs
Fed up with the fake love, put the gun to my brain, go bang
I’m fed up with the drama
Got a crib for my momma ’cause I don’t think I’ma live too much longer
I’m fed up with the fame
I’m sick of reading my name in any other way than I intended
Fed up with all of these mother******* misunderstandin’ me
I’m fed up with the ones that try to say you a fan of me
But then they turn their back and mother******* abandon me
You think I’m sitting high with everything, but now can’t you see?
I’m livin’ in reality, a struggle, not fantasy
I’m in a million-dollar couch, back then I was in a van
Although he is building his own table and chairs with his unique style in the music industry, he’s extremely frustrated with people not understanding his art and outs fame and fortune to not be the glorious life the media makes it out to be.
Throughout this track, he goes back and forth not only with the mindset he had before and after he became famous, but he also features three distinct vocal styles that are perfectly executed.
He begins with the catchiest of hooks using a guttural raspy tone, similar to the well-known YouTuber and rapper, Corpse Husband. Then he switches to a high-pitched style that would make one think the vocalist of Limp Bizkit, Fred Durst, jumped on the track. Lastly, he briefly raps half a verse in a nearly incomprehensible accent that is only discernible by us southerners. I speculate that the accent likely comes from his birthplace, Lake Worth, Florida.
Though “Fed Up” features three different vocal styles, Ghostemane has even more vocal techniques that he’s featured on other tracks, such as his screamo and distorted singing in his Industrial Metal song, “HYDROCHLORIDE.”
He’s a very talented and well-rounded individual who is throwing his grotesque hat into the Hip-Hop ring to change the game forever.
Lil Ugly Mane
Lil Ugly Mane is one of many alternative Hip-Hop artists I’ve heard that has so many fingers in unlikely genres. We’ve been hearing Metal-infused Hip-Hop since the 90s, but what about Soft Rock or Grunge paired with Hip-Hop?
Lil Ugly Mane facilitates interesting sounds that combine these genres, like the gentle Rock with Hip-Hop beats in “benadryl submarine” or the pleasantly distorted “Headboard,” a Grunge track with a familiar Hip-Hop drumline. The track that has been on my mind the most lately is “Twistin” featuring the illustrious Denzel Curry.
Rollin’ in my hood, twistin’ on them Ds
Hangin’ with my partners, tossin’ forties on the corner
Listen young man, I can pop you with one hand
Rob you with the other, Ugly Mane, I go dumb ham
I’m a one man unaffiliated private institution
Don’t confuse it, me and Raider Klan is tight as nooses
All black Zeus-in’, it gets gruesome if you slippin’
Leave you imprisoned inside a chalk line around your final position
The music takes a very traditional approach to Hip-Hop, with a jazzy sample on loop as a Trap-style snare and bass add a little spice to the track. The hook, “Rollin’ in my hood…,” performed by B.G. Knocc Out, is similar to The Notorious B.I.G., and may just be a respectful nod to the way the late artist revolutionized the Hip-Hop community.
One of my favorite lines in “Twistin,” a song that normalizes the desensitized feelings towards violence of people undergoing densification in large cities, is “Me and Raider Klan is tight as nooses.”
Raider Klan is a southern Hip-Hop collective group in which Denzel Curry was inducted. Raider Klan, though spelled with a “K,” are largely black, which makes the noose imagery Lil Ugly Mane, a white artist, utters all the more strange and likely intentionally ironic.
Artists like Lil Ugly Mane are amazing because, although they have made a name for themselves by creating their own genres from the fragments of other genres they grew up with, they’re never afraid to pay homage to the Hip-Hop that inspired their creativity.
24-year-old East Coast Hip-Hop rapper, Cordae recently posted an excerpt of his Ted Talk on his Twitter. He explicitly explains the type of artist he is:
“I’m a Hip-Hop artist, more specifically a multi-platinum, Grammy nominated Hip-Hop artist.”
He goes on to inform others of how his “Hi-Level Mindset” has brought him to where he is today. Cordae is one of the most conventional, alternative Hip-Hop artists I’ve ever had the honor of hearing—and that’s no insult in the slightest. In fact, a track by him that has been spinning around my head for quite some time (that’s it’s even earned a spot in my playlist), is “Jean-Michael.”
Brink of extinction, hell-bent on survival
This life’s a continuous cycle
Consider this a venomous haiku
This ain’t a verse, ******
And I done dealt with the worst ******
The type to steal your s*** and search with ya
I been having vivid dreams, them s*** is more than scary
Graveyards or mortuaries
Haunted by these goals that I’m tryna accomplish
Underrated, over-hated, I’m tired of the nonsense
There are so many aspects to this track that caught my ear. The intro, a simple and brief drum solo would make a listener think they were about to dive into the groovy track of Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” However, “Jean-Michael” slips into something a little more sinister, featuring dark and lovely chords that sound extremely familiar to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.”
“Pyramid Song” has been a source of inspiration for many Rap and Hip-Hop artists, such as Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost” and Kris Bower’s remix of Christian Rich’s collaborative track, “High.”
I have been in love with “Pyramid Song” for years, to the point my ears perk up when I hear something even remotely familiar to its hauntingly beautiful chords; I get chills just thinking about it.
Pastel is a groovy indie artist who creates feel-good music perfect for a lazy summer day. One song in particular is “Parx”—this instrumental track features a Neo-Soulful Jazzy sound paired with a whimsical Hip-Hop beat.
The beat twists and turns, as several instruments are featured here, such as a twangy guitar that makes one think Tom Misch had a hand in this song.
Though fans compare Pastel to FKJ, I believe his collaborative ability is more akin to Misch, Calvin Harris, and Kaytranada. Although “Parx” is a classic alternative Hip-Hop track that features some of Pastel’s core talents, I only recently learned that I’d come across this artist before when I heard his track, “Proof.” This is a dance sound that is completely different in style compared to “Parx,” yet still features a Hip-Hop drum set that contributes to the wind-down of the track.
This ability to be quite unrecognizable from one track to the next only highlights Pastel’s versatility, and any lover of Lo-Fi would be pleased to have him in their playlist. It’s only a matter of time before Pastel’s popularity grows even more.
You didn’t think I’d talk about two songs that featured Denzel Curry without highlighting Curry himself, did you?
Denzel Curry would make some of the first Hip-Hop artists of the world shed a proud tear, as he pays his respects to the art style and adds his own personal twist that features elements of Trap. One particular track that perfectly details my point is “Walkin.”
B******t fly my way, I keep walkin’ (Walk, walk, walk, walk)
B******t fly my way, I keep walkin’ (Walk, walk, walk, walk)
Know what I mean? (Walk, walk, walk, walk)
It’s a new millennium (Walk, walk, walk, walk)
I have no eyes, they melt my eyes
They melt my eyes
From beginning the track with an unadulterated jazz sample, to ending the track with casual conversation and hot takes, Curry is the embodiment of Neo Hip-Hop. He passionately talks about concerning issues that still persist in 2022, such as racism, capitalism, and the demons from his past that still follow him.
In order to cope, he describes his personal journey through his struggles, as he just tries to keep walking. Curry made a big name for himself in just under a decade, which made him a largely coveted artist to be featured on virtually anyone’s track. It’s just disheartening that someone who began working on his mixtape in 2011 has to experience and lament about experiences Hip-Hop artists have been mulling over since the 80s.
When I first heard Aesop Rock, I thought Mike Shinoda had an older brother. I was quite surprised that not only was Aesop Rock his own entity, but he began his musical career nearly a decade and a half after the release of Linkin Park’s first album, Xero.
Putting my obsession with Linkin Park aside, Aesop Rock is a purely Hip-Hop focused artist with an alternative twist. One track that earned a spot in one of my various playlists is “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Unsigned hype, front line aeronauts flurry
Zero dark thirty
Zero Friends minotaur-fugly stepchild
Evoke lunch jumped over plunging necklines
This is the track with a hip-rocking Hip-Hop drum style, Grunge-styled guitar, and a full cello. Now do you understand why I thought he and Shinoda were related?
Rock’s lyrics, however, are in their own category, evoking vivid, sometimes self-depreciating imagery. He may have entered the Hip-Hop game a little late, but he already has a well-developed cult following that will only expand with each album release.
Female Alternative Hip Hop Artists You’ll Love
Let’s jump right into a discussion of the talented Little Simz.
Little Simz is one of the greatest artists we have ever had the honor to hear in this lifetime. Yes, this may be a hot take, but that doesn’t mean it’s not accurate.
Her “genre” is generally known as British Hip-Hop, which is a fancy way of saying she is well-versed in the music of Black America, as well as Grime and Garage.
I’ve been in love with Little Simz’s music ever since she performed as one of the opening acts for the Gorillaz Demon Dayz festival in 2017. I remember one song she rapped about was in honor of her neighbor who respected her desperate various musical pursuits in their apartment complex—and never complained about any noise (the song “God Bless Mary”).
One song that only helped to solidify my love for Simz’s music is “Devour.”
Many many men
Will attempt to devour my throne
I empower my own
I’m just trying to be the best me
But in gold they will shower my clone
What the f**** going on
If we’re ever telling lies
Said the young people
They wonder what the f**** going on
I won’t even try to explain
What a mess we’re in
I just sing my songs (Ah)
“Devour” is one of the most high-profile blends of Hip-Hop, Afrobeat, Trap, and Rap. Her lyrics remind me of a quote from a young Fiona Apple, stating that there was no hope for women; a statement that was draped with the stress Fiona Apple felt from the music industry that sought to sexualize her raw talent. Simz is a bit more outwardly outraged at the underlying misogyny that lines the grimy walls of the music industry, and refuses to bind herself to any gender norms.
Similar to Queen Latifah, her gender alone revolutionizes Hip-Hop, but the main point these artists help us to understand is that having ovaries means nothing; rather the immense talent one carries in their brain matters most.
Queen Latifah marked a pivotal moment of change in the Hip-Hop community because she, a woman of strength and character, normalized the daily lives of women who loved Hip-Hop, but suffered from the internalized misogyny that ran rampant in the community.
Queen helped to transform women’s presences in the community, from objectifying them to celebrating them. One of my most favorite verses from U.N.I.T.Y. is:
Trying to make a sister feel low
You know all of that gots to go
Now everybody knows there’s exceptions to this rule
Now don’t be getting mad, when we playing, it’s cool
But don’t you be calling out my name
I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame
That’s why I’m talking, one day I was walking down the block
I had my cutoff shorts on right cause it was crazy hot
I walked past these dudes when they passed me
One of ’em felt my booty, he was nasty
I turned around red, somebody was catching the wrath
Then the little one said (Yeah me b*****) and laughed
Since he was with his boys he tried to break fly
Huh, I punched him dead in his eye
Not only does Queen express how damaging profanity towards women affects entire communities, but she also dismantles the stereotype that women are incapable of defending themselves.
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Alternative Hip Hop Bands or Groups You’ll Love
Let’s begin this section by talking about Death Grips.
I certainly wasn’t ready for Death Grips’ energy when I first heard of them. I remember being overseas speaking to an enthusiastic student in my study abroad group. I had always been a headbanger, but I was still very fresh to the concert scene.
This student raved about Death Grips and asked if I wanted to attend the concert with him. I had a few listens to their songs, such as “Get Got” and “I’ve Seen Footage,” and was completely blown away, and a little unsettled, at the high energy and highly volatile electronic music paired with Hip-Hop beats—and a completely unhinged lyricist. If I had been the person I was today, I would have eagerly attended this concert with no question; one day I will have that opportunity…and it will be glorious.
Death Grips is classified as an “Experimental Hip-Hop” group, though it is a challenge to try to classify them at all. They constantly break barriers in music, yet still create a track people can happily dance, pop ‘n’ lock, and rage out to. An example of their headbanging Hip-Hop, nowadays known as Thrash-Hop, is their catchy and rave-like song, “Pss Pss.”
I f*** it out and I dip-dip-dip
Drop you like a***** and you trip-trip-trip
I can’t stop it when I drip-drip-drip (Cuh, cuh, beh, beh, beh, beh)
You can’t stop it when you drip-drip-drip
Though the track begins with a disturbing, consistent winding tone that’s very much gothic, suddenly when the chorus plays, the Hip-Hop beat is reminiscent of pop music in the 2010s, such as “Low” by Flo Rida.
I guarantee after hearing this chorus a couple of times, you won’t leave your room without saying “pss” or “cuh” at least once. Similar to Ghostemane, vocalist MC Ride (lead singer of Death Grips), uses different vocal techniques. At one moment, he’s screaming into the mic like an enraged banshee. The next, he’s intellectually moaning spoken word, describing fascinatingly unsettling scenes and concepts.
One member, Zach Hill, is the drummer for Math Rock band, Hella; we all know that Math Rock forms insane geometry with sound alone, so if a drummer of such a band has a hand in Death Grips, the music the group makes is bound to be otherworldly.
MC Ride, i.e., Stefan Burnett, was once in a more traditional Hip-Hop group and took his rapping talent, twisted its neck and placed it on its head for Death Grips.
This trio, held together by producer and label owner, Andy Morin, has been making music since the 2010s, but they are only now receiving the recognition they deserve.
I must conclude with a duo that marked a pivotal moment in Hip-Hop history and paved the way in yellow bricks for many of the artists I’ve mentioned throughout this article.
Outkast, composed of two members, Big Boi and Andre 3000, were a dynamic duo that dominated the 90s and early 2000s. They were also referred to as Aquemini, a ship name for their zodiac signs, Aquarius and Gemini.
I was introduced to Outkast at a very young age because my older sister adored them and owned many of their albums, such as Stankonia, Aquemini, and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. She taught me how to truly listen to rap verses and understand the meanings behind each verse.
I have fond memories of her pressing play on our boom box, writing down some lyrics, pausing the radio, and explaining to me each meaning. If it weren’t for her, I would have never developed a trained ear to actively listen to Rap, Screamo, and pure instrumentation.
While my sister introduced me to Outkast, it was my own curiosity that solidified my fascination with the artists. I had the honor and privilege to explore their double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, in my pre-teen years, a time when I was becoming more disillusioned about the world each day, and developed quite the dark attitude towards life.
One of the most impactful tracks I’d come across was “Flip Flop Rock”:
A damn goodie two-shoes, that what they call you (Ugh)
Never judge a person or a book by its covers (Yeah)
Just because my tone is darker than yours, a little tanner
You never took the time out, examine yourself, boy
Are you Black, white, Asian?
Indonesian or Borean—that’s Black and Korean
We on the same team if we breathing
I jumped off the subject to see if you was seeing
That we drop a little science off in every verse
They put that P.A. sticker on it ’cause they scared we gon’ curse
This piece of a verse alone brings back so many memories. I loved how Big Boi mentioned the several types of nationalities and ethnicities that are forgotten, because so many parts of the world lump people with brown and black skin into one big inaccurate category.
It reminded me of one time when a coworker accused me of being prejudiced because I said she reminded me of one of my next-door neighbors’ daughters who was a twin; she’d thought I was trying to say that all Asian people looked alike, but I was very honest with her saying I didn’t know the little girl’s nationality or ethnicity because I didn’t ask.
I was fascinated by her choosing to be offended because if I were truly daft, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the twin girls apart and wouldn’t have had the capacity to single out the personality of one little girl.
Additionally, I had always been a person to not assume one’s ethnicity, because I have cousins who are partially West African, Indigenous American, and Filipino, a combination most people wouldn’t understand and just call “Black.”
So, when Big Boi brought up the very real existence of “Borean” people, he brought my understandings into reality once more.
Another aspect of this verse that I enjoy is Big Boi dismantling the idea that alternative Hip-Hop artists are always cursing and promoting violence, but his verses almost always have at least a little mathematical twist, similar to GZA’s rhymes.
Moreover, Big Boi would randomly say later in the verse, “One minus one, negative one minus negative one is nothing!” Needless to say, I was so heavily influenced by Outkast’s impact that I graduated high school with a scholarly award in higher math, such as calculus and physics.
Outkast was inspired by Hip-Hop, but they were truly in their own category while also paying their respects to the icons that came before them.
Hip-Hop is one of few musical genres with deep historical roots, and quickly evolving technique and sounds, that have gripped our ears in delight for generations. Seemingly starting from jazzy scat singing in the early 1900s to hip-hop artists sampling that very jazz music decades later, the best alternative hip hop artists on this list have mastered the ability to blend old original music genres with forward thinking styles and techniques that we’ve grown to love.
This article was written by Randa and edited by Michael.
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