Rap music that's not gangsta?
November 5, 2010 1:29 AM   Subscribe

Looking for rap/hip-hop that is upbeat or mellow and has positive values or fresh, interesting lyrics (i.e., not gangsta rap).

For example, I really like the Digable Planets (and if you haven't heard Where I'm From, and this question interests you, go listen to it immediately). I also like some songs by Outkast. What I'm absolutely not looking for is anything where the rapper is talking about how hardcore he is, how many women he's had sex with, or how much money he has. The key seems to be rapping that seems either happy, mellow, or effortless in some sense (like some west coast rap, for example), while still having lyrics I don't feel dirty (and ideally, really like) listening to.

I'd also prefer to hear more modern rap, I think. What little I've heard of early rap (Run DMC for example) has a very specific, non-effortless rapping style, though if you know of any that meets my criteria, I'm open. What else should I be checking out?

(Bonus question: There's one song in particular that I saw I think on MTV maybe five or six years ago, where a guy was rapping about (I think) how much knowledge can expand the mind. What I clearly remember is the music video having a "drawn" look, and the image of a thought bubble coming from the guy's head and growing. Trying to figure out what song that was is what inspired this question. Do you know it?)
posted by kingjoeshmoe to Media & Arts (74 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Michael Franti and Spearhead spring to mind.
posted by Ness at 1:41 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

OMC How Bizarre


Brother Pele's in the back, sweet Zina's in the front
Cruisin' down the freeway in the hot, hot sun
Suddenly red-blue lights flash us from behind
Loud voice booming, "Please step out onto the line"
Pele preaches words of comfort, Zina just hides her eyes
Policeman taps his shades, "Is that a Chevy '69?"

How bizarre
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:46 AM on November 5, 2010

DJ Format.
Deltron 3030.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:53 AM on November 5, 2010

People Under The Stairs
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:59 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Geggy Tah Whoever You Are


A song about a guy who is grateful someone let his car into the lane he wanted

FOR THE STICKLERS: I wouldn't know how to class it, but probably not rap. However, it has the cadence of a rap song, and the verses sound more spoken-word than singing.

And it's quirky and uplifting.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:59 AM on November 5, 2010

I recommend Dan le Sac vs Scroobius Pip
posted by haxonite at 2:02 AM on November 5, 2010

I think you might enjoy Lupe Fiasco or B.o.B. Here they are together with Janelle Monae (not what you're looking for, but AWESOME nevertheless).

Solo, here's Lupe Fiasco and here's B.o.B.
posted by rachaelfaith at 2:06 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mos Def, Talib Kweli.
posted by themel at 2:08 AM on November 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Tone Loc has a velvet voice and an easy rap style. In Cheeba Cheeba he lists all the junk food purchases when he's got the munchies. In Funky Cold Medina he talks about spiking a girl's drink only to find out "she" was a man.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:09 AM on November 5, 2010

Oh yeah, and then his dog accidentally eats some and tries to fuck his leg.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:14 AM on November 5, 2010

The Roots' last album How I Got Over is mellow. Social and political but very positive.
posted by shinybaum at 2:15 AM on November 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

De La Soul
P.M. Dawn
posted by K.P. at 2:15 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Brother Ali's album, Us, is just frigging terrific. God, it's so good. And the title track is just a lovely message. Highly recommend.

The Mighty Underdogs (gift of gab + lateef) is better than the sum of it parts, which is saying something.

Earlier Lyrics Born like Same Shit Different Day.

J-live raps about real life in an interesting fashion. Then What Happened is a good album. :)

Will be following this question with great interest.
posted by smoke at 2:23 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, Dilated Peoples, Defari and a lot of the surrounding stuff. More clasically, Jurassic 5.
posted by themel at 2:25 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Last comment, I promise.

With regard to Funky Cold Medina. Drink spiking ain't funny, but it was a big hit over here so that's why I remember it. ie. I'd like to point out I wasn't going for the "LOL drink spinking!" angle I was going for the "LOL could you get any more anti-gangsta than cheerfully admitting you almost rooted a man?" angle.

Remember, this was the late 1980s, when boasting about stupidity and violence was still considered "new."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:39 AM on November 5, 2010

Das Racist are hip, clever, self-aware, and best of all, in the words of one insightful YouTube commenter, "they're not on some conscious rap backpacker shit".
posted by Ted Maul at 2:41 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are Arrested Development and A Tribe Called Quest too "early" for you?
posted by knile at 2:46 AM on November 5, 2010

Are you talking about Dream by Dizzee Rascal when you refer to the video about knowledge expanding your mind?
posted by hariya at 3:01 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd like to introduce you to my personal favorite indie rapper, Aesop Rock. Aes is a highly intelligent lyrical monster.

SLYT's follow:

Aesop Rock - No Regrets
Aesop Rock - Daylight
Aesop Rock - 9 to 5'ers Anthem
posted by frmrpreztaft at 3:23 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jurassic 5

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:24 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Roots Manuva
posted by numberstation at 4:09 AM on November 5, 2010

K'naan might work for ya. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq0pygjQK74
posted by clord at 4:30 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

A Tribe Called Quest (2)
Black Sheep (2)

and seconding De La Soul
posted by spr at 4:41 AM on November 5, 2010

Dell the Funky Homosapien
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:42 AM on November 5, 2010

The most uplifting rap song I have heard in the last ever is Harder Than You Think by Public Enemy.

Chuck D's words come out strong, powerful, and effortless. The beat is about the sexiest horn riff I have ever heard.

The first few lines of the first verse:

Rolling Stones of the rap game, not braggin'
Lips bigger than Jagger, not saggin'
Spell it backwards, I'ma leave it at that..
That ain't got nuttin to do with rap

I'd also recommend Alway's coming back home to you by Atmosphere, and Smiley Faces by Gnarls Barkley.
posted by clearly at 4:50 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Danger Doom (2)
posted by spr at 4:51 AM on November 5, 2010

Some of the artists already suggested have worked with Gorillaz, so some of their tracks may fit your bill, e.g.

Superfast Jellyfish, feat. De la Soul
Clint Eastwood feat. Del the Funky Homosapien
posted by Bodd at 5:02 AM on November 5, 2010

It doesn't get much more effortless than NAS, 2, 3, 4
posted by spr at 5:03 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Silly Puddy - Grouch & Zion
Simple Man - Grouch
posted by clearly at 5:22 AM on November 5, 2010

Most of these have already been mentioned, so I suppose I'm seconding them.

- A Tribe Called Quest
- De la Soul
- Del Tha Funkee Homosapien (and Deltron 3030)
- Mos Def
- Talib Kweli
- Mos Def + Talib Kweli = Black Star, which is possibly one of my top 10 albums ever
- Jurassic 5
- The Pharcyde
- The Roots
- Little Brother
- Common Flow
- Jungle Brothers

And the artists listed or linked in these Wikipedia articles.

- Alternative hip hop
- Conscious hip hop

But really? I think Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star is exactly what you're looking for.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:24 AM on November 5, 2010

Blue Scholars, especially their Bayani album.
posted by coolsara at 5:25 AM on November 5, 2010

Cunninlynguists - A Piece Of Strange

Awful name, but great album.

Try Brain Cell (amazing song) and Mic Like A Memory (off an earlier album)
posted by Magnakai at 5:26 AM on November 5, 2010

Oh, and if you do look into Mos Def (and you should because he is awesome) then I suggest his first album, Black on Both Sides, and his latest album, The Ecstatic. His other albums, while I love them a lot, aren't nearly as good as those two.

The list of his influences also has good recommendations.

Also he is an excellent actor.

Sorry for the gushing. I really love that man.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:41 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

You'd probably like Common. Jurassic 5 and De La Soul are fun.

(I wouldn't count OMC as rap, myself - that's like saying Shaggy is a rapper.)
posted by mippy at 5:47 AM on November 5, 2010

Some of the usual suspects: the Native Tongues posse, the Good Life scene, Hieroglyphics, the Rhymesayers and Quannum and Def Jux stables.

Clarification, please: when you say 'talking about how hardcore he is,' does that include talking about one's rhyme skills, hip-hop bona fides, etc.? Because if it does, that'll seriously narrow the range of possible answers--rap is often a show-offy and braggadocious a genre, and even the mellowest rap cats might sometimes talk about how dope they are.
posted by box at 5:51 AM on November 5, 2010

Something Good. they're an atlantic canadian gem.
posted by crawfo at 5:52 AM on November 5, 2010

skee-lo - I wish
posted by empath at 5:54 AM on November 5, 2010

Maybe try Shad (Old Prince still lives at home) or Cadence Weapon .
posted by toddje at 6:01 AM on November 5, 2010

too obvious given all the Quannum references above, but Blackalicious, particularly Blazing Arrow
posted by gijsvs at 6:10 AM on November 5, 2010

Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. One of the greatest hip hop albums ever. The followups, not so much.
posted by electroboy at 6:25 AM on November 5, 2010

madvillain (mf doom, one of my fav albums, madlib, bad ass producer/DJ)
Dr Octagon (on of Kool Keith's millions of projects)
Edan (beauty and the beat is a great album)
personally, my fav hip hop stuff has no lyrics, like Onra and Oh No's Dr. No stuff
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 6:25 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not for everybody, but Busdriver is super unique and pretty intellectual in his rhymes. He's also one of the fastest rappers I've ever heard.

posted by kmtiszen at 6:26 AM on November 5, 2010

abdominal and format cooking up the splendid delicacies!
posted by autocol at 6:40 AM on November 5, 2010

Mr. Hood by KMD just got rereleased. It features a very young MF Doom and is an excellent album.
posted by electroboy at 6:48 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lately I'm loving Kid Cudi. Rather than an entertainer, I see him as an artist. He's cross-genre in a wonderfully evolved way. You can hear it in the music and in interviews where he talks about the kinds of music he listens to. I feel like he has a laid back, effortless style like you describe, with a mellow soothing voice.

Here's one of my favorites, All Summer. It's a collaboration between Kid Cudi, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast. You can get the song free and see the fun video at the Converse site. If the video there is choppy for you too, here's the youtube.

Here's another favorite. It's the Steve Aoki remix of Pursuit of Happiness. I like it better than the original version. Also here's a great dubstep remix of the same.

He may be better known for his first single, Day n' Night. Not my favorite, but still an interesting example of his style.
posted by Askr at 7:12 AM on November 5, 2010

Mos Def times a billionty. Also Young MC, or at least his earlier stuff. I haven't really heard any of the newer stuff.
posted by elizardbits at 7:16 AM on November 5, 2010

Mr. Lif has a sci-fi concept album called I Phantom. Check out the song Earthcrusher, Jean Grae guests on the final track on this album.

Anticon records has some unusual hip-hop groups, but they are usually featured under the "backpacker rap" genre. Check out Clouddead or Themselves.

Buck 65 is a very unusual Canadian rapper.
posted by rabbitsnake at 7:22 AM on November 5, 2010

CPI (DJ from Ottawa) has some great mixes available that she categorizes as "abstract" or "evolutionary" hip hop:

* City Hearts Aimed Skyward
* Libations For The Gods
* I Have No More Childhood Left?
* Lyrical Ontology
* Poetry Is For Faeries

Also, from a previous question, some Canadian "indie" hip hop:

* The entire Peanuts and Corn Crew
* Marathon of Dope
* Josh Martinez
* The Goods
* Buck 65
* Epic & SoSo

Finally, nth-ing Jurassic Five, specifically their album Quality Control.
posted by stungeye at 7:32 AM on November 5, 2010

J-Live: Travelling Music which runs into A Charmed Life;
Zion I: In the Morning (Caged Bird pt 1); Fingerpaint
Shad: Rose Garden

It's been awhile, but maybe Ozomatli (they're not all hip hop)? Saturday Night
posted by zix at 7:37 AM on November 5, 2010

Tangentially, having liked Outkast's previous albums, I got Big Boi's Sir Lucious Left Foot record, and found that my delicate suburban sensibilities were put off by the graphic objectification of women and drug glorification. That will teach me to listen to Big Boi with my three year old daughter in the car. Also, I'm getting old.
posted by reverend cuttle at 7:50 AM on November 5, 2010

Surreal & The Sound Providers (like Jurassic 5)
posted by ijoyner at 7:50 AM on November 5, 2010

Can't believe no one's mentioned Pigeon John yet.
posted by echo target at 7:56 AM on November 5, 2010

Non-effortless rapping style? You really need to open your eyes to late 80's and 90's hip-hop because some of the lyrics are ridiculous and positive at the same time. e.g.

Def Jef - On The Real Tip
Tribe Called Quest - Check The Rhyme
Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth - Straighten It Out
Boogie Down Productions - You Must Learn

As yes electroboy, Bizarre Ride to The Pharcyde is one of the best rap albums ever.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:08 AM on November 5, 2010

N'thing Jurassic 5, specifically Concrete Schoolyard from their first album, which has a lovely sunny vibe to it and which persuaded me to buy the album.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:20 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Chiddy Bang
posted by SPUTNIK at 8:30 AM on November 5, 2010

MF Doom's collaboration with Danger Mouse (as Danger Doom) "The Mouse And The Mask" is pretty phenomenal, in my opinion. Bizzy Box, Sofa King
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:44 AM on November 5, 2010

Time Machine by Sweatshop Union (which does have some "I am the best rapper" stuff, and one curse word, but might fit your requirements anyway)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:49 AM on November 5, 2010

Immortal Technique - You Never Know(ft. Jean Grae), Leaving the Past. Not exactly upbeat, but good, and not gangsta.
posted by stavrogin at 9:56 AM on November 5, 2010

If you don't mind korean lyrics, there's E.via - Hey, Chu~, Shake!, Oppa! Can I do it?. May be a little too upbeat for some people.
posted by stavrogin at 10:04 AM on November 5, 2010

aesop rock
el p
brother ali
posted by lakersfan1222 at 10:05 AM on November 5, 2010

Braille - A good hip-hop artist that has a lot of good songs. Almost a Christian feel, but not exactly. Let Go, is a good song by them.
Nujabes- good hip-hop instrumentals that usually feature good underground hip-hop artists.
posted by Junior687 at 11:18 AM on November 5, 2010

Kanye West definitely fits the "non-gangsta", "fresh and interesting lyrics" parameters--and some of his stuff is positive as well (although he does have a pretty big chip on his shoulder). Surprised he hasn't been mentioned yet!

Jesus Walks "I ain't here to argue about his facial features / Or here to convert atheists into believers / I'm just trying to say the way school need teachers
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis / that's the way I need Jesus"

Homecoming (ft. Chris Martin)"Every interview I'm representing you making you proud /Reach for the stars so if you fall you land on a cloud / Jump in the crowd, spark you lighters, wave em around / And if you don't know by now, I'm talking about Chi Town"

Stronger "You know how long I've been on ya? / Since Prince was on Apollonia / Since OJ had Isotoners / Don't act like I never told ya"

Heard 'Em Say "And I heard 'em say, nothin ever promised tomorrow today. / From the Chi, like Tim its the Hard-a-way, / So this is in the name of love, like Robert says / Before you ask me to get a job today, can I at least get a raise on a minimum wage?"

Roses "You know the best medicine go to people that's paid / If Magic Johnson got a cure for AIDS / And all the broke motherf---ers passed away / You tellin me if my grandma was in the NBA / Right now she'd be okay? / But since she was just a secretary, working for the church for 35 years / Things supposed to stop right here?"
posted by tyrantkitty at 11:18 AM on November 5, 2010

I can't believe I'm the first one to say Will Smith! I guess maybe some people don't consider it "real rap" enough, but I love him. No sex, no guns, no bitches, no niggers.
posted by thebazilist at 11:20 AM on November 5, 2010

Really? Nobody has mentioned Atmosphere?
posted by BryanPayne at 12:17 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, they were mentioned upthread. But let's mention them again.

Atmosphere - God's Bathroom Floor

I want to re-recommend Cunninlynguists - Caved In quite strangely layered over an excerpt from Ghost Dog...
posted by Magnakai at 2:05 PM on November 5, 2010

Just this morning I started listening to a mixtape by Phil Ade called The Letterman, I'm really enjoying it. :)
posted by smoke at 7:36 PM on November 5, 2010

Since no one's mentioned it, this Jay Z/Alica Keys song blows my mind every single time I hear it.
posted by Rocket26 at 8:49 PM on November 5, 2010

And yes Biggie Smalls is usually pretty rife with all the no-nos you mentioned, but this one just makes me want to get up, get down, and be alive.
posted by Rocket26 at 9:03 PM on November 5, 2010

'Kick in the Door,' that's my Biggie jam.
posted by box at 9:15 PM on November 5, 2010

Scarface, in a way.
posted by kensington314 at 12:57 AM on November 6, 2010

You were probably looking for English songs, but the first person who came to mind was a Taiwanese artist, Jay Chou. He raps (in Mandarin) about listening to your mother, the tea his grandfather makes, a grandmother's birthday and leaving a hectic urban life behind and going back to the simplicity of the countryside. There are a few more, but these are the ones that best fit your descriptions of 'happy', 'mellow' and 'positive values'. Some are even pretty poignant. I know this stuff isn't to everybody's taste, but just tossing it out there. P.S. All the links are to videos with English subtitles. Because I'm not a native Chinese speaker myself.

I'll go slink away now thanks.
posted by pimli at 6:57 AM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

In regards to the video you've described, it might be Lyrics Born - I Changed my Mind, my favorite song ever.
posted by miasma at 4:34 AM on November 8, 2010

Jurassic Five (esp. 'Work it Out') and Dilated Peoples
posted by cross_impact at 12:53 PM on November 8, 2010

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