Conscious Hip-hop for Newbies?
February 3, 2016 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Thanks to my obsession with Hamilton, I've realized that I am sorely ignorant about way too much of the hip-hop and rap history it calls on, and I'd also like to find more recent stuff I'd like.

I'm looking for both hip-hop and rap classics that are the standards and genre-defining works, as well as more recent works and artists, and insights into the history of the genre(s.)

Music I've discovered and like from poking around on the green and the blue and following links include: Lizzo; The Coup; Daveed Diggs's solo album and his group clipping.; some shows from The Rub's Hip-Hop History (but there is so much I almost don't know where to start); Kendrick Lamar; Chicago's BBU.

I am happy to explore Tupac and Biggie and their contemporaries, but I'm not really sure where to start, or if I should just, you know, start anywhere.

What I want more of/what I love: More women; politics; measures jammed full of words and wordplay. Good beats, things you can dance to. And podcasts. Who is doing good podcasts on contemporary hip-hop and rap? I have Can't Stop Won't Stop downloaded but haven't read it yet. Not really interested in homophobic or misogynist perspectives, but it's not a deal-breaker.

What are the top ten tracks or albums to start with? Which books or podcasts?
posted by rtha to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 123 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Many thanks to gingerbeer for helping make this question more complete and coherent!)
posted by rtha at 8:17 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you want more women, I cannot recommend Dessa highly enough. She has the same kind of complex wordplay as Miranda uses (although not so much with the complex rhyme-schemes), and a lot of melody as well. If you want to sample, she did a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR a few years back. She's really awesome.
posted by suelac at 8:19 AM on February 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

Here are 10 accessible albums that I think will give you a lot of what you are looking for.

Grandmaster Flash, The Message
Kurtis Blow, Kurtis Blow
Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet
KRS-One, I Got Next
Eminem, The Eminem Show
The Roots, Things Fall Apart
2Pac, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z...
Jean Grae, Cookie or Comas
Kanye West, The College Dropout
MIA, Kala
posted by Rock Steady at 8:19 AM on February 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

Cosigning Rock Steady with some added notes.

If you only do one Public Enemy, I'd recommend It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. That LP changed everything. But really the whole trilogy from that era (including Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse 91) is great.

Also, go back and check out The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron for a sense of the early history. I don't know The Last Poets that well, but seek out Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Whitey on the Moon."

For more current stuff, maybe give Killer Mike a listen — his album R.A.P. Music is good and Run the Jewels is the shit right now, but most especially make sure you see this.
posted by Mothlight at 8:28 AM on February 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

Shabbaz Palaces, Run the Jewels, Doomtree, MF Doom. I feel embarrassed I can't offer you a woman rec.
posted by theefixedstars at 8:31 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you only do one Public Enemy, I'd recommend It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. That LP changed everything.

Yeah, you are actually right about that. Fear of a Black Planet leaped to mind immediately reading the question and I didn't take the time to think about other PE albums.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:35 AM on February 3, 2016

This list of best rapper by year that was just put out is a great reference.

You're bound to get a lot of good answers, but it doesn't get mentioned enough, so Audio Two's Top Billin, mostly because despite never getting mentioned in these lists, it was one of the most formative tracks in hip-hop history, and is sampled/quoted/outright stolen from about once a year.

Some good political hip-hop: Public Enemy, Talib Kweli, Mr. Lif, NAS, KRS-One, and this list could just get too long.

Women: MCLyte, Da Brat, Lil Kim, Lauryn Hill, Jean Grae, Gangsta Boo, Trina, Mia X, MC Trouble.
posted by General Malaise at 8:37 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you are on Spotify, the Hamilton Mixtape, which includes many of the specific songs referenced in Hamilton, is available as a playlist. That will give you a grounding. Be aware that there are some Problematic Faves in there -- it doesn't, in itself, focus on "conscious hip hop."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:46 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

This 2014 AskMe about critical history of hip hop is a good resource.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:51 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Talib Kweli? In particular, I like the Black Star album with Mos Def, although it's only "recent" in the geological sense.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:10 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Having listened to almost all of the Rub's History of Hip-Hop series, I'd recommend the ones from '88-'93. (They're all good, but listening to the ones from the mid-'80s my main reaction was "damn, this is slow".)

And two names I haven't seen anyone mention yet (not quite what you're looking for, but so good):
- Gang Starr (I'd go with Step In The Arena)
- Eric B. and Rakim (take it from Chuck D.)
posted by asterix at 9:12 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

chesty_a_arthur, can you provide a link to the Hamilton Mixtape? It's not coming up when I search.
posted by missrachael at 9:17 AM on February 3, 2016

This book is also helpful, and hilarious, as is this comic book series, and this episode of a BBC show that came out in 1995.

I made this playlist listing my favorite rapper from every year since 1990.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:22 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Here's the link.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:26 AM on February 3, 2016

Political hip hop is a pretty dense Wikipedia article, full of references to songs, albums, artists and groups. While it focuses on US-based music, there are some nods to artists and movements elsewhere. This 2013 article on The Guardian calls out a few of the newer names.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:31 AM on February 3, 2016

Are you familiar with Queen Latifah's "Ladies First"? youtube link, wikipedia article on the album it's from.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:33 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Rap Yearbook! It's great and also hilarious.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 9:37 AM on February 3, 2016

Seconding Doomtree and Dessa (who is in fact a member of Doomtree, which is how I found her).
posted by JDHarper at 9:52 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love the movie Dave Chapelle's Block Party. About ten years ago he threw this amazing block party in Brooklyn that included hip hop (Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots, Dead Prez, even a young Kanye) and neo-soul (Erykah Badu, Jill Scott) artists mixed with his stand up. I like all of it - and I tend to like more politically minded hip hop.
posted by jilloftrades at 10:10 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Talib Kweli was the first name that came to mind. I see he's been mentioned as part of a list, but I think he deserves a comment by himself just because of how much of his work is explicitly political. Watch this for a taste.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:15 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the contemporary front with politics and "measures jammed full of words and wordplay", I'd add Lupe Fiasco. His albums Food & Liquor, The Cool, and his latest Tetsuo & Youth are all great. Maybe skip Lasers.

I have vague memories of him making some off-kilter political comments on Twitter or something, but I don't remember the specifics and would rather not dig them up. I think that's all outside the music.

Just saw him perform last night, so he's on my mind. Incredible show!
posted by cyclopticgaze at 11:56 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might like Angel Haze.
posted by neushoorn at 2:01 PM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Blue Scholars -- Blink is a bit older, but a good example of what they're about.
posted by subajestad at 3:34 PM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a Minnesotan you should listen to all Atmosphere and Doomtree projects. To that I would add Aesop Rock/Hail Mary Mallon, Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, and Childish Gambino (perhaps the least "conscious" but still really good lyrically).
posted by koucha at 5:30 PM on February 3, 2016

An interesting moment in early hip hop history is the Roxanne Wars. Which starts with a UTFO song Roxanne, Roxanne about a woman who would not respond to their advances. And is answered by 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden, as "Roxanne" in the song Roxanne's Revenge.

This was answered back by UTFO with another record that involved another "Roxanne" persona, which then further spawned anywhere from "30-100" further answer records over the period of a year, and then everyone at the end of it agreed to not do anymore Roxanne records.

I also enjoyed The Hip Hop Family Tree, which is a graphic novel about the early days of hip hop. You can see a bunch of pages on Boing Boing (remember them?)
posted by danny the boy at 5:40 PM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You all are non-stop! Thank you so much, and please continue to be non-stop: I filled my ears with many good sounds today, and will be filling artists' wallets in the days and weeks to come.
posted by rtha at 7:56 PM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not big on rap (though I respect it as poetry), but I liked the song that played the closing credits of Blood Diamond.
posted by brujita at 11:10 PM on February 3, 2016

measures jammed full of words and wordplay

Realized much later that if you want those, you must hear Aesop Rock. (Also, Biggie probably is the GOAT in terms of wordplay.)
posted by General Malaise at 5:58 AM on February 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Andrew Nosnitsky ("Noz") is essential reading on contemporary rap. He covers both popular and regional developments within with encyclopedic insight.

The whole Project Blowed scene out of LA is fascinating. I'd start with the 90s era Freestyle Fellowship and Aceyalone records. In a similar vein to a lot of the material suggested earlier.

As far as more contemporary left-field rap is concerned, Le1f and Mykki Blanco are awesome. The Awful Records crew out of Atlanta are also making some really great, irreverent stuff.

Speaking of Atlanta, shocked Outkast hasn't been mentioned yet - Andre 3000 may be my personal GOAT rapper. Start with ATLiens or Aquemini. For a time, along with Killer Mike (mentioned already up thread), they were a part of a broader Atlanta collective known as the Dungeon Family. Aside from Outkast, Goodie Mob is probably my favorite group from that scene - Soul Food is one of the greatest rap albums ever, full stop.

And lastly, mid-00s era Lil Wayne was siiiiiiick with the wordplay. Start with Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3, and keep going from there.
posted by black_lizard at 7:39 AM on February 4, 2016

I thought one of the better hip hop albums of last year was Georgia Anne Muldrow - A Thoughtiverse Unmarred. It's available on Spotify. Not super political but definitely conscientious and very much with an old school aesthetic.

FWIW, some of the suggestions upthread are way off for what you're looking for. I would never in a million years consider Lil Kim to be conscientious.
posted by the foreground at 7:49 AM on February 6, 2016

"Can't Stop Won't Stop" is a book I'm still reading too, and I think it's great.

I see the Blue Scholars have been recc'ed already but I want to say that although I love their entire discography, my favorite album is Cinemetropolis. Two tracks that are a must-listen are Hussein and Rani Mukerji.

A woman rapper that comes immediately to mind is Rocky Rivera, because for a little bit I was obsessed with this song Slick Talk. I'm so behind on her music, just listened to Nom de Gurre, and it's awesome. I really like GRLGNG and Turn You.

Related to both of these acts are Bambu (and thus Native Guns, which admittedly I know next to nothing about). I love the album Sun Of A Gun.

Not sure I can call Inez Jasper and Yoon Mirae (conscious) hip-hop but they're close to the community, especially the former. Most of Inez Jasper's music is pop but she has some hip-hop tracks e.g. Say. As for Yoon Mirae/Tasha, she's a g r e a t rapper whose song Black Happiness (w/ eng subs on yt) is a both cheery and a tearjerker.

Just did some pointed googling around and found:
Salome MC, Price of Freedom (بهای رهایی) ft. SplytSecond
Dope Saint Jude, Brown Baas
Devour Ke Lenyora, Blood On My Hands 2.0 who I discovered through this article, Women In South African Hip-Hop: 6 Leading Female Rappers

I myself am still playing in the shallow end of the hip-hop pool, so let us know of anything you (all) discover. Hope you find something here you like!
posted by one teak forest at 2:03 PM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update (more to come, I'm sure):

Falling/fallen in love with

Blue Scholars
Talib Kweli
Angel Haze
Snow Tha Product (literally found out about her yesterday, thanks to an interview I read with Angel Haze)
Chance the Rapper
Killer Mike

My listening life is enriched immeasurably! And I keep checking links and names from this thread. Thank you all so much.
posted by rtha at 1:06 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow, this is a great thread!

I went ahead and made a collaborative playlist based on just about everything mentioned here. It's got 2500+ songs so far — I got carried away dumping albums into it! Anybody and everybody, please feel free to edit/update it as you wish.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:59 AM on March 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm late to the thread and this is focused mostly on modern hip hop that hasn't already been mentioned, but you should look at Oddisee, Saul Williams, who does a genre bending blend of hip hop, spoken word, rock and other stuff Kate Tempest, who's an excellent storyteller, Astronautalis, The Roots, Blackalicious, Doomtree members Sims and Cecil Otter.
posted by cnc at 9:49 PM on March 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is a bit old, but just saw it. Most of this definitely isn't conscious hiphop, but you said Tupac and Biggie were fair game...

I was going to try to break down some of The Rub mixes into "eras", i.e. the end of the golden era, the crack wars, post-biggie/pac, ringtone rap, rise of the south, etc but I'd really need to go back through the tapes in more detail. Mostly those songs are going to be what's popular on the radio for that year, which is going to have a lot of themes you want to avoid, especially in the late 90s/early aughts. If you're interested, it's definitely something I can do.

For female MC's, I posted on the blue a list a while ago:

I would add to it:
Lady Leshurr - Queen's Speech Ep.4
Gangster Boo - Slab Crusher
Junglepussy - You Don't Know
Invincible - People Not Places
posted by yeahwhatever at 12:11 PM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Surprised no one has mentioned Common. Dude pretty much defined the "conscious hip-hop" genre.

Start with "I used to love H.E.R.", from Resurrection along with One Day it Will All Make Sense, Like Water for Chocolate and Be. Can't vouch for Be or really anything after that, but Be was produced by Kanye West, which may or may not be a selling point.
posted by lkc at 5:40 PM on May 19, 2016

Oh, and female MC's throughout time:
Roxanne (as mentioned) is a great piece of history. She actually gave Nas his first gig when he was in like 8th grade, then threatened to beat him up because he sucked!

JJ Fad -- at least give Supersonic a listen. Very influential.

early 90's-ish:
MC Lyte
Monie Love
Queen Latifah

late 90's-aughts:
Jnatural / Posey Rothschild

And more recently, I can only think of Noname Gypsy, who is a friend of Chance's, and I really like everything I've heard by her.

Also, Erykah Badu. Start with Mama's Gun.
posted by lkc at 5:58 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with all the female rappers mentioned here. To these I would add:

Lil Simz
Lady Lykez
Psalm One/Hologram Kizzie
K. Flay
posted by stinker at 11:05 PM on May 21, 2016

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