Something to Ponder-Underground vs. Mainstream? What’s Real Hip-Hop?

A couple of years ago I heard a song from Mystik Journeymen of Living Legends where Sunspot Jones was rapping about the underground and he referenced a conversation he had with MC Hammer. He noted that Hammer had said the ‘underground’ was the name people that hadn’t made it big used to describe their music. […]

A couple of years ago I heard a song from Mystik Journeymen of Living Legends where Sunspot Jones was rapping about the underground and he referenced a conversation he had with MC Hammer. He noted that Hammer had said the ‘underground’ was the name people that hadn’t made it big used to describe their music. Needless to say Sunspot used the song, which unfortunately escapes me for the moment, to express his disagreement.

However, I thought it’s worth looking at this concept of ‘underground’ and trying to figure out is there is a definitive definition and who within Hip Hop can claim it.

Nowadays within certain circles, when you hear the term ‘Underground Hip Hop’ it usually gets applied to groups like, Hiero, Aceyalone, Abstract Rude, the Rhymesayers, the Percussionist, Sage Francis, Living Legends and a whole legion of independent artists who we are likely never to ever hear on commercial radio.

Along with that label ‘underground hip hop’ comes a whole set of assumptions about the artists including;

1-They are poor independent artists barely making it because no one recognizes or appreciates their artistic expression.

2-They all spit conscious, intelligent lyrics and have no gangsta tendencies

3-They have love and respect for the culture, and

4-They have mastered their rhyme skillz.

For the most part the underground for many is where true hip hop heads go to get the real essence the culture. Those artists who dwell in there are the ultimate personification of what Hip Hop is or should be. To be considered ‘underground’ is a step above the mainstream and proof that you did not ‘sell out’.

The flipside to all these assumptions is that so called commercial, mainstream or above ground artists are;

1-Not skilled in their craft

2-Are not conscious or espouse intelligence-are all thugged out.

3-They have no love and respect for Hip Hop culture.

The fact that we may hear their songs on the radio or peep their videos on MTV or BET suggest to many underground proponents that these artists are all about the money and have very little redeeming artistic qualities or integrity. They are often accused of NOT being true to Hip Hop. Hence for many underground cats, artists like Jay-Z, Outkast, Nelly, Lil Jon and Young Gunz to name a few are not only commercial but the reason why Hip Hop is ‘Not Good’. In fact many often go so far as to insist that the aforementioned artists are not ‘Hip Hop’ but ‘Rap’. Yes, the age old Hip Hop vs. Rap argument rears its head once again.

What I find interesting is the fact that oftentimes you will hear fans who identify with the underground dismissing the large followings or fan base of commercial artists, claiming that ‘those people’ really do not understand Hip Hop and need to be taught.

With all this in mind, we have a bunch of questions to answer. The first being, ‘when does an artist stop being underground? For example, if an artist like Slug or Eyedea of the Rhymesayers was to suddenly be played on Hot 97 in NY or Power 106 in LA as much as Lil Jon, Ludacris or Ashanti would they cease to be underground?

If publications like The Source which was once considered underground but is now seen as mainstream were to suddenly put artists like Sage Francis on the cover would he be viewed as a sellout if he grants them an interview? What if we started seeing Sage Francis videos on one of the MTV channels would he lose his underground status?

I recall the days when artists like Eminem were seen as the epitome of the underground. Today in 2005, very few would consider him in that category. When did that change? When he started popping up on MTV? When he got the cover of Rollingstone? When we started hearing his records 6 times a day on commercial radio? Is it the increased exposure or particular changes in style? In other words did Eminem change up once he got put on?

Is being underground a state of mind, a set of criteria or a perception or misperception held by fans?

Within other music genres we have always had the hipsters and self described trendsetters who would turn up their noses and thumb anything they heard on commercial radio or saw as getting ‘too exposed’. For them, the underground was and continues to be a small exclusive club and as soon as it got too big they were on to the next thing while showing open disdain for the very things they once loved. Some call it trendsetting, I call it being elitist. My question is ‘can Hip Hop afford to adopt the same bad habit?

Within Hip Hop circles, we saw this type of elitism coming from many who resided in Hip Hop’s birthplace –New York- the Big Apple. For a long time (80s to early 90s) there seemed to be major resistance to accepting Hip Hop from other places. I vividly recall going to events like the New Music Seminar where you would have high profile industry gate keepers from New York sitting on panels and arrogantly declaring the music offerings of artists from other cities as ‘Not Real Hip Hop’, primarily because they did not fit his particular tastes or appeal to his sense of style.

The rationale behind such arrogance often played itself out in strange ways when you pressed people to explain their apprehensions. For example, you would get a guy in NY around that time saying artists like Too Short, Compton’s Most Wanted or even NWA who were all out at that time, were not Hip Hop because they cursed too much and had violent lyrics.

‘Yo, Hip Hop is not about all that gang banging s###’, they would smugly say. But those same critics would be bumping some early Mobb Deep or Schoolly D and holding them up as the personification of real Hip Hop. There was never any clear explanation given as to why Mobb Deep could rap about robbing folks who came to Queensbridge and be considered true Hip Hop while Compton’s Most Wanted was kicked to the curb for embracing similar subject matter.

I recall back in those days, people in NY would dis Too Short because he rapped about his sexual exploits while somehow giving artists like Kool G Rap or Big Daddy Kane a pass for traveling the same route. Was it subject matter or the way the cats flipped their rhymes that got the approval?

What was really interesting and ironic about most of those groups back in the late 80s-early 90s was that they were often considered ‘underground’. You had groups like Compton’s Most Wanted who made it a point to say they repped the underground in songs like, ‘This is Compton’. For the most part being underground meant you from the hood and had direct connections to the seediness of the streets. Being underground was an affirmation that ‘true’ Hip Hop originated in the poorest neighborhoods and harshest ghettos. I guess my question is when did that definition change or has it? Why is it in 2005 artists like MC Eiht or Kool G Rap, who barely get any commercial air play no longer seen as underground? Why is that new comers like Houston rapper Mike Jones who holds it down for the hood in Houston seen as commercial while acts like Little Brother who hold in down in North Carolina or Dilated Peoples who hold it down in LA seen as underground?

In answering this question do we look at the type of audience who comes to see these particular groups? For example, last time I saw Little Brother in Cali the audience was dominated by what many would describe as pack backers. The ethnic make up was mainly white and for the most part one might be tempted to stereotype and say the Little Brother crowd in Cali was not from the hood. Their audience would be in sharp contrast to the audience that Mike Jones is likely to pull. Up till now he’s had a predominantly African American audience who would come from places like an East Oakland, or South Central etc. But nowadays instead of describing his audience as underground, you are likely to hear words like ‘street’ or ‘thugged out’. Others would go so far as to describe the audience as commercial and not really knowledgeable of Hip Hop Culture citing his exposure on local commercial stations and BET as the reason.

Where it gets confusing is that for years Mike Jones was holding it down working the chitlin’ circuit before he finally got national attention. In fact his popular song ‘Still Tipping’ is almost a year old. When he was just known in Houston and rockin’ that song could we and should we say he was an underground phenom? How and when did he change status and become commercial?


Oftentimes when we have this discussion about underground vs. mainstream the term selling out is often tossed around. What’s at the crux of this argument is the assertion that an artist who starts to make some chips is somehow not being true to Hip Hop culture. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions within Hip Hop. First, there are quite a few underground ‘back pack’ style artists who are doing very well. They sell out shows on the regular, spark their own tours, sell lots of merchandise on the internet and some like Lyrics Born and Dilated Peoples are having their music show up in TV commercials, which usually pay handsomely. Many of these underground artists because of their independent hustle actually do a lot better financially then their commercial counterparts who wind up getting very little after everyone takes their cut. My overall point being is that being down and out does not necessarily make you underground or any more or less Hip Hop.

This notion of artists seeking to get paid is not Hip Hop marks an interesting turn of events when you consider that back in Hip Hop’s pioneering days of the 1970s, cats were trying to make their way out. Don’t think for a minute that many of the early pioneers would not have jumped at a chance to be on radio, have a video played and get paid if the opportunity presented itself.

I often tell folks that long before P-Diddy started sporting fur coats or G-Unit was throwing money into a video camera or the Cash Money Click was bling blinging, similar behavior and expressions were in abundance ‘back in the early days’ when Hip Hop was supposed to be underground.

I can’t tell you how many true skool pioneers who would show up to a spot like the Fever the T-Connection or Harlem World wearing expensive Sheep Skin jackets, fancy Bally shoes and sporting large gold jewelry (platinum wasn’t in style back in those days). These same cats would go out of their way and make some very public gestures to show they were ‘Hi-Powered’ and had financial ‘juice’. This would include doing things like showing up at a function in a nice OJ (car service for the hood back in the days), buying lots of cold duck champagne and doing lots of coke (the expensive powdered kind, not crack), which was the ultimate symbol of wealth back in those days.

Some of this over the top early bling bling behavior was captured in the landmark flick ‘Wildstyle’ when Busy Bee is shown chilling in a hotel room counting all his money and bragging about it. This was at least a good 12- 15 years before we saw our first wad of money being thrown into a TV camera by some mean mugging ‘commercial’ artists. Today, most of us reading this would not say the G-Unit are underground artists. However, back in the Wildstyle Days Busy Bee and many of his fellow artists were seen as the crème da la creme of Hip Hop and very much a part of the underground. Why does that not apply now?

Building off all that, is it fair to look down upon those who wish to do well for themselves? There have been many days I had this discussion with some cat who is living off a trust fund or is financially well off who will then arrogantly put down artists who are getting paid accusing them of selling out. What’s crazy is that some of these cats will actually down play their living situation and try and come across like their poor which is ok if their intent is to lay low. But it’s a whole other thing when you aren’t dealing with the day to day stress of having to make ends meet but at the same time will be quick to judge somebody for trying to escape poverty and then call them sell out when they wanna celebrate their new found riches by blinging out. It implies that it’s ok for the cultural critic to have money, eat at expensive veggie restaurants or drink at expensive coffee houses while dissing those who are trying to come up financially. It’s the ultimate statement in elitism. And yes, I clearly understand that not everybody who identifies themselves with Hip Hop’s underground today is living off a trust fund, but it needs to be said that not everyone who is getting MTV type exposure is trying to be the blingiest cat around. At the end of the day everyone wants to eat, support their families and be in a position where they can afford to come and go as they please. Money in the pocket gives you a heck of lot more options to make moves as opposed to when you don’t have it.


As I mentioned earlier, once upon a time, being underground within Hip Hop meant being connected to the streets of the hood. Whatever was popping in the hood was the underground flava that everyone would soon wanna pick upon and imitate. It wasn’t one person who set that trend. It was something that was universally felt and recognized around the way and ultimately reflected by rap artists.

Today, the term underground is no longer associated with the street culture. If you don’t believe me try including artists like Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Cassidy or Mack 10 in the same breath as Atmosphere, Madlib, Mr. Lif, MF Doom, or Vast Aires. There are many who quickly say well an artist like Beanie is on the radio all the time so he can’t be underground. But as I also mentioned would that same criteria be applied to Vast Aires if they were being played all the time? Probably not. My question is why not?

Are all these artists underground? Is this concept we call underground, large enough to accommodate a Beanie Sigel and his State Property click alongside MF Doom? Or do we revert back to age old argument about Beanie is not Hip Hop but Rap while MF Doom is Hip Hop? Does that definition change if Beanie shows up his next show and starts busting windmills on stage or if he does a collab with one of Hip Hop’s pioneers like GM Caz? What if we discover as I have in the past that many of these commercial artists had spent years getting experience by being in emcee battles or b-boying or b-girling at gigs.

We can go on endlessly with these types of questions. The main point I wanna ultimately get across is for us to see Hip Hop in its entirety. It’s all of us for better or for worse and good and for bad, for what’s hot and what sucks and what’s underground and what’s mainstream. What would we need to keep in mind is that Hip Hop culture should strive to be better then the music industry and not fall into the same nasty habit of segregating the music and the artists based upon false assumptions that many times break down into ethnic stereotypes. I.e. when we say ‘underground hip hop’ we may be implying a large white or Asian audience consisting skaters, bikers and people with disposable income. When we say commercial or mainstream hip hop we may be implying, mostly Black and Latino, from the hood and thugged out. We have to make sure we don’t inadvertently embrace this line of thinking.

Today we are discussing underground vs. commercial, but we could spark off similar discussions about ‘regular Hip Hop vs. Latino or Asian Hip Hop.

Lemme know what you think…It’s something to ponder…