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New American Songbook

New American Songbook: Hip Hop Underground


The term ‘underground’ gets tossed around a lot in hip hop--usually, it seems, in an attempt to signal the superior taste of the person bringing it up. Ostensibly, an underground artist is obscure but deliberately so; slept on by mainstream audiences, and tapped into some kind of arcane but universal truth; the avant-garde.

As a genre, the classification is practically useless, and to be honest, I’m not sure how to classify most hip hop except to point out where it comes from, and when it was made. The most successful hip hop practitioners become genres unto themselves—think of Jay-Z, The Roots, Tupac, Biggie. Most recently, the duo Run the Jewels has become its own phenomenon. The emcees, El-P and Killer Mike, were each, at one time, underground artists; now they appear on late-night television. Killer Mike stumped for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary season.

The term ‘underground’ itself is perhaps inappropriate, suggesting a hierarchy of form that doesn’t exist. To borrow an idea from the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, hip hop is a rhizomatic art form—connected to itself in a nodal manner, a network without a central hub, rather than a linear progression of influence where a group is either bottom or top. All hip hop is related, clustered and connected like neurons—what you see, or hear, is simply a matter of focus.



  • Run the Jewels - Jeopardy
  • Micranots - Pitch Black Ark
  • Kool G Rap - 4,5,6
  • Meow the Jewels - Meowpurrdy
  • MF Doom (as Viktor Vaughn) - Lickupon
  • Anti-Pop Consortium - Volcano