Mainstream hip-hop may be embracing the old school, but the underground has finally stopped trying to "keep it real" and instead is willing to take bold - and most importantly, fun - steps forward with its raps and production. Julianne Shepherd looks back at some of the freshest faces and labels that stood out in 2002 and will certainly continue to cause fantastic damage in the future.

It's pretty safe to say that Missy Elliott's fourth record, Under Construction, was the definitive mainstream rap record of 2002, thanks to Timbaland's glitchy beats and Missy's "ruff but sexy"/ raunchy dom ho approach. Under Construction's theme is all about keeping it real, like back in the day, before so many of her friends' lives were claimed by gansta-rap culture. She tells us as much in a series of "intimate" speaking interludes throughout the record, baking it up with samples from Run D.M.C. and Wild Style as well as a duet with Jay-Z titled "Back In The Day." Her retroization-of-hip-hop theme is furthered by her outfits - full-on regalia complete with fuzzy Kangol, fat-laces Addidas, huge gold chains and sideways baseball cap a la MC Lyte - and the layout, which is splattered in think, blocky, old-school graffiti. And Missy's not alone. The mainstream was all about street cred in the latter half of 2G2, complete with two wide-release hip-hop movies that actually glorified the DIY underground (Brown Sugar and, to the lesser extent, 8 Mile).

However, just as Missy & Co. finally decided it was time to pay tribute to the old school (and devote ample lip service to it), the underground realized it was time to switch this bitch up.

Long obsessed with "keepin' it real" - some would say unhealthy, fostering a musically dogmatic attitude that has held it back for years - in 2002, underground hip-hop has a whole busted out of it's shell, said "fuck it" to keeping it real and instead explored new frontiers in rhyming and production.

Not only did indie Definitive Jux become the most imperative hip-hop label on the scene (thanks to the monstrous talents of El-P, Aesop Rock, RJD2 and Mr. Lif), it became the most imperative indie label, period. Most importantly, there were assloads of indie/ underground hip-hop records that showed people were finally growing the eff up, either by shedding the stifling "keepin' it real" maxim or incorporating said maxim into total innovation. In other words, rather than being bound to the structure forged in rap's heyday - e.g., using the same beats and vibe as, like, Stetsasonic in 88' - there were musicians who figured out how to take its spirit and turn it into something newer and more interesting.

Q-Tip declared hip-hop dead long ago, but the following artists are helping along in reincarnation, either via their unique rap skills or their out-there production. In addition to releasing stellar records in 2002, they included the most important element of hip-hop, which is too often overlooked in the underground: FUN.


"We had Yoni's mother's head put on ice. She didn't have any terminal diseases. She's actually very healthy, but we just went with it. It didn't really work out. Well, for a while, Yoni [Wolf, a.k.a. MC why?] was really pissed with me and Dave [Madson, a.k.a. odd nosdam]. 'Cause, you know, he only had one mom. His dad's pretty lonely. But you know, it was for art. We had to do it."

No stranger to fun, Doseone is explaining the sacrifices he and the rest of the Anticon collective are willing to make for the sake of creating great music. In addition to decapitating Yoni's mom, the collective's stable of producers made about 50 records of glue-sniffing, amniotic atmospheres, which were the equivalent of chilling out in a lava lamp for a couple of hours. In particular, odd nosdam and Jel, who were responsible for the madcap antics and gloopy, harmonic beats on a majority of the records released by Anticon (including Jel's 10 Seconds and nosdam's Reaching Quiet album with why?, In The Shadow Of The Living Room, both on Mush), sent hip-hop through the looking glass, and it came back wearing a furry chicken suit.

Also pushing the envelope for underground production was, of course, EL-P, whose Fantastic Damage (Definitive Jux) sounded like a big, bumping, futuristic bomb. Compare his heavy-ass aesthetic to that of Dalek, whose From Filthy Tongues Of Gods And Griots (Ipeace) was equally apocalyptic, and whose affinity for experimentation had their DJ placing turntable needles in his mouth just to make that extra-special crackle. Albums from Roots Manuva (Dub Came To Save Me on Big Dada/ Ninja Tune), the now-defunct Anti-Pop Consortium (Arrhythmia on Warp) and Mush Records, as well as totally hot British hip-hop comp called Extra Yard (Big Dada/ Ninja Tune), also pushed hip-hop to the outerlimits via visionary approaches to electronic and beat experimentation.


Giving new meaning to the term "vocal percussionist," the lickity-split MC raps fast, pretty much beatboxing while still rhyming actual words, (A fast MC raps fast, pretty much beatboxing while still rhyming actual words. (A fast MC is doing a good job if you can understand the words he or she rhymes - unfortunately they're far and few between.)

Busdriver (of the Project Blowed, Mass Men and Afterlife crews), Radioinactive and Sleep (of Portland/ Seattle Collective Oldominion) make futuristic, light-speed cadences that race against the beats, with crystal-clear diction and absurdly sick styles. Los Angeles' Bus and Radioinactive are nasally and sardonic; Sleep is dead serious and has a rubber mouth, as can be heard on Riot By Candle Light (Stuck Under The Needle) and his collaboration with Onry Ozzborn under the name Aurora (S7v7n Days on One Drop).

Busdriver's excellent second solo album, the self-released Temporary Forever, showed his clicky flow breaking records for speed. However, it's unfair to infer that's his only skill; Bus takes the beatbox rap a step further into jazz territory, making his nasally tone act like some sort of brass instrument rhyming all over the free jazz - which makes sense, considering the fast rap's root in scat. "I feel that bebop is the closest kin to underground hip-hop as there is in American music," explains Bus. "Shit like Bebop and punk rock and things that jazz cats did back in the day are definitely a part of it."

Bus varies his style incessantly, as is evidenced on his new record with Radioinactive and Daedelus, The Weather (Mush), which also has the makeup of a dope comedy album with some erotica-style mashups. "I consciously try to give myself to the song rather than have the song give itself to my image," he explains. "I don't think I do it that well, but if a song requires a different attack I try to go for it. Some people like Mikah 9 and Abstract Rude, who have completely different styles and ways of writing lyrics, can do it amazingly well. I just try to complete an idea and get an interesting perspective on it. I don't really have a theme; I have a lot of social kinds of stuff, and then a lot of just random shit. It's not about what I say; it's how I get there. You know, what's the ethic involved? That's pretty much it."


When it's all said and done, though, the reason Missy Elliott has eminent mass appeal versus most underground hip-hop is because she churns out single after single of dancefloor-singcing club smashes. Slug, MC in Minneapolis duo Atmosphere, has some sage advice on the matter: "We need to make music that is not only compelling to think about, but that you can fucking dance to," he says. "It's really great for everyone to be pushing the envelope and making the complete avant-garde bullshit, but when your doing that, you're basically helping close it off to people who just want a fucking good beat so they can have a good time. And you're basically saying, 'I don't want nothing but fucking college kids who smoke too much pot and think too much to come to my shows.'"

When all is said and done, the voice of the people is the beat that bumps. Here's to hoping this year bestows loads of experimental bumping upon us all.


Mush Records