Before the dawn of the Internet age, early humans used to discover cutting-edge new music over smaller radio stations, pirate and college especially. Today, though, despite maintaining a surprisingly consistent following, mainstream radio is majorly dominant and all but a wasteland. Hip-hop radio is especially heinous. The songs that play on a short loop there get enormous visibility and deserve little of it.
Even artists like Nicki Minaj, who is one of the most successful pop and hip-hop radio crossovers, has been getting sick of radio's tired, predictable lyricism. "Everybody is getting by not pushing their pen," she said in her documentary, Nicki Minaj: My Time AGAIN, which aired in January. "Do you know how many times I think to myself, why did I just rewrite this verse when everything on the radio is a bunch of wack verses?"
There are some impactful voices in the mainstream — Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$ and J. Cole — but even these don't get the same air time as the Tygas of the world. Real, urgent hip-hop lives elsewhere. Here are 12 incredible songs that mainstream radio doesn't cover:
1. "America the Beautiful" by Homeboy Sandman
A mainstay on the indie hip-hop label Stones Throw, Homeboy Sandman has been recording authentic, sample-heavy hip-hop since 2007. His latest, Hallways, is one of his strongest projects yet.
On the album's stand-out single "America the Beautiful," he runs down a list of America's ills, as well as the frequently overlooked benefits that it has over every other struggling third world nation. It hits all the hallmarks of conscious hip-hop, but he would be the last one to use the term.
"First of all, 'conscious' means aware, awake, so basically that term means that the default hip-hop is 'unaware' "asleep,' 'unconscious' – the default is 'mentally lost,' you know?" he told the Guardian. "I'm into good hip-hop."
2. "Arnold Palmer" by Ratking
Ratking is keeping gritty New York hip-hop alive. In a review of the group's wintry 700 Fill, Pitchfork described their past work as a "search for an old city, one in danger of being thrust into into the East River by an influx of doe-eyed, affluent young professionals." 700 Fill continues that search while battling the chill of the city's cruel winter. Rapper Wiki pauses on tracks like "Arnold Palmer" to pine for summers and cities past, while using the iconic drink to wax poetic about his mixed heritage.
3. "Ham Sandwich" by Shabazz Palaces
Formed out of the remnants of Digable Planets, Shabazz Palaces' blend of cosmic and spiritual hip-hop has been the paragon of Northwest coast hip-hop. Their incisive exploration of police brutality, "Ham Sandwich," slipped under a lot of people's radars at the end of 2014 when it was most relevant. But it offers one of the most challenging looks at the subject, spit over a classic hip-hop break with some avant garde twists.
4. "Shame" by Young Fathers
Young Fathers earned themselves a big look last year when their full-length album Dead won the U.K.'s 2014 Mercury prize. But they want to go even bigger. As they've stated in several interviews, they want to make their brand of unapologetically subversive hip-hop into the new pop.
"Pop is in a difficult place right now because the main outlets are saying, 'Well, there's the Internet now. We don't need to represent the whole of culture as it really is,'" Graham Hastings, the group's beatmaker, told the New Statesman. "But they do — because there's a whole load of people who dinnae look for music, it's just the noise that fills the break. But it does affect you. It is important."
5. "Early" by Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels owned 2014. They deservedly topped several publications' end of year lists and were hailed as creating the "most viciously realized rap album of 2014," by Pitchfork. But you'd never have known it listening to mainstream hip-hop. Their songs cover some of the most pressing issues facing America today — policy brutality, prison reform, corporate greed — over beats more invigorating than any turn-up anthem. The duo is still riding the high from that release and putting out new music videos to get the people hyped up for their upcoming Blade Runner-themed fall tour.
6. "You Don't Know" by Junglepussy
With every track she releases, Junglepussy turns more and more heads. Her name may at first suggest a fixation on sexual themes, but her songs cover the entire spectrum: sex, style, religion, feminism. Her latest, "You Don't Know," is an in-your-face swagger rap track, shutting down any hater who would claim to understand the limits of her powers. "Pregnant with success, when will I give birth?" she raps, in total control, "You can't see inside my body, you don't know what's in my purse."
7. "2015 Chucho and Jojo" by SHIRT
His name is un-Google-able. But tracking down SHIRT's music is worth the effort. All of the Queens-based rapper's music strives to offer a unique perspective, be it love, on his latest "2015 Chucho and JoJo" or the state of hip-hop, on "I Don't Like Lorde."
With this philosophy SHIRT has made something quite rare. "Rappers are still mostly considered only one kind of way," he told Fusion. "Everyone knows these guys can make a lot of money, sell a product, influence kids etc. but very few are respected for their take. I'm a human first, you know?"
8. "P's and Q's" by Mick Jenkins
Chicago is home to some of the most exciting up-and-comers in hip-hop, and Mick Jenkins is one of the foremost names to know. The deep blend of jazz-tinged beats and globally-minded, socially conscious raps he pushed on his 2014 mixtape The Water[s] caught a lot of hip-hop heads off guard. His latest release, a video for "P's & Q's," will appear on the album's followup, similarly titled Wave[s].
9. "Hard To Choose" by Rapsody
After her stunning feature on Kendrick Lamar's "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," Rapsody may be on the verge of blowing up. But her deep, conversational lyricism still hasn't found an audience on radio. On her latest track, "Hard To Choose," she argues that's a trade-off all rappers have to make. You can't have radio fame and a platform to say something real. "It's hard to be political, can't say what's on your brain," she spits. "Careers come quick, it's just as fast to bury 'em / But I chose to give a damn."
10. "Home" by Michael Christmas
Michael Christmas has Mac Miller and Childish Gambino as fans, but still doesn't have enough clout to get the radio's attention. His charming weirdness doesn't generally fit with mainstream radio's conception of how a rapper should sound and act, but he's still blowing up on the underground circuit. Hopefully, one day he'll be able to buy his mom a new home, as he raps on "Home" with brimming creativity and joyous lyricism.
11. "Don't Een Kare" by Tree
Chicago MC Tree refuses to buy into the conceit that hip-hop has to be divided between music that bangs in the club and music that stimulates the mind. His signature blend of hip-hop, which he calls "soul trap," seeks to blend the uplifting, inspirational aspects of soul with the power of rap. Spit with a raspy, weathered voice, all his portraits of Chicago ghetto life feel undeniably urgent.
12. "Joshua Tree" by King Fantastic
King Fantastic's MC Killer Reese One captures the simultaneous hilarity and profundity of a psychedelic experience perfectly on "Joshua Tree." The group's high intellectualism often comes as a surprise — "Reese knows reality is subjective, so Reese is never a slave to the collective," he raps — but it makes for extremely refreshing hip-hop that the world could use more of.