Is Backpacker Hip-Hop Zipped Up?

“Nowadays, rappers are comin’ half-hearted / Commercial like Pop, or underground like Black markets / Where were you the day Hip-Hop died? / Is it too early to mourn, is it too late to ride? “ – Talib Kweli, “Too Late” (2000, Rawkus) Less than a month after Little Brother moved away from 9th Wonder’s […]

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“Nowadays, rappers are comin’ half-hearted / Commercial like Pop, or underground like Black markets / Where were you the day Hip-Hop died? / Is it too early to mourn, is it too late to ride? “ – Talib Kweli, “Too Late” (2000, Rawkus)

Less than a month after Little Brother moved away from 9th Wonder’s innovative but marginalizing sound, I just got the news that one of the core groups of my youth, Jurassic 5, has disbanded on some seemingly unfriendly terms. It surprised me how much more the former meant to me than the latter, and I got to thinking of the overall state of underground Hip-Hop as we once knew it.

Earlier in the week, I was going through my collection of CDs and LPs, deciding what to keep, and what not to – a daunting task that I perform several times each year, and always before a change of residence. In the shuffle, I pulled out the Dilated Peoples’ album The Platform, something I had previously held on to since I purchased it moments after the record store turned its keys on Tuesday May 20, 2000. After a nostalgic listen, I threw the CD on Amazon, and let it go for three dollars. This action hurt me in a number of ways, mostly because of what it showed me about myself seven years later, and the demise of the Hip-Hop I once loved.

Looking back at the late ‘90s underground glory, I often debate which is a better, more archetypal single, Black Star’s “Respiration” or Dilated’s “Rework the Angles.” Both of these records combined perfect sample-based sound compositions and pointed lyrics using urban and celestial images. I adored this brand of Hip-Hop, and so did the check-writers. Priority backed Rawkus, as Interscope signed Jurassic 5 and Planet Asia, while Dilated joined Capitol/EMI. MCA would scoop the Quannum label, and Dr. Dre would sign the Cinderella-story of all back-packers, Eminem. Meanwhile, the veterans wanted a taste too. Kool G Rap re-traded the fedora for a hoodie, aligning with Rawkus, Zev Love X reappeared as MF Doom, and The Freestyle Fellowship made an encore album. The expectations were big, and despite some hit, heavy airplay singles from J5 (“The Influence”), Pharoahe Monch (“Simon Says”), and Royce Da 5’9” (“Boom”), nobody besides Marshall Mathers (five million sold on his debut) appeased the labels as seemingly intended.

No, this was a culture that lived and subsequently died on the twelve-inch singles that stores today refuse to carry and profiled DJs refuse to play. From 1997-2001 though, it produced legions of fans – a whole generation of teenagers in the suburbs, in the cities, of all colors – perceived as White, who had much more in common with J-Treds than Jay-Z. Five years later, and partly due to better music from the Jay-Z side, could these emerging young professionals still relate to Del’s metaphysics, to Pacewon’s riotous antics, or to The Beatnuts’ sophomoric humor? Perhaps the same audience that knew every word of Kweli’s “Manifesto” grew to memorize Pusha T and Malice’s punchline swagger in their upper twenties. I write from experience.

As a working music journalist, I’m inundated with mail everyday. I could have told you that El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was dope, three months ago, but I find myself waiting for the DHL deliveryman to bring me Timbaland’s Shock Value, which drops in less than two weeks. Underground Hip-Hop is always there, in vast abundance. Have you ever seen Kool Keith’s discography? Just as much as it infuriates me that The Dipset has a release of some kind every Tuesday, it’s troubling that The Bronze Nazareth really expects me to go to the store three times in less than two years to spend my money. Whereas we welcomed the quality-over-quantity twelve-inch singles of the late ‘90s with open tone-arms, 2007 is a time of, “Here, buy my mixtape of 27 fillers.” Unlike 10 years ago, the junk that comes out allows my pockets to stay fat and not flat, relatively speaking.

Who’s to blame?

In one part, I blame myself, for owning and working as a part of the Internet. The web not only hurt all of Hip-Hop with its file-trading, CD burning, MySpace self-promoting, and kiss-picture-leaking technology. Al Gore’s illegitimate brainchild also created a perception that underground Hip-Hop was corny. Talib Kweli said it so on “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “My rhymes be blowin’ up in chat rooms all over the Internet / and causing collisions on the highway of information.” At a time when we value jail time, tight lips, and street-earned stripes, backpackers got vic’d for theirs, and were too busy blogging about other stuff to care.

Then there are the labels. Jurassic 5’s disbanding makes it highly implausible that Charli 2na or Zakir will hang around Interscope with solo deals. Pharoahe Monch’s Desire was being promoted when Universal let Chamillionaire release his last album, let alone his top-priority follow-up. I’d also venture to bet that if Ghostface and MF Doom make that collaborative album, it’s more likely to sport a Nature Sounds label than the promised Def Jam Left jacket. Even Consequence is offering refunds on the consumers of his recent album, which total a smaller number than the attendance of a Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ home game. In the same breath, I commend Stones Throw, the Def Jux, the Rhymesayers, ABB, Duck Down and other labels who adapted brilliantly to the independent possibilities of the times. Those times is hard, but are today’s talented voices of the movement suffering from the mistakes made by the suits at the top of the millennium? I’d pass partial blame. If Nike hadn’t thrown Kanye and Nas on “Classic,” would KRS-One and Rakim still really be getting the love? If The Black Eyed Peas hadn’t added Fergie, would they still be on a major? Aren’t there more J Dilla tribute shirts in print than copies sold of Fantastic Volume 2?

Lastly, there is us – the consumers. Despite getting serviced with the promo schwag – which thanks to that aforementioned Internet, often only plays in one of my five CD players, I go out just like everybody else to support what I believe in. Yesterday, I was there again on a Tuesday to swoop new albums from El-P, Devin the Dude, and RJD2. I’m one of the few that still considers these a worthwhile purchase. It’s wishful thinking to believe this act does anything significant for the charts, but it’s imperative to let the labels and artists who read these reports know and realize that we still care, 15 dollars worth to be exact. We want more. I wish more of us would call up the radio stations, support the proper record stores, write the magazine editors, or simply tell a friend that Edan/I Self Divine/whoever else is nice with theirs. Underground Hip-Hop is too driven by the elitists who would prefer it that they’re the only one on the planet who “really understands Atmosphere,” and the passive listener, “Oh yeah, I love Madlib. I have a few MP3s I got off Limewire.”

That generation I wrote of earlier, back then, I would have kicked my own ass for liking some of the music (and women) I do today. Despite this, frankly, I’m glad I grew up. But at the same time, in the compromise of changing styles, maturing tastes, and simply different times, all should not be lost. Even if I can’t always feel what Rakaa and Evidence are rhyming about seven years after they meant everything to me, I miss the hope of hearing great music outside of “clothes, hoes and desert eagles,” and believing that it stood a chance in the fight. I miss being there when Mr. Complex congratulated Common on Like Water For Chocolate going gold, I miss the “B-Boy Document” intro to Rap City, I miss KRS-One, Crooked I, and Tech N9ne on the same Sway & Tech posse-cut. I miss being surprised.

Along with The Platform CD and a host of others, I parted with my long-retired Triple Five Soul, marker-stained backpack in last week’s fire-sale. I don’t want it back. I still carry twelves in my laptop bag, and I’m crossing my fingers that underground Hip-Hop puts out some stuff that deserves to be carried again.

Jake Paine is the Features Editor of, and can be contacted at