By Hassan Nicholas, 16, Hamilton HS
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Illustration by Hassan Nicholas, 16, Hamilton HS

I used to listen to whatever rap was on the radio. Notorious B.I.G, the Wu-Tang Clan, Mase—the most popular artists and songs were the only ones I knew about. It was party music, full of fantasy thugs who got money, messed around with girls, smoked weed. It was the rugged, raw stuff that has given rap a bad name.

Then about two years ago I found some rap music that has so much flavor, the other stuff seemed empty and tasteless. One Friday night, I was bored so I turned on the radio to The Beat and stretched out on my bed. Pumping through the speakers came an alien sound with a strange rusty voice:

"Yo they got me handcuffed, I’m down in central booking.

Things are f— up, the way my future’s looking.

But I’m too fly, I’ma change this scenario.

Make some power moves and tighten up my bankroll.

Chumps are leery though; they see me as a threat.

I’m like the black Dutch Schultz when you get me upset.

Five-oh makes me wanna flip, Larry Davis style.

Got a n— depressed, while he’s awaitin’ trial.

It’s OK though, ’cause from gray skies comes blue.

Through darkness comes light and I be known as the Guru." —Gangstarr, "JFK 2 LAX"

The owner of the rusty voice that robbed my ears for three minutes was Guru of Gangstarr, aka King of Monotone. Instead of the same tired beat with some samples I had heard a million times before, this song combined trumpets, heavy bass and strings which meshed perfectly with Guru’s rhyme. It had an "old record" sound, with pops and sizzles as if the recording was made 50 years ago. I pictured somebody in a smoky bar doing jazz scat.

Craving rap music with the rusty backyard flavor of Gangstarr, I made it a personal mission to find out more and more about this underground world. I went to friends, but their knowledge of hip hop was as limited as mine. I turned to the Internet. On sites like I could find more info on artists and music than I could get from the radio, especially since the Internet is such a cheap way for an unknown artist to get the word out. I found, which has lyrics from commercial and underground artists. Ever since then I’ve been downloading songs from various sites, adding new hip hop sites to my bookmarks. I’ve been listening to radio shows on 92.3 The Beat such as "The World Famous Wake Up Show" Saturday nights at 10 p.m. and "Temple of Hip Hop" with KRS-ONE Sunday night at 9 p.m. In fact, I’ve got tapes full of underground rap, new and old, that I’ve taped off the radio or got from others who share the same passion.

Here are some examples of the deepest underground rap I’ve come across. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of rappers big up themselves. They all claim they’re the best and everyone else is wack. In the underground scene, you can hear the same subject, but with an original approach. Check out the complex metaphors and word play in this lyric from the Last Emperor’s "Monumental:"

"What I can’t understand is,

how these foolish humans use the mic to their advantage

And get lost like the city of Atlantis.

You’re a long way from Kansas and this is more then just black chrome.

You gotta be fresh, yes and never talk in wack tone.

‘Cause once I got you in my attack zone, you can click your heels three times like Dorothy and couldn’t get back home.

So drop the mic and save those wack rhymes for later.

‘Cause my battles meet more broken arrows then Christian Slater.

May the force be with you, it’s true nothing in this life is coincidental …

the emperor is monumental."

A lot of rappers in the underground scene are not following the formula of violence + sex = success. Last Emperor’s song "The Secret Wars, Part I" had a battle between his favorite rappers and his favorite comic book heroes. In this song, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef went up against Storm, Method Man fought Wolverine and Ras Kass fought Magneto. (The rappers won.) In another song "Echo Leader," he talked about galactic futuristic stuff, with weird Captain Eo-type music.

Some rappers’ stuff is really out there—they’re taking creative risks and singing about strange philosophical topics that will never get air play. It’s deep and it makes you think. Common does a song questioning his religion, saying that all religions have something valuable to offer (not exactly a topic you will hear much on the radio):

"Bein’ my bloodline is one with the divine.

In time, brotha, you will discover the light.

Some say that God is Black and the Devil’s White.

Well, the Devil is wrong and God is what’s right.

I fight, with myself in the ring of doubt and fear.

The rain ain’t gone, but I can still see clear.

As a child, given religion with no answer to why.

Just told believe in Jesus cuz for me he did die.

Curiosity killed the catechism.

Understanding and wisdom became the rhythm that I played to

And became a slave to master self.

A rich man is one with knowledge, happiness and his health.

My mind had dealt with the books of Zen, Tao the lessons.

Koran and the Bible, to me they all vital.

And got truth within ’em, gotta read them boys.

You just can’t skim ’em, different branches of belief.

But one root that stem ’em, but people of the venom try to trim ’em

And use religion as an emblem

When it should be a natural way of life.

Who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain’t right?"

—Common, "G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition)"

One of my favorite songs by GZA is a rap about trying to survive and how everyone’s after him. He does it in such a way that he takes us on a crazy voyage to the deepest corners of his imagination. You never know what he’s going to say next. He’s taking a chance that some people will just be confused by what he says, but I think it works for him. I get a high every time I listen to it.

"Had a friend tell my family I was dead,

returned at the last fall of the orderly.

Operate the plan accordingly, in case the feds are recording me.

Sign all documents using forgery

Cause just the mere thought of me.

I’m like Solomon, spoke bluntly, told the world I’m black and cumbly.

Hounds from the grave hunt me.

The smell of death is upon me, I dwell in the hills like Dorothy.

Been in the presence of mad peasants, and an old king who sold everything.

On a quest for God’s divine.

Slept in caves to get a clear mind.

Who prayed three times, when the moon lit and when the sun rised.

I met dwellers in the desert.

Talked to shepherds, been in the mouth of many leopards.

Felt the death kiss of Satan’s mistress …"

—GZA, "Beneath the Surface"

These artists really deserve our respect. They don’t have the luxury of getting airplay. They have to fight to be heard—and they won’t make it unless they’re really hungry for success. In this song, Common describes his struggle as an artist trying to get a label, fighting with crew members and competing with other artists.

"I walk the night in rhymin’ armor, bomb a n—– like a winter coat

Have him on Death Row searchin’ for an Interscope

Yet I sparkle like Irene Cara

Symbolize dope, like sirens do terror

Mariel just had a baby someone else decapitated

Flashbacks of past raps make me so glad I made it

Players is gettin’ traded

I drop a gem off, them whose style is jaded

My juice is grated

Sh– is so bangin’ n—– say its gang-related

On philosopher’s rink of thought, I’ve skated with precision

Crews is gettin’ split like decisions

Com will let it ride in collision

Vision like Colleco or tele, I battle stars in stellar…

Regions, my thought scheme was like my offspring

Now, it’s teethin’

My reason of rhyme applies to season and time

Season of mind, body and regions divine

In mom’s cookouts, I’m leavin’ the swine

Verbal vegetarian, squashed beef with Ice Cube

Came in this rap life nude

Now I’m fully clothed with flows

You tricks can’t hide behind expensive cars and clothes."

—Common, "Hungry" from the album One Day It Will All Make Sense

Underground rap, due to its massive diversity, has forced me to be more open to music, which then makes me more open to new things in general. It’s a unique feeling when you find yourself bobbin’ your head to an MC from South Africa, Haiti or even Sweden. Each country represents its culture proudly, while keeping it hip hop; and hip hop is all about being diverse. With its creative subjects that are done in non-standard ways, underground rap is the only music that satisfies me. I listen to it to be intrigued, to be caught off-guard, to be inspired.