While hip hop is more mainstream than ever, the underground scene is just as thriving as the mainstream one. In fact, if you look into the underground for talented artists, you’re going to like what you find.
Free of a lot of mainstream restrictions, artists can be as creative and unique as they want. In this article, we’ll look at the 31 best underground rappers of all time.
1. MF DOOM
MF DOOM is a name you should know in the hip hop world, and it’s a bit of a shame he remained an underground artist for his entire career. Quite frankly, there are few lyricists that can hang with him in the history of the genre, but he stood out for more than just that. He went through several different alter egos, sometimes even rapping conversations between the two and taking on a supervillain persona when on stage.
He almost always wore a signature metal mask that was much like the one Doctor Doom wore in the Marvel comics, though his mask was a mashup between the comic book mask and a spartan helmet. Each of his six albums is a masterpiece, giving full story arcs and following fleshed-out themes that are more than worthy of your time and money. Plus, his lyrics are so deep, you’ll find something else to pick out each time you listen to one of his tracks. In terms of his best work, you’re going to want to look for singles like Doomsday, Rhymes Like Dimes, and Beef Rap.
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El-P is one of the most important figures in all of alternative hip hop, being the biggest influence on other artists on this list like Aesop Rock. He started out his career as a member of Company Flow before heading out on a solo career and becoming a co-founder, owner, and CEO of the Definitive Jux record label.
His style relies heavily on aggressive attacks that make use of clever wordplay and sci-fi themes that draw heavily on the work of Philip K. Dick. But his musical talents aren’t just on display as a lyricist. He’s done plenty of work on film scores as well, producing music for films like Bomb The System and Capone.
3. Kool Keith
In the hip hop world, there are plenty of odd and eccentric artists out there. So, you know it’s saying something when someone is generally considered the most out-there personality. Kool Keith has a rather tight grip on the title, but his talent is not up for debate.
A prolific recording artist, it gets hard to keep track of all his work because he publishes under different monikers. From Keith to Dr. Doom and Dr. Octagon, he’s one of those rappers who has a massive discography for both his solo and collaborative careers. If you’re looking for an artist with plenty of alter-egos that spits surreal, abstract singles then this is your guy.
4. Mos Def
Mos Def is another prolific recording artist, working with several groups like Urban Thermo Dynamics and alongside Talibn Kweli in Blackstar. By 1999, he struck out on a solo career with a debut album and has recorded some hit singles like Ms. Fat Booty and Mathematics, but you probably know him from other media.
He was a child actor, appearing in films, sitcoms, and theater productions like Dexter, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and The Italian Job. While his acting career has brought him much more acclaim than his rapping one, he remains one of the best underground rappers of all time.
5. Armani White
Armani White is one of the relative newcomers on this list, but don’t let that put you off. He began rapping as early as the second grade of elementary school, finally releasing a debut album in 2019.
While a lot of artists on this list have made great music, few have made it onto mainstream charts, but he has pulled it off despite his short career. His single BILLIE EILISH. made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 in 2022 and peaked at the number 58 position, earning a gold certification in the US and a four-times platinum certification in Australia.
While many rappers dedicate their songs to containing witty and quotable one-liners, few care as much about the full album experience as Blu. He has more of a jazzy hip hop flow, and his songs focus on the main themes he chooses for his albums. Everything from the color blue to black culture is fair game for him, tackling them masterfully and showcasing his abilities as a wordsmith without getting lost looking for that one perfect line.
You can check out all of his solo work or look into his collaborations with other artists and groups like Blu & Exile or Dirty Science.
7. J Dilla
J Dilla is largely credited with raising the level of artistry and quality in the Detroit hip hop music scene and became one of the most influential figures in the genre before his death. He came out of the underground scene in Detroit in the 90s, working as a member of Slum Village and Soulquarians before producing his own solo works. He would go on to become a successful record producer as well, but he’s best known for juxtaposing different styles of music to create something fresh and outside of the box.
8. Joey Bada$$
Joey Badass’ mixtapes have been met with nothing but critical acclaim from the time he first started releasing music as part of the Pro Era collective. His story began with freestyle video uploads on YouTube, which would eventually find their way onto the World Star website and got him noticed by Cinematic Music Group.
From there, his career took off, with his debut mixtape being named the best of 2012 by HipHopDX and ranking on Complex Magazine’s list of the best albums of the year. He would eventually get into acting as well, making his television debut on the show Mr. Robot.
9. Tech N9ne
Tech N9ne is probably one of the most commercially successful artists on this list with over two million record sales. In 1999, he founded the record label Strange Music and began a rather strong music career that would see him work as a featured artist alongside many of the biggest names in hip hop such as Lil Wayne, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg.
His rapping style is fast and choppy, with beats that are perfect for other media uses. His songs have been used in plenty of video games and films, from Madden and WWE 2K to Born 2 Race and Alpha Dog.
10. Roc Marciano
Roc Marciano made his debut alongside Busta Rhymes in 2000 but quickly left the ground to help found the hardcore underground group U.N. While his lyricism skills are unquestionable, he is known as a pioneer in the genre.
Rather than use heavy drum loops, much of his work builds on beats without drums and focuses on witty one-liners with hard-hitting punchlines. He’s got a powerful delivery style that has become a signature of all his songs but never has he stopped breaking new ground in the hip hop world with his unorthodox stylings.
11. Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli first got his start as part of the duo Black Star alongside Mos Def but he quickly made a name for himself in the underground with his solo works. His first solo album Quality brought him mainstream recognition in 2002, thanks in large part to Kanye West’s producer role on Get By. That single would rise to number 77 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and helped the album at number six on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Chart.
In his career, he has worked with all kinds of artists, from J Dilla to West, and always has a political angle to his songs that is conscious of current events.
12. Aesop Rock
Aesop Rock was one of the most prominent rappers of the underground hip hop movement in the 90s. A member of numerous amazing groups like the Weathermen and Hail Mary Mallon, he would at one point sign with El-P’s label. While any rapper is likely to have a large vocabulary, his is probably bigger than whoever you were thinking of.
He’s an amazing lyricist who produces lyrics that seem bloated upon a first listen but never lack depth or meaning. If you just want someone entertaining to listen to on this list, he is your guy.
13. WestSide Gunn
WestSide Gunn is another one of the most recent entries on this list, but he’s still one of the best. Any artist that draws comparisons to Wu-Tang needs to be recognized, and he has dominated the underground scene in a way we haven’t really seen before. The high-pitched rapper is one of the hardest grinders you will ever see, evident in his massive library of music and recordings. While he did have a short stint with Shady Records, he has remained an independent artist since 2020 and continues to put out frequent mixtapes.
14. Inspectah Deck
Inspectah Deck is best known as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, being the second-most featured artist on all of the group’s songs. He has much more of a laid-back persona than the other members though, turning to the producer role for his own solo projects and the solo projects of other group members after striking out on his own.
His entire career has perfectly balanced solo projects and major collaborations with other artists, from Wu-Tang to Czarface. Despite some generally positive reviews from critics, his solo work remains an underground sensation more than a major success.
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Being a rapper is Madlib’s third priority, with being a DJ and producer both coming before his career at the mic. He’s worked with a lot of amazing artists as an MC under several different names, from MF DOOM to J Dilla. Some of his best work ever came on the Madvillain album collaborations with MF DOOM, which I highly recommend checking out.
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When you first listen to a song from Ka, you might think something is missing. Indeed, he doesn’t include drum beats in a lot of his music, making him one of the most unique underground rappers, but this is an artistic choice. By taking away the punchy drum sounds, he creates a darker and more vivid atmosphere for his tracks to play out. His lyrics are also almost always double entendres, making for some of the best writing—listening—you’re going to find in the underground rap world.
17. Vinnie Paz
Vinnie Paz ventures right up to the edge of horrorcore with a lot of his music, but he doesn’t step over into the genre. Much of his work is full of violent imagery, imagining the graphic ways he kills his enemies. Match that with a brutally aggressive delivery and explosive beats and you’ve got one of the best aggressive hip hop artists in the underground world.
And while this is his distinct style, the content of his lyrics is always very varied. He can go from neighborhood disputes to politics and religion in the span of a single song, helping keep him from becoming a one-note artist and making for an exciting catalog of music that anyone can find something great in.
18. Benny the Butcher
Benny The Butcher has a very apt name, as he has one of the most vicious deliveries in the game. At the forefront of Griselda alongside WestSide Gunn and Conway The Machine, his raps dominate any scene he pulls up to. A quick, aggressive delivery that pairs well with a cold and merciless beat is what sets apart a lot of his songs.
They’re truly chilling, something that is likely to induce goosebumps and they have a haunting feel to them. While he will try out some mainstream sounds every now and then, he remains a legend of the underground and plans on staying there for a long time to come.
19. Polo G
Polo G isn’t the first name you think of when you come up with a list of underground rappers, but that’s exactly where he started. Before breaking onto the Hot 100 and mainstream hip hop as a whole, he made his own way on YouTube and SoundCloud. Since signing a major record deal and rising up the ranks, he’s founded his own record label and collaborated with some of the biggest names in the game.
Necro may be one of the most unique rappers on this list. Because while many stand out for their oddities or styles, he is a different animal altogether. The content of his songs is considered horrorcore, the kind of torture and murder you expect in a black metal track, which has created something he calls death rap.
He uses those death metal instrumentals as well, creating a mashup genre that is all his own. Profane, disconcerting, and frankly, a little bit horrifying. Few rappers have ever been able to create as clear a brand as him, and thanks to having his own record label, there’s nobody to stop him from continuing his brutal rap style into the future.
21. Immortal Technique
Any underground movement is going to have its fair share of angry political ideals, and nobody is as passionate, vivid, or embodies that better than Immortal Technique. In the same way Rage Against The Machine became the political vehicle of the outspoken punk rock world, Immortal Technique has become that for underground rap.
Outspoken about war, racism, and oppression, his delivery style is full of rage. He isn’t screaming into the void, though he often offers solutions for change rather than just yelling about how bad things have gotten.
22. Boldy James
Boldy James is another one of the standout underground rappers that are associated with the Griselda brand. While he’s not nearly as aggressive as a lot of rappers on the list, his bars are much more personal and his laid-back delivery matches their content to a tee. A fairly recent entry to the underground hip hop game, he has been one of the most consistent producers of the last decade, releasing nine albums of quality work and quickly becoming one of the most influential in the game.
23. R.A. the Rugged Man
Don’t let the large gaps in this rapper’s discography fool you, he’s still one of the best. From his debut in 2004 through his latest album in 2020, R.A. The Rugged Man is just as good a lyricist as he has always been. If you’re looking for a passionate MC from the underground, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than this guy. His rhyme schemes are some of the most dense and complex you can find too, with fluctuating flows as he moves between concepts in his songs.
24. Open Mike Eagle
Open Mike Eagle is yet another unique rapper on this list, thanks in large part to his role as a comedian in addition to being a rapper. Comedy writing is a lot different than any other sort of writing, but he has the talent to blend it into his songs to tell vivid stories that can inspire, make you laugh, or make you feel sad. Each of his albums is a concept and tells a story, something that creates a full experience through the album that gets lost by a lot of rappers in the mainstream world.
25. Conway the Machine
Conway The Machine is the last artist on our list from Griselda Records, of which he is a founding member. After having a long and traumatic past, he includes a lot of those themes in his songs, rapping about the ways he has handled the trauma and survived his tough surroundings. This adds a more emotional layer to the clever wordplay and dark beats that he raps over. It’s engaging and personal, the area he thrives in, and it’s one of the reasons he has become one of the biggest rappers in the underground.
Hopsin might be best known for the white contact lens he wears in music videos and on stage, but his rhymes are just as striking as those eyes are. After his first albums, he founded more than one record label and eventually broke into the mainstream around 2012.
27. Killer Mike
Killer Mike made his debut alongside Outkast but would go on to release five full-length albums as a solo artist. In addition to being one of the highest-quality MCs in the underground rap world, he’s an avid activist that takes on problems like social inequality, systemic racism, and police brutality.
DTheFlyest is one of the brightest up-and-comers in the rap world today. Originally from Boston, the rapper is quickly making a name for himself in the underground rap world, a success that earned him a feature on Lil Baby’s Fugazi.
29. Curtis Roach
Curtis Roach may be one of the best examples of how quickly a rapper can blow up on social media. His song Bored In The House went viral as a TikTok sound and became so big that Tyga reached out to do some vocals for the song before it officially got a release date.
Being an underdog is motivating for a lot of people, but not many take as much inspiration from it as RonSoCold. His entire rap career is about coming from nothing and making something of yourself, producing songs that are as inspiring as they are worthy of your attention. He’s also one of the up-and-comers that are coming out of Charlotte, North Carolina, which has become one of the hottest cities in the underground rap world.
31. KOTA the Friend
KOTA The Friend is a completely indie rapper that often takes the positive route and writes songs about finding the good things in life. His 2020 album Everything was not only written and recorded by him, he did all of the production work for it as well. He’s one of the brightest young guns in the underground rap world these days with a long future ahead of him, so he’s definitely someone worth checking out before he blows up—because he will.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.