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Full disclosure: my father bought me a turntable during one of the Christmases I had during high school, when I was right in my purist phase and middle-class enough to ask for expensive shit like a turntable in the first place.
I disclose this because I never used the damn thing and it’s probably still under my childhood bed. Question my credentials if you want, but I know precisely what I’d cop to start my collection when I eventually exit the stage of freelance-broke-boy. Here are the 10 Best Underground Rap Albums you need to own on vinyl.
This is an absolute essential for any head who’s really with this underground shit. On top of Daniel Dumile being one of the most timeless MCs to walk the earth in or out of a metal-faced mask, you got the incomparable Madlib to source the sample game for what many herald as the most blunted, diehard classic in the Stones Throw catalog. The duo link up for a magnum opus that carries an inventive, scatterbrained quality that’s rendered itself a rap nerd’s wet dream over the decade-plus since its arrival. I can attest to years of listening to the vinyl pop, even though it only lived on my iPod nano.
While the best-album debate is clearly up for discussion with these two, I pick this one in remembrance of Michael Larsen’s untimely passing. Still deep in the burrows of my Rhymesayers’ collection phase, I discovered First Born within 24 hours of learning that Eyedea was no longer here. I was wedged in the pressure of retrying my SATs and balancing my GPA enough to maybe get my college paid for. One spin in, and the existentialism clashed against my rap nerd brain in a sorrow I found unfamiliar. Abilities’ beats sounded like they were drowning, and Eyedea wrote raps to hide from the rain and scold the fish he kept in his crib. I was too young for the Scribble Jam, but I knew right then I missed out on something special. Keep this in your crate for the dark days.
Oddly enough, I heard “The Arrival” in the loading screen of Fight Night Round 3 and hadn’t a single idea that rap was crafted so emotional and explosive at the same damn time. That was 2006; years later, Slug & Ant was the first rap duo I ever truly cared about. The sonics engulf you in a warm cloud of despair, sketching heavy soul samples into the boom-bap framework, ringing as loud as the insecurities Slug tries to escape from with every vignette he paints. This record exemplifies what happens when hip-hop’s internal dialogue truly functions: an intergenerational exchange that is unabashedly thankful for the past while building a new world from what it left behind.
This record is for everyone who loves their rappers on some movie shit: New York accents, fly attire, Scarface allusions, and fantastical gun tricks that let your imagination soar. It’s never not raining or snowing when Roc Marci’s rapping, and that shit makes perfect sense when you spin him. His catalog is easily pigeonholed into the purist box for its sample-heavy minimalism and limited subject matter, but other than his counterpart Ka - a true God MC in his own right - no one is crafting street shit this thorough. This the type of record where a pair of Timbs will appear in your living room when you put it on. Your mid-grade blunt will morph into OG and light itself, the bathtub you haven’t cleaned in a month will morph into a bubble-bath jacuzzi, and the hybrid you drive may be able to turn into a submarine. Don’t try that, or anything you hear on here at home, though.
In retrospect, I bet I sounded crazy for playing “Among the Sleep” off my phone speaker when kids used to do that in the back of the bus in high school. Like, my classmates must’ve thought some wild shit about me. When you check Chris Palko’s resume, there’s no dismissing him as the NC-17 Eminem; that’s downright disrespectful. Nothing on here was crafted for Top 40; the beats sound like they’re lurking behind you ready to slit your throat. One part B-slasher and one part HBO documentary, Cage is a hell of a ringleader in this house of horror. He goes everywhere you can’t imagine, with a twisted vividity that satisfies all who have the stomach to bear his nightmares.
On XXX, Danny Brown sounds like he’s been on his rap shit for a really long time and he promises he’s not fucking playing. Even when he jokes about “income tax swag” or how messed up your girl’s “beauty supply sandals” are, Danny is just as upfront about dying from all the drugs he’s on and seeing visions of Pac. skywlkr handles most of the production here, giving a gritty glory to the product of Detroit winters with crack in his jeans. Fittingly, this is the polar opposite of an easy listen; for all his inventiveness, Danny has bountiful hypermasculinity sprawling across this album. XXX is true midlife-crisis music that doesn’t concern itself with being perfect or correct, but the album’s structure is a literal come-down to the harrowing reality of Danny’s past evils and addictions. To call it a joyride would be an injustice.
This was released on Rawkus, a known independent powerhouse, in 1998, and went gold by the new millennium. This may not fit within the underground parameters, but it’s well worth the exception. Mos (now Yasiin Bey) spent over an hour foreshadowing everything from the gentrification of Brooklyn and Harlem, to the private-prison regime we face in the United States, to the world’s water crisis we keep inching closer toward with every Flint we systematically invalidate. And he rapped good as hell the entire time. It’s almost two decades since the drop and the indictments are still applicable; thus, any further endorsement is unnecessary.
Ka is the textbook example of pure lyricism that savors every word without sacrificing a drop of the substance. He’s a Brownsville man with a dayjob he won’t disclose, who makes his own beats and mails CDs at the post office. By night, he handcrafts some of the most precise, haunting hip-hop we’ve heard this millennium. It sounds like he pulled his stories from a life lived several times over, and his instrumentals sound like literal moments of purgatory. Intentional or not, The Night’s Gambit is a seminal work serving as an antithesis to the warpspeed cadences, delivery methods, and mentality of Ka’s contemporaries. This is pensive, fine-aged gangster shit that will make your imagination do push-ups on a Brooklyn stoop until its shoulders cave in.
When we look back to the first quarter of 2015, I hope this record isn’t reduced in the shadow of Kendrick and Drake; Earl doesn’t deserve such an ill-fitted fate. Handling most of the beats himself, Sweatshirt sharpens his tongue and trades the monotone syllable spill for a raw exposure of the stress he copes with since leaving an island to an inheritance of fame. This gripping display of emotional maturity never elects to pull a punch and isn’t afraid of breaking another mirror; the beats aren’t always in sync, they act as moving parts of machinery like the clouds breaking the grayest days of adolescence. The throne for rap royalty is shaping up to be well-tailored for the son of an African poet, who spends his days mourning the dead, leaned over the piano with the ashtray nearby.
This is the record that’s been passed through underground heads like a secret handshake in grammar school. Perhaps the most underrated tag-team doing this rap shit, Blu & Exile crafted the quintessential everyman’s tale of navigating the mundanity of everyday life. Why can’t the promoters spell his damn name right? Why is he a grown man with no car? What the hell is up with this God shit and why does he have us suffering? This is interrogative soul that meddles in exemplary bar-for-bar rapping; that’s easy, when both are already well-acquainted with the commonality of humankind. Tradition maneuvers so nimbly when Blu sets the mic ablaze and Exile lays fingertips on the pads; they tailor-made this album for you, no matter how you struggle.
Maybe one day. Maybe one day.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.