Note: We will not be focusing so much on conscious backpack and boombap (for example, Native Tongues or Soulquarians) since these are already widely considered classics and well known.
The term “backpack hiphop” was originally a bit derogatory; Fans of the subgenre were considered nerdy and not tapped into the sounds of the time. Nowadays, backpack hiphop is a broader term and we can recognize the greatness and influence of the genre’s essentials. Backpack hiphop tended to be made by and for the average man. Not everyone could relate to the street tales of G Unit or the glitz of Bad Boy, for example. Instead, this music was about your everyday struggles: Working a shitty job, girl problems, etc.. The artists were emotive and honest, making it a very appealing scene for fans. Here we will break down some of the older classics in the scene. There is still flourishing backpack hiphop to this day, but we will mostly focus on its roots here.
The West Coast
Founded in Oakland in 1991, Hieroglyphics was one of the earlier forays into “weirdo” rap and ended up being very popular among skaters. There was some backpack hiphop out at the time, but it remained conscious and boombappy (for example, Native Tongues). With Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Casual, and A-Plus as core members, they had some truly esoteric lyrics and out of place beats for early 90’s Cali. Another group was Freestyle Fellowship, comprised by the likes of Aceyalone, Myka 9, and Self Jupiter.
The East Coast
New York was where backpack rap turned hardcore. This was really defined by the sounds of producer/MC El-P. After leaving the group Company Flow, he founded the label Definitive Jux which would be full of oddball talent and he often laced them with futuristic, industrial production which somehow kept the spirit of New York alive. Bars were dense, and battle style. Some of the MC’s on this label include the Aesop Rock (who’s over the top vocabulary became iconic), Cage, Mr Lif, Cannibal Ox, and the late Camu Tao. Another key group to East Coast backpack is Jedi Mind Tricks. Headed by MC Vinnie Paz and producer Stoupe, they were among the highest quality out and had some staying power.
Rhymesayers was the other most important label in backpack hiphop, and represented a different end of the spectrum than Def Jux. Based out of Minneapolis and founded by Atmosphere, most of the signees on here were very emotive and down to Earth. They were that quintessential definition of backpack hiphop, where its just the everyday man talking about girls and money problems. Ant handled a lot of the production for the label and he remains an underrated name, always consistent and bringing super polished funk and boombap. Rhymesayers is going strong even to this day; Aesop Rock eventually moved over, MF DOOM even joined, and artists like Evidence and Sa-Roc are holding it down.
Other Essential Albums
Little Brother – The Minstrel Show
With production by the legendary 9th Wonder, Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh built an amazing concept album based on a satirically racist television channel. There are some classic cuts like “Lovin It”, and Phonte proves himself as one of hiphop’s greatest rapper/singers.
Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens
One of the greatest albums of all time, Blu tells coming of age tales and speaks on the struggles of trying to make it in the rap game. Exile is one of the most underrated producers out and he laces Blu with some fun, infectious jazz samples.
Cunninlynguists – A Piece of Strange
Cunninlynguists were one of the few major backpack acts out of the Dirty South (Kentucky to be exact). With beautiful and lush production by Kno, this is actually a concept album where Genesis meets the rap game.
MF DOOM & Madlib – Madvillainy
Everybody knows this one, but its a classic for a reason. DOOM’s flows and rhyming ability are among the best ever, as he brings absurd, comedic bars from the perspective of a supervillain. Madlib, meanwhile, is arguably the GOAT and this remains his best collection of beats – full of off kilter jazz and soul chops. Rest in peace DOOM!
Keep in mind: Backpack hiphop is a huge and vague subgenre. There are tons of amazing, and even classic albums that we failed to mention in this article. There is even a scene remaining today through labels like Mello Music Group, Fake Four, Hellfyre Club, Backwoodz, and more. Hopefully you can now dive even deeper!