2017 was a great year for hip-hop, musically. Contrary to archaic arguments surrounding the mumble rap phenomenon, real shit flourished this year—from seasoned veterans and relative newcomers. In the mainstream, JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar both dropped stellar albums, arguably influenced by underground aesthetics. No I.D. laced 4:44 with some soulful, dusty, chopped up sample-driven beats that theoretically sound right at home within the underground landscape, as JAY spit some of the most thoughtful and relatable bars of his career. DAMN. featured Kung Fu Kenny’s impeccable artistry, drops by legendary DJ Kid Capri and production by underground powerhouses 9th Wonder and the Alchemist. Even Action Bronson managed to keep his major label deal without crossing over or switching up his style, releasing his sophomore Atlantic Records project Blue Chips 7000 this year as well.

But you already know about those albums. Instead of providing yet another bloated list of expected titles (sprinkled with a couple of offbeat selections for good measure), UGHH’s year-end wrap-up features a healthy mix of the 2017’s most celebrated independent releases, some overlooked gems, as well as an under-appreciated, yet a well-publicized joint or two.

Disclaimer: UGHH primarily functions as an online record store, so we only considered LPs that are available for sale on our site. If we’d considered others, we might have included Conway’s G.O.A.T. project, The Seven by Talib Kweli and Styles P, Cashmere Dice by Da Villins and DJ Skizz or any one of the many other strictly digital underground releases that dropped this year. Also, lists are subjective by nature, so take this for what it is: a suggestion of dope shit to check out, if you haven’t already. Hit the forum if you think we forgot something more deserving.

10. Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$

Less dusty than his debut studio album, evolving young Joey Bada$$ still keeps it unequivocally hip-hop on his sophomore release. He also forays into overtly sociopolitical subject matter, tackling issues like police brutality and our nation’s abusive relationship with the Black community (metaphorically on the song “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)”). A couple of our other favorite tracks are “Rockabye Baby” featuring ScHoolboy Q and “Super Predator” featuring Styles P.

9. Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues

Though technically not all that underground, we still decided to include The Saga Continues on our list because we feel it deserves more credit than received in its generally mixed reviews. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a proper studio album; it’s really more of a producer project assembled by longtime Wu-affiliate Mathematics—who forged a sound somewhat reminiscent of 36 Chambers, only not as organic or raw (most likely a result of the process by which it was made). Still, the beats knock, all participating Wu members come correct and the refreshing nod to their roots should be appreciated by true Wu fans. In addition to new collaborators like the late Sean Price and Chris Rivers, longtime Wu associates grace the album, as well—including Streetlife and, most notably, Redman (who is featured on multiple songs). Some of its strongest joints are “Fast and Furious” featuring Hue Hef, “Pearl Harbor” featuring Sean Price, “G’d Up” featuring R-Mean and Mzee Jones, as well as “People Say” featuring Redman.

8. The Alchemist & Budgie – The Good Book, Vol. 2

The Good Book, Vol. 2 
isn’t your typical producer album or beat tape. In fact, it’s a fusion of both, with only some of its songs featuring rappers. Furthermore, Alchemist produces one half of the project, while Budgie handles the other, resulting in a Grindhouse-like double feature made cohesive by the fact that both sides are composed using samples of religious-themed music (the double CD even comes packed in a Bible-shaped case). While Alchemist rains down the fire and brimstone—providing some grimy, soulful, chopped-up, minimalist raw shit to scrunch your face to—Budgie supplies a juxtaposing funky, R&B-driven vibe that’ll have you clapping your hands harder than the congregation. “A Thousand Birds” featuring Conway and Westside Gunn, “Message For The People” featuring Durag Dynasty, “Pray For You” featuring Royce Da 5’9,” and “Looking for a Blessing” are some of Alchemist’s toughest tracks, while Budgie shines on “Ride For Me” featuring Traffic and Dreebo, “By My Side” featuring Evidence and “Bel Air Baptism.”

 

7. Statik Selektah – 8

Statik Selektah accomplishes the near-impossible with his eighth studio album by achieving a perfectly balanced polished, yet gritty sound. He also bridges gaps, featuring a diverse mix of MCs representing different schools of hip-hop—from legendary to emerging and underground to mainstream—all over his signature jazzy, boom bap production. The LP’s standout cuts include “Put Jewels On It” featuring Run The Jewels, “But You Don’t Hear Me Tho” featuring The Lox and Mtume, “No. 8” featuring Conway, Westside Gunn, and Termanology, “Go Gettas” featuring Sean Price, Wais P, and Tek, “Nobody Move” featuring Raekwon and Royce Da 5’9″ and “Disrespekt” featuring Prodigy (who we tragically lost this year).

 

6. Milano Constantine – The Way We Were

Perhaps one of 2017’s more slept-on bangers, this is one of those rare albums you can listen to over and over again without having to skip a single song. From start to finish, DJ Skizz and Marco Polo lay down a boom bap soundtrack that’ll make you nod your head so hard you’ll need a neck brace—on which the D.I.T.C.-affiliated “Barbaric” MC evokes Golden Era New York rap, reminiscing on “The Way We Were” but without feeling tiresome or gimmicky. This is that shit to reverse gentrification. Our favorite joints include “British Walkers,” “Cocaina,” and “Rasclat” featuring Big Twins and Conway.

 

5. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

Some might argue that its Grammy nomination should automatically exclude Laila’s Wisdom from our list, but considering the extensive dues Rapsody has paid in the underground (and the overall quality of her work), we felt it not only appropriate, but necessary to include this album. Featuring production from underground staples and longtime collaborators 9th Wonder, Nottz, and Khrysis, the LP is a soulful sonic masterpiece—and, as always, the Jamla artist delivers pensive, poignant, razor-sharp rhymes in her distinguishable Southern drawl. She really goes in on songs like “Chrome (Like Ooh),” “Black & Ugly” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, “You Should Know” featuring Busta Rhymes, “OooWee” featuring Anderson .Paak, and “Nobody” featuring Anderson .Paak, Black Thought and Moonchild, as well as the album’s title track.

 

4. Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge

When Roc Marciano emphatically states, “Motherfucker, this is art,” he isn’t lying. One of hip-hop’s most imaginatively twisted minds, Marciano vividly depicts familiar, grimy, street visuals in an entirely original style. On Rosebudd’s Revenge, the MC pimp-struts the line between insanity and genius over bare-boned, largely self-produced beats that effectively showcase his laid-back, monotone flow. Though often pegged as a storyteller, he doesn’t simply tell tales. Instead, Marci himself is the story. “History,” “Better Know,” “Gunsense,” “Marksmen” featuring Ka, “Pimp Arrest” and “Here I Am” are among the album’s most memorable tracks.

 

3. Meyhem Lauren & DJ Muggs – Gems From The Equinox

On Gems From The Equinox, DJ Muggs varies between minimalist and boom bap production techniques, driven by heavily altered and distorted samples that range from soulful and funky to ominous and menacing—a style that pairs nicely with Meyhem Lauren’s baritone vocal timbre. Slightly experimental and almost psychedelic, the combination of vibes results in an overall trippy listening experience that manages to sound both classic and visionary at the same time. Some of the LP’s defining cuts include “Camel Crush,” “Hashashin” featuring Conway, “Aquatic Violence” featuring Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire and Sean Price, “Redrum” and “Tension” featuring Action Bronson and Muggs’ Cypress Hill group-mate B-Real.

 

2. Planet Asia & Apollo Brown – Anchovies

Planet Asia and Apollo Brown are both in rare form on their beautiful collaborative effort. An immaculate blend of streetwise raps and stripped-down production, Brown shows just how much can be done with sampling alone—composing a symphonic experience void of added drums, relying solely on the source material for percussion. The result compliments Asia’s poetically aggressive lyrics and stream-of-consciousness style, helping his vocals shine. Another strong showing for the minimalist movement, Anchovies’ bars and beats are in perfect harmony. “Panties in a Jumble,” “The Aura,” “Dalai Lama Slang” featuring Willie the Kid, “Deep in the Casket,” “Fire” featuring Tristate and “Nine Steamin'” featuring Guilty Simpson are a few of our favorite tracks.

 

1. Sean Price – Imperius Rex

Despite having passed two years ago, Sean Price proved to be hip-hop’s MVP in 2017. Besides appearing on a few of this list’s entries (as well as a couple of the year’s other prominent releases), he also dropped one of 2017’s best albums, hands down. P’s posthumous masterpiece Imperius Rex sounds as deliberate and thought-out as any of his traditional studio releases, and features some of his most exciting work to date. On “Clans & Cliks,” two of hip-hop’s most respected super groups—Wu-Tang Clan and Boot Camp Clik—form an alliance that would extend to other 2017 releases by P’s Heltah Skeltah group-mate Rock (Rockness A.P.) and Wu-Tang’s Masta Killa (Loyalty is Royalty), as well as Wu’s aforementioned project (The Saga Continues). Imperius Rex also pairs Ruck with other legends like Prodigy and Styles P on “The 3 Lyrical Ps,” as well as DOOM on “Negus.” Of course, his Boot Camp brethren and a few other longtime associates are featured, as well—while Alchemist, Nottz, Harry Fraud and Marco Polo are among those who bless it with hard-hitting boom bap beats. Regardless, P spits some of his most memorable bars on solo offerings like “Definition of God,” “Rap Professor,” “Refrigerator P!” and the title track. Imperius Rex is full of straight bangers, back to back, from one of the underground’s most prolific artists—earning it the number one spot on our list. riP!

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @elscribes.

“Apollo Brown and Planet Asia” sounds like the best Saturday morning cartoon to never exist.  It was inevitable that the two heroes of the subterranean hip-hop scene—though established on opposite ends of the Aughts—would eventually cross paths. For one, they each play nicely with others.  Apollo, a producer from Detroit, has stacked his catalog with collaborative projects featuring Boog Brown, Hassan Mackey, Guilty Simpson, OC, Ras Kass and Skyzoo. Planet Asia, a veteran lyricist from Fresno California, came in the game as one-half of Cali Agents and is currently part of Gold Chain Military and Durag Dynasty. Along with his own lengthy solo catalog, Asia also boasts collabs with DJ Muggs, Madlib and Gensu Dean. Secondly, they both have a wry sense of humor.

“I met Apollo at a Lil Uzi Vert show,” Asia jokes about their first meeting.  Brown protests vehemently before it’s corrected that their introduction was actually a Ras Kass party at Escala in L.A. Their first musical collaboration was on the track “Nasty” from 2012’s Dice Game with Guilty Simpson. This was followed by an experiment in 2014, Apollo’s Abrasions: Stitched Up EP.

“Obviously I’ve been a fan of Asia for a long time. He had an album called Abrasions with Gensu Dean, and I was kind of jealous because I’d always wanted to do an album with Asia. So I told Mike (at Mello Music Group) you gotta let me remix the album or something or put out an EP. So we came up with this idea for Dean to remix five joints off the Dice Game album, and I did 5 off the Abrasions album. Something about the way Asia sounds on my beats is crazy.”

The trifecta was completed when Asia went toe-to-toe with Westside Gunn on “Triple Beams” from Apollo’s 2015 compilation Grandeur.

“That really made people say enough is enough, we need a goddamn album,” says Asia. “That Dice Game was a monster and that’s when it got sparked, but when he dropped the compilation we didn’t have no choice. The fans were about to kill our ass.”

“The fans be bullying man. They will bully you into stuff,” Apollo confirms. “It was inevitable anyway. We just made it happen. I had a concept and sound that I wanted to go for. I had most of the beats already kind of mapped out and it was just a certain sound that I wanted to go for. I had a script and needed the perfect actor. And Asia was the perfect actor.”

The finished collaboration is Anchovies, a 15-track master class in “Fly exotic thug shit.” UGHH caught up with Apollo Brown and Planet Asia to get the secrets to serving up fresh soul food and when to hold the mayo.

Anchovies album cover

A lot of the early commentary about Anchovies has been how minimal the sound is. Was that intentional?

Apollo Brown: Absolutely. This is the kind of sound I started making when I first started making beats in ‘96. When I had fun making beats. There is a lot more to it these days. I’ve always been a fan of just minimal, chopped up loops with minimal drums. There is something about it that just grabs me. I didn’t add any drums to this album. Any drum sounds you hear, I beefed up out of the samples. I wanted it to just mesh really well and I wanted the vocals to be prominent, not the drums.

The minimalist shit has been going on for a minute. Madlib has been doing it. KA does it. Roc Marci does it, Westside Gunn and Conway. This is where it’s at for me.

Planet Asia: I’ve [known] Roc Marci for 15 years or some shit and we used to talk about not having drums on beats. I don’t make beats so I used to have to sift through a lot of producers. I used to tell them don’t give me no drums. Sometimes they would send me a beat, and sometimes they’d start the beat with just the sample playing and I would hit ‘em back saying, “I only want the beginning part. I don’t like that part when you bring the beat in.” A lot of my shit in the early 2000s was me doing that, but now I have producers I can go to for that sound. Everybody wants to overproduce and get a placement.

That’s what made “You Love Me” a stand out for me. I like the way the voices came through the track.

AB: I’m all about voice, delivery, and content. And when you got an emcee that has all three…not all emcees have all three. Asia has all of them. I love it. My whole mentality was niche. That’s why I named it “Anchovies.” They aren’t for everybody. You either love them or hate them. And that’s what this album is. If you get it, you get it.

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

Asia, those beats moved you to really open up and get personal. What was your approach to writing to the beats?

PA: You gotta attribute half of it to Apollo because he was on some Cus D’Amato shit with me. I had to get up early, run eight miles, and then get to the studio. Like he said, he made the beats like he did in ‘96, I felt like that’s how I was rhyming more, on some High School shit. I had four of the beats and wrote one of them in Europe, “Duffles.” I wrote that in Germany. We took it back to the cafeteria. That’s how I feel. You may not have had all the equipment, but you had an Akai sampler and a sequencer and you just looping up shit, and the emcee is just rhyming. Loop that shit up, and let me get busy. I think hip-hop has gotten too fucking technical. I was watching the VMAs and none of the fucking Black artists had any soul. Everybody else was doing soulful shit and we were the ones with the super spaced out techno beats.

AB: Exactly. All the music out now is sounds and words. I need feelings.

PA: I’ve gotten beats from producers I love and sometimes a beat can be too big for me. I feel like I’m fighting it. I don’t wanna feel like I’m fighting the music as an artist, and sometimes I think the producers don’t think of the emcee.

AB: As a producer I’m not trying to go tit for tat with the emcee on the same song. I sit the vocals up a lot higher now. The way I made the beats, there was room for the vocals.

PA: You can hear that on the Abrasion album remixes. It’s a pet peeve of mine for my lyrics to be moved, and Apollo is the only artist I’ve heard put my lyrics to a different beat and it sound better than the original. You ain’t put my shit on some goofy pattern. You gotta have real rhythm to do that. You get a lot of chaos in that.

AB: I’m all about the pocket. That’s my white side, man.

PA: [LAUGHS HYSTERICALLY] You are dumb, bruh. Those loops, man. He finds those ones.

And all of the songs were recorded at Apollo’s house?

AB: We don’t do email albums. You know my usual process is I send the beats out to the emcee, they write, and I fly them to my studio. We knock it out in a few days, get it recorded, get some of the viral media and whatever else. But this guy wrote 90% of the album in the studio, which is against all of my rules. Writing in the studio is nothing but time, and time is money. Write it at your crib and then when you come to me we can knock this out as fast as possible, but it didn’t happen that way. I’m getting a lot more open, but it used to be a strict rule. When you working with creative minds like Skyzoo and Asia who write in the studio, I can’t interrupt that process. Your track record speaks for itself. I’m not gonna interrupt that.

PA: I used to write raps at home. You that little kid with a salami sandwich and a beat tape you just happy to have a beat tape. But after so many years I really get the urge to rap when I HAVE to rap. I need some kind of pressure to rhyme.

AB: We made the whole album front to back in six days. Everything was written right there. Some of the beats were made on the spot.

PA: Yeah, two or three songs a day. It ain’t hard when you got good music. The newest joint on there was the “Avant Guard” song. When I heard that beat I said, “Shit! I gotta have that. Let me jump on this NOW.” The “Pain” song was one of the last ones I did because it was a subject that I didn’t want to talk about, but I feel better that I released all that pain on a record.

AB: It got emotional in the studio…

PA: I cried when I wrote that. It’s a true story. Everything in that song is real. My cousins both died in the same store two different times in the same exact way. Somebody drove by and shot one and another dude was driving off and he shot my other cousin. I had two aunties that died the same week of cancer, back-to-back. One day after another. And one of my aunts that passed, it was her grandson that got shot. My cousin.

You got Willy The Kid, Guilty Simpson and Tristate as the guest artists. Why them?

PA: Those are like my comrades. I got numerous songs with Will. I’m into that type of shit. I’m more of a group type of person anyway. I love having different colors. It’s like having a different instrument. Guilty Simpson is like bringing out a 12 gauge. Willie is like the 007 dude with the silencer, and Tristate is like an AR-15 or some shit.

That’s a lot of violence. So Apollo, you brought out those “Metal Lungies” horns on “Duffles”…

AB: If you know it, you know what it is. Though I like mine better. I won’t even front. But mine’s more minimal. I’ve always heard it with drums, and I feel like that sample had enough in it already. The drums and break in it is enough. Just beef it up a little bit and leave it like that. I made it my own. I had to calm the horns down a little bit so Asia could cut through. They were screaming.

PA: He took a lot of mayonnaise off that sandwich so we could have a perfect sandwich.

AB:  I like mayo bro…

There goes your white side again…

[EVERYONE LAUGHS]

PA: You should’ve never said that at the beginning.

Apollo Brown and Planet Asia

The first track, “The Smell” made me think of The Matrix where Agent Smith is interrogating Morpheus and says it’s the smell that kills him. What does the rap game smell like to you right now?

PA: It’s a bunch of men, so I think it smells like draws and breath. [laughs] Like a fuckin’ locker room.

AB: It definitely don’t smell like roses.

PA: I think hip-hop is in a good space for what we do. I can tell you from a person that’s been on Interscope Records, a mainstream, with all the yada yada, that was the best and worst time. The music that I’m making now is what I really wanted to do when I first came out. But in the era I came out in there was a lot of politics just to make music. Me being from the West Coast first of all and not sounding like the average West Coast artist, I had to go through a lot of stressful shit with music as a young man. Now this type of music is accepted and there is a lane where people enjoy grassroots, organic hip-hop. There is a lane for us now and there is a lane for the weirdo shit too.

You dropped the video for “The Aura,” how many more are you releasing?

AB: We have three. I hate doing videos. I hate photo shoots. During a video I’m Eric B all day. You know how he’d be in the background looking like a security guard. Just straight up Nation of Islam. That’s me all day. I look stupid. I look like a dumb ass every time.  Every time a video comes out I’m like WTF are you doing? It’s a necessary evil.

PA: I’m gonna get you a bigger chain [laughs]

AB: I don’t need a bigger chain. My chain is good. But my videos, I do the same thing in every video. I don’t know what to do with my hands. I don’t know if I should bob my head or stay still. I’m not that dude that points at the camera. That’s not my personality. So I look the same in every photo. I look like an asshole.

PA: “I don’t know what to do with my hands.” That’s some shit Sean Price would say. “Yo B, I don’t know what to do with my hands in a video. I look goofy right now.” It gotta be natural.

AB: I don’t have rap hands. I don’t like props, I don’t like cliché shit. I’m not gonna be in a video with an MPC and shit or a boombox over my shoulder. Or standing on some train tracks in front of a bunch of graffiti. I almost screamed when me and Ras Kass did a video (“Humble Pi”) and I had headphones walking down the street. You wanna put headphones on me right now? So now I can’t hear shit. It’s like putting turntables in front of me and shit on the ground in the middle of nowhere. I think the wire for the headphones actually fell out of my pocket and was dragging on the ground. I didn’t notice it until the video had like 60K plays.

PA: I think we just gotta give you plates of food to eat.

AB: I might do that and that might become my thing. That might work. Get a plate of food and just eat in every video from now on. Like a real plate of food. I do have a video where I was eating ice cream. Just me and Roc Marci in the “Lonely and Cold” video. But I just be looking dumb as shit in videos. I can’t count how many times I do the “Birdman hand rub.” Rubbing my hands together like it’s cold, and it’s 80 degrees outside.

PA: That’s how I feel about photo shoots. I don’t know how to stand.

AB: Right, and you a skinny fat dude. Your tiny shirt is over your Ethiopian belly. Skinny shoulders with the Ethiopian belly.

PA: Baller belly. I run hella fast though.

AB: At least I’m fat and the rest of my body is fat. Not just my belly. It goes along with it.

PA: Your arms are short though.

AB: My arms are mad short though. My limbs are short. They stupid short. Last time I got arrested, the cop had to put two of them on there because I couldn’t put my arms behind my back, bro. He had to put two sets on there.

YOU got arrested? For what?

It was real dumb stuff back in the day. Nothing serious. I don’t have a record. Was a suspended license or some dumb shit like that.

PA: Yeah, we can’t do dumb things. We gotta go out the country. That’s why I be wondering how all these gangsta rappers [act hard]. You not gangsta, you got a passport.

AB: Yeah, if you were a real gangster you wouldn’t have no passport.

So I guess my last question was spinning off the food thing. With all the artists you’ve work with, is there anything ever left over? Would you ever take all these lyrics and make a super posse cut with Ras Kass, Skyzoo, OC and Planet Asia?

AB: That’s actually a good idea, I never thought of that. That would be kind of sweet ‘cause I got stuff left over from every project. I can make a 12-minute album of just mad 16-bar verses where everybody is talking about something totally different. The whole song would be random as hell.

PA: Call it the RAF album, Random As Fuck. Apollo got the throne man.

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