Rather than drag the magazine or writer through the mud though, we at HipHopDX view this as a great teaching moment for any readers who didn’t quite understand why Hip Hop Twitter was tight about the suggestion that Cudi — whose debut single was released in 2009 — somehow birthed a sub-genre that encompasses some of the culture’s most revered artists dating back to the late 80s [insert Arthur’s fist meme here].
This is in no way a reflection of Cudi’s ultimate influence on the culture, but simply an exercise of demonstrating that he is a path along the sub-genre’s evolution and not the root. In no particular order, here are 10 alternative Hip Hop acts that pre-date Kid Cudi (some by more than two decades).
Coming into the game caping for peace and harmony, check. Tapping a radical British artist collective for their debut album cover, check. When it comes to thinking outside of the box artistically, De La Soul’s positive — unintentionally hippie — energy swam against the rising tides of violent, “gangsta rap” that began to take a stronghold on the industry by the early 90s. In fact, their sophomore LP De La Soul Is Dead directly criticized the direction of Hip Hop at the time. Did we mention they first dropped like 30 years before Cudi?
Andre 3000 and Big Boi quite literally laid the foundation for Southern Hip Hop with their debut album. In the midst of East Coast Vs. West Coast madness, they managed to craft a classic that contrasted the everyday street life of playas and pimps with socially conscious bars. By the time their third album Aquemini dropped, the group had managed to fully embrace their beautifully eccentric aesthetic, which boiled over with their millennium-opus Stankonia. Also, André 3000 is part of pretty much every GOAT debate.
West Coast had just as many artists buzzing in the alternative realm as the East Coast. The Pharcyde were among the finest, emerging as the West’s closest answer to A Tribe Called Quest. Bizarre Ride II, their impactful debut album included the loser-kid-who-can’t-win-the-girl anthem “Passin’ Me By” and the on-wax snapfest “Ya Mama.” It was followed up by the more refined sophomore effort LABCABINCALIFORNIA. Most notably, this album contained some of the earliest success for iconic producer J Dilla, who was introduced to the group by ATCQ frontman Q-Tip.
Butter Fly, Ladybug Mecca, and Doodlebug are probably one of the first (collective) examples of alternative Hip Hop that pop in the heads of most golden era fans when the word “Alternative Hip Hop” is uttered. Their Grammy Award-winning single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” with its jazzy instrumental, and lyrical flow that bordered on a spoken word style characteristic of live Hip Hop made their sound an absolutely captivating literal alternative to, say, Dr. Dre, who also won a Grammy in 1994. In contrast, though, Digable Planets reminded the crowd of their elitism and pointed out the nonsensical nature of black on black violence during their acceptance speech. Legendary stuff.
On the Nubian, proud of our collective heritage tip, Arrested Development was a beautifully strange anomaly. In the same year that The Chronic was released — as were a host of other Hip Hop gems — the largely positive Afrocentric “band” dropped their groundbreaking 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…, an album that confronted violence in the black community, shone light on the beauty of black history, and even shared the plight of a homeless man named “Mr. Wendell.” They were a direct influence stylistically on groups like The Fugees and The Black Eyed Peas.
Probably one of the most revered groups of the 90s — Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (and sometimes Jarobi) — were factual precursors to a lot of artists we all hold dear. To keep this one simple, Kanye West (a clear inspiration to Cudi) noted that Low-End Theory was the first album he ever bought. Cudi also teamed up with Consequence early in his career to remake the group’s classic single “Buggin’ Out,” in which he interpolated Q-Tip’s rhyme pattern. End transmission.
In 1991, being an in-your-feelings R&B singer intertwined with a Hip Hop artist was absolutely not the wave. Before eventually finding success, PM Dawn had a hell of a time getting their foot in the door for simply not being Hip Hop enough. In fact, Dres once shared a story of KRS-ONE throwing the group off of a stage mid-set because he was so tight about the fact that they even dared to proclaim themselves as part of the culture. Can you imagine if Pusha T threw Post Malone off of a stage mid-set? Or Lil Xan?
The trio of Del The Funky Homosapien, Dan The Automator and DJ Kid Koala (all largely considered alternative acts in their own rights) shook shit up in 2000 with a self-titled concept album set in the year 3030 that recounts the fight by Deltron Zero against huge the corporations that rule the universe at large. A must-have amongst heads who consider themselves educated on the alternative Hip Hop circuit. If you know, you know [*Pusha T voice*]
Some of the artists on this list were against the grain within reason. DOOM, however, was absolutely not made for mass consumption. That’s precisely what ultimately made him so appealing. He possessed unique cadence and rhyme pattern, super obscure samples, hectic song structure, and the ability to separate the man from the music in a way that allowed him to literally send imposters to concerts (albeit with disastrous results). His catalog is an alternative to pretty much everything in your playlist right now.
This one we saved for last. Cudi himself has noted that his breakout, Man On The Moon, wouldn’t have been possible without the success of 808’s & Heartbreak by Kanye West. West (a clear child of the alternative scene of the 90s) had a debut LP that was considered a throwback to an era thought to be over at a time when the music scene was clearly moving in a different direction. Cudi is definitely influential, but he did draw influence.