14 June, 2010@7:47 pm
After being fed up with the way major labels did business, the indie hip-hop movement began around 1995, kicked into high gear in 1997, and still lives on today, though numerous labels and artists. It did begin to wane after several years, capping off around 2007, and with numerous labels folding and / or disappearing completely. This movement was driven by the sale of the 12″ single, with many unsigned artists making a name for themselves via this method, with labels like Stones Throw, Def Jux, Rawkus, Fat Beats, ABB, and others pioneering this new era of hip-hop music. Artists that came out of this scene are legion, including Eminem, Mos Def, Royce Da 5’9, Little Brother, RJD2, Madlib, Kardinal Offishal, LMFAO, and many more.
This list represents the best 12″ singles to come out of this era – records that helped change the face of hip-hop music by defying the major label system (and ironically, in some cases, eventually becoming a part of it). Here are our picks for the top 50 12″ singles of the indie hip-hop movement. Best Indie EP’s and albums lists are coming later.
50. Saukrates – “Father Time” – Knee Deep Records (1995) – One of the integral pieces to kick off the indie hip-hop movement, Sox generated a nice buzz with this single and later released The Underground Tapes EP’s, before signing to Redman’s GillaHouse imprint. And then, nothing. Father time, indeed.
49. Louis Logic – “General Principle” / “Factotum” – Superegular (2000) – People checked for this 12″ because of the elusive Indelible MC’s J-Treds’ appearance, but Lou stole the show on the b-side with his ode to alcohol, “Facotum”. Released on Jedi Mind Tricks’ original label, Superegular Recordings.
48. Termanology – “Watch How It Go Down” – Brick Records (2006) – The latest entry on this list, by 2006, the 12″ scene was either producing stale records or simply tracks that you could find on the respective artists’ albums. Term managed to get everyone’s attention with the M.O.P. sampled, DJ Premier produced “Watch How It Go Down”, kicking off his career and later landing a remix with Lil’ Fame himself. The B-Side also is one of the first notable appearances of super-producer Statik Selektah.
47. Missin’ Linx – “M.I.A.” – Linx Inc. (1998) – Before Dr. Dre got a hold of this David Axelrod sample for “The Next Episode”, buzzing indie artists Problemz and Black Attack joined with former Beatnut Al’ Tariq for the group’s debut single, leading to deal with Stimulated Recordings. We all thought this was the second coming of The Beatnuts at the time.
46. Red Foo & Dre Kroon – The Freshest” – Bubonic (1997) – Before they were LMFAO, they were RFDK and they were making dope music. Make no mistake, we actually really dig what they are doing these days, but the origins of the Party Rock crew start here, alongside Evidence and DJ Revolution.
45. Company Flow / Cannibal Ox – Double 12″ – Def Jux (2000) - This was the first release from a post-Rawkus Company Flow, which would jump start the Def Jux imprint. More importantly, it also introduced the world to Cannibal Ox, who would deliver one indie classic LP, before breaking up and fading off into obscurity.
44. Edan – “Rapperfection / You Suck” – Lewis (2000) – Boston’s Edan got a late start creating music in the new millennium, that sounded as if it was produced twenty years earlier. This eventually paved the way for his stellar debut Primitive Plus. Speaking of which, isn’t it time for a new LP, Edan?
43. Natural Resource – “They Lied / Negroe League Baseball” – Ekapa – (1996) - Everyone seemed to think that this group was called Negro League at the time, but that was actually the name of their stellar b-side track, which likened the industry to an unfriendly game of baseball. The show was stolen by the group’s lone female member, Jean Grae.
42. Rasco – “The Unassisted” – Stones Throw (1996) – Super Duck Breaks really did it for Stones Throw as far as the deejay’s were concerned, but Rasco’s no-nonsense flow and delivery got the general listeners’ attention, while they slept on Homeliss Derilex, Encore, Fanatik, and Charizma.
41. R.A. The Rugged Man – “Hey” / “Stanley Kubrick” (1996) – Listen up, people. Anytime you saw a white label 12″ come out of the indie hip-hop movement, 9 times out of 10, the artist was bootlegging it himself. Artists like R.A. The Rugged Man do not allow people in NYC to bootleg their shit, without catching a beatdown. We’re guessing he still had some major label fallout to deal with, hence the white label. Truly your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, if there ever was one.
40. Shabaam Sahdeeq – “Soundclash / 5 Star Generals (feat. Eminem, Skam, AL, Kwest) – (1998) – Rawkus - We’re not quite sure why Shabaam Sahdeeq never took off like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and just about everyone else among that first generation of Rawkus rappers. Maybe people confused him with Raphael Saadiq and wanted no part of it, or perhaps nobody could spell his damn name to Google Yahoo it. Talent was not the issue. Spinna beats and Eminem guest appearances certainly didn’t hurt his career either. Eventually “S-Double” would catch a prison bid, of which Sandbox Automatic would use as a sales ploy warning potential customers that this could be their “last chance” to get his autograph when they pre-ordered his too little, too late 2001 debut, Never Say Never. Classy.
39. Necro – “Get On Your Knees / Underground” – Fat Beats (1997) – Even from the jump, we knew there was something wrong with him. Necro was at his best as a hungry guerrilla film maker / rapper / producer in the late 90′s.
38. Apathy – “Compatible / The Smackdown” (feat. Celph Titled, Rise, C-Rayz Walz) – Bronx Science (2000) – The Demigodz were born right here, on the posse cut “The Smackdown”, which introduced us to core members Celph Titled, Rise, and Apathy – who made sure none of them murdered him on his own shit.
37. Shadez of Brooklyn – “Change” / “When It Rainz It Pours (Survival Warz)” – Tape Kingz (1996) – Another record that helped jump-start movement, found Da Beatminerz backing this unknown BK group, recorded in the legendary D&D Studios during it’s heyday. “Change” was a gorgeous rainy day record that still sends chills down the spine fourteen years later.
36. Peanut Butter Wolf with Planet Asia + Madlib – “Definition Of Ill (Remix)” – Stones Throw – Stones Throw (1999) – Early on, Planet Asia positioned himself next to a wealth of west coast talent, which saw him release a string of classic 12″ singles, suggesting he might be the next great emcee to emerge from the state of CA. After signing a major label deal that went sour, it unfortunately interrupted this short stint of greatness. Wolf and Madlib’s remix to the lead single from My Vinyl Weighs A Ton was exclusive to this 12″, and arguably one of Asia’s greatest works ever.
35. Natural Elements – “Bust Mine / Paper Chase” – Dolo (1997)
This promising NYC crew, backed the production of the unstoppable (at least, in theory), Charlemagne, seemed like they could do no wrong, with this 12″ being their greatest achievement (and arguably that of Stretch Armstrong’s Dolo Records). Both sides resonated with fans, but unfortunately the group never excelled past a short lived stint on Tommy Boy’s Black Label imprint, disappearing for a good decade before releasing a haphazard “greatest hits” collection.
34. Swollen Members – “Shatter Proof / Consumption / Paradise Lost” – Battle Axe Records (1998) - One could argue that the “S&M On The Rocks” was the group’s stronger 12″ single, but this one set off the entire Battle Axe Records movement, as the group from the “west coast of Canada” teamed with various defenders of the underworld from our west coast, including Aceyalone, Evidence of Dilated Peoples, Tony Da Skitzo & Mr. Brady (who’s “Who You Talkin’ To” 12″ was a near miss for this list), and Mix Master Mike. We knew this was something special from the cover art alone.
33. Non-Phixion – “Legacy / No Tomorrow” – Fat Beats / Serchlight Music (1996) – The conspiracy theories started here, as Ill Bill and his crew jump started their careers via MC Serch’s publishing company, also responsible in part for a record called Illmatic.
32. The Arsonists – “The Session” / “Halloween” – Fondle Em (1996) – The once seven-man squad released a series of early classics on Fondle Em, manifesting into their only full-length LP for Matador a few years later. This 12″ might as well have been a double A-side, as both tracks got play all year long, even if it wasn’t even close to Halloween.
31. Mike Zoot – “High Drama Pt 3: The Search For 2″ (feat. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Consequence) Guesswhyld – (1998)
Matt Fingaz’s Guesswhyld imprint was easily one of the strongest independent labels to come out of NYC at the time, responsible for a number of classic, now forgotten indie 12″ singles, led by Mike Zoot. Always known for bringing aboard A-List talent, “High Drama Pt.3: The Search For 2″ was the pinnacle, when a heavily buzzed Black Star and Consequence validated Zoot’s short-lived career.
30. Defari – “Bionic / Change & Switch” – ABB Records (1997)
We knew Defari from a few years earlier on the Immortal Records Next Chapter compilation, but alongside E-Swift he made his mark as a solo artist on the this dark and lovely solo single. This 12″ also jump started ABB Records, who also introduced the world to Dilated Peoples and Little Brother.
29. The Lootpack – “The Anthem / Lost Art / Likwit Fusion (feat. The Alkaholiks + Defari)” – Stones Throw (1998) – Not only did this 12″ solidify Stones Throw’s platform in the game, but it also helped realize the potential of Madlib’s small time group from Oxnard who’s previous credits only included some work on The Alkaholiks’ first two records. “The Anthem” was strong enough to stand on it’s own, but “Likwit Fusion” helped solidify the idea of The Likwit Crew, consisting of King Tee, The Liks, Defari, and Xzibit. We’d still take a full-length from the crew, by the way.
28. L-Fudge – “Liquid” / “What If” (feat. Kweli, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Mike Zoot, Skam) / “Show Me Your Gratitude” – Rawkus (1998)
The strengths of this record aren’t really about L-Fudge at all, but instead the movement that was being forged at the time. Behind the production of DJ Spinna, alongside an all-star cast of nobodies named Talib Kweli, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Mike Zoot, and Skam, we saw the beginnings of a sound and style on a pensive track called “What If?”.
27. Hieroglyphics – “You Never Knew” (Hiero Imperium) (1998) – Hiero’s careers as major label rappers were long over by this time, but they managed to remain relevant through Stinke’s original Hieroglyphics.Com website. The indie hip-hop 12″ movement was all they needed to reinvent themselves, and this 12″ – along with the Third Eye Vision LP – reinvigorated the crew, uniting them for the first time for one LP.
26. RJD2 – “June” (feat. Copywrite) – Def Jux (2001) – Sure, Fondle ‘Em’s MHz 12″ singles introduced the world to each Camu Tao, RJD2, Jakki, and Copywrite, but nobody knew who was who or who did what in the group. The crew’s two most popular members RJD2 and Copywrite stood on their own with the heavy “June” 12″, an emotional letter to Copy’s father, that allowed both the emcee and producer to define their roles and express themselves in different ways.
25. Mad Skillz – “Lick The Balls / Conceited Bastard” – Eastern Conference (1998) – Hip-Hop cover records are never good, except in the rare case of Mad Skillz “Lick The Balls”, courtesy of High & Mighty’s E.C. Records. This was before he dropped the Mad, just coming off a sour Big Beat deal. This showed us artists thought dead by their former labels could still live on and make great music without them.
24. The Last Emperor – “Bums / Monumental / Secret Wars” – White Label (1997) – Emp’s self-released white label had two so-so tracks, but the real gem here was nerd-gasm “Secret Wars Part 1″, which found Emp rhyming in the voices of his favorite rappers, who incidentally were battling against Marvel Super Heroes, thanks to The Beyonder, and Last Emperor’s vivid imagination. We’re still puzzled how Dr. Dre thought this kind of thing could fit in over at Aftermath, but this 12″ is what scored him the deal in the first place.
23. Krumb Snatcha – “Gettin’ Closer To God” (prod. DJ Premier) (1997) – M.I.A. Recordings – What more can be said about Snatcha’s true-to-life tale about being shot and bleeding out, fighting back death itself, over luscious production from DJ Premier? Simply classic.
22. 7L & Esoteric – “Protocol / Touch The Mic / Be Alert” – Brick Records (1997) – It doesn’t matter how good your other songs were, when your previously released B-Side cut samples the beloved Transformers cartoon theme song that was held so dearly in the childhoods of the aspiring deejays of this generation.
21. Jay Dee – “Fuck The Police” – Up Above (2001) – Dilla had a few records prior to this one as a solo artist, but this is the record that took his sound in a completely new direction, and would define it for the latter parts of his career. The Slum Village / A Tribe Called Quest sound was done, this was the new style.
20. Street Smartz – “Problemz / Metal Thangz” (feat. O.C. & Pharoahe Monch) – Tru Criminal (1996) - FT could brag that his A-Side was produced by Buckwild, but what really put this 12″ over the top was the sinister b-side track, “Metal Thangz”. While the spotlight was stolen by his guests O.C. and Pharoahe Monch, Monch’s verse was so outstanding it managed to nab the then relevant Hip-Hop Quotable in The Source Magazine – a huge feat for an indie record.
19. Latyrix – “Lady Don’t Tek No” – Solesides (1997) – Ironically, this 12″ made noise overseas first, before the Bay Area’s Solesides crew re-released it one year later in the U.S. Take Lateef and Lyrics Born, and put them trading rhymes over a funky classic hip-hop breakbeat with the added atmospherics of DJ Shadow, and you had the anthethis to what Puffy was trying to achieve with 112′s “Only You” just one year earlier. This record set off the Solesides movement, which would eventually evolve into Quannum Projects.
18. Common feat. Sadat X – “1-9-9-9 / Like They Used To Say” – Rawkus (1999) - The lead single to Rawkus’ Soundbombing 2 compilation paired Com over a Hi-Tek beat, along with one of Sadat X’s most powerful, memorable verses ever. Couple that with an equally dope B-Side track, “Like They Used To Say”, and not many will argue against the fact that this was one of the era’s defining moments.
17. Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli + Hi-Tek) – “Fortified Live (feat. Mos Def + Mr. Man) / 2000 Seasons” – Rawkus (1999) – Another 12″ that got our attention because of the Mos Def appearance, incidentally launching the careers of both Hi-Tek and Talib Kweli right under our noses. Both sides were requisite precursors to what we’d eventually find on Train of Thought.
16. Bad Meets Evil (Eminem + Royce Da 5’9) – “Scary Movies / Nuttin’ To Do” – Game (1998) – Em and Royce’s collaboration on The Slim Shady LP paved the way for this rare occurrence in which Em met his match lyrically. This groundbreaking single fueled hopes of an eventual collaborative LP, and would lead to Slaughterhouse’s on-the-table Shady Records deal. We’re still waiting on that Bad Meets Evil LP, guys.
15. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – “Back On Da Block” – Handcuts (2000) – Before Gang Starr broke up, there was no greater prospect to hip-hop heads than a Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth reunion. We saw the duo pair up occasionally from time to time, but their Japanese 12″ “Back On Da Block” – later licensed for release in the U.S. by Rawkus – was very quickly one of the most sought after singles within days of it’s release, as it showed that even after a long hiatus, the two could pick up right where they left off and make musical magic. It’s not too late, guys – think about Gang Starr.
14. Mos Def – “Universal Magnetic / If You Can Huh, You Can Hear” – Rawkus (1997) - De La Soul fans knew of Mos Def from the Stakes Is High album, while others might have recognized him from the little heard Urban Thermo Dynamics days. This 12″ introduced him to the world as a solo artist, where Def takes hold of Shawn J. Period’s production and proceeds to tear it to shreds, proving he could stand on his own – in a b-boy stance, of course.
13. All Natural – “Writer’s Block” / “50 Years” – All Natural Inc (1997) - Another pioneering record from the movement, which set off the entire All Natural Inc label. The Chicago crew’s prophetic “50 Years” gets better and more poignant with time. We’re sure we’ll be ready to kill ourselves when we hear this record again in 2047.
12. Cage – “Agent Orange / Radiohead” – Fondle Em (1997) - There’s a lot of history surrounding this 12″ single. Some of it’s merits include: 1) Cage’s mouthful-of-toothpicks photo op in The Source’s Singles File. 2) Debut production from Necro, who later took Eastern Conference to court over royalties from the use of said tracks for the Movies For The Blind LP. 3) Accusations that Eminem bit his style from this 12″ single and an impending beef with Cage to follow. 4) The brilliance of Necro’s sampling A Clockwork Orange. 5) The first appearance of Cage. Oh, and the music was incredibly dope. And so kiddies……
11. High & Mighty – “B-Boy Document” (feat. Mos Def, El-P, Mike Zoot) – Eastern Conference (1998) – Eastern Conference had a few 12″ singles prior to this one, but “B-Boy Document” really defined the idea of The High & Mighty. The Skillz featured “jiggy backpack” remix of this track is what you saw on Rap City and heard on Soundboming 2, but it’s origins lie in this more raw 12″ version, with appearances by El-P and Mike Zoot. Bonus points for having one of the freshest 12″ covers ever.
10. Old World Disorder- “Shyhalude / 3hree6ix5ive” (feat. Eminem) - Beyond Real (1998) - One can probably guess that this is among DJ Spinna’s proudest moments. While the Slim Shady EP was responsible for getting Em his deal with Aftermath, this 12″ found him perfecting the style he would use to propel the rest of the full-length album, and is one of his greatest verses of his early career. This is the fabled “underground shit (he) did with Skam”, as mentioned on “Stan”.
9. MF Doom – “Dead Bent” / “Gas Drawls” / “Hey” – Fondle ‘Em (1997) – KMD’s Zev Luv X reinvented himself, after the death of DJ Subroc and the shelving of their second LP, Black Bastards. Like Dr. Doom himself, he covered his face in shame with a metal mask, and became one of hip-hop’s most enigmatic figures. His second life began here.
8. Royce Da 5’9 – “Boom” (prod. DJ Premier) – Game (2000) – Although Royce had been holding his own for a few years before this, this 12″ proved that he did not need to stand in Eminem’s shadow to shine on his own. DJ Premier saw this, giving him one of his hottest beats that year, while Royce lyrically exploded on the track.
7. D.I.T.C. – “Day One” – D.I.T.C. (1997)
This record found the entire DITC crew uniting for a single, every bit as dope as we would imagined it to be. A beat so butter that Puffy jacked it for his No Way Out LP that same year – not a coincidence. Thank you, Diamond D.
6. J-Live – “Longevity / Braggin’ Writes” – Raw Shack (1995) – Easily one of the most game-changing records of the era, which proved the cream would rise to the top, even without a major label deal. The crown jewel of this 12″ is “Braggin’ Writes” – a simplified track that featured J rhyming over a cut up break – one that he would perform live on the mic AND the turntables. YouTube it.
5. Black Star (Mos Def +Kweli) – “Definition” – Rawkus (1998) - Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s entire movement really begins here – while the other 12″ singles on this list remain relevant, this BDP inspired track was the duo’s breakthrough single, and foundation for their collaborative Black Star LP. Speaking of which, it’s time for a second LP, fellas.
4. Dilated Peoples – “Work The Angles” – ABB (1998) While this is Dilated’s only entry on the list, make no mistake, virtually all of their early ABB singles (and subsequent guest appearances) were classics, leading up to their stellar full-length, The Platform. This sharp and precise 12″ helped enter the dragon that was Evidence, Rakka, and Babu, setting off a long career of success and respect.
3. Phaorahe Monch – “Simon Says” – Rawkus (1999) – GET THE FUCK UP! This single was literally the Godzilla of indie rap 12″‘s, as no other single received this amount of critical and commercial success, earning Monch respect in the streets and on the internet. This was evidently clear when each Method Man, Redman, and Busta Rhymes showed up for the remix. To add to it’s mystique, it was eventually banned due to an uncleared sample.
2. Big L – “Ebonics” – Flamboyant (1998) - At the time, Big L was being courted by Roc-A-Fella Records, thanks to the strengths of his cleverly written ode to street slang, “Ebonics”, and arguably the best song he’d ever done. Sadly, he was killed the following year.
1. East Flatbush Project – “Tried By 12″ – Uproar – (1996) - This 12″ pretty much represents everything the indie hip-hop movement was about. These guys delivered this one, memorable single, and then disappeared forever. Propelled by paper-thin drums and Asian chords, rapper Des presented his argument for the right to bear arms. This endlessly played cut never had a follow-up, nor did it need one.
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