Underground hip hop is an umbrella term for hip hop music outside the general commercial canon. It is typically associated with independent artists, signed to independent labels or no label at all. Underground hip hop is often characterized by socially conscious, positive, or anti-commercial lyrics. However, there is no unifying or universal theme - AllMusic suggests that it "has no sonic signifiers". "The Underground" also refers to the community of musicians, fans and others that support non-commercial, or independent music. Music scenes with strong ties to underground hip hop include alternative hip hop and conscious hip hop. Many artists who are considered "underground" today were not always so, and may have previously broken the Billboard charts.
To gain fans, underground artists perform locally and worldwide, make tours, and meet and greets. Their performances are held anywhere, such as outdoors or in restaurants. Meet and greets are often held in different cities, which gives a fan the opportunity to meet the artist for free. There the fan can buy clothing from the artist's clothing line or they can purchase tickets for future concerts. Ticket prices range depending on the location, some artists have VIP passes, allowing the fan to have access to the stage and to meet them after the show. Some artists make their own clothing line to sell gear and use the profit to continue making shows. Underground artists are usually found in YouTube, SoundClick, Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Lastly, underground artists typically do everything themselves whether it's making songs, preparing shows, or selling gear.
Underground hip-hop encompasses several different styles of music. Numerous acts in the book How to Rap are described as being both underground and politically or socially aware, these include - B. DolanBrother Ali,Diabolic,Immortal Technique,Jedi Mind Tricks,Micranots,Mr. Lif,Murs,Little Brother,P.O.S and Zion I, among others.
Underground artists with critically acclaimed albums include Atmosphere,Binary Star,Blu, Cannibal Ox,Company Flow,Del the Funky Homosapien,Freestyle Fellowship,Hieroglyphics,Juggaknots, Jurassic 5,Kool Keith,Little Brother,MF DOOM,Non Phixion,Planet Asia, and RJD2, MC TP, among many others.
Additionally, many underground hip hop artists have been applauded for the artistic and poetic use of their lyrics, such as Aesop Rock, Aceyalone,Busdriver, Cage,CunninLynguists,Dessa, Doomtree, El-P,Eyedea & Abilities,Illogic,Onry Ozzborn, Rob Sonic,Sage Francis,Shad and Sleep, among others.
Some underground artists produce music that celebrates the fundamental elements or pillars of hip hop culture, such as Classified, Dilated Peoples, People Under The Stairs, and Fashawn whose music "recalls hip-hop's golden age".
In hip hop's formative years, the vast majority of the genre was underground music, by definition. Although The Sugarhill Gang gained commercial success in 1979, most artists did not share such prominence until the mid-1980s. Ultramagnetic MCs debut album Critical Beatdown (1988) is seen as one of the earliest examples of "underground hip hop". It was described that the album was characteristic of what would later be known as "underground hip hop". New York underground rapper Kool Keith received notable success with his album Dr. Octagonecologyst, gaining more attention than any contemporary independent hip hop album "in quite a while". In 1999, Prince Paul and Breeze Brewin created one of the first rap opera albums, named A Prince Among Thieves. Rolling Stone gave the album a 4.5/5.