In the dawning weeks of 2019, Spotify declared that “emo-rap” was the previous year’s fastest-rising genre. While the term had, by then, come to be associated with a fresh crop of post-genre, pro-feelings artists like XXXtentacion, Lil Peep, Lil Uzi Vert, and Juice WRLD, back in the early ’00s it had a different association. Inspired by the artsy, socially conscious likes of Project Blowed out west and Native Tongues back east, a small but creatively mighty wave of experimentally minded MCs and beatmakers had emerged in the ’90s from the underground tape-trading scene. By the decade’s end, they had congealed into a handful of seminal record label/collectives, each with its own regional flavor but all often derisively referred to by hip-hop purists as “emo-rap.”
The brashest camp was anticon., whose members had relocated from various points across the U.S. to Oakland, where wordsmiths like Sole, Doseone, and WHY? basked in the Bay Area’s scrappy boho-hippie vibe and kitchen-sink approach to art. The coolest by far was New York’s Definitive Jux, headed by El-P (who’d later become half of Run the Jewels) and heralded by Cannibal Ox, a duo so captivatingly cutting-edge that Elvis Costello was known to name-drop them in interviews. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Rhymesayers Entertainment held it down for the blue-collar, lovelorn, bad-childhood types—a lane that Atmosphere carved out brilliantly before finding broader success on (in hindsight rather fittingly) the Warped Tour circuit.
There were posse projects and crossovers (cLOUDDEAD, Deep Puddle Dynamics), rivalries and outliers (Nova Scotia’s Buck 65, Los Angeles’ Busdriver). But whether it’s Sage Francis tracing his sister’s self-inflicted wounds on “Inherited Scars,” Alias converting depression into revelation on “Watching Water,” or Aesop Rock bundling a life’s worth of observation into one glorious tumble of words, this is, was, and forever will be the original emo-rap.