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Alternative hip hop is a subgenre of hip hop which surfaced
in the late 1980s during the “golden age of hip hop” – a period known for its
innovation and reinvention of the hip hop genre. Many artists contributed to its
development; to name a few were East Coast rappers Beastie Boys, De La Soul, A
Tribe Called Quest, and Jungle Brothers, West Coast artists such as Digital
Underground, The Pharcyde, and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and last but not
least Southern acts like Goodie Mob, Arrested Development, and Outkast – again,
just to name a few. By the time the 1990s came around, alternative hip hop saw
a rise in popularity, but was forced back into the underground as it was ultimately
intercepted and subsequently drowned out by a more powerful and vigorous genre
known as gangsta rap. The anger and frustrations about the mistreatments of
minorities, feelings of not having a place in society, the Rodney King beating
in ’91, and the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in ’96 and ’97 were
just some of the contributors to the longevity of this hardcore, socially aware,
confrontational genre that dominated the hip hop scene for nearly a decade. Eventually
music critics deemed that the short-lived subgenre of alternative hip hop had
been a failure.

However, a shift happened around the 21st
century. Gangsta rap hit a wall, and while still popular among its audience, it
no longer dominated the mainstream market. Instead, the public had gained a
newfound interest in indie music, and combined with artists such as Gnarls
Barkley, Outkast, and Kanye West who were known for their fusion of genres, alternative
hip hop once again took the spotlight and regained its place within the
mainstream. Outkast was already an established duo having won various awards
throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but their 2003 double album “Speakerboxxx/The
Love Below” left a huge imprint on the music business. The album was a fusion
of many different genres – from hip hop, funk, and psychedelic soul to
electronic, pop, and jazz. It was the second hip hop album ever to win a Grammy
Award for Album of the Year, and it went on to become one of the best selling
albums of all time. Gnarls Barkley’s surprise hit “Crazy” from 2006 was ranked
the number-one song of the decade and the duo ended up winning a Grammy Award for
Best Alternative Music Album, an album that also experimented with blending and
blurring genres together.

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A defining turning point for hip hop happened in 2007
when Kanye West’s album “Graduation” and 50 Cent’s “Curtis” released on the
same day, resulting in a record-breaking sales performance for both albums. The
outcome was in West’s favor, and industry observers view it as being
responsible for reshaping the course of hip hop. Ben Detrick of XXL wrote, “If
there was ever a watershed moment to indicate hip hop’s changing direction, it
may have come when 50 Cent competed with Kanye in 2007 to see whose album claim
superior sales. 50 lost handily, and it was made clear that excellent songcrafting
trumped a street-life experience. Kanye led a wave of new artists—Kid Cudi,
Wale, Lupe Fiasco, Kidz in the Hall, Drake—who lacked the interest or ability
to creative narratives about any past gunplay or drug-dealing.” while Rosie
Swash of The Guardian stated that it, “highlighted the diverging facets of
hip-hop in the last decade; the former was gangsta rap for the noughties, while
West was the thinking man’s alternative.”

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