Over the decades since its inception, hip-hop has been composed of subcultures within a subculture. Never defined by any one wave nor any singular overarching direction, it is a genre that is founded on expression and as a result, there is an audience for any sentiment that you’d look to espouse to the wider world. Granted, in some cases, your music’s capacity to penetrate the commercial realm may be diminished depending on your approach to production and delivery, but there’s no musical form that produces a fervent cult following quite like hip-hop.
This means that for every rapper who adheres to all of the conventional tropes that the mainstream expects in terms of presentation, content, and everything in-between, there is another who is actively subverting expectations to do their own thing.
Initially, it was under this banner that hip-hop icon and billionaire mogul Kanye West emerged. Although he liaised with the more street-oriented camp that was mid 00’s Rocafella, Ye diversified his appeal by aligning himself with what was then known as the “backpack rap” community.
Given his first big break when he went on tour alongside conscious rap lynchpin Talib Kweli, Ye’s intention to be the first rapper to merge the benz and the backpack was prevalent in his early work. Most notably, on his now seminal debut album The College Dropout, where Ye comingles frivolous bars about “money, hoes and rims” with societally minded singles such as “All Falls Down,” “Spaceship” and “Jesus Walks.”
Kanye West rocking his designer backpack at 2008 Essence Festival – Sean Gardner/Getty Images
As eager to give a feature to Chicago-based spoken word artist J.Ivy as he was to bolster his star by aligning with Jay-Z on “Never Let Me Down,” it seemed that Ye’s desire to repay the backpack community that’d welcomed him in amid all the hustlers of the era was genuine.
But, during his 2021 appearance on Drink Champs, the enigmatic artist engaged in a bit of revisionist history as he proclaimed that he had little to no affinity for the community or its ethos.
“I’m sorry to all the backpack community,” Ye began. “Due to the fact that I was from the streets but I’d never killed anybody, it was just easier for me to pose as a backpacker. I really love street n****s. I listen to Cash Money, Jay-Z, Lil Baby.” He continued, in between laughs, “I was using. I apologize once again to Kweli. I’m sorry, I never f****d with your raps.”
In response, Kweli took to Instagram to elaborate on how he felt about Ye’s ruse.
“Poser (noun) – a person who pretends that he or she is not… an affected or insincere person,” he wrote alongside the interview clip. “Real question- since when did we celebrate posers in hip-hop? I don’t even know whether to laugh or be offended anymore.”
Although Ye’s motivations can often be hard to discern, his revelation about his purported falsified ties to the backpack community so many years on is certainly an intriguing one. Whenever the West seeks to disown something, it would usually infer that its cultural capital has expired.
With this in mind, it raises the question of exactly how the notion of being a “backpack” rapper morphed from accolade to slur and whether this has broader ramifications for the modern MC’s ability to nod towards the informal subgenre in their own output today.
Before delving further in, it’s important to get as close to a definition of what a “backpack” rapper is as we can.
According to a robust entry on Urban Dictionary, a backpack MC is “a person who raps about real life shit that matters and has experienced, rarely about pimping hoes/having millions/selling immense amounts of drugs/murdering random people for no apparent reason or motive. A person who is true to himself while rapping and uses his head and heart to write not only a pen and meaningless words.”
While rappers have been deviating away from escapism or criminal exploits since the days of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Fives’ “The Message” or Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” it’d be fair to say that the origins of the species as we know it can be traced back to the Native Tongues movement.
Afrocentric and an alternative to what major labels were seeking from hip-hop artists in the late 80s and early 90s, this collective counted groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Black Sheep among its ranks while the likes of Monie Love and Queen Latifah delivered liberated rhymes that would go on to inspire a generation of female MCs to come. In addition to its core contingent, other notable figures such as Brand Nubian and The Beatnuts sought to expand the perception of what hip-hop could look like, sound like or seek to propagate. Meanwhile, other boroughs of the big apple such as Queens would soon have its own proto-backpack crews in the form of Organized Konfusion (featuring a young Pharoahe Monch) and the Large Professor-led Main Source.
With Tribe and De La in particular, fans and artists alike would learn that conformity wasn’t crucial for wider success and that there was no reason to dumb down nor lyrically neuter yourself in order to carve out a legacy.
Taking the lead from their East Coast contemporaries, the West Coast saw its own crop of artists who renounced the gun-toting and glorification of street life in favor of developing their own worlds that encompassed everything from celebratory odes to good times to lyrical dexterity and socio-political themes.
In this class, the likes of The Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, Souls Of Mischief, and by extension, the entirety of the Hieroglyphics crew, would flourish and garner worldwide followings of their volition.
By the mid-to-late 90s, the backpack era was reaching its apex in terms of standing as an active competitor to gangsta rap.
Among those who were crucial in offering a viable culture to align with that was separate from what was fast becoming the stereotypical perception of hip-hop were labels such as Rawkus and Rhymesayers.
In the case of the former label, the LA-based company seemed to have an uncanny ability to offer up sacred texts for the genre, including but not limited to the legendary Soundbombing II compilation and Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus.
Years after he parted ways with his crew, Company Flow’s EL-P would take the core tenets of Rawkus’ model with him to launch Def Jux which would soon become a haven for hip-hop’s outsiders and boundary breakers including Cannibal Ox, Mr Lif, Murs and the legendary Aesop Rock.
Slug of Atmosphere – Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images
While in the case of Minnesota’s Rhymesayers, they became a beacon for all those who wished to stray from the path as devotees of both idiosyncratic production and astute, often abstract punchlines. Co-founded by Slug and Ant of Atmosphere alongside Sab The Artist, the label’s championing of everyone from Brother Ali to Eydea & Abilities and MF DOOM has made it into a much-loved label for listeners with a taste for the unconventional.
In Common’s case, the Chicago native’s decision to lament over the genre’s pivot towards gangsta rap on “I Used To Love H.E.R” essentially made him into a poster boy for this ad-hoc movement and even led him into a high-profile beef with Ice Cube & The Westside Connection.
Boasting a cherished discography of classic records such as Like Water for Chocolate and Resurrection, Kanye’s aforementioned backpacker credentials would be accentuated when he helped to revive Common’s career after the experimental misstep of Electric Circus by signing him to G.O.O.D. Music.
Meanwhile, in the case of Talib Kweli and Mos Def– now known as Yasiin Bey– their decision to combine forces under the banner of Black Star in 1997 would be pivotal in cementing the notion of what a “backpacker” was to outside observers.
Released in September of 1998, it could be argued that this project– alongside Mos’ Black On Both Sides – captured the essence of the previously undefined by incorporating eclectic production with lyrics that were not only unapologetically pro-black, but critiqued society on everything from its “european beauty standards” to the proliferation of violence in hip-hop.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli – Mat Szwajkos/Getty Images
Alongside proving pivotal in creating the perception of backpack rap, it also made the supposed sub-genre interchangeable with “conscious” hip-hop.
As such, the term “backpacker” was occasionally deployed as an ill-fitting umbrella that would be assigned to everyone from a cartoon supervillian such as MF DOOM to a political firebrand like Immortal Technique.
Just like everything else in hip-hop, there came a time when the notion of being a “backpacker” or actively seeking to reach audiences of that ilk became passe. And long before Ye was eschewing his ties to the genre, his mentor, Jay-Z, spoke to the inherent limitations of their approach in his 2010 biography, Decoded.
“Kweli is a great emcee – as is Common – and they’ve both carved out impressive careers without big records,” Jay mused. “They’re great technical MCs, but there is a difference between being a great technician and a great songwriter. I deeply respect their craft, but even the most 2010- Tyler The Creator- dazzling lyrical display won’t translate to a wide audience unless it’s matched with a big song.”
While emergent underground stars in hip-hop used to see no harm in being grouped under the “backpacker” bracket, the internet-era’s transgressive MCs saw things differently.
“I hate backpack rap,” declared Tyler, The Creator at the outset of his career. “FUCK IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE.”
Likewise, Childish Gambino made a habit of rallying against the term proclaiming on “My Shine,”: “Fuck nerdcore, fuck backpack. Fuck rap cool, I make cool rap.”
As the decade progressed, the perception of seeking to educate or enlighten in the manner that Black Star once had continued to degrade to such an extent that Talib would be vilified by the same online blogs and tastemakers that would’ve celebrated him in another era.
“I find it a challenge to make music that’s interesting and entertaining and really moves you,” he told VLADTV, “while you’ve got people like Complex.com that did a list that said ‘conscious rap is condescending and corny.’ They had a picture of me and Mos Def (laughs). They wouldn’t have even printed that unless it was a consensus that some people have in hip-hop. That’s why I fight against being put in that box because the people strive to put me in that box, subconsciously or intentionally, are limiting the audience that can hear my music.”
Courtesy of the trap wave and the resurgence of gangsta rap as we know it, the term “backpacker” continues to be an albatross that an MC would like to avoid hanging around their neck. However, that doesn’t mean that its legacy and influence has simply vanished into thin air.
Nowadays, its key themes, sentiments, and even facets of its dissenting approach to production have been re-introduced into a hip-hop space that defies categorization rather than craving it. As a result, remnants of the backpacker mentality span across the mainstream and the underground alike.
In the case of Kendrick Lamar, his excoriating view on the world and affinity for jazz is in keeping with everyone from Mos Def to the Native Tongues. In a similar vein, J. Cole– who dispenses allegorical concepts about the trials and tribulations of life– has been accused of being “preachy” in much the same vein as Talib, while still striking a chord with listeners the world over.
Image via HNHH
Although he sprung up from the Soundcloud era alongside the Raider Klan, the fingerprints of so-called backpack rappers are identifiable across Denzel Curry’s latest album. while Joey Bada$$’ All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ sought to both comfort and confront in the vein that many before had.
Alongside Chicago’s Ghetto sage crew of Saba, Noname and Smino, other wilful outsiders such as the SLUms collective basically constitute an entire movement and network of collaborators in the vein that backpacker crews of yesteryear did– from MIKE and King Carter to Earl Sweatshirt, Navy Blue, Mavi, Pink Silfu and more.
Once a member of Ratking– who proclaimed themselves to be closely aligned to the “culture of punk”– Wiki’s Half Godexists so resolutely within its own world that it would undoubtedly encounter the label in another era.
And even if alleged “backpacker rap” may never experience a renaissance in its original guise or experience widespread reevaluation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still clung to by those in the game today.
“Yeah, that’s how I started man,” Drake said in an early interview. “There was a time where I wouldn’t listen to anything unless it was produced by Dilla. I used to listen to Ninth [Wonder] and Little Brother and Slum [Village] and Common. I used to really be just immersed in that brand of hip-hop. Not that anything’s changed, but I just found myself in a different position. That wasn’t necessarily the lane for me as much as I loved it. I tried for a long time, I did those songs but I just sort of saw the way to bridge the two. Lyrics, melody, big hooks and content. I found a bridge between the two things I love. So, I can stand in the middle of that bridge and wave my hands.”
While the validity of Drizzy’s statement about finding a middle ground could certainly be contested and the term may have gone extinct under the weight of negative connotations, that doesn’t mean the spirit of backpack rap doesn’t remain intact. In fact, at a time when the planet is engulfed in more chaos than ever, both its radical uniqueness and ability to explore aspects of the world that the conventional rapper would steer clear of means that it might be just what listeners are craving.