Backpack Rap: 17 Rappers Who Have Defined the Subgenre

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In the realm of hip-hop, certain subgenres have left an indelible mark, shaping the culture and influencing generations of artists. Among these influential subgenres is backpack rap. Backpack rap has always provided a needed alternative to the mainstream rap music that normally dominates the airwaves and playlists.

The name stems from the stereotype of an artist carrying their music (literally or metaphorically) in a backpack, and is often associated with those who reject mainstream commercialism in favor of thoughtful, intellectual lyricism and independent production. A backpack rapper is often defined as one who raps about real-life experiences and offers socio-political commentary. 

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The origins of backpack rap can be traced back to the Native Tongues movement, which included Afrocentric groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Black Sheep. These artists were known for their innovative approach to hip-hop, deviating from the mainstream to explore new sounds and themes. They paved the way for future backpack rappers, proving that success could be achieved without conforming to industry standards.

Among the artists who have been instrumental in defining and popularizing backpack rap are Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Common. Kanye West, in particular, played a significant role in bridging the gap between mainstream and backpack rap. His debut album The College Dropout was a seminal work in the genre, combining societally minded singles with more lighthearted tracks. Despite criticisms and changing trends, the influence of backpack rap remains evident in contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, who continue to weave socio-political commentary into their music. 

Let’s explore the maestros of this genre. Here are 17 rappers who have defined backpack rap over the years.

17. Jean Grae

16. Little Brother

15. Dead Prez

14. Kanye West

13. Aesop Rock

12. Brother Ali

11. Atmosphere

10. Black Thought

9. Lupe Fiasco

8. J. Cole

7. Kendrick Lamar

6. Nas

5. Eminem


3. Common

2. Talib Kweli

1. Mos Def

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