A constant struggle in the UK rap audience is knowing albums beyond the mainstream space. Now that the industry is capable of propelling homegrown talent, we see artists and their albums receive the accolades they deserve. But more iconic music exists in the underground domain, flourishing for decades and birthing some of the best rappers the nation has to offer. If we were to name these rappers, the majority of listeners would respond with “Who?”. That is the unfortunate effect of the gaps left in documentation.
Just like America, the UK has its own share of underground classics. These are albums that deserve to be heard outside of their niche communities. To reintroduce them to the surface, we’ve collected five essential UK hip hop albums that you must know. Classics in their own realms and pivotal to the development of the scene. Discover them below and take a listen.
Skinnyman, Council Estate of Mind (2004)
In what is perhaps the most essential UK hip hop album, Skinnyman’s Council Estate of the Mind is a bonafide classic of the nation. Released in 2004, Council Estate of Mind is the North London rapper’s only album ever but managed to make exactly the mark needed. Focused on sharp bars and vintage hip hop production, the album masterfully paints pictures of the working class life. It was one of the first UK rap albums to chart, peaking at number 65, but leaving an everlasting legacy in its path. Highlights include the title track, “Fuck the Hook”, “Life in My Rhymes”, “Little Man” and more. This is as good as UKHH gets.
Council Estate of Mind is unavailable to stream on most services due to the vile actions of ex-rapper and label owner, Braintax, who signed Skinnyman, shut down the label and disappeared with its royalties. But it is available to consume on YouTube. Listen to one of its tracks below.
Klashnekoff, The Sagas Of… (2004)
Another ’04 classic is The Sagas Of… which comes courtesy of British-Jamaican emcee Klashnekoff. This is 50 minutes of dusty dungeon rap, as if a battle is taking place in the darkest corner of a tiny venue. It establishes Klashnekoff as one of the nation’s greatest rhymers to ever do it, delivering razor-sharp flows and vicious energy as he skates over production from Lewis Parker, Joe Buhdha and Harry Love. The most famous track is “Murda”, typically considered the best UK hip hop song of all-time. Even if people haven’t heard the album, it’s likely they’ve at least heard “Murda”.
Lowkey, Soundtrack to the Struggle (2011)
British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey has plenty to say on his sophomore album, Soundtrack to the Struggle. Tender and mature in sound and content, it’s earned status as an underground classic, dismantling the corporate lies of the world through vivid lyricism and pure passion. Elements of boom bap, soul and classical music are incorporated alongside rich samples, showing how far ahead its production was compared to the rest of the UK scene. It is an album full of heart, full of sincerity, and above all, full of humanity.
Read our 10-year anniversary piece on ‘Soundtrack to the Struggle’ here.
Lewis Parker, Masquerades & Silhouettes (1998)
Did you know UK hip hop existed in the 90s? If you didn’t, you do now. Lewis Parker is one the UK’s earliest known rapper-producers, releasing his debut album back in 1998. At a mere 8 tracks and entirely self-produced, Masquerades & Silhouettes is morbidly eerie, maintaining the mystique of the faceless man on the album cover. Parker’s British-American delivery is the backbone for highlights like “Shadows of Autumn”, “Fake Charades” and “Eyes of Dreams”. Granted, this one is for the oldheads, but its brilliance and historical significance will always reign supreme.
Foreign Beggars, Asylum Speakers (2003)
One of the earliest UK rap groups are Foreign Beggars, consisting of two emcees (Orifice Vulgatron, Metropolis), a producer (Dag Nabbit) and a DJ (Nonames). Their debut album brings competitive rhyming, appearances from fellow underground artists Skinnyman, Taskforce and Dr. Syntax, and beats for every season. Dusty, sunny or dreary; Asylum Speakers has a sound for all moods, and is one of the few albums in UKHH that united the underground rap scene during the early days.