This Ain’t Backpack Rap: The Emergence of Backpack Rappers in Mainstream Hip-Hop


Kanye West claims to be the first rapper with a Benz and a backpack, but these days it looks like several backpack rappers are carrying around more than just a pad and a pen. In the past year, there’s been a wave of underground MCs surfacing their way to the mainstream top and collecting checks on their way up. These youthful spitters are penning a modern hook to the already played backpack rap era of the 80s and 90s. With the recent success of backpack rap from such conscious rappers as Kanye, Lupe Fiasco, and Kid Cudi, the new school of backpackers is painting a different, more open road in the hip-hop lane.

So, what exactly is “backpack rap”? It’s a sub-genre of hip hop that’s traditionally known for being void of the glitz and glam that comes with being a rapper, or as rapper Drake put it, “the money, cars, clothes, and hoes.” In other words, it is less concerned with “making it” and instead focuses more on issues surrounding social awareness. However, backpack rap today has taken on a new look. The hip-hop underground scene that’s getting play includes the alternative and indie side of hip-hop, rather than the political, intellectual stereotype of the genre. It’s the youthful sound and mix of genres that takes these MCs from backpackers to Benz owners, not to mention the sound that’s sitting atop this week’s Billboard charts (more on that in a bit).

The best example of a backpacker on his way up is Taylor Gang general Wiz Khalifa. The 24-year-old Pittsburgh MC created a major underground buzz with his indie hip-hop sound on mixtapes like Flight School and Burn After Rolling. It was his reefer-induced flow and alternative samples on his Kush & Orange Juice mixtape that launched the inked up rapper into mainstream stardom.

Rostrum Records label mate Mac Miller rocks his backpack sound with an appeal to college kids, being just 19 himself. This Pittsburgh native put the internet in a frenzy over his first mixtape K.I.D.S released in 2010, and his new LP, Blue Slide Park just debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. Mac Miller pushes his shift to mainstream rap in his track “Loitering”, saying, “They say I’m getting trendy like I come after a pound sign; Hashtag Mac, this ain’t backpack rap.”

Other backpack rappers on an upward climb include Big Sean, J. Cole, and Wale (the latter of whom, we should note, had a record debut at #2 on the Billboard charts just last week). Usually compared to one another by hip-hop heads and rap enthusiasts, these three MCs each started as underground rappers until they snagged major label deals. Big Sean finally became famous after signing to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music with his indie sound and playful rhymes. J. Cole was just a college grad with a witty flow in a cole world until Jay-Z picked him up. Wale was talking about nothing with his alternative samples and knock-out bars until he joined the MMG squad. Each rapper has sold at least 100,000 copies off their 2011 LPs, making them each mainstream MCs.

It looks like instead of underground rappers selling out for sales, commercial rap is in high demand for backpack rap. For other peddling backpackers, check out Chiddy Bang, Kendrick Lamar, LogicTyler, the Creator, and Yelawolf.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

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