March 23, 2004: The Most Important Day in Indie Rap History?
Stones Throw Madvillain Turns 10 This Week
Where were you on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2004? If you were a music fan, chances are you were picking up Usher's Confessions album, as it eventually went diamond and birthed "Yeah," a song that seems to get as much airplay today as it did 10 years ago. Or, if your radar picked up underground movements, there's a good chance you rejoiced in perhaps the greatest single release day in indie rap history.
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While Madvillain's Madvillainy, Murs' Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition and Eyedea and Abilites' E&A have all since been critically heralded to the point where they're often considered not just some of the finest moments of 2000s underground hip-hop, but for many the rites of passage entry points for new fans, it's been somewhat overlooked that all three of these albums were released simultaneously. Yes, the three biggest independent rap labels each put out highly anticipated full-length releases on the very same day. Given how well each of these three records have aged, something should be said for March 23rd being something of an independent hip-hop holiday. Not only did we get three incredible and defining records, their release proved to be something of an event horizon for the underground and mainstream lines to begin the blurring that's become almost entirely indistinguishable today.
On paper, it might seem odd that these three records were all seen as parts of the same movement. All were from independent labels based in entirely different parts in the country at a time when the perception of widespread mainstream hip-hop was still pretty nationally divisive. But this moment came after each of these three labels and their talent had paved the roads that became the modern independent hip-hop map.
Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minneapolis label that had spent the past nine years grinding to the point where they finally had an album-by-album distribution agreement with Epitaph, were dropping the Eyedea and Abilities' sophomore project with a worldwide tour.
Los Angeles' Stones Throw was eight years into being the progressive hip-hop gateway for sample innovation and outside-the-box funk and jazz.
New York's Definitive Jux was only four years old, but founder El-P was one of the pioneers of the original Rawkus movement, breaking ground with Company Flow that birthed a fanaticism that would follow his "independent as fuck" battle cry to the ends of the Earth.
The relationship between the artists themselves, as well as the word-of-mouth between their fanbases across the globe allowed for a network of shared information that made each release momentous. However, it being 2004, this also allowed the Kazaa and Limewire eras to bootleg these albums at lightning speed over a month before their actual release.
Those early leaks only seemed to increase the albums' notoriety. Suddenly, Eyedea and Abilities were being featured on otherwise punk rock compilations, Murs was in the pages of mainstream music publications and Madvillain landed a write-up in The New Yorker of all places. While these are all still noteworthy accomplishments for independent artists today, a decade ago making these moves was mindblowing. For fans, the only thing more impressive was the music on the albums themselves.
The terminology "alternative hip-hop" has been thrown around for years to the point where it's utterly meaningless, namely how could a multifaceted counterculture have something of a counter-counterculture? Yet, looking at the stark differences between these three releases and their mainstream counterparts, it's clear that these particular scenes were serving up a viable option. At a time when the norm for major rap releases saw a full 80 minutes chalk full of multiple producers, each of these albums clock in at under 50 minutes and followed the one-producer one-rapper formula. As a result, they felt like well thought out and fully cohesive projects, and perhaps the strongest outings from the talents involved at that time, if not ever.