The Definitive Guide to Hip-Hop Subgenres

Learn about different styles of hip-hop and their key artists

Hip-hop is a celebration of diversity. No two rappers sound alike (well, with the exception of Guerrilla Black and Biggie Smalls). Rappers are products of different musical stylings informed by different environments, attitudes and aspirations. Here's a brief rundown of hip-hop subgenres and the key artists in each niche.

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Alternative Hip-Hop

Alt-rappers typically color outside the lines. These artists are less concerned with pop hooks and dance moves. Their main goal is to push the envelope and explore unique concepts.

Key Artists: The Roots, Lupe Fiasco, Del the Funkee Homosapien,

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Battle rap is a style of hip-hop music that blends braggadocio with the quest for lyrical superiority. Seasoned battle rappers focus on boastful lines and self-glorifying rhymes about one's proficiency or level of success, accompanied by verbal insults hurled at the other party (directly or subliminally).

Key Artists: Kool Moe Dee, Jay-Z, Canibus, LL Cool J
Related Article - 10 Greatest Hip-Hop Battles

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Talib Kweli. © Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Conscious rap is powered by the idea that radical social change comes through knowledge of self, personal discovery, and societal awareness. So-called conscious rappers devote much of their rhymes decrying social ills and promoting positive ideas. Conscious rap is a contentious category, and not all every rapper like to be classified as such.

Key Artists: Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def

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Lil Jon - Get Low
© TVT Records

Crunk started in the 1990s as a sub-form of southern hip-hop. Producer Lil Jon is widely credited with spearheading the movement. True to its name, crunk constitutes a chaotic interpolation of club beats and high-energy chants.

Key Artists Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz, Lil Scrappy, Trillville

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Ghostface Killah. © Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

East coast hip-hop originated in the streets of New York. The umbrella of this particular sub-genre covers a dizzying mess of styles--from the street hop that gave us to AZ and Nas to the conscious approach popularized by Public Enemy and Black Star.

Key Artists: Run-D.M.C., Ghostface Killah, Nas, Jay Z, Rakim

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© Lench Mob Records

Gangsta rap revolves around aggressive lyrics and trunk-heavy beats. Despite its huge acceptance in the early 90s, gangsta rap has come under fire lately for misogyny and violent themes.

Key Artists: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube

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Hyphy is a relatively new musical import from the west coast. It incorporates an uptempo, high energy style. Hyphy is also characterized by witty lyrics and rugged beats. Critics were quick to dismiss it as a fad at first, mainly because it's an offshoot of crunk. Regardless, the Bay Area has enjoyed a measurable amount of success with their brainchild.

Key Artists Keak da Sneak, E-40, Mistah F.A.B.

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© Henry Adaso/

The slick polyrhythms of snap is naturally accompanied by finger snaps (hence the name) and occasional whistling to create a distinct melody. Though this style of hip-hop grew out of Atlanta, it quickly spread to other cities in the U.S. Unfortunately, snap fizzled out almost as soon as it became popular.

Key Artists Dem Franchise Boyz, Yin Yang Twins, D4L

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Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne. © Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Stylistically, southern rap relies on exuberant production and direct lyrics (typically about the southern lifestyle, trends, attitudes). With a few obscure exceptions, southern hip-hop is more distinct for its sound and slang than for lyricism (although, the new school of emcees from Houston and Atlanta are starting to reverse this trend). In an attempt to capture their stylish culture on wax, some southern MCs consciously incorporate car culture, fashion trends, nightlife, and unique lingo in their songs.

Key Artists DJ Screw, T.I., Lil Wayne, UGK, Ludacris, Scarface

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West Coast Hip-Hop

© Ruthless

There's a generational misconception in hip-hop that lyricism is only synonymous with the east coast. The Left coast may be the home of gangsta rap, but it's also home to G-funk, lowrider music, freestyles and yes, lyrical hip-hop.

Key Artists: N.W.A., Too $hort, Ras Kass, 2Pac, Freestyle Fellowship

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Drake and Future
Prince Williams/WireImage

Trap music is a style of hip-hop that sprung out of the southern rap scene in the 1990s. You'll know a trap track by its beat--stuttering kick drums, hi-hats, 808s, and oodles of synthesizers.

Key Artists: Future, Gucci Mane, Young Thug