Underground Music Genres: From the Fringes to the Mainstream
Do underground music genres still exist? And if critics and executives can categorise such music into a genre, can you still consider it as underground?
To answer these questions, we revisit 12 music genres from history, along with the pioneers that created them.
But first, we must define “underground”.
WHAT IS UNDERGROUND MUSIC, AND CAN IT GO MAINSTREAM?
Underground music is typically (although it doesn't have to be) anything that pushes the boundaries of the mainstream zeitgeist or hasn't gained wider popularity. Similarly, the music is usually created by unsigned artistes or those signed to smaller independent labels.
The ironic thing about underground music is that once a style is established enough to be labelled (either at the time or retroactively) by critics and music execs, is it still “underground”?
Furthermore, history shows us that music typically doesn't stay underground for long after being neatly packaged into an assigned genre.
You only have to look at American underground music genres like 1960 psychedelic rock that went from a boundary-pushing counterculture to mainstream flower power in a matter of years. Or the hard-hitting feminism of 90s riot grrrl punk bands that ultimately became watered-down “girl power” pop by the decade's end.
INFLUENTIAL UNDERGROUND MUSIC GENRES REVISITED
Despite the expected conclusion of the underground (where visionaries innovate genres that music industry executives eventually popularise for profit)... It doesn't make it any less fun to revisit the genres and the pioneers that drove them before they went overground.
Some burned bright on the fringes and faded away into a mainstream conclusion.
At the same time, others went largely unnoticed in their day and subsequently inspired the next wave of the underground.
ART ROCK: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
The Velvet Underground circa 1969. Credit: Photographer unknown. Published by Verve Records, at that time a subsidiary of MGM Records/Wikimedia Commons
The term "art rock" was first used in 1968. But the genre's origins hark back to early-mid 1960s counterculture.
Fuelled mainly by Andy Warhol's Factory, New York City became the place where experimental art and music intermingled. And against this backdrop, perhaps the most notorious art rock band, The Velvet Underground, was founded in 1964.
The most iconic lineup consisted of enigmatic frontman Lou Reed, experimental multi-instrumentalist John Cale, percussive guitarist Sterling Morrison, unconventional drummer Moe Tucker, and Factory luminary-come hypnotic songstress Nico.
The Velvet Underground & Nico, a quintessential art rock album, was released in 1967. It would influence other subgenres of rock and experimental music, including punk.
TRIP HOP: PORTISHEAD
Beth Gibbons (Portishead) at Coliseu dos Recreios, Lisbon (2008). Credit: José Goulão from Lisbon, Portugal/Wikimedia Commons
Trip-hop music is a subgenre of downtempo that started in the 1990s. It came out of the Bristol sound scene and, like 1970s Bronx hip hop, was heavily inspired by a DIY party scene.
Throughout Bristol, DJs, street artists, and MCs threw makeshift parties in economically deprived public spaces.
The laid-back genre, merging hip-hop, soul, funk, Jamaican dub and jazz elements, often features female vocalists. Portishead's debut album Dummy (1994), is a notable example of this combination.
“The whole trip-hop tag was nonsense. It was developed by people in London, and the people in Bristol just had to put up with it,” Geoff Barrow of Portishead once said.
Although Barrow wasn't a fan of the trip-hop label, ironically, Dummy became one of the genre's biggest successes. And Portishead (taking inspiration from film soundtracks from the 60s and 70s) also became the blueprint for the genre's future.
The musical trio composed of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley formed in Bristol circa 1991.
PINOY HIP-HOP: DYORDS JAVIER
Pinoy hip-hop (or Pinoy rap) was the first form of Asian hip-hop music. To be classed as Pinoy hip-hop, the music doesn't have to be produced in the Philippines, but the artistes should be of Filipino descent.
Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas, for example, is classed under the Pinoy banner because of his Filipino ancestry, even though he creates music in the US.
Pinoy rap first appeared in the 1080s and was influenced by the burgeoning hip-hop scene in New York.
Filipino stand-up comedian Dyords Javier created one of Pinoy hip-hop's first tracks. "Na Onseng Delight" (1980) parodied The Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit, "Rapper's Delight".
NO WAVE: GRAY
Emerging out of New York, no wave was a satirical statement against the popularisation of new wave music in the late 1970s.
The genre was highly experimental and infused elements of punk, avant-garde, free jazz, funk and disco. Many no wave musicians also connected with the visual arts, which reflects downtown New York's underground art-music integration at the time.
Gray, who formed in 1979, was the experimental brainchild of NYC artist-extraordinaire Jean-Michel Basquiat and Michael Holman.
Although the original lineup never released an album, Edo Bertoglio used their track "Drum Mode" in his iconic film Downtown 81. The film provides a rare insight into the post-punk subculture of downtown New York and stars Basquiat as the protagonist.
FREAK FOLK: VASHTI BUNYAN
Vashti Bunyan at Barbican Centre (2022). Credit: Raph_PH/Wikimedia Commons
Freak folk, also known as psychedelic folk, was formed in the mid-1960s. Although it was born out of the psychedelia movement, it kept the acoustic folk elements which psychedelic rock artistes generally avoided as the era progressed.
In 1965, Vashti Bunyan released her first single, "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind". Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the track. But her debut album, Just Another Diamond Day (1970), is more synonymous with the freak folk sound.
Bunyan was retroactively labelled the "Godmother of Freak Folk" circa 2008 after inspiring a new generation of experimental folk artistes.
DARK AMBIENT: RAISON D'ETRE
Dark ambient music is an underground subcategory of the post-industrial genre that traces back to the late 1970s. The genre began to come into its own throughout Europe in the mid-80s.
At the time, it was more commonly referred to as ambient industrial.
The Swedish dark ambient project Raison D'Etre was formed in 1991 and came to represent the full realisation of the genre.
Raison D'Etre's gloomy soundscapes incorporated the signature droning melodies, Gregorian chants and industrial-inspired scraping metal that came to be synonymous with dark ambient.
AVANT-GARDE: JOHN CAGE
John Cage (1988). Credit: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo/Wikimedia Commons
The avant-garde has a few different interpretations, but it's commonly used to describe artistes who intentionally stray from traditional music composition conventions and structures.
Experimental composer and indeterminacy pioneer John Cage was a significant proponent of the avant-garde.
His chance-controlled compositions inspired by non-western themes would inspire the musicians of the 1960s, 70s and 80s (particularly in New York) who fuelled the genre's next evolution. Cage inspired the Velvet Underground's John Cale, for example.
MUSIQUE CONCRETE: FRANK ZAPPA
Frank Zappa (1977). Credit: Jean-Luc/Wikimedia Commons
Musique concrete weaves pre-recorded sounds into music composition. Although some might argue it's not a genre per se, this type of music construction creates unique abstract sound mosaics that are hard to place within another genre.
Typical musique concrete sounds include raw recordings of the natural environment, digital sounds created with synthesisers, and the human voice.
The sounds are often enhanced through tape music techniques and mixed to form abstract sound collages. The result can create acousmatic sounds, whereby listeners can't trace the pre-recorded sounds back to the sources.
With such an expansive, ever-experimental, genre-defying, conformity-flouting career, it's hard to pin Frank Zappa down. But it wouldn't be an exploration of underground music genres without him.
Early in Zappa's career, he was the frontman of the Mothers of Invention, who released their debut album Freak Out! in 1966. The avant-garde sound collages are an example of musique concrete in action.
Wiley (2011). Credit: Lookwhoitis/Wikimedia Commons
Grime is electronic music inspired by UK garage, hip-hop, jungle and dancehall. Its origins hark back to East London in the early 2000s. As the UK garage of the time became more popular, a new “darker garage” sound appeared underground.
Where mainstream UK garage focused on soul, R&B and melodic vocals, grime was heavily instrumental and opted for hard-hitting MCs instead of vocalists.
One of the earliest examples of grime was Wiley's instrumental track "Eskimo". Although it wasn't released until 2002, Wiley created "Eskimo" in 1999.
With its out-of-sync rhythms, sci-fi synths, and almost mechanistic-industrial sound, "Eskimo" formed the archetype of grime.
A 2017 academic study by Ticketmaster would later discover that grime was the most "significant musical development within the UK for decades".
DRILL ‘N’ BASS: LUKE VIBERT
Luke Vibert at Nuits Sonores, Lyon (2007). Credit: shootingsawk from Paris, France/Wikimedia Commons
Drill 'n' bass is an off-shoot of drum and bass inspired by breakbeat jungle. The early formations of drill 'n' bass first appeared in the UK around 1995.
The genre pioneers used frenzied rhythms and beat programming that created dance music that people struggled to dance to. As a result, commentators believed drill 'n' bass was a friendly parody of dance music.
British electronic musician, producer, and the mastermind behind Plug, Luke Vibert, set the tone for the genre with his 1995 singles "Plug 1 Visible Crater Funk", "Plug 2 Rebuilt Kev" and "Plug 3 Versatile Crib Funk".
GARAGE-BASED PROTO-PUNK: IGGY & THE STOOGES
Iggy & The Stooges @ Brussels Summer Festival 2012. Credit: Eddy BERTHIER from Brussels, Belgium/Wikimedia Commons
The raw and primal sound of garage rock first appeared in the mid-60s. By 1968, garage rock had all but peaked; however, a selection of artistes, like Iggy & the Stooges, continued to explore garage in a louder, more aggressive way, culminating in garage-based proto-punk.
Although The Stooges (1969) was either ill-received or utterly unnoticed at the time of release, the self-titled debut album is now considered a must-have for music lovers and one of the most significant examples of proto-punk garage rock.
The Stooges' music, with its prevalent use of basic chord structures and confrontational lyrics, is an example of the signature garage sound. Meanwhile, frontman Iggy Pop's stage diving, self-mutilation and wild performances laid the groundwork for the subsequent stage theatrics of the punk movement.
NOISE ROCK: SONIC YOUTH
Sonic Youth (2009). Credit: LivePict.com/Wikimedia Commons
Noise rock was a post-punk genre from the counterculture melting pot of 1980s New York City. It's heavily focused on experimental rock while taking elements from industrial music and New York hardcore.
Like noise rock's predecessor, garage-inspired proto-punk, the sound was raw and distortion-intensive.
Sonic Youth, formed in 1981, was a pioneering force in the noise rock scene. The loud and discordant sound of their 1983 debut album Confusion Is Sex is an example of noise rock and no wave.
Throughout most of their early career, Sonic Youth was largely overlooked. But they'd go on to inspire alternative artistes like Kurt Cobain and subsequently be crowned underground icons of the 90s.
A CIRCULAR CONCLUSION
Creative people will always yearn to explore, push boundaries and make something new. At the same time, the mainstream music industry (because, ultimately, it's a business) will always look for ways to make money: a process that requires music to gain popularity.
Ironically, the conflict of interest between artistes and executives that ultimately quells underground music by making it mainstream inspires a pushback that subsequently inspires more underground music.
The dance between underground and mainstream, well, it's a cycle that continues; perpetually.
CONTEMPORARY UNDERGROUND ROCK BANDS AND ARTISTES
Before you go, here are three contemporary underground rock bands and artistes continuing the cyclical pushback against the mainstream – and long may the pushback continue.
Representing modern psychedelic rock, we have The Murlocs. The Australian natives formed in 2011 and included members from fellow independent psyche rock aficionados King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard.
The Murlocs take a DIY approach to their music, joining the independent record label, Flightless.
Now ex-King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard drummer Eric Moore formed Flightless in 2012, after struggling to find a label to represent the King Gizzard.
Jane Weaver, (2021). Credit: Nic Chapman, Streethassle00/Wikimedia Commons
Jane Weaver is an English singer and musician. Her music is a fusion of alt-rock, psyche folk, and electronica.
In the true DIY spirit of the underground, Weaver runs the independent record label Bird Records. Shortly after the release of her 2021 album Flock, indie record shop collective Rough Trade named it their “album of the month”.
Check out San Francisco Bay Area's Nite if you're into blackened heavy metal. Formed in 2018, they hark back to the early work of alternative metal pioneers Faith No More and other classic heavy metal artistes.
Although reminiscent of the classics, they boast their own unique sound.
Stream out all the incredible underground tunes now.
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.