Backpack rapper is a term that came to prominence in the mid-’90s when underground hip hop was at its height of popularity. It referred to the notion of city poets and lyricists who roamed the streets and subway stations with notebooks, pens, and other writer’s items tucked away in their unassuming backpacks. This was a subgenre of hip-hop that was very much influenced by the likes of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and the Roots, and the MCs who represented this movement often incorporated elements of spoken word techniques into their rhymes.
The term’s validity may be disputed and it may never experience a widespread renaissance or reevaluation, but this doesn’t mean that the spirit of backpack rap hasn’t remained intact in hip-hop to this day. Labels such as Rawkus and Rhymesayers became a home for the likes of Atmosphere, MF DOOM, and Brother Ali, while groups such as Jedi Mind Tricks, The Pharcyde, and Freestyle Fellowship all honed their craft to create some truly esoteric production paired with dense, battle-style bars.
Today, rappers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are able to incorporate aspects of this ad-hoc subgenre into their music and connect with listeners all over the world as a result. As the genre continues to evolve with new production techniques, experimental cadences, and diverse subject matter, it’s not at all inconceivable that backpack rap could become the next big thing in hip-hop once again.