When the earliest humans searched for answers about the less-than physical world evidenced by their dreams, they turned to hallucinogens and music. Psychedelics are so closely linked to dreaming that the simplest scientific terms for explaining the experience is likening it to dreaming while awake. Though the ritual of the contemporary psychedelic practice may look more like three friends figuring out an empty YouTube search bar than a drum circle, the intention is still to explore a dreamlike world enhanced by a tailor-made experience with music.
So, we curated a playlist of some of the best psychedelic video experiences in hip-hop. If you scroll down you’ll find a mix of animation and special effects — dreamlike visuals for trancelike rhythms found in MCs’ even flows, and otherworldly instrumentation inspired by the entanglement of the civil rights and counter-culture movements of the late ‘60s.
Psychedelia has always been about looking inward to seek hidden truths about the external world, and Black psychedelia brought new meaning to that purpose.
The culture took on a more political edge, asking listeners to wake up from the dream and become more conscious of the exploitation that surrounded them. While Pink Floyd’s staple psychedelic masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon was asking the question, “Why did we let the world get like this?,” Sly Stone’s jaded, dissociative tango with fame, There’s a Riot Going On, was answering, ‘the world is like this by design.’
Decades later, hip-hop took that message, and that sound, to heart. Psychedelia found its way into records like Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” on the decks of crate-digging DJs and producers looking to get crowds moving by sampling from Sly Stone contemporary, Parliament-Funkadelic. The same blues-laced, distorted guitars of Jimi Hendrix that inspired Funkadelic frontman George Clinton, found another route into hip-hop through jazz.
Ran through the mind and fingers of Miles Davis, Hendrix’s spacey riffs became Bitches Brew, spawning the turbulent offshoot jazz fusion. The most well-known contemporary proponents of the style, Flying Lotus and Thundercat, are decidedly psychedelic, but it was the jazz-sampling Native Tongues from New York who hoisted the flag on true psychedelic hip-hop. In the early ‘90s, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were bringing socially conscious lyrics, hallucinogen references, and hypnotic flows to a new visual experience.
Early psychedelic hip-hop videos didn’t have huge budgets or access to advanced animation or CGI. But what they were lacking in resources they made up for with creativity and an unbeatable knack for crafting vibes. The Native Tongues were combining practical effects with clever camera work and Afro-futuristic settings, while on the West Coast The Pharcyde were learning to lip sync and choreograph backward.
As hip-hop grew in popularity, so did access to resources, and even rap artists whose music wasn’t necessarily psychedelic found success by integrating dream-like worlds and trippy visuals into their videos. The world was introduced to Missy Elliott’s solo career through a fish-eye lens, and her visuals maintained vibrant surrealism from there forward. Such early hip-hop videos that took inspiration from hallucinogenic experiences set the standard for contemporary artists who became synonymous with psychedelic visual and musical experiences.
A$AP Rocky’s “L$D” and A$AP Mob’s “Yamborghini High,” are perhaps the most well known modern day psychedelic videos in hip-hop. The ideal experience calls back to the dreamlike nature of hallucinogens with vibrant visual effects, mind-bending turns of reality, and trance-inducing waveforms. But many of the best examples are less well-known or obvious.
Whether intended to be traditionally psychedelic or just flexing creative new ways to approach music videos, hip-hop is full of visual and musical trips that lean into the dreamlike world of psychedelics. Whether you want sick flows and funny videos or wavy beats and deep insights, this list features some of the best psychedelic accompaniments in the genre.
theMIND, Mick Jenkins, Noname & Jesse Boykins III — “Animated Ambition” (2016)
“Animated Ambition” is representative of many of the themes and techniques that elevate the psychedelic video binge experience. An animated Mick Jenkins on a vibrant backdrop lives out his dream as he raps, “When I was young, thought I’d grow up to be a cartoon.” While Jenkins’ verse parallels himself to classic Saturday morning cartoons, Noname rhymes cryptically about American consumption of Black culture. The politically charged side of psychedelic hip-hop is meant to be as perspective-altering as imaging a more animated life, both accessible behind a shared mental block.
The Pharcyde — “Drop” (1995)
Before Spike Jonze directed the critically acclaimed film Being John Malkovich, he heard a backspin record scratch on a Pharcyde joint and got an idea for what would become one of the most innovative hip-hop videos of all time. He came to the South Central LA hip-hop group with the following proposal — to film “Drop” entirely in reverse.
While the video starts small with the gimmick, showing the group dancing in an alleyway and somehow bouncing on and off screen, the uncanniness slowly makes sense as they’re shown stripping down in reverse and sliding up a stair rail before gallons of gravity-defying water is flung from the ground back into the air. Not only was the video choreographed and shot to the song playing in reverse, but the MCs even employed a professional linguist to learn how to lip-synch their verses backward.
Flying Lotus & Anderson .Paak — “More” (2019)
A wavy Flying Lotus record featuring a stellar verse from Anderson .Paak and a video directed by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, is exactly as good as it deserves to be. Even the twangy strings at the opening bring a Western feel to the animated video’s crashing spaceship and desert-wandering astronaut.
A muted color palette with sharp contrasts breathes Watanabe’s vision into the video, but the Bebop-noire is broken by .Paak’s robot stand-in. A bouncing backdrop absorbs the spacy intro and .Paak’s verse causes a transformation to burst from the track and its protagonist.
Busta Rhymes & Janet Jackson — “What’s It Gonna Be?!” (1999)
Busta Rhymes has been innovating the hip-hop music video space since 1997’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” a mix of choreography and stop-motion camera work that sparked a wave of psychedelic Afro-futurism in his videos. When Y2K anxiety hit around the same time he was dropping his third album, Busta responded with “What’s It Gonna Be?!,” one of the most expensive music videos ever made.
Costing upwards of $2 million and featuring Janet Jackson, the chromed-out duo perform in a spacy tunnel of liquid silver. Busta’s flow is as smooth as the image of tower speakers liquidated by the track’s bass, making the video an absorbing experience.
Samiyam & Earl Sweatshirt — “Mirror” (2016)
An insane sample flip of a gospel track with a surprisingly Pink Floyd-esque guitar riff makes for a track that tumbles through the mind, especially when given Earl Sweatshirt’s darker treatment. While he raps on “Mirror,” he contends with the various components of his life that have contributed to the person he sees in the mirror. On screen, an animated Earl morphs into the pieces of himself he sees beneath the surface, shifting and changing to reflect the perspectives he could view himself from, but always returning to baseline.
In the background, an eerily familiar ghost dances fleetingly through the frames. The ghost, Koko the Clown, is the first figure to ever be animated by a combination of rendering and human motion, with these particular dance moves originating from 1933’s Betty Boop in Snow White. In the film, a magic mirror claims that Betty Boop is the fairest in the land, making her reflection the driving force of her reality.
Flatbush Zombies — “MRAZ” (2013)
A fisheye lens and disorienting cuts of the Flatbush Zombies recording in their home studio make the “MRAZ” visual fit the Brooklyn MCs’ explosive, mind-expanding entrance into the hip-hop consciousness. With two of the three Zombies dropping LSD at the video’s start, and each getting their turn to spit what’s on their mind, the video has a day-in-the-life feel. An off-screen Meechy Darko at the song’s end affirms that the video sets the scene for the trio’s early identity, exclaiming, “What the hell? Ghetto Black kids doing psychedelics?”
NxWorries — “Lyk Dis” (2018)
It must be a communal experience to have watched a sunset on hallucinogens, saw the warm orange of the sun bleed a gentle purple glow into clouds floating on a cooling blue sky, and said, “Yeah, that’s it.” That color palette is all over psychedelic visuals, and if you closed your eyes and tried to imagine the color of Anderson .Paak’s voice, the same palette glows in the mind. The animator and illustrator of “Lyk Dis” knew exactly what they were doing with this one.
EARTHGANG & OG Maco — “Friday (F Bomb Remix)” (2105)
Before Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot were Olu and WowGr8, EarthGang was casting a veil of Afro-surrealism over Atlanta before Atlanta hit FX. The mist-filled, morning dew-laden “Friday (F Bomb Remix)” video features the pair wandering through the woods employing smoke-filled shamanistic imagery, and a topless model in a mascot bear head.
Produced by Hollywood JB, the mystical track is backed by a choral chant that could light candles in a dark room. Visually, reversed frames of EarthGang and OG Maco whipping smoke bombs through the air manage to land in sync with their flow. A particularly psychedelic bit of wisdom from Olu — “That ego might get you through / but it might not get through to them” — both inspires thoughts about a new way to live while driving home the track’s mantra, leaving it up to you to decide if you give a fuck or not.
Open Mike Eagle — “Microfiche” (2018)
Open Mike Eagle’s whimsical bars and clever punchlines just hit the mind right. Paired with stop-motion claymation, his unexpected reference humor approaches surrealism in the music video for “Microfiche.”
The video is painstakingly animated. Wiggling cotton balls play clouds but also stand-in for the snaking smoke of a lit blunt resting in an ashtray. The stop-motion effect feels like watching life in a lower frame rate, and as Open Mike Eagle and Colin Kaepernick fight the NFL, Dracula, and the federal government, the lagging lyrical references leave the brain feeling like it’s catching up to the eyes.
Warm Brew — “Psychedelic” (2018)
This LA Westside trio proves, yet again, that with just a green screen studio, a couch, and the homies, you can make psychedelic perfection. The music video for “Psychedelic” is a perfect representation of the feeling that a lot is going on when nothing’s really happening. The couch’s trip to space is grounded by a simple doorbell, and a painting on the wall becomes a liquid portal to another dimension. This trip is guided by three clean verses that tell the listener to ease up and see how they’re living on the Westside.
Mac Miller, Kendrick Lamar & Iman Omari — “Fight The Feeling” (2012)
Slept on by fresh Mac Miller fans and old Kendrick Lamar fans alike, “Fight the Feeling” is a story arc worthy of a spot on the ultimate highlight reel. Looking like pencil doodles in a notebook, this video scrawls its way from frame to frame. It follows a determined sketch’s life story from creation to enlightenment: the wonder of new life, the suffering of progression, and the ecstasy of the endpoint. While during life we look back on mistakes and misfortunes as setbacks, the reality is that we’re constantly chugging forward through the rain with our head down whether we feel like it or not. The end result is a video that ends with a soberingly clear message: when your life flashes before your eyes, you’ll be reminded of how differently you experienced it from how you remember it.
The Underachievers — “Chasing Faith x Rain Dance x Allusions” (2015)
The Underachievers, the Flatbush duo of AKTHESAVIOR and Issa Gold, have a discography rife with psychedelic themes that extend beyond the music and visuals to their spiritual philosophy. When their second single “Gold Theory” hit BBC Radio in 2012 before they had even signed to Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, Gold told Complex: “The universe or whoever’s controlling this entire thing, put all these superficial stimuli around all of us… all you really need is inside of you.”
One of their most visually stunning videos, the mash-up of “Chasing Faith,” “Rain Dance,” and “Allusions” uses psychedelic visual effects that escalate from the subtle warping of a desert landscape, to thrusting the artists into a Fear and Loathing scenario where the lines between themselves begin to blur with the other-worldly neon bombardment of the Las Vegas strip.
Cohenbeats & Quelle Chris — “Daily Affirmations” (2017)
There’s a lot of power in affirmations, and if you follow Cohenbeats’ mantras — “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And God damn it people like me” — you’ll find yourself in a more positive space throughout the day. As Quelle Chirs repeats the mantra on “Daily Affirmations,” he raps about the many, many distractions that fuel his anxiety and imposter syndrome.
Animated in a simple style that looks like a mash-up of many animation techniques, Quelle dodges federal bullets and deals with career disappointments, but treasures everything that reminds him of his passion. As the verse and the mantras transition to second person, Quelle also reminds the viewer to treasure the simple things by walking them through his experience.
A Tribe Called Quest — “Jazz (We’ve Got) Buggin’ Out” (1991)
Camera work, creativity, and a smooth record are the building blocks of a good psychedelic video. Everything else is just extra. Dropping straight-forward rhythm and rhyme, the video for “Jazz (We’ve Got) Buggin’ Out” sees A Tribe Called Quest walking along the seafront in black and white. They seem to rock back and forth in odd juxtaposition with the skylines behind them until the backdrops fall out as printed paper. It’s a simple effect, but one they make great use of throughout the visual.
A surprise twist at the end shakes the viewer out of the hypnotic stupor cast by the trio’s flows. The video switches to color, and the MCs eyes bug out of their heads while they share a final bonus verse. It’s silly, surreal, and unexpected — like the sudden inconsistencies of a lingering dream.
Brandon is a young writer from Illinois. His love of storytelling draws him to hip hop and journalism.
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