‘Rap music changes faces in different societies’ (Krims, 2000: 5).
Whatever your opinion on hip-hop, its impact on contemporary popular music cannot be denied. From its humble origins on the blocks of the South Bronx, hip-hop has grown to be one of the largest and most popular music genres in the world. Where the innovators of the sound performed for ‘local fame, respect in the neighbourhood and the modest fees’ (George,  2005; 20), the biggest rappers now sell millions of units and can be seen endorsing all kinds of products, from popular consumer goods to their own brands (Parker, 2002). These artists can be heard the world over; and the global sound of hip-hop has seeped into the consciousness of people everywhere, spawning unique scenes as the voices become more localised and express variation. This popular music form has been transformed in numerous countries and into countless styles as fans and artists look to reflect their own cultural and local specificities (Webb, 2007). Hip-hop has adapted and mutated. Its elements have been soaked up by countless genres, to the point where the charts are almost saturated. It has survived and prospered, whilst others have been writing its obituary. The culture has come a long way.
The early development of what became known as hip-hop has been well documented so does not require great detail here (see for example Chang, 2005 or Fricke & Ahearne, 2002 for more in depth accounts). A humble party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the summer of 1973 is widely considered to be the place where the hip-hop sound was born. It was here where the Jamaican DJ Kool Herc laid the foundations for what would become the fundamental facet of the music for years to come. By looping the instrumental breaks of funk and soul records, he created the space for people to show off their skills on the dance floor. Alongside two other legends in Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, all three DJ’s garnered fame throughout the seventies in the Bronx and the wider New York metropolis. Kool Herc was known for his powerful sound system, Bambaataa for the wide variety of music he played and Flash for the technique of scratching, originally developed by Grand Wizard Theodore but perfected by Flash (Chang, 2005; Fricke & Ahearne, 2002). As the DJ rather than the music became the reason to go to shows, many DJ’s employed MC’s to address the crowd whilst they concentrated on spinning records and showing off their technique. The first MC, though he did not use the term himself, is recognised as Coke la Rock, who was known for addressing the crowd ‘in the style of the Jamaican sound system toasters’, using call and response techniques to involve the audience during Kool Herc’s shows (George,  2005; 17). Surprisingly, however, none of these innovators would be responsible for the song that exposed hip-hop to the rest of the USA and eventually the world. That accolade would go to the Sugar Hill Gang and Sylvia Robinson, the woman responsible for recording and releasing Rapper’s Delight through Sugar Hill Records. Essentially a manufactured product devised by the music industry to take advantage of a local craze, many hip-hoppers dismissed the group and its sound as inauthentic. Nevertheless, Rapper’s Delight exploded onto radio airwaves in October 1979, exposing many who had never heard hip-hop before to this strange new sound that would eventually take a world, weary with pop and disco, by storm (Krims, 2000). Its impact cannot be underestimated in inspiring hip-hop scenes throughout the world.
Much has been written about American hip-hop. Its perception as the ‘cradle of the music and the progenitor of its subsequent development’ has left many people deaf to hip-hop elsewhere, seeing the ‘authentic article’ as the essence and everything else as derivative imitation (Briggs & Cobley, 1999: 341). This has been to the detriment of hip-hop scenes in the rest of the world, particularly in those that share the same language as the US because there is even less to distinguish as original. Hip-hop, however, is extremely geographical in its nature. Whilst local hip-hop tends to evolve in constant dialogue with the original form, ‘cultural references….construct a fragment panorama of local knowledge that includes history and tradition’ unique to each locality (Androutsopoulos, 2009: 49). For most rappers, taking on hip-hop in their own language ferments an identity firmly rooted within a spatial context that is culturally distinct from the ghettos of America, where many US rappers hail. By speaking in their vernacular, rappers create a relationship with listeners who can relate to the content and also, perhaps more importantly, understand it fully, where previously hip-hop in another language may have been lost in translation. This is not only the case with different languages, but can also be seen with the different slang used, which becomes distinct on an even smaller scale, often distinguishing individual cities and even specific districts within them (Alim, 2009). It is through these ‘many voices’ that rappers in other Anglophone countries such as the UK and Australia attempt to discern themselves from America and represent their world (Peterson, 2002: 4). This use of vernacular is also employed in the US as a means for cities and regions to emphasise a musical identity outside the duopoly of Los Angeles and New York. Examples of this can be seen with the rise of the ‘Dirty South’ and to a lesser extent areas like Detroit and Chicago, where the use of a local vocabulary by popular artists has led to certain words becoming commonplace outside their expected spatial boundaries (Grem, 2006).
British rappers have taken this approach to step out of the shadow of their neighbours across the Atlantic, and devise a musical identity and sound that is wholly distinguishable and no longer merely imitation. Hip-hop has merged with other musical-cultural phenomena already prevalent in British society to become ‘an identifiably black British form’ that deals with ‘specific issues pertinent to a generation of black youths brought up in Britain’ (Wood, 2009: 176). Speaking not only for the black community, but also for the Asian and white working-class youths left abandoned by neo-liberal politics in the 1980’s and beyond, hip-hop has been used by rappers to tell ‘the story of a country that has elected to forget about many of its young people’ (Hancox, 2011b). Often confined to deteriorating council estates, these youths use hip-hop to articulate a voice that the state regularly ignores. The music’s hybridity has developed numerous different styles and has also formed the backbone for uniquely British creations such as jungle/drum & bass, garage and grime, utilising its aural sensibilities (Webb, 2007). Nevertheless, UK hip-hop still plays second fiddle to its US counterpart. For many, British music is epitomised by the sounds of Britpop, indie and electro, with some unable to name one UK rapper despite a scene having been in place for almost thirty years. For much of that time, London has been dominant as the source of UK hip-hop. Starting out in small localised pockets, the scene grew to incorporate all corners of the city with the music produced representing the ‘peculiarities of race and class formation in multicultural London’ (Codrington, 2005: 183). The scene has since proved to be a magnet for artists from elsewhere in the UK, attracted by the larger scene and a greater chance of commercial fame. Consequently, London has played a key role in the development of the UK hip-hop scene as a whole and continues to do so even today.
This thesis will look to provide a sociological and historical analysis of the development of the London hip-hop scene. I feel this is relevant research to undertake because as Krims states, ‘the lack of substantial discussion of non-American rap music….leaves a theoretical hole’ (2000: 157) and that needs to be corrected. This is particularly the case with UK hip-hop, where there has been very little substantial research completed on the scene and its artists. Focus instead has been concentrated on other hip-hop scenes, such as those in the US or France, or other genres of British music such as rock, punk, jungle/drum & bass and grime. Having grown-up in East London and been a fan of hip-hop since the age of eleven, I have witnessed the development of the scene over the course of the last thirteen years and as such I have an avid interest in both its history and its future. As a performer of hip-hop myself, I have always paid great attention to rappers past and present in order to learn from them and gain a vital insight into the workings of the London scene. As a result, I feel this project will help me personally learn more about a music scene that I am already very passionate about and I hope this could perhaps be a reference point for other fans of UK hip-hop in the future. In many discussions on hip-hop, the grassroots are often ignored in favour of much larger international artists, with many academics and writers appearing to forget that every artist had to start as an unknown rapper in a local scene. Consequently, I have attempted to write not only about the artists involved in the music, but also about the infrastructure of the scene itself and the external political and sociological impacts that have affected the lives of those involved; a relevant research to undertake given the current economic climate and subsequent unrest. Much of my information has been garnered from books, articles, magazines and websites, some of which have dedicated themselves to cataloguing the rises and falls of UK hip-hop, displaying that there is a need for more writings like this one. I do not, however, claim that this project is by any means definitive, that would require many more words and pages, but I hope this will provide a basis to encourage more people to explore and write about British hip-hop in the future. UK hip-hop is a vast and expansive topic that academics and writers have so far only tentatively explored, and as a style that has existed for almost thirty years it deserves far more coverage. As Tricia Rose stated in the introduction to Black Noise, ‘it is my firm belief that this project…..will foster the development of more globally focused projects’ (1994: xiv). Unfortunately this did not happen on the scale that I am sure she had hoped, which is why I believe that the following text on the London hip-hop scene is important to the study of hip-hop as a whole, as well as to many other disciplines.
Reppin’ the Ends: Identity and Sense of Place within a Music Scene
Peterson and Bennett define a local music scene as follows:
‘A focused social activity that takes place in a delimited space and over a specific span of time in which clusters of producers, musicians and fans realise their common musical taste, collectively distinguishing themselves from others by using cultural signs often appropriated from other places, but recombined and developed in ways that come to represent the local scenes’ (2004: 8).
Music scenes tend to assimilate while also marginalising. They regularly work within defined boundaries that their members adhere to, be it musical, geographical or social, often forming community camaraderie through networks of artists and fans. It is through this ‘critical mass’ that a scene can flourish, with a willing audience consuming the products created by the musicians or artists in question (Connell & Gibson, 2002: 101). However, this consumption can occur in a different way to the corporate model of the mainstream music industry, with a dedicated network of collectives and volunteers and a DIY ethic supporting the scene and helping it develop. Music scenes appear to be an area often ignored by academics, with people like Sara Cohen calling for more detailed studies to ‘help illustrate the way in which scenes are lived, experienced and imagined by particular groups’ (1999 quoted in Webb, 2007: 29). This particularly appears to be the case with hip-hop, where the genre is often overlooked in favour of studies into rock or punk. However, this is now beginning to change as hip-hop enters its third decade as a commercial, and its fourth as a cultural, product.
‘The term ‘scene’ is often deployed interchangeably with the notion of a music subculture’, so it is not surprising that academics would want to write about hip-hop and the four elements that incorporate its culture (Olson, 1998: 270). Within a genre like hip-hop there are often a number of different levels to a local scene. Becker (1982) lists three groupings of people that can often be found in an art scene, and these can be interpreted to describe some of the various planes of hip-hop. What Becker described as the ‘integrated professionals’ (p228) could be seen as the mainstream artists who often stick within the expected music industry conventions of hip-hop and consequently follow a ready-made blueprint, finding commercial success. Becker’s ‘mavericks’ (p233) could be the underground MC’s who are more inclined to experiment and be more innovative in their music, finding a much smaller appreciative audience as a result. Finally the ‘folk art’ (p246) of the scene could be the open mics and informal freestyle sessions that provide rappers with their first opportunity to perform but are rarely documented. It is often these oral traditions that shape a music scene, particularly in its early development when information spreads by word of mouth and events become legends told only by those who were there.
As the two most prolific producers of hip-hop artists in the US, the New York and Los Angeles scenes dominate writings in academia, with particular focus on localities such as Brooklyn, Compton, South Bronx and South Central. Key writings on hip-hop, such as those by Rose (1994) and Potter (1995), analyse in great detail the impact of rappers from these vicinities on a variety of topics, displaying the influence these two cities have had on the development of hip-hop’s sound. Writings on hip-hop have also tended to put emphasis on the mainstream artists whose work is better known, sacrificing analysis of the more underground scenes in the process. Recently, this trend has slowly changed with a number of writers investigating these more experimental arenas. One such description of a local scene is Marcyliena Morgan’s (2009) account of the underground hip-hop scene in Los Angeles centred around the venue Project Blowed in Leimert Park, which assesses the ways both artists and fans interact with the scene and express their identities through performance and association. In recent years, writings on the US have expanded to incorporate other, somewhat smaller city scenes that have perhaps punched above their weight commercially. For example, the rise of Eminem and the retrospective reputation of producer J Dilla have seen an increase in the number of pages dedicated to Detroit and an emergent roster of artists coming out of the degeneration of the Motor City. Similarly, the rise of artists from southern states such as Georgia, Florida and Alabama, more commonly referred as the ‘Dirty South’, has seen an increase in media and academic coverage, examples of which include Krims’(2000) writing on Goodie Mob and commentaries on the rise of the southern scenes by Miller (2004) and Grem (2006). Chicago is another city to have attracted attention with alumni like Kanye West, Common and Lupe Fiasco stepping out of housing projects such as Cabrini Green and garnering much commercial success and acclaim. Nevertheless, writings on US hip-hop dominate in comparison to works focused elsewhere.
As Krims (2000) states, scholarly focus on US hip-hop ‘slights the vast majority of the world’, where, in some cases, local scenes have been present for years and continue to develop (p6). This, however, is starting to be rectified as more texts have been penned dedicated to the growing international hip-hop culture, and the local and trans-local scenes it incorporates. Notable texts written about scenes outside the US include Bennett’s research on Frankfurt (1999a) and Newcastle (1999b) which goes into much detail about two cities not necessarily known for their hip-hop, and how fans and artists interrelate to establish a dedicated community of enthusiasts. Two notable books by Mitchell (1996 & 2001) have brought together texts from places as varied as Europe, Africa, North America and Asia, dedicated to assessing the local hip-hop scenes and providing plenty of perceptions into just how varied the spatialisation of hip-hop sounds from different localities are (Forman, 2000). In a similar vein, Durand’s (2002) book collated a number of articles written about Francophone hip-hop, providing extremely detailed accounts of the second largest hip-hop scene in the world and its linguistic partners. Much of these writings, however, have been consigned to a few articles in journals or collections with very few academics going on to write books dedicated to one specific scene. There are some exceptions to this such as Condry’s (2006) book on Japan, Maxwell’s (2003) on Australia and Kaya’s (2001) on Turkish rappers in Germany, all of which provide great insights into the dynamics of local hip-hop scenes and display their uniqueness in comparison to others around the world. Predominantly, writings on international hip-hop scenes tend to focus on those outside the Anglophone world, where the appropriation of hip-hop through the use of their own language provides a vehicle of expression for youth as they move from adoption to adaption of the US idiom, providing a deeper connection with their place of origin (Hutnyk, 2006). A perfect example of this is the collection of articles in Alim et al (2009) that concentrate on the variety of linguistic flows that are prevalent in global hip-hop.
‘Increasingly, it is argued, geography doesn’t matter’ within music and music scenes (Kruse, 2009: 210). The ‘merging of space and place has arguably been a fundamental aspect of capitalism’ (Krims, 2007: 35), especially with the expansion of the internet in this globalising world enabling people to reach ever more information without leaving their homes (Massey, 1994). As a result, it could be argued that ‘the increasingly global nature of communication….has made the non-local community an increasingly common affair’ rendering the concept of a local, concentrated scene obsolete (Schloss, 2004: 4). Despite this, local music scenes still exist, asserting their own culture and identity onto genres of music known throughout the world. It is out of a local scene originally focused on the neglected urban spatial boundaries of the Bronx that hip-hop first emerged, and geography and geographical theory play a key role in this genre where place is an important identifiable aspect (Jeffries, 2011). However, with the internet easily accessible for a large swathe of the world’s population in the 21st century and the ever increasing cuts on the arts instilled by the recent world recession (Higgins, 2011), it could be argued that perhaps hip-hop is one of the last modern genres to be grounded in place in the globalised world. Massey states that ‘places can be conceptualised in terms of the social interactions which they tie together’ (1994: 155), and this can be seen with music scenes focused around a specific place, as the interactions between fans and artists and their audience create the community that forges a scene within a locality. In music scenes, place can be determined as not only a physical setting, such as a city, but also a social location where the interactions and connections between fans and artists can spread beyond the boundaries of the city into the entire UK, and perhaps even further into the wider and globalised hip-hop nation (Staeheli, 2003; Chang, 2005). With this in mind, it becomes impossible to analyse hip-hop at any spatial level without taking into account the external influences that have had an impact on the music and the development of the scene itself. Nevertheless, the deliberate creation of local hip-hop scenes in reaction to mainstream hip-hop can lead a focus on place to be seen as ‘necessarily reactionary’ as people attempt to assert an identity onto hip-hop that they don’t feel is represented by the commercial music that gains global coverage (Massey, 1994: 147).
Popular music ‘alters our understanding of the local’ but it also ‘augments our appreciation of place’ (Lipsitz, 1994:3). According to Keith and Pile (1993), place provides the basis of a stable identity and, as anyone who has listened to hip-hop will testify, ‘MC’s tend to make a big deal about their place of birth’ (Bradley, 2009: 126). Music can often be seen as the ‘basis of struggles over social and collective identity’ as social groupings often develop through a mutual music taste, which can then mutate into a music scene if a critical mass of artists and fans exist (Hesmondhalgh, 2001: 274). As a result, hip-hop can be seen as a tool for identity building, as in the last few decades it has provided a platform for more marginalised people to have a voice than any other genre, pushing those who are often silenced by the state and media into the purview of the public (Jeffries, 2011). With this stage to express their identity, a means to communicate their cultural foundations is provided. These are commonly anchored within geographical space and are often articulated through the use of reference points such as the name of their hometown or identifiable landmarks within it (Black, 1996). This focus by rappers on their hometown and place of birth stems from a sense of ‘belonging’ that enforces their idea of a sense of place based around their neighbourhood (Cresswell, 1996). Through this is created a form of identity ‘grounded in affinities and coalitions’ (Bondi, 1993: 98), such as the crews that rappers align themselves with in their communities. This stems from identity politics and the question of ‘where am I?’ in relation to those around us. Within hip-hop ideology, however, this identity is contested and reversed and instead of questioning where I am, the statement becomes an assertion that ‘I am here’, originating from the braggadocio raps of hip-hop’s early years (Bondi, 1993; Bradley, 2009). It is in this way that a form of connection with the listener is established through the belief that the music ‘can convey images of that place’ and give a sense of what it feels like to live there (Kong, 1995).
Out of this can develop the struggle ‘to impose the dominant definition’ of what hip-hop is, as rappers attempt to resolve the internal conflict between authenticity and originality (Bourdieu, 1993: 42). This can have a major impact on the identities that people form within a music scene, creating tensions and splits that can create new local scenes, adapting the accepted blueprint of the music. This is essentially what has happened with the London hip-hop scene, which emerged as a British alternative to the US scenes, but has since diverged into different genres and into different cities where artists are representing their own identity. Although considerable scenes have been established in other cities and are now receiving the attention they deserve, the presence of a substantial hip-hop scene like that in London enabled potential artists the opportunity to leave the places of their youth. As a result, rappers like Jehst, Braintax and The Streets moved to London from their respective home towns, attracted by a larger scene that is seemingly ‘more inspiring’ and increases their chances of success in hip-hop (Connell & Gibson, 2003; Gazi, 1997c). ‘The notion of hip-hop creatively expands according to who and where forms are deployed’ and this can be seen in the UK where a series of small localised scenes developed into a London scene and the scenes in each major city have grown to involve the UK as a whole (Hutnyk, 2006: 123). These small localised groupings developed out of the networks established by the reggae sound system culture established by the Caribbean communities in Britain’s major cities. These sound systems focused on concepts of community, unity and communality that were integral to the development of UK hip-hop and helped provide the small clubs, record shops and distributors without which the scene would have struggled to survive (Wood, 2009). For many British youths, hip-hop replaced reggae as the music to ‘document their own history’ (Back, 1996: 193) and it is through the reggae sound system culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s that any analysis of London hip-hop should begin.
Wheel and Come Again: London’s Sound System Culture
The culture of the sound system in the UK arrived with Jamaican immigrants who migrated to Britain in the 1950’s, in search of work promised due to a lack of able labour after the Second World War. Growing out of the ‘embryonic network of jazz clubs that had existed in London since the 1930’s and 1940’s’, the music and dance culture amongst black communities in Britain increased greatly (Jones, 1988: 33). These clubs, such as The 59, Flamingo, and Sunset in Soho and Contemperanean in Mayfair, catered for a more general West Indian taste playing American blues and soul as well as calypso and Latin American music, and were extremely popular within London’s Caribbean community (Hebdige, 1987). As the first wave of Jamaican immigrants tended to originate from the countryside, it was not until the more urban second wave arrived in the mid-1950’s that the practice of the sound system was established. These migrants brought their own music with them from Jamaica and it was not long before they set up ‘shebeens’, or blues parties. ‘Shebeens’ were often held in private residences or basements as regular Saturday night parties for the Caribbean workers who were excluded from the traditional places of British entertainment (Jones, 1988). By 1955 these were well established. Widely regarded as the first sound systems in Britain, the Ladbroke Grove based Duke Vin’s The Ticker and Count Suckle’s sound were regularly asked to DJ the larger of these parties, playing mainly American blues and soul. In Britain these sound systems had to strictly imitate the Jamaican sound and equipment as operators ‘knew it had to be how it was in Jamaica, because it was the same Jamaican people they were dealing with’, meaning that there were only a small number of technicians capable of building the powerful rigs required (Bradley, 2000: 118)
It was not until the late-1950’s and early-1960’s that Jamaican music began to dominate the sound systems in Britain. Much of this emerged out of the demands for recorded music within the black communities, which were predominantly Jamaican in demographic, as their autonomous cultural, economic and leisure institutions expanded. This level of demand can be seen through the fact that during the 1960’s, sales of Jamaican records in Britain were often higher than sales in Jamaica, displaying the popularity of Jamaican music in cities like London (Jones, 1988). This popularity brought artists such as Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster across the Atlantic to participate in tours around the country, which often proved much more lucrative for them in comparison to single sales. Nevertheless, sound systems were still largely responsible for disseminating the music and Duke Vin’s sound system is considered to be one of the first to rely on purely Jamaican music, imported from Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One (Hebdige, 1987). In addition, the popularity of Count Suckle led to a regular Sunday night session at the Flamingo in 1963 and later The Roaring Twenties on Carnaby Street, playing ‘real Jamaican music every night’ and attracting a high-profile clientele to ska (Bradley, 2000: 145). By the late-1960’s, sound systems had been established in every major black community in Britain and became an important survival strategy and source of income for a younger generation that suffered greatly from unemployment and discrimination. Many of these systems were run by people who adopted the names of their Jamaican forebears, such as Sir Coxsone and Duke Reid, further strengthening the link with Jamaica.
By the late-1970’s a vibrant, youth orientated sound system culture had been established in almost every major urban area in Britain, as the popularity of reggae and dub increased. Many of these sound systems preferred to play more roots orientated music that brought a greater political and conscious edge to the crowds, in parallel with the increasingly popular Rastafarian beliefs and dreads. Examples of these kinds of systems included Jah Shaka in North London, Frontline International in Brixton and Saxon International in Lewisham (Jones, 1988). It was also around this time that British reggae artists began to make a name for themselves and the Sufferer Hi-Fi Sound system, run by prolific dub producer Dennis Bovell, emerged as one of the first in the 1970’s to play British reggae from artists such as Steel Pulse, Matumbi and Aswad. Nevertheless, the majority of sound systems still preferred to play what they saw as the original sound coming out of Jamaica, rather than the perceived second-hand imitation of British artists (Bradley, 2000). There were some people, however, who became disillusioned with the perceived aggressiveness and male-oriented roots movement in Britain, and out of that emerged lover’s rock in the mid to late-1970’s. Coming out of Lloydie Coxsone’s talent nights at the Four Aces club in Dalston, where he noticed female performers singing over dubplates, lover’s rock was a lighter alternative to roots reggae, orientated towards couples dancing. This brought more women to the sound systems playing that style of music, such as Soferno B in Streatham and Success Sound in North London, and also established a number of female artists like Carroll Thompson and Louisa Marks (Jones, 1988).
By the 1980’s, sound systems in Britain began to fuse reggae and soul with a new form of music that was coming out of New York called hip-hop. Two sound systems in particular that played an important role in this fusion of music were Saxon International and Mastermind Roadshow, though their impacts differed greatly. Saxon was set up in 1976 in Deptford in South London by Dennis Rowe and Lloyd Francis, though it was not until the 1980’s that they garnered the reputation that would lead to them becoming the most popular reggae system in the UK. Much of this popularity was gained not so much by the DJ’s or the music played, but by the group of talented MC’s they had at their disposal who established the ‘fast-chat’ style that is now associated with British reggae (Wood, 2009). Originally developed by vocalist Peter King in 1982, ‘fast-chat’ reggae involved much more complex lyrics, often spinning narratives spoken in a faster time than standard reggae with the ‘booming bass and the spacey drum work’ falling away with the Rasta themes of old (Black, 1996; Hebdige, 1987: 142). The stand out MC’s of this sound were Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, but others included Daddy Colonel, Phillip Levi, Asher Senator and Sister C. Smiley Culture was easily the most notable with his single Police Officer reaching number 12 in the charts in 1984 and its acclaimed predecessor Cockney Translation also reaching the top 40. Although fairly short lived, the successes of the Saxon MC’s would, as ‘reggae’s answer to rap’ (Hebdige, 1987: 141), encourage early hip-hop artists like London Posse and MC Mell’O to pick up the microphone and ‘chat ‘British’’ (Adebayo, 2011).
Whilst Saxon International was known for its influence in fusing reggae and hip-hop, Mastermind Roadshow is often cited as one of the forebears of electro hip-hop. The Mastermind Roadshow was a group of eight DJ’s from Harlesden who came together in the late-1970’s, bringing a fusion of funk, soul, electro and hip-hop (Hind & Mosco, 1985). The sound system made its name through popular sessions at the Notting Hill Carnival playing high energy sets, consisting primarily of soul and funk. By 1982, they had incorporated the electro hip-hop of artists like Afrika Bambaataa into their repertoire, and thanks to their Notting Hill sets and regular Wednesday night slots on soul pirate station Invicta, they garnered a reputation as the ‘best rapping, scratching and mixing crew in London’ and are considered one of the pioneers of the hip-hop sound system movement in Britain, alongside people like Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper (Ibid: 23). Through their sets and the MC’s that performed with them, they were able to inspire a number of next generation British rappers, who would become influential in the early growth of London hip-hop.
Formation: The Early Years of London Hip-Hop 1979-1984
Rapper’s Delight had a big impact in the UK, reaching number three in the December 1979 singles chart, no mean feat considering the notoriously conservative chart radio shows on stations such as Radio One (Wood, 2009; Bradley, 2000). By this point, however, other aspects of hip-hop culture had already made their way across the Atlantic and onto Britain’s council estates. Break-dancing and graffiti had progressively increased in popularity as a means to rebel and subvert the expected roles of urban space for the disaffected youth of the Callaghan and Thatcher governments. As in the United States, though to a lesser extent, the inner cities of Britain were struck by a series of spending cuts that increased in severity as the 1970’s progressed into the 1980’s.
Under the Labour government of James Callaghan, the International Monetary Fund ‘imposed massive public expenditure cuts across the range of social and welfare programmes’ as a means of intervening in the poor state of the British economy (Bridges, 1981: 173). This led to a marked decrease in investment that had a damaging effect on the working class. As a result, populations in the inner cities of London, Glasgow and other major urban areas decreased, as those that could afford it escaped the degradation that affected the abandoned districts of these cities. Those that remained were faced with increasing unemployment and an alienation from governance that pushed many towards radical groups both on the left and the right (ibid). Many of those affected most by these cuts were youths straight out of school who showed their disaffection more and more as unrest became a frequent occurrence. In London this progressed into riots in Notting Hill in 1976, Southall in 1979 and Brixton in 1981 (Sivanandan, 1981).
With Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 came further cuts, of which the inner cities bore the brunt. The neo-liberal economics of her Conservative government ‘led to the collapse of the youth labour market in the 1980’s’ (Stenner & Marschall, 1999:297); leaving many youths unemployed and ignored as spending on law and order and defence took priority over housing, health, education and social services (Bridges, 1981). Local authority budgets were slashed and their influence diminished, as they were forced to compete against each other for government support, turning equal opportunities into ‘equal opportunism’ (Sivanandan, 1989 quoted in Kundnani, 2007: 47). This resulted in isolating those who did not fit within the economic priorities of a government that encouraged investment and regeneration of the inner cities, with a focus on removing those without in favour of those with means (Bridges, 1981).
It is understandable that during this period, a culture born out of similar economic conditions as the ghettos of New York under Ronald Reagan would begin to take hold amongst youths in Britain (Codrington, 2005). Those who had family ties in New York or made trips to the US were the ‘gatekeepers’, responsible for slowly bringing mixtapes and images of graffiti and break dancing over the Atlantic, encouraging small groups to try and imitate what was going on (HHC Digital, 2009). With the release of Rapper’s Delight and an increase in the coverage of these styles, particularly graffiti, in newspapers and magazines, more people became aware of it and this sparked a relative explosion in popularity as young people attempted to ‘make London sound, move and look just like the South Bronx’ (Desai, 2008). For the next few years, break dancing took off in a big way and it was not long before more mainstream avenues were opening up to take advantage of its marketing potential. These early breakers and graffiti artists were joined by others encouraged to pick up a spray can or start popping, through the visual representation of these styles in mediums such as the music video for Blondie’s Rapture in 1980, the films Flashdance and Wild Style, and the documentary Style Wars, all released in 1983. By 1986, however, the numbers of b-boys and b-girls slowly diminished as commercialism, encouraged by the Thatcherite belief in a ‘new brand of youth consumption’ (Osgerby, 1998: 159), diluted the culture and disillusioned many involved within it (Gazi, 1997c).
Similarly to the breakers and graffiti artists, another aspect of hip-hop culture grew in popularity in the early 1980’s, as more people took to the ‘wheels of steel’ to spin records. Many of the early hip-hop DJ’s started out on the sound systems that existed around London ‘passed on to a new generation interested in new forms of music making’ that focused on a range of styles from reggae to funk and electro to rap (Black, 1996: 191). It was through Rapper’s Delight and artists like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 and Kool Moe Dee, to name but a few, that many moved onto hip-hop. In particular, Afrika Bambaataa’s influential Planet Rock, released in 1982, made a big impression with its universal and inclusive message showing that people outside of New York and the US could also be part of the hip-hop nation (Chang, 2005). During this period, it would be common in areas of London to see youths digging in the crates of charity shops or local record shops in search of records to sample or the latest hip-hop 12-inch from the US, courtesy of StreetSounds. StreetSounds was a British record label established by Morgan Khan in 1982 and was the first to distribute American hip-hop in Britain, enabling many fans to buy copies of their favourite tracks or albums from their local record shops. The releases on StreetSounds were extremely popular and influential, particularly the electro series that ‘was largely responsible for introducing hip-hop to the UK’ and would spawn an LP featuring the first British appropriations of rap (StreetSounds, 2011; Oliver, 1990).
Pirates on the Airwaves
In Britain pirate radio has been integral in exposing those dedicated to surfing the airwaves to new forms of music, both home-grown and imported from elsewhere. From the establishment of stations like Radio Caroline in the 1960’s, broadcasting from offshore ships to play the popular pop and rock hits more often; to modern stations like Rinse FM broadcasting from high rise estates, numerous people have attempted to utilise transmitters in order to provide the music that the majority of mainstream radio refuse to play or simply haven’t noticed (Boyd, 1986; Topping 2010).
Coinciding with a rise in the number of pirate stations, hip-hop has been a genre that has benefitted greatly from a generation plundering the frequencies. Two stations in particular played a vital role in the progression of the early London scene; they were Radio Invicta and London Weekend Radio (LWR). Radio Invicta started in 1970 with the motivation of playing soul music that couldn’t be heard on mainstream radio. Unlike other soul pirates, however, Invicta was much more open to embracing the newer styles and was the first to involve hip-hop. Taking a particular interest in the electro-oriented sound coming out of New York, Invicta was the first to have an American hip-hop artist as a guest in Fab Five Freddy, and through Mastermind Roadshow’s six hour sets listeners could hear some of the latest sounds from the US (Hinds & Mosco, 1985).
LWR started out as a rock and pop pirate airing only on Saturdays, but by 1985, thanks predominantly to Tim Westwood’s hip-hop show, it was a 24 hour, seven days a week black music station. Beginning on Wednesday nights in 1983, Westwood’s show became the six day a week home of hip-hop, providing music to households all over London (Hebdige, 1987). For many hip-hop fans, Westwood’s show not only exposed them to the newest joints coming out of New York but also kept them updated on the latest hip-hop events within the city. With such a small scene in the early days, this proved the principal means of informing fans and helped get people along to clubs, jams and gigs that they may not have otherwise been aware of. The ‘bible of London b-boys’ (Hind & Mosco, 1985: 25) helped develop a fragmented scene and bring fans of the music together, to establish newly formed networks of support and creation. One innovative aspect of Westwood’s show was that he not only played hip-hop coming from the US but also gave airtime to local artists who sent in their mixtapes, a means that helped the likes of Family Quest get their first big break. This aspect of his show ‘provided a soundtrack for Britain’s city-based youth’ because not only was it aimed at the younger generation but it was their own music that was being played (Hebdige, 1987: 156)
Pirate radio’s position as the voice of the city-based youth stemmed from the fact that, like reggae in the 1970’s and rock & roll in the 1950’s, the majority of mainstream radio deemed hip-hop a ‘novelty form with no long term future’ and so ignored any impact it had (Brackett, 1999; Wood, 2009: 176). A lack of mainstream radio support meant the London scene became much more localised. Much of this localised popularity came out of the limited signal strength of the transmitters that pirates used, creating London hip-hop that ‘developed through a series of localised scenes’ as rappers obtained a reputation that stretched as far as the signal of the station they were on (Wood, 2009: 176; Codrington, 2005). Even with the limited support that legal radio now gives hip-hop in Britain, many rappers still turn to the pirates first with an exclusive release, where they know their music will get the coverage it deserves.
Pirate radio, however, has never been a favourite of the authorities. Under the Conservative government of the 1980’s, there was an attempt to crack down on pirates. The stations were portrayed by ministers as stealing copyrights and taking away listeners from mainstream radio, so in 1984 the Radio Investigation Service (RIS) was set up. The RIS was given permission to search for and repeatedly raid the locations of pirate broadcasts, seizing the unauthorised broadcasting equipment, and anything else they wished, without a court order and fining the stations involved (Boyd, 1986). As a result, many pirates were forced off the air until they could obtain another transmitter to resume their broadcast. In some cases this would be a matter of weeks, but for many a lack of funds would force them to cease broadcasting entirely because of repeated raids. The dedication of listeners would be tested as they searched the frequencies every day in order to know whether a show had returned. This allegiance to certain stations would be pushed further with the Broadcasting Act of 1990 that made advertising on pirates illegal. With no other source of funds, many pirates faced a dilemma whether to go legal or cease to exist; but with a license came the compromises of broadcasting restrictions and business pressure, losing credibility with their original audience (Thornton, 1995). Nevertheless, pirates have survived and thrived, providing the real sound of the streets and helping aspiring MC’s develop their careers.
One of the first occasions where every aspect of hip-hop culture was brought together in one place in Britain was in 1982 with Afrika Bambaataa’s hip-hop world tour. This tour brought DJ’s such as Bambaataa and GrandMixer DXT, rappers Rammellzee and Fab 5 Freddy, graffiti artists Dondi, Phase 2 and Futura and the legendary breakers the Rock Steady Crew to audiences across Europe and Asia, many of whom had never seen or heard styles like it before. Although for those involved the tour was not a success, with small crowds and lacklustre audiences, for the few in the UK who saw it, it was a real eye-opener and sparked an interest in graffiti and break dancing (Chang, 2005). This would be the first of many trips made by Afrika Bambaataa to the UK as he looked to promote hip-hop and the beliefs of his Universal Zulu Nation beyond the shores of America. There had been previous instances of American hip-hop being brought to the UK as part of a tour for a British band, such as the graffiti writer Futura with The Clash in 1981 and The Supreme Team with Malcolm McLaren, but the tour of 1982 was the first time when all the aspects of hip-hop culture could be found in one place (Hunter, 1998). The tour would also be the inspiration for a number of attempts in the UK to start a form of hip-hop festival, such as Freestyle ’85 in Covent Garden and UK Fresh, started by Morgan Khan and originally held in Wembley Arena in 1986, attracting 16,000 people. One of the most successful, however, was the ‘Hip-Hop Jam’ of 1984, a hip-hop festival at the South Bank that was backed by the Greater London Council and attracted 35,000 people purely through advertising on pirate radio (Hind & Mosco, 1985).
It was not long before rappers were getting involved in the scene, performing at jams and occasionally recording cassettes. One such venue where jams were common was the Language Lab, which opened its doors in Soho in 1982 and became one of the first clubs to embrace hip-hop, taking music out of the mainstream discos and into the more underground venues (Black, 1996). Stuck in a conflict between paying homage to where hip-hop came from and an original sound, many of the first artists tended to imitate American performers to an electro sound that lacked any originality and was indistinguishable from the music coming from across the Atlantic (Connell & Gibson, 2003). Primarily a ‘live phenomenon’ in the early years with crudely recorded cassette tapes passing hand to hand, there was very little in recorded material to show (McNally, 2008c). Cheap pop imitations of the hip-hop sound such as Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals and Adam Ant’s Ant Rap, alongside attempts by bands like Wham!, were the only real examples of anything that could remotely be considered a British appropriation. Other less embarrassing examples could be found more tenuously within the music of Ian Dury and the Blockheads or in the releases by British born American rappers Slick Rick and Young MC, but there was little that was genuinely British hip-hop. This changed with the release of a compilation of Electro hip-hop on Street Sounds entitled UK Electro. Although primarily a manufactured project by three Manchester based musicians it did have a big influence and was joined by tracks like Richie Rich’s Don’t be Flash (McNally, 2008a). However, these early recordings were almost indistinguishable from those coming from New York and it took a DJ by the name of Newtrament to bring a much more British flavour.
London Bridge is Falling Down: UK Hip-Hop begins to find its voice
Bertram Johnson, better known as Newtrament, was a London-based DJ who teamed up with MC Sir Drew and DJ Mr Mix to record what is widely considered to be the first British rap song London Bridge is Falling Down (Hunter, 1998). Released on Jive in 1984, it was ‘one of the first British tunes to make references to the land of its origins’ through its mention of the ‘boys in blue’ and its message about the state of electoral politics in Britain (Louw, 2007: 210). The ‘cod American accent’, however, was still in effect and would continue to be present in most British releases during the 1980’s as British MC’s continued to wrestle with their own identity and the authenticity of their music. The Newtrament Krew were influential in establishing jams around London that helped further interest in hip-hop and also brought together the small clusters of interest that existed. The London hip-hop scene at this point consisted predominantly of small localised scenes with many people ‘unaware it was going on in other parts of town’ so these jams were important, particularly in Covent Garden which became the ‘first city-wide focal point for hip-hop in the capital’ (HHC Digital, 2009). As well as helping bring the scene together in London, the Newtrament Krew also helped create links between the scenes in London and Bristol, regularly hosting jams with the Wild Bunch in both cities (Hunter, 1998).
From 1984, Covent Garden became the place for fans and practitioners of hip-hop to congregate, giving the scene a momentum and focus that until then it had lacked. Another important venue during this period was a club called Spats, at 37 Oxford Street. Open on Saturday lunch times between 1984 and 1986, Spats was hosted by Tim Westwood and was highly influential. It was one of the few clubs that permitted youths aged between 10 and 21, allowing them to hear hip-hop and see rappers and DJ’s perform that are now considered some the innovators of the UK sound (McNally, 2009). The resident MC’s at Spats were Family Quest. They achieved that status after submitting a mixtape to Tim Westwood’s radio show on LWR, and catching the ear of the host. The group are also credited with recording the first song that created a distinctive UK sound, incorporating a reggae vibe, and made ‘a point of differentiating between vocabularies of UK and US rappers’ with Outer Space 84 Rap, released in 1984 on Jungle Rhythm (McNally, 2008a).
By the mid-1980’s, London hip-hop was epitomised by break dancing and body popping in Covent Garden, freestyle jams at the Africa Centre and warehouse parties or ‘train jams’ across the city (Lewis, 1998; Desai, 2008). Much of the music, however, was still predominantly live. This changed after 1984 as more records began to seep into the market on the back of UK Electro and Newtrament, although the output was still very limited. This was mainly due to a lack of label support and a lack of funds, with most records being funded out of the pockets of the artists themselves, a practice that is still the case for many MC’s (McNally, 2008b). As a result, live jams and rap competitions were the most lucrative form for rappers to get their music heard. Nevertheless, as early as 1985 UK hip-hop was attracting some major label interest and Dizzi Heights was one of the first, signing to Parlophone where he released five singles (britishhiphop.co.uk, 2005).
In the latter half of the 1980’s, the London hip-hop scene began to gather momentum. On the back of a very successful Freestyle’85 that brought ‘a more genuine insight into the subculture’ and highlighted a scene that was building an apparent strong footing, more people began to show an interest in hip-hop (Onyera, 1985). It was not only the general public who were taking an interest, but also the mainstream media. In 1987, the BBC commissioned the documentary Bad Meaning Good, which gave an insight into the scene as it was at that time, covering all aspects of hip-hop and interviewing some of the prominent artists such as Sindecut, Cookie Crew and London Posse. Shortly after, BBC Two ran a magazine show entitled Behind the Beat which ran until 1990, regularly featuring aspects of hip-hop culture and well known MC’s from both sides of the Atlantic. Licensed radio also began to finally take notice of hip-hop with Capital Radio handing Mike Allen a hip-hop show in 1986 that would be hosted by Tim Westwood from 1988 and Dave Pearce had a drive-time and later Sunday night show on GLR (britishhiphop.co.uk, 2005). Britain could also boast one of the first publications dedicated to hip-hop in the world with the launch of Hip-Hop Connection in May 1989. Growing out of a phone line information service, it would initially give equal weighting to UK and US hip-hop, but with the need for increased revenue and the dissipation of the UK scene in the 1990’s the focus increasingly turned to American artists. Nevertheless, Hip-Hop Connection was always a vital publication for many UK hip-hop fans until its collapse in 2009, by which time it had become the longest running monthly hip-hop periodical ever (Burrell, 2008).
One of the most important events in the development of UK hip-hop music was the creation of Music of Life in 1986. Music of Life was an independent record label based in Soho and founded by Simon Harris that eventually became one of the first labels to solely distribute UK hip-hop (Hesmondhalgh & Melville, 2001). The label began life producing compilations of US hip-hop but, due to the cost of acquiring licenses to use the records, Music of Life turned to its A&R man Derek Boland to fill the gap with the record Rock the Beat. This parody of American rap would give birth to Boland as the rapper Derek B. Derek B would become one of the first UK hip-hop artists to break into the mainstream charts with the song Good Groove in 1988, and must be credited for proving to American and British audiences that a British hip-hop scene existed and was on the rise, despite deploying a fake American accent (Emery, 2009). Derek B was also influential in signing to Music of Life artists who would be successful as the 1980’s progressed. Such artists included MC Duke, Asher D, the eleven year-olds Demon Boyz and the group Hijack. Hijack and Derek B were probably the most prominent on the Music of Life roster, with both later signing to American labels in Tuff Audio and Rhyme Syndicate respectively and their albums Bullet from a Gun and Horns of Jericho selling well (Emery, 2009; Gazi, 1997a).
There was one group in particular during the 1980’s that captured the imagination of hip-hop fans and artists alike with their sound coming across the Atlantic, and that was Run DMC. Run DMC were a trio from New York who stood out greatly from the artists that had preceded them through their ‘integration of social commentary, diverse musical elements and uncompromising cultural identification’, that greatly appealed to those in Britain looking for validation that hip-hop could be done differently (Dyson, 2004: 62). The influence that Run DMC had was furthered by the music of Public Enemy in the late-1980’s, whose hardcore sound and conscious lyrics found a willing audience in Britain. It would be these artists who provided British hip-hop with an ‘aggressive shot in the arm’ and brought a resurgence to the music as interest in graffiti and break dancing waned (Oliver, 1990: 4). It would be DJing that first provided international success, as the worldwide DMC DJ Championships was dominated by victorious British artists for three of the first five years between 1985 and 1989 (DMC, 2011). Rappers, however, were not far behind and they were finding their own voice, developing hip-hop ‘in a uniquely British style’ (Webb, 2007: 111). Hijack’s Style Wars, released on Music of Life in 1987, demonstrated for the first time the uniquely fierce, fast-paced style that became synonymous with a number of British artists including Silver Bullet and Gunshot. Between 1988 and 1993, hardcore UK hip-hop would be at its peak and the albums coming out of London were there to prove it. Inspired by the intense politics of Public Enemy and the soundscapes created by their Bomb Squad of producers, artists such as Overlord X, MC Duke and Black Radical Mk II brought the issues endemic in 1980’s British politics to the fore. In particular tracks such as Overlord X’s 14 Days of May, Silver Bullet’s 20 Seconds to Comply and Black Radical Mk II’s Monsoon can be seen as paying homage to the influence of Chuck D and gave an indication of the talent coming out of the London scene.
My Weapon is My Lyric
It can be argued that ‘many British rap songs are overtly political’ in contrast to the more oblique lyrics found in US hip-hop (Irving, 1993: 117). Hip-hop in itself is inherently political and this has been shown in the lyrics of rappers throughout the world. It has been the politics of American rappers like Public Enemy and KRS One that has encouraged artists to take up a political stance; and Melle Mel cannot be ignored for providing the first socially conscious hip-hop record in The Message. I am not arguing here that American rap is not political, or even that British rappers are more political. What I am suggesting is that there is a contrast in the political content of artists from these two countries and it is some of these differences that I will be assessing to show just how varied the content of hip-hop songs can be.
One particular difference is in the musical influences of the rappers involved in these scenes. Whereas in America the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone was extremely influential, in Britain reggae and punk were highly popular and inspiring genres for youths in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Reggae had a big impact on the early punk movement as artists like Dr Alimantado and U-Roy showed the disillusioned youth of the late-1970’s, suffering high unemployment and few prospects that they were born for a purpose (Hebdige, 1987). In particular, roots reggae, with its stance against ‘Babylon’, helped provide a visible target for the youths to focus their anger and disgust. Punk and reggae, in their own styles, provided a much more explicit damnation of British politics than had been seen in previous decades, producing a more radical generation willing to take to the streets to achieve their goals. British reggae in particular, with artists such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Steel Pulse, used their more explicit politics to bring a British context to reggae lyrics and helped British black youths assert their own identity as second or third generation migrants. The influence reggae had in the development of punk would prove invaluable as the Rock Against Racism movement staged shows with artists from both genres, in an attempt to unite black and white youths against a resurgent National Front (Renton, 2006). The rebellious and anti-establishment ethos of these genres would influence many youths and encourage them to speak up against social ills and injustice, just as artists like Pablo Gad, The Ruts and The Clash had done before.
Variances in lyrical content may also be down to the different experiences of youths in the UK and US, since in the UK there are no areas in any city that could be considered ghettos (Peach, 1996). Unlike in the US where some districts are over 90% African-American in demographic, in the UK no city has such high ethnic segregation and very few wards have a population of more than 50% of a single ethnic minority (Wacquant, 2008; Finney & Simpson, 2009). As a result, rappers in the UK, mainly black and white working-class youths, focus more on the economic and class divisions prevalent, rather than the racial divisions that are much more visible in the US. This is not to say that race is not an important issue in Britain, nor that racism does not exist. There can be no denying the important role played by the anti-fascist movements of the 1970’s in severely denting the impact of far-right extreme politics, and providing a genuinely multi-racial resistance under the banner of ‘black and white unite and fight’ (Renton, 2006: 32). Nevertheless, far-right groups do still exist and the institutionalised racism expressed in the media, as can be seen in newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express, and enacted by policing tactics such as stop and search, do little but stoke tensions (Kundnani, 2007). Although some British rap lyrics may have racial connotations, racial divisions do not feature that regularly, with politics and anger directed more towards the state and its systems of control. On the whole, it is clear that hip-hop is in general a political genre, but what direction that politics takes is dependent on the ‘specifics of the country’s urban experiences’ (George,  2005: 221).
Hardcore acts were not the only ones to make an impact in the London scene in the late-1980’s. Another strand of hip-hop was also emerging with much more of a reggae influence, and inspired by the less aggressive American acts such as De la Soul. In this vein came artists like MC Mell’O, Sindecut and Blade. Cookie Crew would establish a reputation as the best female group in Britain, with the album Born This Way in 1989 peaking at number 24 in the UK charts. The two groups that had the biggest impact during this period, however, were Demon Boyz and London Posse. The most striking aspect of these two groups was that they made a point of using current UK vernacular and sounding particularly British. As Million Dan, formerly of Demon Boyz, stated, ‘[the] scene was full of British rappers who were all trying to sound American, we switched it up and started using our British accents’ (Stig, 2008). As a result, they influenced a number of artists coming through and greatly appealed to fans of UK hip-hop who could see that the scene was making further steps to distinguish itself from the US. It is because of their distinctively British sound that their debut albums, Demon Boyz’s Recognition and London Posse’s Gangster Chronicle, are still considered classic examples of UK hip-hop some twenty years after their release.
An Appropriate Accent
The use of an artist’s own accent or language in their music is vital in order for them to appropriate the genre and assert an identity that is separate from the original source. With this in mind, hip-hop can be seen as a ‘resistance vernacular’ as it subverts the standard English that poetry is expected to be written and performed, in favour of the slang common to the streets of inner cities (Potter, 1995: 57). Much of this stems from the African-American poets growing out of the civil rights era, such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, who used a vernacular born in the ghettos of America, and also the reggae artists from Jamaica who used Jamaican patois as a means to limit the impact of colonial imperialism on their lives (Toop, 1984; Bradley, 2000). As a result, hip-hop vernacular originally coming out of New York would stand out from other music released around the same time. Some of the lexicon used has even infiltrated vocabularies not just in the USA, but across the world as the popularity and influence of hip-hop has spread.
As hip-hop extended across the world, an apparent dilemma formed for those performing outside the US. For many artists, a conflict emerged between sticking to the roots and authenticity of the music they were attempting to make, and putting their own identity and culture into the music. As a result, many of those who first adopted hip-hop would perform in an imitative form, mimicking the American accent and sticking to the American structure of the music (Hesmondhalgh & Melville, 2001). However, as scenes outside the US developed, they began to find their own voice and endeavoured to appropriate the music to what related to them. For those outside the Anglophone world, many rappers attempted to assert their identity by performing in their native tongue rather than in English, which for many was a second or even third language. Performing in their first language played a crucial role in informing their cultural sensibilities, and has been adopted by rappers in a variety of countries throughout the world. This has helped performers to create an authentic communication with their audience that cannot necessarily be achieved when rapping in a language that is not their own.
For those in Anglophone countries, however, asserting their own identity onto the music is not so simple. This has been something that has proved very difficult for artists within the UK hip-hop scene, with many critics labelling British artists as ‘parasitical’ for sticking so close to the American model (Hesmondhalgh & Melville, 2001: 87). This, however, is as much the fault of music journalists as it is the artists themselves, as hip-hop is often assessed ‘in terms of US norms and standards’, meaning original hip-hop is regularly overlooked as not being an authentic article (Mitchell, 2001: 11). Nevertheless, by the early-1990’s British rappers were seeing the merit of rapping in their own accent as a means of acknowledging their history and drawing hip-hop towards their own identity and sense of place (Hill, 2007). Within London, the choice to speak ‘your lingo’ meant that the music was more locally grounded and, as a result, maintained a distinct self, separate from those rappers coming from the US (Bradley, 2009: 88; Codrington, 2005). Some London rappers have even chosen to pay homage to their Caribbean heritage by rapping in a Caribbean accent, utilising Gilroy’s (1993) idea of ‘doubleness’ in identity (p73). Those that do this, such as Bionic of London Posse, negotiate a dual identity by using the street slang of London to root themselves in their locality whilst respecting their cultural background (Codrington, 2005). As a result, some critics have argued that it was not until the emergence of grime that the London accent really became prevalent in rapping (MacInnes, 2010). It is understandable why this argument has been voiced, but I would argue that this is a very short-sighted viewpoint as it fails to take into account the impact reggae and hip-hop performers have had in the decades prior to grime’s rise.
In recent years, however, the rise of grime and the apparent monopoly of the London accent in UK hip-hop have necessitated a need for rappers from outside of London to reinforce their individual identities. Previously, with the presence of such a substantial hip-hop scene in the capital and the apparent reluctance to accept artists from outside the M25, MC’s would favour rapping in an imitative London accent in order to further their progress within the scene (Chauhan, 2008). This, however, is changing as rappers attempt to imprint their own authenticity as being locally and geographically based. Rappers do this to distinguish themselves within the UK scene, in the same way that UK artists have attempted to do so within the global hip-hop nation (Krims, 2000). This need for a separate identity from that of London, has led to an emphasis on the local dialect and slang of these rappers; which is now alerting the mainstream media to well established scenes in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow (Bennett, 1999b; Watson, 2008).
False Dawn: The UK Hip-Hop Doldrums
By the beginning of the 1990’s, UK hip-hop was widely tipped to make a big impact on British music as a whole; few, however, could have predicted the form that impact would take. A growing popularity in the late-1980’s meant the BBC could no longer ignore the genre and finally succumbed to demand by introducing the UK’s first national hip-hop radio show in 1990. National Fresh, hosted by Jeff Young, was initially just an hour-long on Radio One’s Friday night schedule, but it would expand into a three-hour long show hosted by Tim Westwood. In London, the number of legal hip-hop shows increased, with DJ’s gracing stations like Kiss 100, WNK and Choice FM. The rise in legal radio shows displayed that the mainstream media finally acknowledged that hip-hop was no longer a novelty form and had a long-term future, a testament to the work and effort that those involved had put into the scene. However, many fans would argue that with hindsight these breakthroughs came too late and that the media had ‘bypassed several years of hip-hop fever’ (Hind & Mosco, 1985: 27). Perhaps with a stronger footing, supported by a greater number of fans, the later demise could have at least been less damaging.
Nevertheless, in the early-1990’s the records were still coming. Music of Life was still highly influential, releasing recordings by Asher D and Hardnoise. Asher D brought out Still Kickin’ in 1991, which featured earlier songs he had recorded with reggae artist Daddy Freddy, producing a sound heavily influenced by the Jamaican dancehall. In stark contrast, Hardnoise came with a similar sound to that pioneered by Hijack and their debut single Untitled, released in 1990, caused a stir with its powerful vocals and DJing. Hardnoise, however, would be finished by 1991 to be replaced by Son of Noise, who made some waves with the album The Mighty Son of Noise in 1992 on Kold Sweat. The label Kold Sweat was also home to the highly influential group Katch 22, who received a number of award nominations alongside American heavyweights like Ice Cube and Public Enemy. The group were known for the aggressive and thought provoking lyrics of Hunkillbury Finn and received a certain notoriety when their single Diary of a Blackman was banned from the BBC for sampling sound-bites of the far-right National Front. Another influential group were Gunshot who burst onto the scene in 1990 with a succession of hardcore singles on Vinyl Solution. By the release of the LP Patriot Games in 1993, they were already considered one of the best acts around, and the album is still considered a classic now by London hip-hop fans. The group were also one of the first to focus on the more visual aspects of their music, by putting an increasing amount of effort into the design of their record sleeves and recording one of the first music videos in UK hip-hop for the single Crime Story (britishhiphop.co.uk, 2005). These groups, and many others like them, experienced very short careers lasting two to three years at most. Much of this stemmed from a frustration at labels who often failed to provide artists with enough support or financial backing as they struggled to survive in the music industry.
There were, however, some British rappers who did have the support of major labels and saw the relative successes that come with that backing. Following predecessors Derek B and Dizzi Heights, Caveman were signed to Profile Records in 1990. With this high profile support, their debut single Victory and the subsequent LP Positive Reaction were well received. Caveman’s style was much more influenced by the Jazz-inspired hip-hop acts like Gangstarr, giving them a wider appeal than the more niche hardcore and reggae-inspired styles of other British artists. The group, however, would take a more hardcore direction with their subsequent releases, perhaps inspired by the achievements of Hijack. After hearing the group’s Hold no Hostage on Tim Westwood’s Capital Rap Show, American rapper Ice-T signed Hijack to his Rhyme Syndicate label. As a result their LP Horns of Jericho reached a wider audience across Europe and sold more than 30,000 units, a phenomenal amount for a British hip-hop act at that time. Unfortunately for the group, at the height of their fame the label went bankrupt and they were dropped, a common story for UK acts as many labels closed down and dropped artists as interest in hip-hop waned in favour of other genres inspired by an emergent rave scene.
Breakbeats in the Jungle and Garage
The original soundtrack to raves was often house, a Chicago-born dance music pioneered by DJ Frankie Knuckles that utilised little more than a drum machine and synthesiser (George, 1986). Revellers could be found euphorically dancing to the emblematic sounds of tracks such as Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s Jack Your Body. Through these raves developed a dedicated core of fans who would religiously tune into pirates such as Kool FM in search of details of the next event. Raves also attracted a lot of media interest, inciting moral panics over the links to drug taking, in particular ecstasy and acid (Hesmondhalgh & Melville, 2001). This resulted in a government crackdown, culminating in 1994’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that ‘strengthened trespass laws and even defined as illegal gatherings of more than 20 people listening to “repetitive beats”’ (Grundy, 2011). The music was consequently pushed into dedicated clubs and licensed indoor raves where revellers could be controlled, somewhat undermining the ethos of rave culture and changing the music (Collin, 1997). As the government cracked down, British producers began making their own house music. Artists such as A Guy Called Gerald and Fabio & Grooverider upped the tempo from 120 to 180bpm and attempted to incorporate breakbeats, bringing a taste of their hip-hop roots into the raves. This cross-over sound was at first a part of the hip-hop scene, but as their music was ignored they moved to a new style fusing rave and hip-hop called jungle/drum & bass (Noys, 1995).
The sound of jungle/drum & bass was much darker. The thematic emphasis pressed on the harsh realities of inner city life, rather than the feel-good, ‘happy’ sound brought by house. Alongside the high-tempo breakbeats, tracks incorporated heavy basslines and often samples from reggae and ragga records that moulded into a new and definitively home-grown sound. As a result, it captured a generation looking for something to call their own, whose older siblings listened to hip-hop and reggae (Gazi, 1997d). Hip-hop’s influence was never far away, however, with the inclusion of an MC, a new feature to dance music. At its origins, were a network of ‘small clubs and tight crews’ based in Bristol and North and East London (Belle-Fortune, 2004: 13). It was through these dedicated groups of people that the awareness and popularity of jungle/drum & bass grew, supported by enthusiastic pirate radio stations such as Rush FM and Kool FM who supported the dubplate culture. Dubplates were a relic of the Jamaican reggae industry where exclusive cuts were produced for specific DJ’s in advance of release to test their potential appeal, and create a hype for the eventual release some months later (Belle-Fortune, 2004). This practice continues to be used in UK garage, grime, dubstep and UK hip-hop where major backing is not in effect.
The increasing popularity of jungle/drum & bass brought with it media outrage at this apparent violent and gang influenced music. Much of this stemmed from its clear connection with hip-hop, with focus attached mainly to the use of relatively violent samples outside the overall context of the song. This increasingly negative attention from the media and the police forced a number of artists to abandon the ragga-influenced style in favour of a more melodic, jazz-inspired sound that would prove to be very successful with commercial acclaim and chart success (Snoman, 2009). Albums such as Goldie’s Timeless, released in 1995, Roni Size and Reprazent’s Mercury Prize winning 1997 release New Forms and 4Hero’s 1998 Mercury nominated Two Pages are considered the pinnacles of this style. Although interest waned at the turn of the millennium, jungle/drum & bass remains popular shown by the fact that the Australian group Pendulum’s Hold Your Colour became the biggest selling album in the genre in 2005, selling 225,000 units in the UK alone.
It is not surprising to hear people call jungle/drum & bass a more worthy contender for the title of British hip-hop. The tag is consistently passed from genre to genre (garage and grime have also received the title) as critics search for a British urban style that can match the successes of American hip-hop. This can be seen as ‘partly due to the failure of British hip-hop to produce convincing music’ in comparison to that coming from the US, with little impact from British rappers (Noys, 1995: 323). It is a worthy argument, but lacks substance. Whilst the genre remains unquestionably linked to hip-hop, through its use of breakbeats and the employment of MC’s, the focus on the DJ and the instrumental form set it apart. Many of those attracted to jungle/drum & bass moved from hip-hop because of a desire to make instrumentals. The fact that the MC is used predominantly to hype the crowd at raves but sparingly on record, perhaps suggests a step back to the roots of the reggae toaster in Jamaica. I would also argue that the choice of many jungle/drum & bass producers to work with American rather than British MC’s, dismiss many of the forms of cultural appropriation that come with the term British hip-hop (Gazi, 1997d). I would therefore echo Simon Reynolds in calling jungle/drum & bass the ‘speedfreak cousin of Old Skool (sic) hip-hop’ and the precursor to garage (1998: 245).
Garage has its roots firmly set within the development of jungle/drum & bass. In the early years, garage would be played in the second room at jungle/drum & bass clubs as a slower alternative to the fast paced music coming from the main room. This initial style was essentially a ‘laid back form of house music with mellow beats and vocals’ that intended to imitate the sound coming out of the Paradise Garage in New York (Snoman, 2009: 271). With a new junglist clientele, garage producers upped the tempo to 130bpm as the Sunday morning or after-hours raves captured clubbers leaving Ministry of Sound who wanted to keep on dancing to something less frenetic. Garage would also put more emphasis onto the presence of the MC to ‘drop the UK style into the US music’, with one of the first being MC Creed (Harkins, 2010: 191). As the number of followers increased, British producers began creating their own sound, inspired heavily by the work of Todd Edwards. Edwards, a small-scale and little known American producer, is often hailed as the ‘godfather of UK garage’, due to his trademark vocal cut-up style that used sampled vocal phrases as an instrument, reversing or shifting the pitch of syllables to manipulate them into something that appealed to the pleasure-principled followers (Harkins, 2010: 187). Supported by a solid collection of pirates, many of whom had abandoned jungle/drum & bass, the popularity of the scene multiplied. Clubs such as Twice as Nice, Sun City and Pure Silk were regularly packed with revellers enjoying the ‘mellow opulence’ that came with the music (Reynolds, 1998: 419).
The music also changed, replacing the four to the floor rhythms and warped bass with the introduction of the open hi-hat and syncopated basslines and removal of the second and fourth bass kicks from each bar (Snoman, 1999). This new, funkier sound would be the basis for the garage that hit the mainstream charts, with chart toppers Shanks and Bigfoot and The Artful Dodger the epitome of this new style. Taking a composition of aspects of hip-hop, jungle/drum & bass and house, this new garage successfully appealed to people looking for an alternative to these genres popular with an older generation. Nevertheless, there was a backlash to the commercial r&b-flavoured sound flooding the scene, resulting in an emergent darker nu-school that was more in tune with ‘the grim realities of Britain’ (Reynolds, 2000: 146). Out of the nu-school came Oxide and Neutrino and the super-sized group So Solid Crew, who both achieved number one singles with Bound 4 Da Reload and 21 Seconds respectively. This new group of garage artists spoke for those coming from the estates of South London who could not necessarily relate to the high-life lifestyle being paraded at raves. It would be these artists who would be used as the scapegoats as violent crime increased at raves, often fuelled by the lucrative trade in the drug of choice, cocaine (Kenner, 2003). These controversies pushed garage back into the underground, where an offshoot inspired by the nu-school and based in a small enclave of East London was growing in popularity. In the place of garage, grime and a resurgent UK hip-hop scene would emerge.
The opulence seen within the garage scene, with designer labels and Moet champagne a common sight, could be argued as evidence of the high-times experienced in London, with the music its soundtrack (Reynolds, 2000). During the years of Conservative dominance throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was certainly an upwardly mobile section of the population who benefitted from a government policy of free-market economics. However, it would be a mistake to label the garage scene as indicative of this. Although there were almost certainly members of this ‘yuppie’ generation amongst these revellers, much of the opulence was for show. Nevertheless, the apparent lavishness of garage raves can possibly be seen as indicative of another phenomenon that occurred during the same period. Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, government policy progressively gave prominence to ‘the potential for enterprise to resolve the crisis of the inner city’ as social welfare was replaced by an emphasis on the free-market (Keith, 2005: 86). As a result, subsequent Conservative and New Labour governments ‘did all they could to encourage the notion of London as a consumerist playground’ taking a particular interest in gentrification as a means of regeneration (Dyckhoff, 2003: 233).
The process of gentrification involves ‘the rehabilitation of working-class and derelict housing and the consequent transformation of an area into a middle-class neighbourhood’ (Atkinson, 2000: 307). Replicating a policy adopted by politicians in the USA, the Conservative government strategies encouraged a disinvestment in many of the poorest inner city wards in Britain. Consequently, outmigration increases as those who can afford to leave the slowly depreciating areas depart for other boroughs or nearby commuter towns. As this trend intensifies, land values decrease predicated by a perceived reputation of crime, drugs and violence executed by an economically redundant ‘underclass’. This creates what Smith (1979) called the ‘rent gap’. Steadily, however, there are people who choose to return to these areas, attracted by the ‘investment potential and the affordable price’ of housing compared to neighbouring boroughs (Berry, 2010; 42), and the perceived risk involved in investing in a home somewhere considered ‘physically and socially run-down and dangerous’ (Dyckhoff, 2003: 232). The illegal warehouse raves were a particular attraction. With a growing disposable income, many of these newcomers were recently graduated students who, having experienced raves at university, wanted to be near the newest dance craze creating a new dynamic. As well as having an impact on the local dance scene, these incomers would also affect the local area as services change to cater for the needs of this higher income group with readily expendable income, to the disadvantage of the poorer residents already living there (Atkinson, 2000). It would be this change in the priorities of ‘public’ services that helped solidify the notion that Britain was becoming ‘more polarised along economic lines’ (Kenner, 2003: 130). This can be seen by the fact that investment in services such as public transport and public libraries decreased as apparent demand was not so high; to the detriment of poorer residents, many of whom have been displaced as rents increased. The development of these previously run-down areas attracted the interest of the government, who essentially made it their policy to encourage developers to build flats and lofts. In many cases, local councils struggling for money essentially surrendered to the developers as a means of increasing income, removing many obstacles that could have hindered construction.
Such developments tended to place plush and expensive accommodation alongside the council estates where the poorest lived (Kerr, 2003). On these estates were unemployed youths with few prospects or opportunities, particularly when many youth services were cut back ‘to allow for alternative uses for local government revenue’ by cash-strapped local authorities (Keith, 2005: 93). It is not surprising then that, in a materialist society where your status is determined by what you own, some youths would turn to crime. It can be argued that ‘being denied access to the financial rewards of working life….young people may become involved in crime as a way to gain access to consumer culture’, and when those rewards were in such close proximity the opportunity is always there to make that a reality (Furlong & Cartmel, 1997: 83). This locational closeness of people at completely opposite ends of the economic scale also spilled into the clubs, as violent crime became synonymous with garage due in part to the lucrative drug trade that circulated around the clubs.
The violence that came with garage in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s triggered a hostile response from many politicians and journalists, targeting performers and the music as scapegoats for the reasons behind this perceived crime (Kenner, 2003). The backlash against garage and its artists forced many to abandon it and pushed the music back into the underground. So Solid Crew would be one of the most vilified, having been ‘effectively banned from performing in England’ only a year after reaching number one (Kenner, 2003: 131). This approach was typical of politicians and journalists who strengthened the neo-liberal strategy of ‘reconstituting youth in terms of its threatening qualities’, focusing on crime prevention and its suspicions of young people rather than the causes for these actions (Dean, 1997: 53).
Urban music in Britain was once again vilified in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots. This time it was hip-hop culture being accused in the media and by public personalities like historian David Starkey of being a key component in the motivations of looters (Routledge, 2011; Quinn, 2011). Although much of the mainstream hip-hop readily available to youths on television and radio does promote a materialistic lifestyle that clearly drove the intentions of a number of rioters given the outlets targeted, to blame hip-hop culture is a cop-out from addressing the endemic inequalities of capitalism and the issues that sparked the underlying anger, particularly police harassment and poverty. The vilification of youths and their culture makes them believe that they are an ‘underclass’. With little support from the state and many prospects systematically taken away by aggressive government cuts, it is not surprising that these youths turn to more illicit forms of income. Music like hip-hop and garage, however, is merely ‘the soundtrack (rather than the source) of these changing times’ (Kenner, 2003: 130).
Signs of Recovery: A UK Hip-Hop Renaissance
The years 1993 to 1998 are often referred as the ‘UK rap doldrums’ (Batey, 2008). Attracted by the emerging genres, a number of the original MC’s chose to try their luck elsewhere, with others quitting altogether. This left the UK hip-hop scene with much to recoup and those that remained found it difficult to survive. A certain resilience and ingenuity was required, typified by instances such as Blade funding the pressing of his album The Lion Goes from Strength to Strength by requesting the money from fans in advance (ibid, 2008). Despite the exodus, some MC’s from the old school still remained. Blade would prove to be one of the most prolific, releasing no fewer than five albums in eight years, whilst contemporaries like Rodney P and Huntkillbury Finn limited themselves to guest appearances and occasional singles. This is testament to the spirit and determination of a man who had to overcome becoming a father, the death of his father as well as being shafted by and receiving little support from the music industry in order to make the music he wanted. The end of the decade saw Blade in his most commercially fruitful period, with a collaboration with British super-producer Mark B producing the albums Hitmen for Hire in 1998 and The Unknown in 2000 as well as the top 30 single “You Don’t See the Signs”. These were tough years where UK hip-hop appeared to completely lose its way, but by 1995 there was a ‘renewed optimism’ spurred on by the open mic sessions founded by the Muthaland Movement (Kwaku, 1999).
The Muthaland Movement was initiated by hip-hop journalist Vie Marshall as a way around what she saw as the ‘closed door to British urban music’ (britishhiphop.co.uk, 2005). Starting out at Woody’s in Maida Vale in West London, it pioneered the concept of the open mic as a means of giving local MC’s a chance to perform and display their lyrical abilities to a wider public. Eventually settling at the Wag Club, it would be regularly attended by an array of British hip-hop talent, of the old and new-schools, as well as US artists passing through the city on tour. The Muthaland open mic, and its successors, provided an outlet for MC’s at a time when many clubs were closing, as fans and the opportunities for making a profit moved on to other genres (Proctor, 1999). Its influence cannot be underestimated in supporting the new artists that would eventually resurrect a fading scene. It would be this new generation of MC’s who would carry the torch for UK hip-hop. Leading the charge was Blak Twang. Hailing from Deptford in South East London, Blak Twang is widely considered to be one of the greats of UK hip-hop. His lyrical content and ability to cover a diverse range of topics, from urban deprivation to love, have appealed to a wide range of fans, attaining a dedicated following in the scene. Through the singles Queen’s Head and Real Estate, Blak Twang added weight to the moniker as one of the best underground rappers, helping him to win a MOBO in 1996. However, his attempts to release his debut album Dettwork South East were beset by label conflicts and sample clearance issues leading it to be shelved in 1996. It would be another two years before he finally released his official debut 19 Long Time on Jammin Records; nevertheless, his lyrical and production skills were clearly in effect signalling him as part of the future of UK hip-hop.
It’s all in the Music
What makes a good hip-hop song? That question has been debated for countless hours by hip-hop fans all over the world. For every fan there is a different criteria to answer that question, but for most it boils down to three fundamental facets. To paraphrase A Tribe Called Quest, these are the beats, rhymes and flow. At the base level it is these three aspects that first capture the listener’s ear. The beat grounds the song, providing a musical soundscape of layered samples that draw the audience into the deeper aural context. The lyrics provide this context through the subject of choice, with the quality of the lyricist on display through the poetic techniques employed and the depth of vocabulary used. It is the flow, however, that merges the two. A great flow that intertwines with the beat can almost become another instrument, adding an extra layer to the structure of the song as the effect of the syllabic meter becomes part of the music. Alternatively, an MC may choose a flow that emphasises the lyrics, moving in and out of synch with the beat to stress certain words or phrases. An MC’s flow can often shape how a song is first heard by the listener. Each listener has their own interpretation, but it is within these three facets that fans look for the makings of a good hip-hop song and it is these aspects that will be analysed here.
In hip-hop, the focus is on rhythm. At its most basic level, the beat is the obvious form of rhythm we hear. The music is often what catches the ear first, drawing the listener in, and it is because of this that ‘hip-hop must be understood as a sonic force more than anything else’ (Kelley, 1997: 38). Almost every beat is grounded by little more than a 4/4 drum beat and a syncopated bass line, designed to provide a reliable backing for the MC to flow; in essence, it is hip-hop’s ‘poetic meter rendered audible’ (Bradley, 2009: xv). This is where the first visual example of audience appreciation comes into play, the head nod. If an audience is nodding their in head in time to the beat, be it the snare, kick or bass, then it is doing its job. This is often an unconscious movement, not dictated by the sound of the beat but driven by the feel; which is why ‘rhythm should be regarded as something we feel, rather than something we hear’, hence the focus on resonating bass (Wood, 1999: 139). On top of this, come the samples that add additional layers to the aural soundscape of the music. Sampling is a somewhat contentious aspect of hip-hop. Whilst some see it as ‘the musical equivalent of shoplifting’ (Dery, 1990 cited in Walser, 1995: 196), others view it as a subversion of the ‘traditional modes of production and consumption’, with a record recycled into creating a new musical product (Potter, 1995: 36). Nevertheless, the right choice of sample can make a great song, potentially bringing a geographical identity to the music or just providing something sonically pleasing.
Adding another layer to the soundscape can be the MC’s flow. A flow is essentially an MC’s lyrical cadence, their vocal fingerprint. A rapper can be recognised and defined by their choice of flow on record, with a combination of syllables, pauses, pronunciation, energy and tempo dictating how a flow is perceived (Bradley, 2009). Each rapper has a unique rhythm of voice. This can be important in forging individual and group identities, because taking on a specific accent or using certain vocal inflections can ground a rapper in a geographic locality, defining who they are (Marshall, 2006). Appreciation of this aspect of the music stems from its aural capacity. An MC’s flow can be used as another instrument, creating a hocket as the text and music interlock into one rhythmic idea. Alternatively, the voice rhythm and vocal inflections can be utilised as the melodic qualities in the music as a rapper weaves in and out of the pocket of the beat. In any case, the flow of an MC’s delivery is ‘paramount….to appreciation and pleasure’ (Krims, 2000: 44) because the way rhymes are spoken determines how the lyrics are interpreted (Keyes, 2002).
The subject of lyrical content has already been covered within this project, with the choice of topic and use of certain vocabularies connecting rappers with an audience that relates through appreciation. This, however, is not the only way lyrics and rhyme can be appreciated. Beyond content, listeners tend to appreciate the complexity of rhymes that use a number of poetic techniques and wordplay to manipulate the rhythm of the track. ‘MC’s are evaluated on their ability to ‘rock the microphone”, so a lyrical dexterity can determine how good a rapper is and create the kind of song where the listener constantly replays to learn the words and catch all the wordplay involved (Keyes, 2002: 126). As Bradley (2009) states, ‘the best MC’s play with language to create unexpected moments of insight and feeling’ (p92) that give substance to the lyrics or message the rapper attempts to express, creating a connection with the social and emotional conditions represented (Frith, 1989). Each rapper, and by extension every hip-hop song, can be interpreted differently by every listener. Nevertheless, the aspects mentioned above are the criteria by which almost every fan judges hip-hop in some form or another. What makes a good hip-hop song? That really depends on the person listening.
Roots Manuva has become one of the more successful London rappers, achieving critical acclaim and a number of awards for his music. Releasing his debut single Next Type of Motion in 1995, Manuva’s gruff vocals and unique style suggested someone who was articulating their own personality onto record. Inspired by his time working on reggae sound systems in South London, Roots Manuva’s sound would incorporate aspects of reggae, dub and gospel alongside hip-hop, paying homage to his Jamaican background and strict Pentecostal upbringing (Stacey, 1999). His rising reputation attracted major label interest, but he would surprise everyone by snubbing their advances in favour of independent label Big Dada. Big Dada was started in 1997 by music journalist Will Ashton as the hip-hop imprint of Ninja Tune, with the intention of providing a means for fans to obtain more ‘obscure’ hip-hop (Swash, 2009a). The label released Roots Manuva’s debut album Brand New Second Hand in 1999, which was well received by music critics. Big Dada’s dedication to hip-hop has been instrumental in helping Roots Manuva achieve the success he has, and has provided talented, but little-known, artists from both the UK and America with a means of releasing albums and singles.
The abandonment of the majors and the resurgence of a new roster of artists in the 1990’s, resulted in a rise in independent labels ready to bypass the lack of mainstream support and back artists trying to flourish (Gazi, 1997b). Even during this decade, major labels tried to sign UK artists in an attempt to discover a British equivalent to the highly successful American rappers. However, these gambles rarely paid off, and in most cases the artist in question was dropped after one or two singles due to poor sales, preventing them from making any real impact. Much of this was down to the fact that labels attempted to fit British rappers into a marketing strategy employed for American artists. This tactic had not been particularly successful since Derek B and some labels began cutting their losses, taking fewer risks with UK rappers. Many majors naïvely branded UK hip-hop as a hardcore niche, and distanced themselves from a sound that they did not believe would be successful in the mainstream (Kwaku, 2000). This left a void that independents slowly began to fill. Labels such as Big Dada, K-Boro, Ronin and Low Life got their act together and helped push artists like Ty, Task Force, Bury Cru and Braintax towards a wider audience.
Lewis Parker and MCD, however, were two rappers who did achieve some relative success with a major label. After self-financing his first release at the age of 16 in 1995, Lewis Parker was known for his hard-working and dedicated attitude, making him one of the foremost UK hip-hop all-rounders (britishhiphop.co.uk, 2005). His hard work was rewarded in 1998 when he signed to Melankolic, Massive Attack’s imprint on Virgin Records, where he released Masquerades and Silhouettes, receiving positive media attention. Coming from a different standpoint, MCD aka Silent Eclipse brought a more militantly political style. Making his name primarily as a live performer, his political stance and lyrical abilities caught the eye of Darcus Beese who signed him to Island Records in 1994. It was here he recorded the LP Psychological Enslavement in 1995, an album full of reality raps and attacks towards the government delivered with a vehemence and intensity that aimed to teach the youth to open their eyes.
Politics would be a key aspect of the hip-hop to emerge out of London’s South Asian community. Forming around community and youth projects and establishing their own form of sound system culture, groups like Fun-da-Mental, Hustlers HC and Asian Dub Foundation brought a fusion of eastern and western styles as well as a fervent political attitude. The political stance of such groups can be seen as a means of attempting to transcend the ‘normative representations of both ‘blackness’ and ‘Asianness’’ within music and society (Sharma, 1996: 43). With the emergence of Bhangra and the appropriation of it as a means of cultural resistance and an affirmation of identity, British Asian youths found a musical form that they could call their own. Nevertheless, this appropriation of Bhangra has taken place in constant dialogue with British black dance music genres. As a result, the Asian youths of the 1990’s used this musical fusion and incorporated it within their political beliefs as an articulation of ‘‘Asianness’ in alternative public spaces’ formulating a musical identity of their own (ibid: 35). There is, however, no unifying sense of ‘Asianness’. Each group or performer expresses a different form of Asian identity that is unique to them; though it is rooted in past experience, it also makes sense of the present (Hyder, 2004). This, however, has not come easily. Asian bands are often subject to stereotyping and generalisations in the media that group them together, despite a clear difference in musical styles and lyrical content. They have had to overcome the generalities that come with the tag ‘Asian Kool’ and a ‘fascination for things South Asian’ that tends to ignore musical output in favour of the exotica of these new Asian bands (Hutnyk, 2006: 125). Ironically, this coincided with a fear and castigation projected towards groups like Fun-Da-Mental by the media, exemplifying the ‘duet of exotica and fanatica’ that has plagued many careers (ibid).
Two aforementioned groups that have merged hip-hop with an array of other genres including punk, dub and traditional Indian sounds are Fun-Da-Mental and Asian Dub Foundation. Both are also known for their strong political stances, bringing conscious themes about identity politics and standing against racism. Founded in 1991, the mixed-race Fun-Da-Mental came with a stance that drew strongly on the history and philosophy of the Black Power movement in the US, focusing on a British Asian and Afro-Caribbean context and aimed specifically at left-wing politics, whilst reaffirming the Muslim identity of rapper Aki Nawaz (Sharma, 1996). Never far from controversy and often dubbed the Asian Public Enemy, Nawaz’s militant lyrics have drawn accusations of being a ‘suicide bomb’ rapper in the tabloid press and led to two British MP’s calling for his arrest under the anti-terrorism laws in 2006 (Swedenburg, 2001; Rollings, 2006). Meanwhile, their albums such as Erotic Terrorism in 1998 and 1999’s Why America Will Go to Hell have created unique soundscapes, fusing an assortment of different genres alongside an interesting selection of samples that maintain the political stance whilst also paying homage to the roots of the members. The group’s expressions of pride in Islam have appealed to Muslims fighting against Islamaphobia, as they provided a refreshing new meaning and interpretation to the fundamentals of Islam (Swedenburg, 2001).
Asian Dub Foundation started in 1993. Bringing a fusion of hip-hop, punk, jungle/drum & bass and dub, they advocated anti-racism and a pride in Asian identity in an attempt to ‘challenge the essentialising racial discourse found in rap’ (Sharma, 1996: 42). Unlike most groups using hip-hop, Asian Dub Foundation utilise live instrumentation employing traditional instruments such as tabla and dhol alongside the more conventional guitars and drums. Their debut LP Facts and Fictions in 1995 channelled influences ranging from punk to traditional Bengali folk songs, and garnered a growing fan base attracted to the original fusion of styles and socially conscious rapping on display. Asian Dub Foundation employ their identity politics much more explicitly than Fun-Da-Mental, and openly supported campaigns in the UK, attacking British government policies as well as standing in defiance of anyone who tried to put them down for being Asian (Hutnyk, 2000). The group have received extensive critical acclaim, which has led to successful world tours and a Mercury Prize nomination for Rafi’s Revenge in 1998. Whilst often being pigeonholed as an anti-fascist band, the politics of Asian Dub Foundation is varied. This is typified by singles such as Fortress Europe and Blowback that attack European immigration policy and American foreign policy in the aftermath of September 11th 2001 respectively, and more recently in the continual attack on the motives behind the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Similarly, Hustlers HC also brought a politicised stance to their music. The group were formed in West London in 1991 and were the first Sikh hip-hop group in the UK. They were also influential in establishing one of the first Asian club nights with Bombay Jungle at the Wag Club, providing Asian youths with a club they could call their own. The track Big Trouble in Little Asia had a big impact within the Asian community with the use of a gangsta rap narrative to attack racism in Britain. In particular, their stance on political unity within the Asian community in fighting racism and their criticisms of ethno-religious violence struck a chord and no doubt had an influence on artists that formed later (Sharma, 1996). It has been the work of Asian political groups like these that has resulted in a bridging of the gap between Asian self-defence and political movements and anti-fascist organisations, thanks to their political stances (Swedenburg, 2001).
By the end of the 1990’s, the ‘small but significant’ successes made opened up the possibilities for rappers, as people began to take an interest in UK hip-hop once more (Kwaku, 2001: 94). Supported by a much stronger and dedicated network of independent record labels and clubs, rappers had a foundation from which to develop a career, providing they had the skills to succeed. The turn of the millennium brought with it a renewed optimism. The cream of the UK talent were getting their breaks supporting the major US acts on tour and there was a confidence that this time UK hip-hop would not only survive, but thrive. Nevertheless, a great deal of work still needed to be done to increase the exposure of the music at a time when most people were still only really aware of US hip-hop. By 2000, US hip-hop was establishing itself as the biggest selling musical genre and garage was still popular in the UK. It would be the return of fans and artists in the aftermath of the demise of garage that would push the scene further forward, bringing forth a new group of talented and successful rappers to carry the torch for London hip-hop.
Rising Styles: UK Hip-Hop’s Stock Rises
The first few years of the 21st century saw the music reach heights it had not seen for many years. Steadily over the next decade, more MC’s would achieve critical acclaim and mainstream acceptance, which in turn helped expand the scene and bring more MC’s back into the UK hip-hop fold. With the rise of the internet and the growth in social networking websites, hip-hop has become accessible to more people able to connect over great distances. The development of websites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook have digitised the marketing of music to the point where artists no longer need major backing, releasing their songs and reaching a wider fan base themselves (Leask, 2009). Expansions in the means of obtaining music, such as through iTunes, Bandcamp or downloads, legal or otherwise, has also created hip-hop communities that form without the ‘local spaces devoted to interaction around music’ such as the record store, developing a somewhat disengaged but more accessible scene (Kruse, 2009: 209). In addition, advances in digital technology have allowed a situation where there are a plethora of bedroom MC’s, who have easy access to high-quality equipment and software without ever having to enter a recording studio. This has also greatly improved the scope of reach for those artists previously reliant on the signals of pirate radio stations who can now be heard anywhere in the world. However, this can lead to an oversaturation of music because of the vast amount readily available at the click of a button, meaning it can prove more difficult to find the stand out artists.
Despite this, open mics still played a key role as a means for MC’s to show off their talent and meet other rappers from which collaborations could arise. Some of the most celebrated would prove to be Speaker’s Corner, The Jump Off and Deal Real. Deal Real in particular was extremely popular, with the weekly event graced by any number of British MC’s, some of whom were successful in the scene, and American artists promoting their latest European tour. Rapper Doc Brown was the founder of Deal Real, starting the event in 2004 in a record shop of the same name near Carnaby Street. He would achieve some notoriety as a rapper with the single Donnie’s Lament in 2004. Although not officially released because of sampling issues, the song is notable for the level of radio airplay it received, which was unusually high for an underground hip-hop track, and arguably helped raise the profile of London hip-hop.
One of the first popular releases of the 21st Century turned out to be Roots Manuva’s Run Come Save Me, released in 2001. Continuing on from his acclaimed debut, the album fused dub, reggae, funk and hip-hop into something that would show him at his lyrical best. One particular song in Witness (1 Hope), with its deep, reverberating bass, abstract rhymes and tongue-in-cheek video, is widely considered to be one of the greatest UK hip-hop songs made (Big Dada, 2011a). The uniquely UK-specific lyrics about cheese on toast and pints of bitter appealed to people within and outside the scene, propelling him further into the public eye. Although initial sales were not great, it has since gone on to sell over 100,000 copies and received a nomination for the Mercury Prize. A label-mate of Roots Manuva, Ty was also nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2003 on the back of his critically applauded album Upwards. Starting out in the 1990’s as part of a duo with DJ Shortee Blitz, he would release his solo debut Awkward in 2001. On the album, Ty brought his spoken word style to the fore and showed to those who chose to take a listen that he was ‘far from the braggadocious norm’ found in most hip-hop (Big Dada, 2011b). This style matured with the release of Upwards where Ty took on production duties as well, bringing aspects of his own Nigerian upbringing into the music to extensive praise from musicians and journalists alike. Ty’s growing reputation would lead to collaborations with members of legendary American hip-hop groups De la Soul and Arrested Development on his third album Closer, showing that the stock of some British artists was even reaching the US.
The artist that would truly push his version of UK hip-hop into the mainstream, however, would be Mike Skinner, the main figure behind The Streets. Originally hailing from Birmingham, the rapper became involved in the London garage scene with Has it Come to This, a breakthrough song for The Streets’ take on what was a slowly fading garage scene, reaching the top twenty in 2001 (Ramsay, 2005). The influence garage had had on The Streets was prevalent on the debut album Original Pirate Material, released in 2002. With the title a homage to the pirate radio stations that had driven the scene, Skinner’s lyrics focused on the lifestyles of clubbers and the regular people he encountered leading Nelson George to praise the ‘distinctly English working-class attitude’ of the music ( 2005: 221). Skinner’s unique, abstract flow, deviating from the expected rhythm of the music before delving back into the pocket of the beat for a bar, set him apart from other MC’s in the UK hip-hop scene and is perhaps an indication why he was so successful when others failed. The lyrical style The Streets developed would encourage other MC’s to bring tales from London’s council estates into the mainstream, something that would become extremely common as a new, garage-inspired genre burst into view.
From the streets of East London came grime. Focused primarily in the boroughs of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets, some of the poorest districts in the UK, the youth of ‘urban regeneration’ took to their microphones, creating a scene fed almost entirely by basement studios, pirate radio and a determined DIY ethic (Wheatley, 2010: 7). A scene where an artist is often a veteran before they reach twenty, grime was clearly a genre made for the youth by youth, with most MC’s starting at fifteen or even younger. With a sound widely considered to have been established by the rapper-producer Wiley, grime distilled the polyrhythms of jungle/drum & bass and garage to a minimised sound occasionally consisting of ‘nothing more than a queasy bassline and a single, clipped video game squeak’ (Frere-Jones, 2005). Arising as a ‘backlash against the crossover sound’ of commercial garage, grime’s early practitioners took influence from artists like So Solid Crew to bring lyrics straight from the streets and the lives of those involved (Reynolds, 2009: 77). Despite being geographically ‘so close to the heart of London, but so far’ economically, the youths of some of London’s poorest council estates made the most of what they had to create a scene that would make a significant impact on British mainstream urban music (Wheatley, 2010: 55).
With a ‘vocabulary that’s impenetrable to outsiders’ and pirate radio transmitters whose signals often only reached as far as the borough boundary, grime developed as a geographic phenomenon to East London (Sturges, 2005). Raves were organised as battles between crews of MC’s and were often cacophonous clashes of testosterone, with self-aggrandising lyrics laced with taunts delivered at frenetic speed, as each crew member grappled for their time on the microphone. These battles would also appear on homemade DVD’s documenting this aspect of the scene that became extremely popular for fans purchasing them out of local barbershops and dedicated record stores. This unique innovation provided fans with a means of feeling as though they were there witnessing the raw abilities of the rappers, providing a face to the voices they heard at raves or on the airwaves (Hancox, 2011a). These DVD’s gave the impression that ‘the scene is DIYing the sort of TV coverage it feels it deserves but isn’t getting’ and can almost be seen as the precursor to Channel U, grime’s equivalent of MTV, as the visual outlet to the music (Reynolds, 2009: 78).
Grime caught the attention of the mainstream media through Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner and Wiley’s Treddin’ on Thin Ice, released in 2003 and 2004 respectively. In particular, it would be the 17-year old Dizzee Rascal who exploded into the mainstream in 2003, becoming the first rapper and the youngest ever act to win the Mercury Prize and having a top twenty single with Fix Up, Look Sharp (Chrisafis, 2003). The album received critical acclaim from music journalists and artists alike with many praising the originality and stark reality of the music and lyrics on show. This apparently new musical phenomenon attracted record companies searching for the next artist with mainstream potential to match Dizzee Rascal, with Lethal Bizzle, Kano and Lady Sovereign three of the more prolific cases. There would also be others such as Jammer, Newham Generals and Crazy Titch whose reputations would garner attention, even if mainstream success was not forthcoming.
Most of these artists would pass through the doors of Rinse FM on their way. Beginning life as a jungle/drum & bass station in 1994, Rinse’s reputation grew to the point where it is often referred as ‘the most influential pirate station on air’ and its manager DJ Geeneus is widely respected (Topping, 2010). Pirate radio was vital in the development of grime and its predecessor garage, and Rinse was at the forefront in giving airtime to those styles. Through long-time MC Wiley, Rinse is widely regarded as the station that launched grime, helping to develop and establish the talents of Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder as well as many others (ibid). With the gradual demise of sound systems, it can be suggested that ‘pirate radio replaced sound systems’ as it is the DJ’s on the pirates rather than those at the clubs that receive the exclusives and help to push an artist’s reputation (Bradley, 2010). In 2010 Rinse received a community license making it a legal station for the first time, acknowledging the impact the station has had on London urban music and broadening its listenership (Michaels, 2010).
Many would draw parallels with punk in arguing that grime’s ‘best moments passed into obscurity’, buried under the masses of paper dedicated to the coverage of the few artists who found success (McKinnon, 2005). As has been seen in so many scenes before, the success of Dizzee Rascal led to a number of artists mimicking his style, creating a saturation in the market and waning mainstream interest as people became bored with what they heard (Anonymous, 2008). As a result, the scene moved back underground as drugs and violence began to take hold. Coming out of some of the poorest council estates in London, it is not surprising that this would make its way into the grime scene. With many of the practitioners of the music living in poverty, ‘a lot of grime music was funded by drug sales’ particularly skunk and hash (Wheatley, 2010: 81). This, along with the occasional theft, helped fund a lifestyle aimed at mimicking the opulence on display in American hip-hop and encouraged by the materialist ideals that are instilled within a capitalist society. As can be the case in this environment, when one person has something of value others want it as well and when they do not have the economic means to buy it themselves it becomes easier to just take, increasing incidents of theft and violence. This also developed with the music, with MC’s becoming more of a target as they became more recognisable, displayed for example in the stabbing of Dizzee Rascal just after the release of Boy in da Corner (ibid). The scene was also dragged into the postcode turf wars that affected East and South London, where people were often attacked based on where they were from. As a result, grime grew ‘obsessed with a sense of place’ as each crew ‘repped their endz’, shouting out their postcode at every opportunity on the mic and beefing with crews in territorial rivalries (Reynolds, 2009: 78). Musically, however, grime would be given a second lease of life in the mainstream with a new electro-grime hybrid that gave the music a commercially lighter and danceable sound in contrast to the darker simplicity of grime (Kathwadia, 2008).
Outside of grime, former London Posse member Rodney P returned in the same reggae-influenced vein with his highly anticipated solo debut The Future in 2004 on Low Life Records. Low Life Records proved to be one of the most prolific and influential labels during this time, releasing a number of popular UK hip-hop albums. Having moved from Leeds to London in 1997, Joseph Christie’s label was used as an outlet to release his own material under the pseudonym Braintax with Biro Funk in 2002 as well as Jehst’s Return of the Drifter in the same year. Jehst had moved to London from Huddersfield and his second outing, Nuke Proof Suit, would solidify his reputation as one of the best rappers on the UK scene. Another highly acclaimed release from Low Life came in the shape of Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind in 2004. Originally a member of the Mud Family, Skinnyman’s debut brought the politics and realisms of living on a North London council estate into view, with his blunt and raw vocals driving the grim realities of his life into the consciousness of the listener. Lowkey would also bring a harsh political edge to his lyrics with the trio of mixtapes Keys to the Game Volumes 1-3 released between 2003 and 2005. Lowkey’s lyrical reputation would take him across Europe and to collaborations with a number of established artists, and his stance as someone who is not afraid to speak up against governments has earned him great respect. Elsewhere, artists such as Klashnekoff, Foreign Beggars and Yungun to name but a few showed that UK hip-hop was not short of talent even if commercial success was still fleeting.
Nevertheless, by 2005 some critics were claiming that the music industry was on the verge of a ‘Brit-hop’ boom, with British rappers being compared to the 1990’s Britpop artists like Suede, Oasis and Blur. Much of this came on the back of the ‘unsigned and largely unknown’ London rapper Sway defeating multi-platinum selling American artists 50 Cent and The Game to the 2005 MOBO award for Best Hip-Hop Artist (Youngs, 2005). This victory and the quality of his debut This is My Demo suggested that perhaps the time had finally come for British rappers to make it big. There was certainly evidence to suggest this, with at least one UK hip-hop artist selected on the shortlist of the Mercury Prize every year since 2002. Although most of these artists did not win there have been some successes, the most recent being Speech Debelle who claimed the award in 2009, despite being relatively unknown to the British public (Swash, 2009b). This has helped raise the profile of UK hip-hop and has been aided by the introduction of a digital radio station dedicated entirely to black urban music in 2002 (Wells, 2002). BBC 1Xtra has helped UK hip-hop and a number of other genres reach a much wider audience, and provided a means for local artists to be heard outside pirate radio. It has to be argued that without mediums such as 1Xtra raising the profile of UK hip-hop, the successes of the second half of the decade may not have happened.
‘Urban Poppers and Post-Grimers’: The Hip-Pop Explosion
The latter half of the first decade of the 21st century has seen UK hip-hop experience easily its most commercially successful period to date. In the last few years, there has been an explosion in what could be termed hip-pop, a chart friendly version of hip-hop that crosses over into the electro-house music of artists like Calvin Harris and Taio Cruz. This style has seen British rappers populate the charts, winning awards and acclaim in the process, and has propelled UK hip-hop to heights it has never experienced before with a breakthrough in the US and consistent number ones. This, however, has created a selection of artists focused on a purely commercially-driven sound and the ‘dazzling world of tabloid acclaim’ (Egere-Cooper, 2010). As a result, a somewhat diluted derivative of hip-hop has emerged with intelligent wordplay and thoughtful content replaced by shallow lyrics and a predictable sound. Consequently, there has developed hostility within the scene towards this new form of UK hip-hop, with many fans and artists arguing that these new practitioners have only one perspective, that of ‘how do I get on television? How do I make commercial music?’ without acknowledging the roots of hip-hop (ibid, quoting rapper Ty).
Coming out of a hybrid sound as underground artists experimented with genres like funky house, the first song of its kind to reach the mainstream was Wiley’s Wearing My Rolex in 2008 (Kathwadia, 2008). With a sound created for the club, the song climbed to number two in the charts and sparked major label interest in the style. This interest has produced a number of artists who have benefited from the level of backing and publicity that comes with a major label, helping them achieve mainstream success and unprecedented album sales for UK hip-hop. A lack of major label support has been one of the main obstacles for British rappers, with many arguing that ‘no British artists will make it to the top until TV and radio stations get behind them’ (Youngs, 2005). This had been a common story for UK hip-hop for the preceding twenty years, and suggested that British rappers would have to make do with sporadic triumphs for the foreseeable future. However, the initial hip-pop artists, such as Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, N-Dubz and Chipmunk, have been able to consistently break into the charts with this championing, perhaps showing just what UK hip-hop may have achieved with major support from the start.
Despite their success and substantial album sales, there has clearly been a dilution in the creativity in the output of these artists. As has been stated above, the lyrical content of these commercial rappers is somewhat devoid of the intelligent wordplay and complex rhymes that can be found in the underground or in the songs of some of the best American MC’s. The tracks produced have also become relatively predictable, with topics rarely straying from the safety of feel-good anthems or R&B love ballads and production sticking to a standard electro-influenced rhythm with an overemployment of auto tune. I would argue, however, that this is not necessarily the fault of the artists involved, though of course some are purely commercially minded. In particular, Tinchy Stryder and Tinie Tempah are clearly very talented rappers who have the ability to do much more than what they have been limited to by their label. Nevertheless, the mainstream record labels have found a way to make profit from UK hip-hop and have capitalised on its market potential.
When it comes to the charts, no matter what label an artist may appear to be signed to they are more than likely under the influence of one of the big three, namely Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony or Warner Music Group (WMG). These three account for 95 percent of CD’s sold in the western world, thanks to a network of sub-labels and affiliates who are either directly controlled or have distribution deals with one of the three (Palast, 2003). As a result, they have a big influence in what becomes popular and what does not. For any artist after popular culture status, they are ‘entirely dependent on the label to generate their success’ and are subject to the whims of an industry that can throw an artist away as quickly as they were signed (Ball, 2011: 84). As a system built within the structure of corporate capitalism the music industry and the cultural industries as a whole are driven by the need for profit, which means that record companies will ‘record and distribute according to the commercial demand of profit-making’ (Fenster & Swiss, 1999: 228). Consequently, if something is commercially successful record labels will attempt to relentlessly reproduce that form to tap into its monetary potential. This is nothing new. The culture industry has been mass producing music for commercial use for decades and shows little sign of relenting whilst there is capital to be made. There are plenty of examples of this within hip-hop, from the ‘Disneyland simulacrum’ recreation of Sugar Hill Records (Potter, 1995: 46) to the ‘gangsta-rap sloganeering’ that dominates American hip-hop now (Potter, 1999: 80). Hip-pop is just the latest version the labels have co-opted.
It is very difficult to get away from this. By signing a contract, the artist in question transfers the rights of ownership and creative control over to the label, which gives it the power to determine what and who will be released and by proxy how much of a success or failure they will be (Ball, 2011). How can a label determine all that? The big three are all part of much larger corporations who have influence over a wide range of industries. As a result, they can instil influence on radio and music television playlists through systems like payola that determine the level of rotation the tracks they are promoting receive. Consequently, these are the songs that the majority of the public will hear and go out and purchase after hundreds of plays have influenced their tastes. Through this, the record label leaves many artists with a choice ‘to either join in or to be left behind’ (Adorno & Horkheimer,  1997: 148), but joining often means abandoning creativity as ‘artistic expression and cultural significance have no place within the assembly line of….cultural industries’ (Fenster & Swiss, 1999: 226).
This is what I believe has occurred with the hip-pop rappers. Record labels have chosen the most ‘non-threatening British urban artists’ and attempted to present them in a safety-sealed package that is wholesome and clean (Petridis, 2011). By doing this, they can market UK hip-hop to an entirely new audience that is probably not aware of the scene thus increasing the commercial potential. This comes at the expense of creativity with lyrics ‘subordinated to the performing conventions of forced intimacy’ in a bid to boost sales (Frith, 1989: 80). By not having creative control, the artist cannot determine what singles are released meaning that it is often the case that the more interesting and lyrically complex songs are consigned to filler on the albums. Hip-hop is in its nature a resistant music, but there is an indication that labels are only interested in a resistance they can appropriate, pushing everything else onto the periphery (Adorno & Horkheimer,  1997). It could be suggested that this has been the case with artists like Devlin and Professor Green, whose singles are not indicative of their actual lyrical abilities. Musically, conformity is also the case with the seemingly constant regurgitation of the standard electro-hop backing and the overuse of vocal effects that found popularity in hip-hop with Lil Wayne and have been replicated since. As a result, audiences are presented with a choice that is merely standardisation with conformity to a pre-prescribed norm (Huq, 2006). A deliberate politically motivated move to ‘reinforce their dominant market position’, at the expense of anything that threatens the bland musical standard of the popular (Balliger, 1999: 57).
Perhaps this is a very simplified view. The successes hip-pop artists have achieved have to be acknowledged and recognised as a step forward, in some sense, for a UK hip-hop scene that has been largely ignored. It is now the case that British rappers ‘dominate the pop charts in a way that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago’ (Petridis, 2011). British rappers can now be seen in some of the most unlikely places, performing on pop television programmes like X-Factor and even performing at football’s UEFA Champion’s League final (Llewellyn Smith, 2011). Probably the biggest step hip-pop has taken, however, is to break into the US charts. In particular, Tinie Tempah has entered the US top twenty and been certified platinum, making him the first British rapper to be commercially viable in America (Cochrane, 2011). This progress has opened up another market for British rappers in the US, and has for the first time created the possibility that a rapper from the UK could one day rival the top American artists commercially. These achievements have also brought with them a second generation of rappers looking to capitalise on the inroads that have already been made. Some of these artists, such as Wretch 32 and Rizzle Kicks, have already found chart success and there are a number of others who look set to follow. However, there is a concern with this second wave that they are just ‘jumping on the pop bandwagon’ by working with specific producers to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame without looking into the music long-term (Petridis, 2011).
It would be a misconception, however, to assume that hip-pop is the only form of UK hip-hop on offer. Even within the charts there are artists who have managed to cross the divide between underground and mainstream without pandering to the commercially-driven sound. Rappers such as Plan B, Sway and Giggs have managed to balance critical acclaim and relative chart success without losing their credibility in the underground. Plan B and Sway have been embraced by the mainstream through chart placements and collaborations with pop artists, but they have also released tracks in the underground that produce a more gritty and varied sound to appeal to their audiences that want something they can relate to. Giggs has found fame through the growing appeal of ‘road rap’, essentially a British form of gangsta rap, coming out of South London. Much of this attention has stemmed from the controversy, and subsequent overreaction by the Metropolitan Police, which resulted in the cancellation of a UK tour after encouragement from the police to avoid staging his gigs under the terms of Operation Trident (Jonze, 2010). Nevertheless, Giggs has found success, a testament to his lyrical abilities that have been able to overcome the controversies that have surrounded him. Elsewhere, female artists M.I.A. and Estelle have fused rap with other genres to critical acclaim and success in the US, showing that female MC’s can hold their own in UK hip-hop.
Hip-hop is dominated by male rappers. As Kruse (1999) states, ‘rap lyrics are perennially cited as among the most misogynistic’ (p86), deriding women as ‘bitches’ and ‘ho’s’ through the eyes of macho bravado. Despite what the lyrics and popular faces may suggest, however, hip-hop is by no means a purely masculine entity. Female rappers have been present in the music since hip-hop’s beginnings and this has certainly been the case in the London hip-hop scene. Hip-hop’s ‘hypermasculine style’ (Ogbar, 2007: 73), however, is ambivalent to women, pushing female MC’s to the margins of the music and reducing many to mere objects of attraction (Rose, 1994). Sexuality and sexual objectification have become fundamental facets in marketing female rappers to collapse ‘distinctions between the video ‘hoe’ and the female artist’, influencing perceptions of beauty that are often unattainable (Perry, 2004: 156). Nevertheless, female MC’s use hip-hop to ‘contest, protest and affirm working class ideologies’ of womanhood in hip-hop culture and the world in general, asserting an identity that subverts and reinterprets the apparent domination of masculinity (Keyes, 2002: 187). With the steps made by American female rappers such as Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah and Lil Kim during the 1990’s, women are starting to be taken more seriously in hip-hop with more MC’s given the opportunity to put their music to wax. As a result, women have become integral and resistant voices, as they ‘represent the lives of women in hip-hop’ that are somewhat left untold (Morgan, 2005: 428).
‘Female MC’s move beyond the shadows of male rappers in diverse ways’, with each rapper having a different approach and style to deal with the issues they are facing (Keyes, 2002: 208). The first British female rapper is widely considered to be Mystery MC, one quarter of the group Family Quest. Although outnumbered by three male rappers, Mystery MC was given an equal footing and regularly stood out for her lyrical ability receiving much praise despite being younger, white and a woman. However, even though Mystery MC was the first, the most successful British born rapper, though her accent would suggest otherwise, was Monie Love. Monie Love would achieve some success in the US alongside Queen Latifah and as part of the Native Tongues collective that included hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. As a result, she is regularly praised in the US as one of the first female MC’s to make a mark on American hip-hop and pave the way for others to come up in the 1990’s (ibid). Two all-female groups that stood out in particular in the 1980’s were the Wee Papa Girl Rappers and Cookie Crew. Both groups would have chart success and even some acknowledgement in the US, with their MC’s easily able to challenge their male counterparts.
The expression of womanhood in hip-hop can ‘expand, challenge and enhance the music’s evolving dialogue’ (Reeves, 2008: 118). However, female rappers consistently experience sexism regarding their creative capabilities through a stigma that they require help from men to write and create (Keyes, 2002). Since the turn of the millennium, this stance has slowly improved as more female artists have achieved success. In particular, the impact Floetry, Estelle and M.I.A. have made in both Britain and America has done much for the reputation of British female rappers, despite their sounds with r&b, soul and electronica. The fact that they have been more successful in the US than the UK is testament to the lack of support given to home-grown hip-hop artists in Britain, and just shows how far some rappers have had to go for their talent to be appreciated. Not so successful, but just as influential, rappers such as Lady Sovereign, who was briefly signed to Jay-Z’s Rock-A-Fella imprint, Baby Blue and Speech Debelle, who won the 2009 Mercury Prize, have pushed the abilities of British female rappers into the public view. They have, however, still faced stigma. In particular, some rappers are ‘besieged with gossip regarding their sexuality’ that in the masculine dominated world of rap, where hyper-sexualised heterosexual women are the norm, can enforce rejection and isolation from a scene (Morgan, 2005: 437). Nevertheless, there are a number of other female MC’s coming through the underground who have the potential to make an impact on the London hip-hop scene and perhaps even break into the hip-pop market. This is all dependant on whether they receive the support they are due. What is clear, however, is that ‘rap can no longer be imagined without women rappers’ contributions’ (Rose, 2004: 304).
To look at UK hip-hop in the latter half of the last decade entirely on chart positions and sales would be misguided. Beyond the scope of the mainstream media, UK hip-hop has a vibrant underground scene populated by rappers in the twilight of their careers and others on their way up. One particular area where the underground tends to stand out is in lyrical content and complexity, especially the incorporation of politics to speak out against certain issues. Although a number of the hip-pop artists do acknowledge the harsh realities that affected their lives in London, there is a clear disparity when comparing the lyrics of rappers who have charted with those who haven’t. The best examples are rappers Lowkey and Akala, who have used their lyrics to address issues such as knife crime, freedom of speech and the foreign policies of Britain and America. Lowkey has also been extremely vocal on the plight of the Palestinian people and has travelled there numerous times on humanitarian missions (Common Breath, 2010). Both rappers have often become the port of call for comments on social issues connected to British hip-hop, giving them coverage that perhaps makes them more well-known than the archetypal underground MC. They are not, however, the only political rappers, with others such as Micall Parknsun, Mic Righteous and Logic using their lyrics to speak out. Elsewhere, Million Dan, who made his name as a youngster in Demon Boyz, returned to release Spektrum in 2008, which has been highly recommended within UK hip-hop spheres. In addition, rappers such as Blak Twang, Ty, Skrein and Verb T, to name but a few, continue to push London hip-hop and attempt to show that there is an alternative to the American export. Overall, it appears that UK hip-hop is splitting into two unique entities. On the one hand there is the chart friendly derivative of hip-pop; on the other, the more underground and experimental hip-hop, displaying two distinct realities of modern life in cities like London.
Outro: The Future for UK Hip-Hop
‘Hip-hop has developed considerably since its early years; it will no doubt continue to evolve in the future’ (Henderson, 2003: 558). The musical style created by a collection of youths from a poor and run down district of New York has matured into a genre that is ‘the dominant form of youth culture on earth’, and a common presence in charts not only in the US but all around the globe (Cobb, 2007: 4). Hip-hop has influenced not only the music we listen to, but also the way we dress and even, depending on where you grew up, the way we speak. It has solidified a presence in cities everywhere and London is no exception. Since Newtrament’s London Bridge is Falling Down, hip-hop music in London has grown and mutated into something that now has the potential to challenge the top American MC’s for chart positions on both sides of the Atlantic. With every new artist the music changes, with new steps and turns altering the course that the genre takes. What direction that evolution takes next, however, remains to be seen. I am not in any position to predict what hip-hop will look or sound like next year, never mind in the next decade or more, and nor have I or will I attempt to do so. Whatever happens in hip-hop will be determined by the next few generations of artists, their audiences and the record labels (or perhaps label?) that direct them. What I have attempted to do in the above pages is show the history and developments of one small scene within the much larger hip-hop nation, giving an insight into how hip-hop has influenced and been appropriated into the specifics of a particular locality.
The London hip-hop scene has grown considerably in its almost thirty years of existence. Emerging out of fragmented little clusters across the city, it has expanded to incorporate every borough and has become an integral part of a wider UK hip-hop scene that is now beginning to make an impact globally. It is a music adopted by the forgotten sons and daughters of 1970’s austerity and 1980’s Thatcherism and adapted by subsequent generations, many of whom have been marginalised from the mainstream society and alienated from an ethos that they could not afford to consume. British rappers have taken a musical blueprint developed in the ghettos of New York and adapted it to the specifics of life in London’s multicultural metropolis. Out of social networks developed through the reggae sound system culture, they have established the infrastructure of a music scene that has had to be resilient in the face of a lack of support and small sales. It has survived nonetheless.
Progressively, the music has moved hip-hop in the UK away from an American imitation towards something that speaks to the specifics of life in urban Britain. In particular, the emergence of Demon Boyz and London Posse in the early-1990’s ‘made it cool to spit cockney’, bringing lyrics that acknowledged their history and drew hip-hop towards their identity and an understanding of the self (Peterson, 2002). It is difficult to comprehend now, when every British rapper uses their own accent, just how much of an impact the steps Demon Boyz and London Posse took had on UK hip-hop. Nevertheless, the impact of the appropriation of a London accent on a hip-hop track cannot be underestimated. In showing other rappers the merits of using an alternative to the imitative American accent on record, they had a great influence on other styles that followed, particularly grime, garage and the more hardcore hip-hop, and without them London hip-hop may never have taken the strides it has out of the American shadow.
There are a number of concepts that seem to consistently reappear when analysing the development of London hip-hop. One in particular appears to be the notion of authenticity. The authenticity debate can take on a number of different forms. In London hip-hop, this issue first raised its head in the 1980’s as rappers wrestled with paying homage to the original American form and imitating that sound or developing something that had more of a British context. In this respect hip-hop is an interesting genre. Hip-hop is a ‘community deeply concerned with issues of authenticity’, and rappers and fans are often plagued by this idea (Miyakawa, 2005: 77). However, definitions of what is authentic are consistently reinterpreted depending on the generation concerned. For example, Grandmaster Flash, NWA, De la Soul, Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z and Eminem could all be counted examples of the authentic article of hip-hop, but each artist is part of a different generation or style of the music so considered contemporary or outdated to other fans. Hip-hop in the UK also sees the debate about what is real British hip-hop. This can be seen in the loose tag of British hip-hop attained to other genres like garage and grime by some, whilst others would argue that they are entirely different genres because their music is too different to hip-hop. Finally authenticity disputes can emerge in the arguments that arise out of the crossover from what is considered the underground into the mainstream and whether an artist has ‘sold out’ for monetary gain. At which point a discussion can emerge to consider if mainstream labels should have any place in an authentic hip-hop article that forms in the streets not the boardroom. All these debates boil down to questions of what constitutes hip-hop and what makes London hip-hop. I have attempted to contribute to these discussions, but to answer them fully would require much more analysis and even then it would be extremely difficult to find a universal definition.
In this increasingly globalised world where borders are becoming more and more irrelevant and the internet transcends nations, it may seem strange to focus on such a localised music scene as London hip-hop. Although music has been radically changed through globalised means of reception, music scenes still form at a local level, structured predominantly now around the live venue and performance as other aspects are usurped by the internet. The live performance is still a vital aspect of popular music in connecting performer and fan and, as yet at least, it is something the internet cannot replicate, making local scenes still relevant and important in establishing face-to-face interaction. The debate about music scenes can also be reinterpreted to incorporate the internet and how uses of such a medium vary and can shape small local scenes, particularly in aspects such as distribution and dissemination. The global and the local are often interchangeable with external influences inspiring the music, but music can also be grounded more locally, as has been seen in the London hip-hop scene, through specifics of language and context that are relevant to a much smaller collection of people.
As stated in the introduction there are personal and academic motivations for pursuing this line of research, but there are also a number of social concepts that make analysing hip-hop in London extremely relevant. In cities like London, hip-hop is often the soundtrack on, and of, the streets. As a result it is an important medium to understand the lives of inner city youths and the ways they experience the city and the laws and systems of authority around them. With recent events such as the riots in August 2011 and the upcoming 2012 London Olympics as well as the growing impact of the global economic recession, there is a need to research the poorest people in England’s capital and an approach through music can provide interesting insights. Popular music brings into debate concepts of the relationships between sounds and community that, in the context of hip-hop in Britain, stem from the inner city council estates. There is a distinct link between the built environment and music. Music reflects what is around the person who is writing or creating a soundscape, and as a result the music can change as the surroundings alter bringing new experiences as the urban setting is co-opted for different uses. This draws in debates on commerce and commercialism in hip-hop, because if the surrounding environment is incorporated by capitalism for profit-making purposes then a resistance or reflection of that situation will be expressed. This subsequently shapes the output of music as artists choose to mirror or counteract changes around them through their lyrics and character. As London is a centre for global capital, there has been a clear influence on its hip-hop.
‘What is important in hip-hop is its expressive content’ (Hutnyk, 2006: 129). That content will continue to develop as long as there is a scene producing hip-hop in London and the UK as a whole. Right now British rappers are riding a commercial wave that is sending them to heights that they’ve never experienced before, but how long is it likely to last? This may be the most successful period for British rappers so far, but this is not the first time major labels have taken an interest and signed up as many artists as they can. UK hip-hop experienced a boom in the late-1980’s/early 1990’s, as did garage and grime in the late-1990’s and early-2000’s, but eventually the bubble burst and the scenes fell back into the underground. Could this happen again? There are factors to suggest that this time UK hip-hop will survive and thrive. The foundations are much stronger at the base of the scene and there are enough dedicated and battle-hardened MC’s and labels, such as Big Dada, to ensure the scene could maintain a level of success even if major label backing were to be completely removed. In the next few years it will be interesting to see what shape the music takes, whether there will be enough mainstream backing to support a balance of the different varieties UK hip-hop can take or if the dumbed down ‘fun music’ will remain the dominant sound of choice (Egere-Cooper, 2010, quoting rapper Blak Twang). In London there is always a desire to search for the next new music style. It happened with dubstep, which was already outdated in many circles before it reached the charts, something it shares with countless other genres. Hip-hip survives because it adapts alongside these new styles, shown most recently with the rise of afrobeats that mixes traditional music from Ghana and Nigeria with hip-hop and has been embraced by London rappers (Hancox, 2012). Only time will tell what happens to UK hip-hop in the future, but I for one will be taking an avid interest and supporting it throughout.
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