$cotland Yard Came From Across The Pond To Edify Cypher League On The History And Prevalence of UK MC Culture
Although many Americans wouldn’t believe it, we do have hip hop in the UK. In fact, we have a huge panoply of genres which might satisfy the criteria of “rap music”. However, out of these genres, UK hip hop is not the most prevalent, so this article will study the broader genre that utilizes a MC/beat production. This versatile creature is not specifically of the same breed as US hip hop, though undeniably the American scene is one British artists look to for influence and creative inspiration. The follow is an attempt to demystify disparities between the two musical cultures while profiling the various strains which comprise urban music in the United Kingdom.
Hip hop in England is a wholly underground affair, whereas in the US it dominates popular taste and has remained a pillar of African-American culture that pervades the entire world. Hip hop in the US is a derivative of the legacy of the Blues, which in turn bore Swing, Jazz, Rock n’ Roll, Soul, Funk and RnB. By sampling parts of existing tracks in which the beat is emphasized – the ‘breaks’ – New York DJs in the late seventies created the musical arrangement over which MCs would lay rhymes, setting a precedent for the form of popular music for generations to come.
Similarly, urban music in the United Kingdom is rooted in black culture dating back to the influx of Jamaican immigrants from the former British colony in the ‘Windrush Generation’ post-WII. These immigrants brought sound system culture that had evolved from early forms of carnival music such as Calypso, which later spawned ska, reggae, dub and dancehall – the latter of which provided a platform for Jamaican MC culture.
For this reason, much of UK urban music inclines not towards the Soul and Blues roots of US hip hop, which arguably carries a quality of lamentation rooted in the call and response pattern from the days of slavery, but towards the 2-step and bass-orientated arrangement of Afro-Caribbean descent. Of course there is a similar cry of affliction in English music to that of the African-American musical legacy, but it is younger and protests the racism and discrimination suffered by immigrants arriving in England during this period (and to this day).
Both UK and US hip hop share the central characteristic of fighting oppression by painting a manifold picture of urban existence and the throes of inner city life. In line with the general differences between British and American society, our urban music is made for the most part in a darker vein, and affords less glorification of urban life than American musicians do, they vaunt notions of the ‘Rap superstar’ as the ideal position in the music game.
As the genre saw domination of the American mainstream during its ‘Golden Age’ in the late 1980s and early 90s, a trend which has continued to this day now yielding a new breed of rapper – one that rubs shoulders with the likes of Warren Buffet. Hip hop is based in the relative poverty of the ghetto, where in place of fiscal wealth or social status the currency of success became an individual’s ability to rhyme, spin, dance or paint graffiti: the fundamental facets of the culture.
Formerly an underground scene, the typical narrative was one rooted in the street, entirely unrelated to the world of corporate and governmental America. Nowadays, however, it’s a story of departure from the ghetto and one that is upwardly mobile, its destination a life of riches, bitches and reputation.
UK Hip hop has never seen the success that its older cousin enjoys, or even within British urban music, in which other genres have derisively superseded hip hop possibly because it has always been viewed as one borrowed from America. For this reason, nothing in the way of extravagance can be attributed to British Hip hop. It laments the hardship of urban life in England but in true British style, it is full of self-deprecation and for the most part doesn’t carry the same thug bravado mythology of much US Hip hop.
In short, it takes itself less seriously. Where American rap glorifies life on the street and the rags-to-riches career trajectory experienced by many of its artists, UK hip hop remains almost intentionally esoteric – appealing only to its niche market. Separate from the evolving Afro-Caribbean and electronic sounds intertwining in the form of genres like Garage and Jungle, UK Hip hop struggled first to find an identity apart from its matured American counterpart in the early 90s with many artists simply imitating the US tip, e.g. Slick Rick (accents included).
As its popularity as an alternative and uniquely British genre spread, primarily through live showcase and pirate radio (a hugely important catalyst in the proliferation of most underground British genres), the scene gained solidarity and the ideals it began to promote were in defiance of major record labels and monetary incentive (RA the Rugged Man might be exemplary of this mind set in America). That said, the UK community keeps a close ear to the US sound and acknowledges its patented significance. It could be said that UK Hip hop has nothing in common to the West Coast vibe, because of a lack of good weather in Britain (pathetic fallacy) and a preoccupation with the close urban mental space, the UK sound is more like the Beast Coast.
The first song here is “The Junkyard” by Taskforce (Chester P & Farma G) released on Low Life Records, one of the most prolific and important labels in UK hip hop, is a grim insight into the North London estates on which the outfit grew up and containing the essence of disenfranchisement that UK Hip hop seeks to illuminate. The work the label produced with the likes of Jehst, Skinnyman and Braintax marked the maturity of UK Hip hop and serves as a good point from which to explore the rest of the genre’s repertoire.
It is worth noting that perhaps the one distinctly UK Hip hop artist to seriously achieve mainstream success is Professor Green, who allegedly used to roll with the coalition mentioned above but is now likely scorned by them as a ‘sell-out’.
Foreign Beggars were closely associated with Low Life in the late 90s and before riding the wave of popularity that UK Bass saw around 2010, they made seminal British Hip hop. In Hold On from their first 2002 album, which features Skinnyman, the aggressive undertone of the genre is apparent while the delivery remains humorous, maintaining the slight self-deprecation found in much UK material.
This style is spearheaded in associated acts such as Dr Syntax, who puts great store in his lyrical ability and relating the realities of being part of an underground genre. The self-deprecation found in songs like Subcultures almost completely betrays the egocentric style of Hip hop proper, making him come off as more of a spectacled nerdy white dude than a gun-toting roadman. This highlights a further in congruence with America and another reason why the UK sound felt compelled to adapt; much of the UK community is made up of a substantially white demographic.
Another crucial UK rapper is Roots Manuva, whose dubby, afrocentric and again often comedic approach to his music has carved him a legendary status in the UK underground, with a fruitful eight albums to his name between ’99 and 2011. Witness is from the second of these and smacks of the Carribean influence of Roots’ Jamaican origins, inherent in the weighty bassline and the inflections of his cadence. The rapper claims that UK Hip hop is ‘more healthy than’ US Hip hop due to its commercial reservations.
Arguably, the first UK Hip hop album to realise commercial success in the charts was Original Pirate Material (2002) by Birmingham based group The Streets. Frontman Mike Skinner, famous for his conversational flow and hilariously quips of lower-class British culture, released 6 albums with them between 2002-11 collaborating with a wide array of artists from the urban scene and sampling various genres along the way. “Nite Nite“ is a song by Kano featuring The Streets, lamenting the universal woe of unrequited love.
Terra Firma, a click from Hackney represents the darker UK tip, with suggestions of real criminality in its exposition. The material of Klashnekoff, Kyza Smirnoff, Scribblah etc. cuts a balance between politically motivated commentaries on social inequality and menacing bars about the methods by which they might attain their own societal reform. Klashnekoff‘s “Son of Niah” featuring Sizzla is a tribute to his lineage fusing rustic instrumentals with compelling afro-spiritual imagery. On “Cold Steel“, a J Dilla instrumental, Kyza spits a bloody ode to the streets full of violence and little remorse.
Other rappers of note who adopted this intellectual cum politicised style are Akala (Ms Dynamite’s brother) and Lowkey who in the next two songs “Old Soul“ and “Obama Nation” respectively reminisces over Black Music and how it has influenced him as a musician and a person, and viciously criticise America’s aggressive foreign policy in recent years. Their lyrics are astute and philosophical, their styles comparable to and inspired by rappers like Immortal Technique.
Needless to say, amongst purveyors of urban music there are some characters that use their music as an instrument for actual intimidation; this phenomenon is certainly prevalent in US rap. Criminal gangs often use music to identify themselves amongst their competition, boasting of their enterprise, ruthlessness and supremacy. Of the many gangs that litter London and other main English cities, Suspect Gang is one that has essentially turned a statement of violence into a musical profession.
With K Koke in the lead, Suspect Gang struck fear and respect into the hearts of its listeners with its descriptions of the gutter life in Stonebridge. Coming up in a tumult of murder charges, drugs offenses and other suspicious behaviour, K Koke cultivated such a fan base in the underground that Mr Carter himself clocked and decided to sign him to Roc Nation while the Koke was still under investigation for attempted murder. His new material has invariably taken on a more popular sound, as can be heard in “Roc for Life ft Wale” or “The Only One”. Retrospectively, his earlier sound was not pretty; his songs usually contained very serious messages of warning to his enemies, one of which was Spyda, once an older in the group who snitched on his mans. “Are You Alone Fam?” is an chilling example of this.
The scene is still alive and has remained true to its principles. Despite some examples of mainstream success, it’s generally an underground scene that continues in this vein. DSB is a talented new artist whose compelling voice could seduce the most reticent of listeners. Based mainly in London, DSB’s first album It’s Not Even A Thing Vol.1 came out earlier this year, cop the DL here, or sample “Lighter Fuel” first and then do it. Another duo who is making ripples are Strange U, newly signed to the incredible Eglo Records, it’s a tuff sound. Check out Klaatu Barada Nikto for their strange feel.
So in light of the above, it’s clear that UK Hip hop and US Hip Hop share fundamental similarities in manifesting the hardship of street life through music and speak for the unspoken for, the oppressed in society. Yet the scene in England, though it spans the whole country, is a fraction of the size of America’s. It is a less commercially orientated scene which shuns the mainstream, where in America Hip Hop is the mainstream and that is celebrated (though not always). The sunny vibes of the West Coast have no place in the Big Smoke. Of course we in England enjoy it immensely but it’s a world apart and we equally take great pride in the voice of our own urban culture and its musical personality.
I’ll leave you with a nice one to finish with before Part 2, the grime star Big Narstie responds to Kendrick Lamar’s verse over the ‘Control’ instrumental, claiming too that he is the King of New York. It’s off the dome, he’s the man for the job and he wants everyone to know the UK must be allowed to stake its claim.