"No one cares about mass media anymore. Ten years back we'd say, 'ahh they never play our music on radio or TV'—but no one cares any more. The internet is our mass media now."
I'm talking to Lotes, the brains behind UK rap YouTube channel Blackbox, founded in 2010 and run from an industrial Essex estate. It's taken things right back to basics; a couple of cameras pointed at a microphone in a darkened room. Aspiring British MCs pay to freestyle for the channel, almost as a rite of passage. As long as you can come up with the modest fee, no one is turned away. "We don't really filter it," Lotes says. "It's kinda like X Factor for the streets."
Blackbox is just one of a wave of YouTube channels that have become the driving force behind the UK's ever growing rap scene. Others such as Link Up TV, GRM Daily, SB:TV and Pressplay have spent the best part of the last decade incubating a genre that was almost entirely ignored in the wider media. Grime had the spiky synth work and technoid percussion to separate it from US hip-hop, but the British rap scene—often called "road rap" or more recently branching off into drill (yes, inspired by the briefly zeitgeist-y Chicago scene of the same name)—can usually only be distinguished from its US counterparts by the accents and slang of the MCs riding the beats.
As a prime example, Peckham rapper Giggs—ie: of the "Batman" More Life bar—is the undisputed champion of road rap; his 2010 breakthrough tune "Talkin' Da Hardest" saw him spit over US rapper Stat Quo's Dre-produced beat for "Here We Go". Krept & Konan's "Otis" became a double sample of Kanye West with Jay Z and Otis Redding. And so, conventional music industry wisdom was seemingly that a UK rapper hopping on a US beat would never have the same worth as an American rapper doing it. As a result, major labels, mainstream media and commercial radio by-and-large dismissed the scene as a commercially unviable parasite of US hip-hop.
As it turned out, this didn't slow the spread of harder UK rap in the slightest. YouTube's open door policy allowed committed cameramen who actually lived among the artists they filmed to document the rise of those around them in forensic detail. Following Giggs, MCs such as Squeeks, J Spades, XL signing Nines and Mover have become stars over a constant stream of videos and free mixtapes, using YouTube to pick up where pirate radio left off. That said, it's a stark financial truth that most artists will make far more money off live shows than they ever will off record sales or streaming income. And the harder UK rap scene, with lyrics often explicitly portraying street crime and gang violence, has come under constant disapproving attention from the law and smashed head-first into barriers to live shows—in London in particular.
"I don't personally think the mainstream will ever accept the gun-toting, head-banging, drug-dealing UK rapper," says Corleone, both a UK rap icon and CEO of GB Records, a label supporting upcoming UK talent. "That rapper isn't going to end up on [evening chat show] T__he Graham Norton show. The UK radio pushed Desiigner but didn't push C-Biz. Desiigner's tune 'Panda' came out at the same time as C-Biz's 'The Games Mine'; 'Panda' got playlisted on every radio station, but C-Biz wasn't shown anywhere near that much support."
A radio controller's decisions are one thing, but the police's cock-eyed interest in so-called road rap is another. How can rappers in the scene expect to get on with things when they know the authorities will be keeping watch? "You've seen a hundred gangster films, and no one has complained," Corleone answers, in the tones of someone who has had to deal with this question over and over again. "These tunes are documenting the world that these artists have come up from, but they're also telling stories—it's entertainment. No one is banning showing gangster films… Basically I think that this is the Queen's country, and they don't want the world knowing that we've got people like we do in the inner city."
But as Lotes points out, the power of the internet to disseminate an undiluted message means the scene didn't just give up and crumble. While well-meaning media outlets wring their hands over a "lack of representation" for rap artists at back slapping industry shindigs like the BRITs, the streets continue to confidently build their own empires.
"Things like the BRITs probably matter to people with an over-heightened sense of importance," Lotes says, laughing, "but I don't think in general the people who are out here making music in the studio every day even care. As long as everyone around you is eating, you're doing good. I employ all these people around me – people who haven't been working for ages; the long-term unemployed. It's more than just the music, it's life innit."
This attitude led the scene to follow it's own path, with enough of an industry springing up to make it broadly self-sustaining. There have been occasional forays from major labels dipping their toe into the scene—most notably with Krept & Konan, whose witty wordplay instead of overtly violent lyrics made them more palatable to executives (and less likely to get nicked during a promo campaign)—but generally, rappers such as Mist and Big Tobz, and crews such as Section Boyz, 67, and Harlem Spartans have stayed resolutely independent, pursuing the dark lyrics and murky beats that they know their fans want—and scoring bigger hits as they do so. And as fanbases grow, many UK artists feel they are unfairly penalized when they drop lyrics touching on "road"—essentially street—themes.
When the police started legislating against the artists and the media they used—having Giggs' 2010 tour cancelled and allegedly shutting down the Rap City YouTube channel—it cemented the UK rap MCs status as champion of the streets. Just like every classic rock rebel before them, the more they appeared to be telling the wider world to get fucked, the more their fans loved them. And so Corleone is optimistic—he's pushing through artists in a scene that is getting bigger every day. "There's no way the rap scene can be stopped, not in a million years. It's only getting bigger—the UK underground is bigger than it ever has been. The kids listen to UK music more than American music now. If the guys on the street keep pushing their music it will stay relevant, and it will explode."
It may be fair to say it already has exploded—with artists regularly notching up multiple million views entirely independent of any traditional media support, and the rawest of homegrown rap tunes picking up reaction videos from as far afield as Russia and Kenya, it's quite possible that what has been considered the mainstream isn't even the mainstream any more.
"People are watching Youtube and giving them the views," sums up Corleone, "and that's all you need. I think if the artists within the industry are clever enough they'll end up as the mainstream anyway."
Keep an eye out for our new film 'Don't Call It Road Rap' to see what host Mike Skinner discovered when he spent the past year investigating the UK's harder rap scene.
You can find Ian on Twitter.