For the next few weeks, we'll be running pieces about what 2016 holds for the UK music scene: which artists possess the power to make it tick, what scenes are approaching boiling point, and what issues we need to fix before we can move forward. You can find all the content so far, right here.
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As recent as two years ago, grime music was seen as a bit too raw and too real for the wider British public, too bogged down in the details of a street culture most pretend to ignore. It took four years of austerity – when the problems that have been affecting urban communities for decades started to impact the middle classes in the suburbs – for its message to really resonate with enough people to break into the mainstream. And grime’s massive upsurge has rippled into road-rap where acts like Section Boyz, Fekky and genre overlord Giggs, are also gaining a new range of listeners.
It’s been a less glorious story for the modern UK hip-hop scene, which – aside from the tentpole success of the goddess-like Little Simz – is often dismissed as either a lukewarm imitation of American rap music or just a bit too crusty, too-self-aware, and too cheese smoking activist to be taken seriously. When you combine this with a general reluctance in the British mainstream to treat experimental black music with any credibility (see this year’s Brits nominations), you end up with a situation in which any young British MC that isn’t making pop-rap or grime has a serious fight on their hands just to be heard.
But while Stormzy, Skepta and co have taken on the world in style, a lesser noticed but simmering new strand of the UK hip-hop scene has quietly exploded into its own phenomenon, driven by fresh minds like Gaika, Kojey Radical and Sub Luna City, who are working deliberately outside the confines of grime and traditional UK hip hop to create genuinely progressive rap that rivals the US for creativity, urgency, and importance, and portrays a much broader black British music landscape than you hear on the radio.
“We're just going through the cycle again,” Manchester via Brixton MC, Gaika tells me. “Everyone pretends that black music doesn't exist unless it fits the box, which is defined from the outside.” And that’s kinda defines that this new pool of artists are making, music that doesn't fit into boxes; a sound that started at UK hip-hop and then went west. Gaika’s primary influence is dancehall, yet his music has more in common with the likes of Massive Attack or Young Fathers than it does with Vybz Kartel. He's also cited Nirvana and the Melvins as formative to his work, something that becomes clear as you make your way through his gothic debut, Machine – its rattling bass and chaotic production echoing that sense of anarchy.
Much like The Melvins, Gaika's music is also heavily political while at the same time rejecting the overt, often preachy political statements of many of his peers. “I'm not hugely into conscious rap, but I think that the conversation's moved…” he says, attributing the shift to a new found confidence among a “post-Obama” generation of artists such as Kendrick Lamar. “You can talk about the struggle now, and you can talk about women, and talk about everyday things, and have an overall positive message and do it in a non-preachy way because [now] you can do what you want.” Gaika's first single “Blasphemer” echoed the frustrations felt by many around the world, when he asked, genuinely pained, “How you gonna let them killer cops off? Blood on your hands you can't wash.” Rap music, and music of black origin generally, has a long history of politically charged work, however mention 'socially-conscious UK hip hop' to British audiences, heads included, and they'll run a fucking mile, assuming they are about to hear a 4 minute post-De La Soul number about MP’s expenses. It’s that political but not 'Political' message that is at the core of what makes Gaika and other artists so compelling.
East London’s Kojey Radical is another with a flare for the balanced approach, focusing on the overall tone of his music as a complete work of art, rather than on verbose diatribes against the government. Asked how much politics informs his music, he replies, “It doesn't, the people do.” He continues: “You can feel when the masses feel unrest, you can sense a disruption in a community – politics affect everyone but not everyone understands it.” His work's deliberate appeal to those outside of politics – an approach that aims to include rather than 'educate' – lends Kojey's music a similar lure to that of grime. It’s a call to the disenfranchised youth of the UK, someone speaking their language.
Kojey works within an arguably more traditional framework than Gaika, subverting hip hop and trap with, appropriately, radical results. This is most clear on “Bambu” – a stunning, spoken word deconstruction of modern rap music and society that manages to both empower and enrage; expressing what seems to be the core frustration of the UK's burgeoning scene. “Any attempt to engage your conscience must be seen as conscious,” he says.
Understanding how Britain relates to rap music is vital to understanding the emerging scene Kojey and Gaika are part of. If anyone has an insight into how the UK and rap music blend together, its the founder of Big Dada, one of the UK's most respected underground rap labels, Will Ashon. “I think hip-hop and rap is at its best when it’s quite raw, and I think the UK scene – partly because of lack of funding as much as anything else – was very raw,” he explains. Ashon founded Big Dada back in 1997 and the similarities between the UK's scene then and now are striking. “It had an edge to it which I liked, it was punky,” he says. “It wasn't made in massive expensive studios for a major label, it was made by kids in tiny home studios.”
Kids in tiny home studios is a pretty succinct way to describe most of these new acts; especially Sub Luna City, a hip hop collective best known for counting Archy Marshall, aka King Krule among their members under his 'Edgar the Beatmaker' alias. Musically, Sub Luna draw on East Coast hip-hop; crafting chilled out, rough around the edges, boom-bap that brings to mind the likes of 36 Chambers-era RZA and Madlib. It’s almost as if they've taken apart a mid-90s beat tape and put it back together using the sounds of south London. The group only have one mixtape and it’s over two years old, yet a string of tracks from various members, includingg Jadasea's recent feature on the latest mixtape from Ratking member Wiki, has kept the group's name at the forefront of people's minds when discussing British hip-hop.
It’s the lack of these massive expensive studios that make this crop so exciting. You can hear the grit and locale in their recordings; the artists are keeping their creative direction in their own hands. Kojey Radical founded his own “creative house”, PUSHCRAYONS, in order to release music and innovate with his videos and Gaika remains unsigned despite increasing success in the US. Similarly, South London crew 808INK - who release visual spectacle after visual spectacle - have their own creative department, Black Anubi$, which comprises members Mumblez Black Ink and Pure Anubi$. In the past year, they've directed their own videos and for other up and coming hip-hop acts, like Daniel OG's "Plan", which was supported by Skepta on Twitter. By handling their business, these groups retain a grass-roots quality, yet they also craft an output that can rival any of the bigger, far more financially backed acts out there.
British MCs have been fighting an uphill battle for recognition for some time, and as a whole grime generation soars and Little Simz racks up Kendrick Lamar co-signs – and grime as an art form becomes less labelled as a black London thing and more rightfully regarded as a British thing – there’s a hope that all this success can become a gateway for new audiences to discover even more experimental forms of that lie beneath, from acts that are only just now coming to fruition. In short, it’s time the UK started taking its own hip-hop seriously again.
You can find Mike on Twitter: @VintiVsVinti