How do you know you’re listening to a UK rap song? Beside the very obvious signs – the artist, the production, the slang – you’ll probably hear a reference to Harrods.
The huge Qatari-owned luxury department store (think Saks Fifth Avenue but in southwest London) has become a go-to lyrical reference for many UK rappers. By my count, it's featured in tens of British rap tracks released in the past few years. The 2018 UK number one “Funky Friday” by Brit award-winner Dave had guest artist Fredo boasting “I'm always in Harrods / I'm filling the bag.” Grime MC AJ Tracey called the spot his “happy place” on his 2019 MO collab “Choose Sides”. And Brit rap duo D-Block Europe referenced the store on no less than five tracks in 2019 alone (“Home Pussy”, “Luke Cage”, “Dreads In Plats”, “Cartier Frames”, “Bando On The Satnav”).
So how did we get here? “It’s a part of the culture. It’s embedded in street culture – to be presentable. It’s a sign that you’re doing good,” explains UK road rapper Blade Brown, whose 2019 mixtape Bags and Boxes 4 featured a song named after the department store.
Much like its US counterpart, UK rap – and by extension its sub-genres, grime and drill – has always been aspirational. Whether it’s Dizzee Rascal telling BBC London in 2013 of the allure of the city’s financial district in his childhood skyline (“It means the most to me, I could see it from all angles as a kid. [One Canada Square] was the highest building I could see from my bedroom”) or the many songs that speak of success, UK rap has always looked toward a better place.
But there hasn’t always been as much money in the scene. Look to early UK rap imagery, such as the iconic Simon Wheatley photograph of grime crew Ruff Sqwad: the Canary Wharf architecture Dizzee spoke of hovers in the background, but you’ll see the-then standard tracksuit and New Era hat combo favoured by acts at the time. The same look pops up again in the 2000s – it's there in Chipmunk and Ice Kid’s historic "Grime’s Not Dead" freestyle and on the cover of Giggs’ breakthrough Walk in da Park mixtape in 2008.
Even in the mid 2010s, as grime culture came back to its street roots after several years of flirting with Ayia Napa-adjacent pop, the general consensus in UK rap seemed to be that authenticity meant wearing easily purchased garms for comfort, rather than anything with a high price tag. As Skepta put it on his and brother JME’s single “That’s Not Me”, helping to solidify a few more years of black Nike tracksuits: “Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin cause that's not me.”
“Growing up everyone wore Nike and Adidas. A bit of Puma here and there,” says Papii Abz of UK afro-bashment collective NSG, whose breakthrough smash “We Dey” arrived in 2016. In that video, the six member strong crew are posted up in North Face and Nike – again, practical sports clothing. But by the time they released the UK Top 20 hit “OT Bop” in 2019, the scene had changed. They’re dressed in vibrant, colourful hues – luminous yellows, splashes of orange, salmon pink trainers. It’s still functional, but it’s also luxury wear – the NSG members are in brands like Off-White and Palm Angels, where tracksuits retail around the several hundred pound mark.
“If we’re going shopping for a shoot, I can guarantee the first two pieces everyone is checking is Palm Angels or Off-White. They’ve got the street look to them, but they’re high end,” explains Papii Abz. “We still want to be comfy in our tracksuits.” But now you’ve got a bit of money, I guess you want to splash out? “Yeah. Exactly, exactly.”
They reference Harrods on the track too – “My drip is a talent / Saving is boring / So I might go Harrods.” The store has been dropped in tracks for a while; on 2011 track “Don’t Get Rude”, JME offers up the diss “I’m Harrods / blud you’re Hamleys,” referencing the luxury department outfit next to a children’s toy shop. However nods to the store have peaked in recent years. Alongside the aforementioned artists, UK acts Headie One (“Music x Road”), Zone 2 (“Who’s Badder Than We”), Nines (“High Roller”) and K-Trap (“Big Mood”, “A to B”, “All Year”) all reference the shop in tracks from the past few years. And there are surely plenty of others too.
But what pushed the UK rap scene toward higher end clothes from the department store? “The interest in UK rappers wearing and being interested in luxury brands has always been there. But there’s a lot more money in the game now,” says Blade Brown. UK charts and festival bookings speak to this claim, with many of the artists referenced featuring high on both. D-Block Europe, for example, sub-headline this year’s Wireless Festival, with their performance coming before A$AP Rocky.
The lean toward Harrods as opposed to an American brand keeps things centred in British culture too, even as the clothes these acts are wearing come from European designers. That Harrods is referenced so much is, at its core, a confirmation of the health of the UK’s rap scene. Blade Brown tells it like this: “Whereas before only a few people would wear and talk about these high brands, now everybody is wearing and talking about them because there’s a lot more money going around.”