The UK's Forgotten Rap Scene Deserves Your Attention

A "Britcore" enthusiast told me how the genre helped to shape the future of British dance music.

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02 June 2014, 5:00am

Britcore group Hijack, photographed in 1988 (Photo by Normski)

UK hip hop doesn’t have the best reputation. The primary reason for that is because besides the annual Boom Bap lineup and a couple of other artists, most of it is shit; we don’t need 500 Giggs impersonators, British MCs talking about sizzurp doesn't sound quite right and I find it hard to believe that anyone truly enjoys listening to men in their thirties mumble about Hilfiger hats and their favourite strain of weed.

But the scene hasn’t always been graffiti artists spitting over recycled Jehst beats. In the late-80s and early-90s, as US hip-hop was enjoying what’s now referred to as its “golden age”, Britain got its first proper rap scene. “Britcore” was a genre with its own unique sound – faster than American rap and littered with British slang and Jamaican patois. However, the genre was completely side-lined as rave and acid house came along, and nowadays there’s not even an English Wikipedia entry for it, just a German-language page that mentions how the sound was far more popular there than it was in the UK.  

Fortunately, Britcore enthusiast Mark McDonald is putting together a book – Splendid Magnificent – that chronicles the early days of British hip-hop, detailing the 50 most influential records between 1986 and 1993. I gave Mark a call to find out a little more about Britcore and how it helped to shape the future of British dance music.

Britcore group Killa Instinct (Photo by Normski)

VICE: Hi Mark. So why release Splendid Magnificent now?
Mark McDonald: The idea is to give some dignity back to that brief era of UK rap where the sound just seemed so explosive. There was an energy coming off those records that made me, personally, feel very powerful and hyped up. It was a sound of ferocious angst, chaos and urgency. It was a call to arms, an audio assault. The music was characterised by the ethic of "Fuck it – let's make this record and put it out there."

The subculture reflected kids down with hip-hop, who were either bedroom DJs, emcees, graffiti writers or general hangers on, and they all felt that the angst of this culture mirrored their general ambivalence towards fitting in with society. When these tunes were being made, circa 1989, the term "Britcore" wasn’t really around; it was named by enthusiastic European collectors circa 92. They preferred this fast, densely layered sound to the more lightweight, G-funk, gangsta US stuff that was coming out at the time. 

Britcore was arguably the first distinctly British derivative of hip-hop. Why do you think it never really took off?
A lot of guys making the tunes just got fed up with the static nature of hip-hop jams and left for the more welcoming rave scene, which is why you’d hear quite a few tunes littering the top 40 circa 1992 that used samples from UK rappers and rap groups like Derek B and Hijack. I saw this first-hand with an old mate who came back from a jam in Swiss Cottage. After our group of white mates were threatened with violence, he said, "That's it – I'm done with hip hop." He went over to rave music and formed The Prodigy.

I guess the appetite back then was more for stuff like acid house and jungle.
Yeah, both on a street level and with regards to the commercial concerns of record labels looking for talent. Rap was increasingly seen as a bit passé and retreating to the fringe. The appetite today seems to be for all things urban.

Britcore artists The Icepick, Shaka Shazam and Huntkillbury Fin (Photo by Normski)

Do you think Britcore artists would have had more success if they had come out later than they did?
No, I'd argue that it provided the stepping stone between pre-87 UK hip-hop and the blossoming UK dance music scene after 92. A lot of the guys who went in that direction got into hip-hop from 1984 onwards, when hip-hop was the new thing and had a terrific energy about it. These guys honed their production, emcee and DJing skills while making Britcore. The UK hip-hop scene stagnated and the new energy then seemed to come from the acid house and rave scenes.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the artists migrated to rave, which was a lot more welcoming and progressive compared to hip-hop. The music was still breakbeat-orientated and of a fast tempo, so Britcore could easily cross-pollinate into rave. Check out "Made in Two Minutes" by Bugg Kann & The Plastic Jam, or "Don’t Hold Back" by Blapps Posse.

What was the definitive piece of Britcore clothing?
Definitely the "pin roll", where you’d take an expensive Chipie or Chevignon baggy jean and roll up the bottoms above the ankle so the jean formed a tight clasp and exposed your box-fresh Adidas ZX 8000 trainers. If you had cash and contacts, then the classic Run DMC black leather goose jacket from New York was the ultimate badge of status. Some still wore fat-laced Pumas or shell toes, but I think the Champion Suede boot became the sneaker of choice.

Ajay from the Britcore group Hardnoise and Curoc from Son of Noise (Photo by Mark McDonald)

And where was the scene based? Was there one club in particular that supported it?
The local jams all played the sound when it was current, and a particular club I remember, called The Slammer, in Gravesend – where Westwood DJd monthly – always played that stuff, though the appetite from audiences was always for US stuff first. I remember being there the night they first played "20 Seconds to Comply" by Silver Bullet – the place went mad. Perhaps though, the defining gig was Son of Noise's second LP launch party in 1994. It was like a homecoming for UK hip-hop in London, with all the elements of hip-hop in the house that night, and the realisation that Britcore had done something quite special.

How did the social and political climate at the time play into the scene? 
Events like the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham had given black youngsters a platform to illustrate their angst with the "pigs" and spit upon what they saw as an overtly racist society. Of course, not every kid carried a blade and caused static; some were savvy enough to let others do that, and then they'd take that energy and angst and express it through UK rap music and the Britcore sound.

Were there any themes in particular that popped up a lot in the lyrics?
Angst, racism and injustice were all themes in the lyrics. UK rap, on the whole, was fucked off with the idea of being a British citizen and minding your Ps and Qs. There was a naivety in the lyrics that focused on the idea that just by saying "Fuck you – I'm going to do it my way and sell records," everything would be OK for those artists. It wasn’t, and most returned to civilian jobs at some point.

The Icepick, Shaka Shazam, Huntkillbury Finn and friends. (Photo by Normski)

The scene hit its peak just after the Thatcher years – was Thatcherism much of a target?   
Thatcherism was, of course, an easy target to voice a sense of wrongdoing against. But how many of the kids making the music actually understood whether or not the mechanisms of a Tory government were really to blame for what they saw as a racist society that offered little opportunity for an 18-year-old black youth? The records needed an oppressor, and often the racist overtones of UK society were the target. It was in vogue to cuss the white institutions rather than Thatcherism solely, but I think a lot of the music saw Thatcherism and the white middle classes as the same thing.

Yeah. Finally, how far off are you with the book? Has it been hard getting everything together 20 years after the scene disappeared?
When I first started the project I don't think I realised the enormity of work needed to do this thing properly. So many artists have been forthcoming for interviews that it's evolved into a real labour of love that I have to fit in around work and two kids, who are both under five. I aim to finish writing by Autumn, then do the editing and layout through winter. At an estimate, I'd say that it will be finished by mid-2015.

Cool, I look forward to it. Thanks, Mark.

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