July sees the launch of BBC Radio 1Xtra’s ‘MC Month’, celebrating the bar-spitting glory that is urban culture in the UK. On the air, they’ll be jamming the station with a series of special features and sessions. And on the ground, they will be taking the 1Xtra Street Studio to four British cities (London, Manchester, Nottingham and Cardiff), to uncover the future MC stars of the UK, starting this week in Cardiff at the Capitol Shopping Centre on Queen Street - get down there to have a chance to get your performance heard on BBC Radio 1Xtra. When it comes to UK rap and grime, one’s mind wouldn’t always naturally float towards the capital of Wales. So, the question is: why Cardiff?
At a time when British urban genres are enjoying international focus, there’s been a growing interest within the community for tastemakers, critics and journalists to turn their attention away from London and to the UK’s other major cities. 1Xtra has been doing this for years, and partly through their trailblazing, we’ve seen the rise of Bugzy Malone and Levelz in Manchester, Rawza and Izzie Gibbs bursting out of Northampton, and talent like Snowy and Mez coming from Nottingham. But beyond the boundaries of the M25, M4 and across the River Severn, a small but passionate UK rap and grime scene is slowly manifesting and churning out artists capable of retaining a national fanbase.
Originating down in Newport, Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s presence in the charts more than ten years ago with “Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do” left a wry smudge on the Welsh music landscape. Whilst they were known for their satirical lyrics – and the rest of the country did indeed laugh along – it also had an affect on the overall perception of Welsh urban music; that it was just a bit of a laugh, essentially. But, in a way, that legacy also presented a chance for new young South Walian acts to prove they could be taken seriously – and when able MCs started to spring out of the city, they sprang out hard.
In 2011, Tiny Skitz – or Fernquest as he’s known now – appeared on Charlie Sloth’s Fire In The Booth on 1Xtra racking up over 85,000 views. Then there was the rapper Local, probably one of the only Welsh rappers to feature on Lord of the Mics. “Local’s been around for quite a while – he did the whole Malia and Napa circuit and all that,” explains Welsh MC, Traxx, who features in rising Cardiff DIY rap and grime collective Astroid Boys. “He also clashed with Jammer, and is still the lead torchbearer for the scene.”
Nevertheless, it’s the young acts making all the waves in South Wales now. Astroid Boys themselves are among the latest crop of artists seeking to create a synergy between Cardiff and the UK urban scene, combining their own UK hardcore background with metallic grime sounds to create something altogether bold. The collective collaborated with London MC Maxsta earlier this year, and if you want a taste of what they are all about, then stick “Fallback” in your tins and rejoice.
“The same way at one point, New York influenced London, people in Cardiff are influenced by what happens there too now. We’ve got to a point where it’s evolved and we’ve got our own scene, slang and everything,” says Traxx. The evolution is probably the most important aspect. Had Cardiff continued to look outward for most of its influence, the city’s scene may have eventually found itself battling issues of self-identity. “Wales is quite a patriotic place, which you can see in rugby, so you get a lot of artists bigging up the city and referencing things only people from Cardiff would get,” Traxx adds.
Grime, as we all know, is political by nature, with its almost twenty year history littered with run ins with the police and government, and searing social commentary. Across London, the authorities have routinely shut down raves and club nights, one of the most recent cases being Section Boyz’ show at Village Underground in Spring. And nobody has forgotten how Lethal Bizzle’s “Pow” was an anthem for disaffected youth, long before it attracted a negative response from club promoters and authorities.
In Cardiff, MCs have been vocal about the migrant crisis in Europe and expressed disgust about the surrounding vitriol towards refugees. Tiger Bay has long been home to Cardiff’s coal industry, but also to the city’s predominant ethnic minority community. “We grew up with Somalis and Arabs and we look at what’s happening in Europe, we asked ourselves: is it going to be like this? People feel quite passionately about this because of Cardiff’s history and what it’s like living around the docks,” Traxx says. It’s meant that the urgency to hear stories from minorities outside of London has never been more important.
Astroid Boys’ own journey to this moment has been a difficult yet rewarding one. “When we performed with Stormzy in Berlin, he put us on his Snapchat then played us on his radio show. That’s when people began to really start recognising that Wales isn’t a place just full of sheep and it’s a place for music,” Traxx explains. However, whilst they may be the anomaly, a lot of Cardiff’s MCs and producers don’t currently have the attention needed.
“We’re not saying local promoters don’t support the MCs, but I don’t think many of the local MCs are at a level yet where they could draw crowds in,” Dellux adds. It’s not an easy thing to achieve and often in these situations, compromises are sometimes made. Once upon a time, there was a period of identity confusion within grime coming out of London but when a culture is in its infancy, these occurrences should be seen as teething problems and curiosity.
Still, there are opportunities arising for local MCs and producers to cut their performance teeth. Being home to more than four universities, Cardiff’s club scene has naturally had to cater to its large student population. “The drum & bass scene is popping,” explains Dellux, a producer from Newport and part of Astroid Boys crew. “It’s the dominant one and I think that’s mostly because of students. With grime, big artists like Kano and Stormzy come through and there’s always an atmosphere.”
A popular club night, Aperture, has positioned itself as one of Cardiff’s most prominent spaces for these sounds, feeding the city’s thirst for grime, rap, dubstep and drum & bass. On any given Friday night, there’ll usually be a wide range of local talent, MCs from other regions within the UK, and sometimes even international acts. “Most of our fans are into drum & bass but also like grime and rap. The students that usually come down are the ones that can’t find this stuff on the more popular nights.” Whilst this community may be small, local artists can look to these students as their path to recognition.
Just as the future of grime nationally is uncertain and filled with a host of opportunities, so is Cardiff’s. With the city’s current rap and grime landscape, the UK’s changing identity and support from 1Xtra, regional hubs have an opportunity to harvest a scene that thrives on external buzz and interest, as well as internal. However, a hustler mentality will need to be employed from the grassroots up as Cardiff seeks to establish its own identity within the UK scene.
You can follow Jesse on Twitter.
The BBC Radio 1Xtra Street Studio will be in Cardiff on Saturday 9th July only! Come step up to the mic! Get down to Capitol Shopping Centre on Queen Street to record some bars to have a chance to get your performance heard on BBC Radio 1Xtra. Come show us what you’ve got, right here.