Us Brits understand that rap is one of America’s greatest exports, calmly slotting in next to McDonalds, the swivel chair (invented by Thomas Jefferson, of all people), and that weird plastic looking cheese we stick on our burgers in the three brief weeks the sun shines on our glorious island.
The thing is, as much as we can comprehend the brilliance and genius of rap music, it isn’t ours. Not really. Rap is credited to the Bronx, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Atlanta, and Detroit. Going beyond the amorphous tapestry of fountain sized refills, basketball shoes and the restaurant franchises that uncultured folk usually associate with the USA, hip-hop reflected back a more honest, brutal and beautiful, portrayal of America. As an aural form of reportage, it gave us an insight into the country’s culture. One that didn’t exist in an Olive Garden, or an episode of Friends, but in the traphouses of Georgia, or the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
Looking into America through the lens of, say, Eazy E as he crawled down Rosecrans Avenue in a Chevrolet Impala was an exciting and altogether revolutionary proposition, but while it opened a cultural window into another world it didn’t reflect our reality here in London. Our slang is different; and the cultural ticks that separate a rapper in Houston from a rapper in Oakland are even more vast when a London MC is thrown into the mix. So one day back in the early 2000s, a bunch of guys from East London started their own music scene: an entirely British genre called grime, that has as much to do with our own homegrown scenes of jungle and garage as it does the hip-hop that was born in the United States.
While grime and hip-hop are arguably separate entities in the sense they’re built on different genres, they do share two similarities: they both involve spoken word, and they both tell stories of an inner-city environment that has otherwise been ignored, and is begging to speak to the world. Oh - and while rap plays a dominant part in USA’s youth culture, grime has that same foothold on Britain’s teens. All of which is to say, the current focus on grime that’s been happening over the last year or so is as exciting as it is culturally important. For years, we’ve heard about Dr Dre, Jay Z, and Mike Jones. Now music fans in the States are coming to learn about Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, and Skepta. It’s genuinely stimulating to see it take off.
Tonight on VICELAND, we premiere NOISEY London, an investigation into the history of grime, at 10 PM EST. Yet while the likes of Skepta or Kano are beginning to gain a foothold in the States, they have been around a long time. Not as long as Dr Dre or Jay Z, granted, but their careers are at least a decade old. So, then, it’s crucial to bring forth the new crop of MCs who are currently repping for the sound in Britain, because just like the forefathers of rap, they have the potential to change what uncultured folk think about a country. See, just like how rap convinced the world that America wasn’t just a country full of parking lots and chilli cheese fries, grime can inform the world that barely anyone in the UK plays cricket or talks like they’re starring in Downton Abbey. Some newer names like Stormzy and Novelist have found their way to Americanised shores already, so we’re going to leave them off. For now, here’s a list of 5 new UK MCs that American grime fans need to hear.
You know how I mentioned that British slang pretty much exists in an entirely different lexicon to American slang? That’ll be immediately apparent when you hear Jammz track “Final Warning”. Over here, we say words like “safe”, “vexxed”, and “dead” - as in, “fam, I’m not going to work today. That’s dead”. If you don’t understand what Jammz is saying, you need to get on Urban Dictionary or “allow it”. Because, thing is: with tracks like “Final Warning”, “Hit Then Run” and “Mr Wait”, he’s shown that he can write and structure songs with clever concepts and themes as well as catchy hooks and bars that’ll make the DJ wheel up the tune again and again. Or, as you lot may know it, he makes tracks that’ll get the club “lit”.
As an MC, Jammz embodies what it means to be an artist in the UK. For the last few years he’s been smashing sets at his local pirate radio station for anything up to six times a week, which has helped him develop into one of the most skilled up-and-coming mic-men in the game. On the way, he’s become one of the most-booked MCs around. “London Living”, a collaboration with Plastician, showed what he can do over a more leftfield beat. Oh, and he’s no slouch when it comes to clashing either, having spun Pawz to Mars and back at their live Rinse FM clash.
For the sort of rap fans that would prefer to ease their way into grime, then AJ Tracey isn’t a bad place to start. For example: take his track “Spirit Bomb”. Built on a bed of production that owes as much to tracks like OT Genasis’ “CoCo” or OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” as much as it does the looming, swerving thematics of the sort of grime that used to be built in the bunkers of Bow, East London, it consummately sits on the precipice of the special relationship between Britain and the States.
That being said, some people are born to be MCs and AJ Tracey is one of them. Blessed with the kind of delivery you simply can’t practice alone, he could spit his shopping list and I’d be bussing gunfingers in the rave. That being said, he doesn’t rap his way through what he’s eating for dinner, instead, he peppers his gritty trap-tinged tales with ultra-confident bars about girls and references to everything from Yu-Gi-Oh to Tottenham Hotspur. In particular, last year saw him take on Zeph Ellis’s “Acid Bomb” beat and absolutely wipe the floor with it, which was bad news for Kano who later used the same instrumental for “Garage Skank”.
Jheez! I could use this paragraph to explain the sound of Elf Kid's debut single "Golden Boy" but you should probably just click play on the video above, because no words will prepare you for what you’re about to hear. It’s the sort of thing that’s so hot, you’ll have to go and cool off in the freezer for a minute. Come back when you’ve watched the video, and we’ll have a word.
Done? Okay. So if there’s one track that encapsulates what Britain’s youth are really about, then it’s Elf Kid’s “Golden Boy”. At once playful, ready to go and chirpse (aka, flirt) your girl; at others, ready to go hard, it’s imbued with a sense of youthful confidence. Shot on Lewisham’s high street, which is the borough in South London that gave birth to MCs like Novelist, P Money, and Kozzie, the hyperactive video is packed full of cheeky charm and tracksuited teens, who are clutching their bottles of Lucozade (Britain’s most popular energy drink) like the liquid is an extended body part.
Short for You Get Grime, YGG is the name given to Saint P, PK and Lyrical Strally as a trio. Back in the day, crews were a bigger part of grime – just like California had NWA, or New York had the Wu Tang, East London had Ruff Sqwad and North London had Boy Better Know, which is the now Drake affiliated crew headed up by JME, Skepta and Jammer. YGG are continuing that key component as the genre moves into the hands of its new, young generation.
Regularly turning up to radio sets and live shows three men deep, bouncing flows off each other with the kind of chemistry you can only get in friendships formed on the school playground, YGG are lyrically up there with just about anybody in the grime scene right now. Yet, for me, PK’s off-kilter flows and ad-libs stand out the most. Both grime OG P Money and Rinse FM (one of the most popular radio stations in London) have compared PK to a young D Double E, which is just about the highest praise a grime MC can be given. It’s kinda like saying the latest star to grace Hot 97 is the next Snoop.
Another MC who cut his teeth on pirate radio, Big Zuu spent 2015 lighting up sets across every single grime station imaginable: from Radar Radio, to Mode, to BBC 1Xtra, to Rinse, proving his worth. On top of this, he also dropped his debut mixtape Big Who?, one of the most emphatic introductions to the scene we’ve heard in a long time, as well as a collaborative EP with Mic Ty, another one of my favourite MCs.
Zuu is loud, and he’s proud of it. In fact, he even has a song dedicated to shouting. But don’t get it twisted, he isn’t a one-trick pony. Nor is he a hype man. He’s a very skilled MC who is more than capable of taking scalps in a lyrical war. Just ask Werewolf – that is, if you can find him. Hahahaha.
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NOISEY London airs on April 19 at 10 PM EST on VICELAND.