Features

That's Not Me: How Our Thriving British Music Scene is Reclaiming Its Identity

We have a crop of artists who aren't turning to America for inspiration or identity.

by Ryan Bassil
20 January 2016, 2:04pm

Britain’s greatest export is music. Our influence is everywhere: from David Bowie and The Smiths, to MIA and Radiohead. Too often though, we look back on it more than we look forward. So we’re going to switch it up. For the few weeks we’re going to be looking at 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. From explorations into Manchester's grime crews and UK hip-hop health checks, to investigations into how we solve drugs testing at music events and how we fix online abuse against female artists… Welcome to Noisey UK’s Guide to the Future, starting with an overview of this golden crop we have right now.

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This is a country with strong traits. We love cheap foreign holidays, awful television, and hunting for bargains. When entering the wrong shop, we’re so polite we need to studiously peruse the shelves for a moment and pretend to check a price tag before feeling comfortable enough to leave. At least one person in our inner-circle has a Sports Direct mug in their kitchen. Our corner shops are stacked with small juice cartons (50% of them missing a straw). The water temperature at the hairdressers is always “fine”.

Unlike the Yanks, perhaps our biggest idiosyncrasy – more than being polite – is that we’re not great at asserting ourselves; there’s just something in our psyche that renders us unable to get publically excited about anything that doesn’t involve warm weather or free food. It’s a trait that goes from our government’s oft-referenced inability to proudly stand alone from our “special relationship” with the States, right down to our personal companionship with music. When we make a big noise on the global stage about Britishness, it's usually something like Mumford & Sons - a falsified folk myth of idyllic pastoralism that tries to personify the UK by harking back to a ye olde England of flat caps, wealth fantasy, land owners, and turns around the garden.

In the past few years, though, we’ve seen a growing tide of British artists who have a newfound confidence in their roots, and completely negate to pander to what an international audience may desire. In a similar way to how the nu-lad tribe has replaced an imported aesthetic of bearded-neck-of-the-woods Urban Outfitters and Hood By Air fashion runways with zipped up leisure-wear, Stone Island, Adidas and Palace combinations, so too has our wider music scene started moving back to something that is quintessentially British. Wildly successful new artists like Stormzy are becoming just as, if not more, exciting to British music fans as the latest tropical-tinged track about cell-phones from Drake’s OVO Sound Radio show. Just take a look at the video for Stormzy’s “Shut Up”. In the last ten months, it’s amassed nearly 20 million views.

He's important to single out, because he represents the return of big and bold British superstars. His fans don’t just gravitate toward him because he’s talented, which he clearly is, but because there’s no distance placed between him and them. He’ll “go to Morley’s for £2 chicken and chips”, he’ll shout out all the “peng tings” on his breakout single “Know Me From”, he’ll wear a Father Christmas outfit to the office (in his case: the Radio One studio) just because it’s jokes. Like his grime counterpart JME, not only do you get the sense Stormzy has refused to hold even the smallest parts of his identity back, you know it. It’s why his music has been successful in resonating with so many British people across age, class, race, and culture.

This idea of being proud to be British, or at least unwilling to have an Americanised identity, isn’t a revolutionary fad. Some of the most monumental careers of yore have been built on it, from Oasis and The Streets to Dizzee Rascal and the first Arctic Monkeys album. These are some of our most loved legacy artists, and it comes down to their ability to speak to us: about our love for cigarettes and alcohol, our small idiosyncrasies, that feeling most of us get from growing up on the outskirts of a one-club town or a crowded estate, with niche little references in our own lexicon – like getting “old school like Happy Shopper” or watching this “thing on ITV the other week”. Y’know, the small nuances that separate our homegrown artists from the rest, helping to stitch them into our collective being. Yet from the drop-off point where Skinner and Dizzee stopped making their most well-received music, it feels like we lost a bit of that British charm and identity for a while.

For one: a lot of the grime and rap artists either fucked off to America to hang out and drink ciroc with Diddy, or were lured into sanding down their artistic identities for pop pursuits, eradicating the semantics that made them so appealing in the first place. And it always seemed a matter of time before any decent British rock band would slick back their hair and jet over the Atlantic in a bid to find their inner Josh Homme. But that was just a small part. Due to the internet and proliferation of social media, semantics and style started to become Americanised. Trap music, born out of the States, became a big thing here. Our youth-at-large were either obsessed with the floral patterns of Odd Future, the shuffling of homogenic new-house, or the big American pop behemoths, like Beyonce and Miley Cyrus. A wave of US urban led by DJ Mustard, and backed up by Schoolboy Q, YG and more, took control of our dancefloors.

Then something started to change. British artists – specifically those from the original grime scene – started to reclaim their identity. Or as Skepta said on 2014’s “That’s Not Me”, they ditched their Gucci clothes, returning to represent a culture that felt distinctly British. That’s not to say there haven’t been artists who have stuck to their roots throughout – UK Hip Hop will never die. But now, from grime, pop and indie, to the UK’s afro-beat collectives and suburban jazz sampling producers, right across to our forever burgeoning and world-leading electronic scene, it does feel like there’s now a tangible sense of an interconnected British music scene that hasn’t been felt for a while.

Look to South London, and you’ll find a hotbed of music, with new acts like Elf Kid, Section Boyz, and Novelist picking up where legendary south of the river legends So Solid Crew, P Money, and the OGz Crew left off. Next to them, you’ll find a host of artists bursting out of King Krule’s shadow, with acts like Jesse James Solomon and Sub Luna City crafting suburban tales that could only come from somewhere like South London. Then there’s 808INK: a duo of musicians who wrote one of 2015’s most uncelebrated albums in Billy’s Home, a concept record born from immense frustration and loss, and is a reflection on current youth culture in the capital - or as they call it: “Lundun”.

And that's just one district of the capital. Away from any strict designation of post-codes, there's acts like the Neverland crew: which comprises of the artists Ryan Hawaii, Daniel OG, and Omlet. In the debut video for Daniel OG’s “Plan” – which has the lyric of the year so far in, “I do my research, you should see my tabs” and has been backed by Skepta on his Twitter – we see a colorful and confident side to Britain’s youth. As OG says on “Ode to London”: “I want to make London great again. No more imitators”.

Once you start digging beyond these artists, a chasm starts to open, and the amount of talent is quite overwhelming. There's Denzel Himself (whose 2014 EP Pleasure is a must have); the MellowGrime crew, which includes acts like Kwollem and Rayf; the king, Kojey Radical, who will change what you think about British music; singers like Leks Rivers and Fredwave; acts crafting otherworldly soundscapes like the double team of Miles From Kinshasa and Kadiata. And in the more experimental regions of pop, there's Dua Lipa, Bo Rocha, NAO, and, of course, Shura.

Given that this is an entirely British thing, it’s not just London that’s seen a return to reclaiming the British identity. Up in Manchester, there are movements around groups like Levelz, and the pioneering Grey Collective who are stamping their message on a black British sound that doesn’t fall into rap or grime. DIY collectives in Leeds like Chunk are raising the city’s noise-rock rep, and UK label Dream Catalogue have somehow reinvented and re-popularised the once forgotten genre of vaporwave for a brand new audience, by bringing through a whole new crop of young producers from Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and further afoot; even collaborating with Zomby on one release.

This can all be viewed through a wide lens. Ever the genius, Brian Eno once coined the term: scenius. He came up with it after he realised that the great figures of the art world – Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto – didn’t spring from nowhere, they were born from very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people. He saw something similar happening with the 70s New York no wave scene at the time. “Some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.” Essentially, every great talent, the people who produce artistic revolution, come from a bedrock of other creatives, driving them on. And it's an idea that applies to Britain’s current music scene.

Of course, British artists across genres have always collaborated, but more often than not it’s felt like a record label decision; like Dizzee collaborating with Robbie Williams to give each artist a new audience or Lethal Bizzle guesting on a Babyshambles track to corner two demographics. But this time round it feels more organic. Take this year’s BBC Sound nominee Mura Masa as an example. He’s gone from working with niche record label and radio show Soulection, to writing a song with Shura and working with NAO, to remixing a track for the elusive grime legend that is Wiley. Doors between genres that were once closed, are now open, and collaboration is thriving. That’s why you’ll see Skepta on stage with punk band Slaves at Radio One’s Big Weekend, Big Narstie getting gassed with Craig David, and Charli XCX dropping songs like "Vroom Vroom" with SOPHIE.

You don't need me to tell you that Britain is a undeniably a country of great music talent. There is no other artist like FKA Twigs out there. There is no American version of Burial, Dizzee Rascal, or MIA. But it’s taken us a long time to return to a sound, an aesthetic, a feeling, that feels so uniquely British across the board. And now that’s here, it almost feels like we’re on the peak of the next great movement. These things move in cycles. Manchester in the 80s, Britpop, garage and jungle in the 90s, then grime and dubstep in the 2000s. The next great peak looks like it won’t be one particular sound or scene, but our crop as a whole, collaborating, supporting and pioneering together. Or at least that’s what it should be.

So the Yanks can have Calvin Harris – the latest British export to headline a festival abroad. Let his moisturized skin dry out on the scorched red mountains of Coachella’s Napa Valley. The same goes for the triangle-shaped Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding and Coldplay – basically any carbuncle in some form of hat or crop-top that’s mounted the Billboard Chart. These guys might be the ones doing numbers overseas but they aren’t a true representation of what’s happening in the United Kingdom – which is an unprecedented amount of creativity, one that’s only going to get better the more that it grows and molds. Now, everyone: fix up and look sharp.

You can follow Ryan Bassil on Twitter.