3 – 1: Skepta, Dizzee and Wiley
This is it, our panel's top choices – and just the mix of lyricists, international stars and grime OGs that you'd expect.
Over the past few months, a bunch of Noisey staff, journalists, artists and friends of Noisey who know their music have sat together to bash out a list of the greatest UK MC talent of all time. We've shared the results of those chats in a top 30 countdown this week, running through the pioneers, grafters and the odd enigma who've pushed the limits of British skills on the mic. We've not just commended great MCs in the traditional sense – lyrical flow, wordplay, freestyle skills – but bigged up those who've created a legacy, stamped in a cultural mark or paved the way for the new breed. Here's our final three.
For a man who released a debut album on his own label and titled it Greatest Hits, Skepta has handled his current glo-up with the grace and humility of an elephant striding majestically towards the horizon. Everything the eldest Adenuga brother has done over the last 12 years of his career as an MC, he's done with confidence – even if it was wearing a white fedora doing a cover of a Turkish pop song, putting out a dank Match Of The Day instrumental, or spitting bars in the foreground of grime-video-slash-squalid-British-porno that was "All Over The House" – and that unshakable sense of conviction has seen him all the way through from the iconic Devilman clash to winning the 2016 Mercury Prize.
Skepta's voice is one of the hardest grime has to offer. It has the power to cut through the air in a room like a fire alarm, his bars direct and spiritual. His trajectory over the last decade or so has had its ups and downs, but ultimately he's found an equilibrium that suits him, operating at a level of focus and self-believe that makes him appear almost untouchable, while also rooted firmly in reality. He's managed to both battle Radiohead for a UK album chart number one and win a MOBO for a video that cost him 80 quid. In his own words: "Boy better know man went to the Brits on the train / Think it's a game? / Man shut down Wireless, then I walked home in the rain."
As Dan Hancox wrote for Noisey last year, "Skepta has become the ultimate avatar for grime's resilience, suffusing the next generation with the same dazzling self-belief." The difference between Skepta then and Skepta now is that he's gunning for acclaim not just as an MC, but as an artist.
I think most people remember where they were when they first heard Dizzee's "I Luv U". For me, the moment was massive. I didn't even understand every word of what I was hearing – it was black, but not Caribbean, it was unapologetic, it was African, it was British, it was working-class, it sounded like my estate and it didn't. It became a gateway drug to grime for many.
Scrolling through YouTube, there's old Deja Vu footage from a clash between Dizzee and Crazy Titch, uploaded in 2007 but filmed much before that. You only get to see about 38 seconds before he passes the mic, and no more after that because Dizzee and Titch end up arguing (with Wiley as a mediator) before it gets taken outside. It's still exciting to watch because in those 30 seconds Dizzee hits all those cliches that you've read when people write about grime: thrilling, urgent, delivered with frenetic energy, and properly, powerful. To me, he invented those cliches; he owns them. Every time he spits, you say the same things and they don't feel tired because he forces you to feel them again.
The thrill is in simple bars: the braggadocio of lines like: "Dizzee got girls shockin' out in the dance / Dizzee got girls from Hackney to France" on "Give You More" (featuring this list's number 10, D Double E); "I've heard the gossip from the street to the slammer / They're trying to see if Dizzee stays true to his grammar," speaking to critics on "Fix Up Look Sharp"; the cheek of "Dizzee runs tings like Idi Amin" on his "Creeper" freestyle.
Boy in Da Corner came out at the height of Blair's ASBO Britain, and listening back to it you can't help thinking that in a lot of ways, it's an anti-social nightmare. It was the height of Form 696, hoodies were being demonised on corner shop doors and in tabloid news. And still the album earned Dizzee the 2003 Mercury prize – a major coup for the scene that helped pave the way for Skepta's much-loved and much-memed win last year.
Dizzee was warm and hilarious when I first spoke to him, over the phone, for small south London publication Young Voices in 2008. He'd just released "Dance wiv Me" with Calvin Harris, a monster hit that I thought was lame, but he was still exciting. We talked about 'making it' – "I've traveled around the world … not just Stratford Wrecks and shit like that any more!" – and how he wasn't selling out because "grime was always dance music". His voice was as it is on the record: distinct, familiar, controlled.
To some, Dizzee might not go down as the rapper with the best songs or even the most likeable character in a scene packed with caricatures. But he is the pioneer, who wrote two great albums more than a decade ago and helped a generation fall in love with a genre. He's one of the greatest because yeah, he made crap dance music for a bit, but a 2008 set will still make you feel things. In this game that's exactly what legendary status is – fans still listening in, decades later, and still praying to hear a few more bars at the end of a verse.
If we laid out a list of everything Wiley has released, achieved or helped bring to fruition we'd probably be able to fill our editorial quota for the year and go home to stare into the middle distance until 2018. In our interview last month, Wiley said: "I think that having the ability to go to the studio is the only thing that keeps you alive" – as if, when he scratches his leg in the night, it is not blood that seeps out but the sound of music.
That's not why he's the greatest MC, though. Some of the worst MCs in the world spend all their time thinking about the studio, going studio, mentioning the "studio" as though doing so will elevate them to the status of the greats. Wiley isn't like that, of course. He's proved his worth with his impressive discography. Rather, Wiley's placement as the greatest British MC is down to the fact his dedication to music stretches beyond the studio and into the league of cultural history.
There are very few musicians who can say they've given birth to a scene, carried it through the growing pains, refused to let go during the dark years, and emerged on the other side triumphant and 11 solo albums deep. Yet here Wiley is: not only as an artist and originator in his own right, but as someone who, in one way or another, provided a path to a majority of the acts who make up the grime scene, from Skepta to Chipmunk to Dizzee Rascal. Of course, the tweets; the infamous moments; his sharp wit and East End humour; everything from "If You're Going Out I'm Going Out To" to "Igloo" – they all combine to make Wiley one of the greats. But it's his ability to continue laying the foundation of a scene, for himself and others, that makes him the greatest MC.
As we said earlier this year, Wiley isn't "trying to say he's the king or the prince or the librarian, he's not trying to say he's the guru, he's not trying to say he's the guy doing 25 to 30 years in jail for it. He's saying he is the Godfather. He's the guy who treated this scene like a youth club and gave us all paths." If you can walk away from his new album and say that, then he's happy. "That was my only goal", he says. You can't help but read it and feel like it has been for his entire career.
You can go back and read through out our full top 30 in all its glory here.