Since the COVID-19 lockdown confined us to our homes, the days have fused together in a dizzying mirage of reality. But on a warm pre-summer evening in early May, the world was tuned to a clash of the titans when No Signal Radio’s #NS10v10 battles pitted Afrobeats king Wizkid against dancehall legend Vybz Kartel. The premise – two DJs selecting 10 tracks from two artists to determine who’s superior – gained the budding online radio station more than half a million listeners from 99 countries. Despite heated Twitter debates over who won the war, the general feeling that night was that the constraints of lockdown had been forgotten – temporarily, at least.
The negatives of being cooped up haven’t been lost on the UK music industry. Live shows, tours and festivals have been cancelled, significantly altering artist income and cutting off opportunities to physically connect with fans. Music streaming on the whole is down (Music Business Worldwide reported an 11 percent week-on-week fall in March across Spotify’s Top 200 chart) and album promotion has been forced to take a different form.
But just as lockdown precipitated No Signal’s rise from infrequent broadcasts to daily programming and cultural relevance, UK rap hasn't slowed down, either. Countless artists have dusted themselves off to adjust, establish new ways of expressing themselves and connect with audiences, placing their personality and art at the forefront.
A lot has happened. A supergroup comprising UK heavyweights Skepta, Chip and Young Adz dropped their weighty Insomnia tape back in March, uniting three generations of talent to positive reviews. Meanwhile, Little Simz started a project from scratch over lockdown, with Drop 6 a short, sweet and solid offering from one of the UK’s best emcees. East London’s Barney Artist took an altogether unique approach, dropping his Lo-Fi Lockdown tape on Bandcamp for just 72 hours, having written, recorded and mixed this present-day time capsule in just one week.
Yxng Bane’s Quarantine: The Lost Files, which arrived in May with the look and feel of DJ Drama’s famous Gangsta Grillz mixtape series, is another timestamped memento of this period. And more releases from Headie One (both solo and his GANG project with electronic producer, Fred again), Aitch, Dutchavelli, Ivorian Doll, SL, Fredo, Sneakbo, Kadiata and the late Cadet, among others, prove the scene is only looking forward, not back.
Lockdown hasn’t been as plain sailing for some. Grime veteran Footsie had just pressed the button on the campaign for his debut album, No Favours, which was released in late May. Lockdown threatened to derail a special moment in his career. “I’ve found it hard,” he says. “The physical side was a key part of connecting with the fans, I was looking forward to sharing it with people. By the time we’ll be back on road the album will have been out, and how many more albums will be out? It’s missing that time where you can strike where the iron’s hot.”
Footsie reshuffled and learnt to adapt, utilising his socials to talk to his fans and building more of a rapport with them. “Sometimes I have to slap myself and tell myself I’m on an album run, because this is uncharted territory for me,” he says. “I’ve kind of become more humanised on socials because I’m engaging more.”
On the other end of the scene, North London MC Oscar #Worldpeace dropped his new album SPORADIC last month. Kicking off his campaign with one-to-one listening sessions with fans from his car, Oscar’s plan to take his "SPORADIC Car Tours" across the country were scrapped, but his focus soon shifted towards more personal means of connecting. “If you pre-ordered the album, I’d give you a £20 gift voucher from Tesco, and I felt that was needed,” he says. “You don’t know who’s struggling, who’s being furloughed, so that little help made me feel good to be able to give back and help. Without being in lockdown, I don’t know if it would’ve happened that way.”
With fewer people consuming music, releasing projects over lockdown is a calculated risk. But Joseph "JP" Patterson, senior editor at Complex UK and editor-in-chief at TRENCH, believes the risk is warranted. “The average person who has a nine-to-five office job might not have a spare hour in the day to properly sit down and dissect a rapper or singer’s lyrics,” he says. “I think it’s been a good thing for artists and their fans to get to really know who they are through the music.”
Lockdown has also been fruitful for those not actively promoting new music. Perhaps the award for "Lockdown’s Hardest Working Man" should go to rapper Swarmz, who has doubled his following by utilising Instagram Live to host light-hearted twerking contests. He's garnered over 100,000 views for every competition and, as of last month, sits pretty with over one million followers. Elsewhere, rap enigma Octavian directed his energies towards his budding radio station, SEX AM CLUB. The aim, as he tells me, is “to bring together the best of the best”. Enlisting DJs for live sets from his home, a major moment early on saw the rapper dancing on Instagram Live with Rihanna. Because, why not?
Stateside, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’s VERZUZ series sparked inspiration in the UK. Lockdown’s early stages saw the scene glued to Instagram Live for online clashes between Skepta and Jammer and, later, Skepta and JAE5. The general consensus was Skepta picked up two W's, with his best productions beating the top picks from both Jammer and Jae5. Meanwhile, DJ Continental GT’s weekly sets on Instagram Live have provided the soundtracks for indoor turn-ups across the country.
“I wasn’t planning to do IG Live [for my listening party],” Oscar says, “but it was good to talk to the fans, see the names waiting for the album, being more direct with them. Lockdown means there’s now no difference between a Beyonce and an Oscar #Worldpeace – we both can’t announce a show, but we can both go on Instagram.”
Patterson shares this sentiment: “[Lockdown] has broken down that wall of ‘celebrity’; we’re all just people going through the same thing, so let’s do what we can to catch a vibe.”
Outside of entertainment, music education programme Roadworks has turned teacher with new online series Drillosophy, produced in collaboration with Mixtape Madness. Taking a scholastic approach to UK drill, the show breaks down philosophical theory through the lens of drill lyrics. Conceived and recorded during lockdown, its first episode saw Roadworks co-founders Ciaran Thapar and Reveal explore the notion of Plato’s Cave through lyrics by drill duo, Skengdo x AM.
Thapar, who has previously written for VICE, says the experience was demanding, but ultimately worthwhile as part of the greater mission of speaking a language receptive to young people. “I felt I had to try to convert what I can do as a youth worker into something accessible,” Thapar says. “Something to show a 14-year-old kid who’s been kicked out of school that they can learn philosophy, and music will be their tool for that. The coronavirus has forced people to create solutions to things really quickly, and [_Drillosophy_] is my version of that.”
Producing inventive, engaging content is paramount for artists and creatives in the social media age, and lockdown has made them dig deep to unearth new levels of imagination. It speaks to the UK rap scene’s enduring resilience that lockdown has failed to halt its efficiency. From pirate radio and DVDs to the present day, the scene has moved continuously to its own beat, programmed to survive society’s wider social and technological climate, whatever the weather. Without the need to rely on traditional forms of media or the massive infrastructure of the music industry, its independence reigns supreme.
“Fifteen years ago, if coronavirus happened, you might struggle as a grime MC to develop skills without being able to go on pirate radio,” Thapar says. “If gatherings are illegal you won’t be able to clash, so there was a different technological texture back then. Now, you really can produce music in your house, it’s been built like that over the last five years, so the scene is so prepared for these moments.”
Lockdown has cemented the UK rap scene’s skill at keeping us entertained amid a backdrop of fear and pending economic peril. As we slowly return to normal, the post-coronavirus landscape is unclear – but the inventiveness exhibited by the scene will endure long after the country opens its doors again.
“Maybe we needed [lockdown] to slow down and realise how fast we were living,” Oscar says. “It will make us appreciate our supporters and the people around us, even outside music. What comes out of this is going to be greater if we keep this in our memories and don’t forget it.”