2017 has been a ridiculous year. Donald Trump is still somehow leader of the Free World despite spending most of his time golfing or insulting his enemies on Twitter like old man Regina George. The other week we found out that in addition to spending wild amounts of public money on leaving the EU, our government still doesn’t have a plan for Brexit or any clue as to what will happen after. Also a parody-rap song about jackets delivered by a comedian from Croydon got so big it was released by Island Records, made it to the Top 5 in the UK charts, and is taking a shot at being Christmas No.1.
In a year that has seen reality increasingly mirroring parody, imitations of life (and particularly parody-rap) has become the new reality. The biggest stars of this genre are Big Shaq AKA Michael Dapaah, creator of “Man’s Not Hot”, and the Kurupt FM crew, cast and creators of BBC Three show People Just Do Nothing. The former has made history as the highest-charting debut artist of the year—before he even released a music video, whereas the latter have recently been signed to XL Recordings. If 2017 has been one thing, it’s been the year of people taking the piss. But, political context AKA *dumpster_on_fire.gif* aside, how did these musical jokers go mainstream?
First and foremost, it’s important to note all these guys are incredibly talented and have been doing their respective ting for a while. They have genuine love for the cultures and people they’re satirising. They’re not shit novelty acts hopping on a wave. This is not Peter Kay on the “Road to Amarillo.” Although parody has been a cornerstone of British culture since forever—we love a cheesy icon in this country!—the difference between this latest crop of artists and those of yore is that their art is underpinned by creative genius. And crucially, the characters they portray are not too far from who they actually are as people themselves.
Dapaah, for example, grew up in Croydon and based his Shaq character off people he knew. Meanwhile the Kurupt FM crew have all been DJs or MCs at one point. While People Just Do Nothing might be a mockumentary, it is very much rooted in real life; both that of the crew themselves and the characters in 2004 documentary Tower Block Dreams about London’s underground pirate radio scene, which served as inspiration for the show (and coincidentally features DJs named Beats and Decoy, the name of two characters in People Just Do Nothing, and an MC called Killa whose characteristics bear a strong resemblance to that of MC Grindah).
Following the steady stagnation of Kurupt FM, a pirate radio station broadcasting UK Garage and drum and bass from Brentford in West London, People Just Do Nothing originally started off life as ‘Wasteman TV’; a YouTube series consisting mostly of improvised material created by Hugo Chegwin (DJ Beats), Allan Mustafa (MC Grindah), Steve Stamp (Steves) and Asim Chaudhry (Chabuddy G). In 2012, the show was picked up by the BBC and, contrary to the fortunes of the fictional characters they portray, the crew behind PJDN have gone from strength to strength. Aside from signing to XL, 2017 has seen Kurupt FM play Glastonbury, host the main stage at The Roundhouse with support from Mike Skinner and P-Money, and set an example for the rest of the world about how to correctly treat Ed Sheeran for Comic Relief. They have also hosted 1Xtra’s Fire In The Booth, shared stages with Big Narstie and Stormzy, and are almost single-handedly responsible for the Great Craig David Comeback of 2015 after bringing him on 1Extra to croon “Fill Me In” over Bieber’s banger “Where Are U Now”.
MC Grindah’s character has been compared to David Brent from The Office on more than one occasion—a narcissistic egomaniac living in complete denial of his capabilities—and People Just Do Nothing frequently employs tactics from the cult British show (think: frequent looks to the camera). It’s perhaps unsurprising then that when asked about what inspired the show, Mustafa has responded “We just watched The Office a lot and smoked weed.” Following in the footsteps of the cult mockumentary show that inspired it, People Just Do Nothing nails “that quintessential British sense of humour where we’re able to laugh at our own humiliating inadequacies,” as Alex Fletcher puts it.
Crucially, the show is always loving rather than condescending towards its characters—although PJDN is undeniably hilarious, we want the best for these often pathetic and deluded characters. I’m not sure anyone could say the same for David Brent (much less Ricky Gervais). Grindah actually used to MC, including a freestyle on Kingston’s Rampage FM as a teenager; DJ Beats and Steve were both raised on an estate in Brentford; Chabuddy G is based on an exaggerated version of Chaudry’s dad. The show itself is also a love letter to suburban West London, something that is a far cry from Ali G and his portrayal of another outer-London suburb, Staines—a television show that, years later, stands in stark and near ignorant difference to that of People Just Do Nothing.
After the show won a BAFTA for Best Scripted Comedy this year, Chegwin told a reporter “We wouldn’t be here if the culture didn’t accept us.” The culture, for its part, has accepted the squad fully—aside from the aforementioned names they have shared stages and studios with, the Kurupt boys were part of a ‘documentary’ made by legendary youth and subculture photographer Ewen Spencer this year. It features cameos from a series of UKG greats including Sticky and Rodigan, and was followed by news of the gang’s first mixtape release, featuring classic grime and garage tracks from the likes of Wiley, Jon E Cash, Youngstar and XTC, alongside with some tracks from the Kurupt FM crew themselves.
Big Shaq’s character also has his roots in a mockumentary, namely comedian Michael Dapaah’s #SWIL (Somewhere in London) Youtube series. The show follows a number of characters—all played by Dapaah—as they try to make it in the city of crushed dreams. Dapaah has been working hard as a comedian behind the scenes for a while, but it was his freestyle as Big Shaq on Charlie Sloth’s Fire In The Booth last August that saw him blow up. Interestingly, Dapaah originally anticipated that “Balance”—a song by another character of his, rapper/poet MC Quakez—would be his breakout track, but it was “Man’s Not Hot” and it’s endless memeability that caught the world’s attention. In the last few months of 2017, “Man’s Not Hot” has become one of the biggest songs of the year, and made Dapaah an overnight celebrity along with it.
Since its release, the Croydon comedian boasts a self-released music video filmed in Miami with cameos from Waka Flocka, Lil Yachty and DJ Khaled, a performance at this year’s MOBO Awards, and over 1 million followers on Instagram. Just like the Kurupt FM gang, Dapaah’s success is grounded in his legitimate love and appreciation for the culture; these artists may be comedians at first glance but they have a respect for the character’s they’ve created that was missing in past parodies. Of course, British comedy crossing over into the charts is nothing new. Ali G and Shaggy’s infectious but ultimately terrible song “Me Julie”—featuring the unmemorable line “It ain’t crap to have a 12-inch”—managed to get all the way to No 2 in the UK charts when it was released in 2002. However it’s hard to imagine Sacha Baron Cohen would be able to get away with a similar feat today, both because of how the benchmark for flagrantly imitating other cultures has moved, and because of how obvious the disconnect between himself and his character is.
Although there is something to be said about the importance of escapism in the living nightmare we increasingly find ourselves living in, Britain currently has absolutely no fictional political satire at the moment because of reasons highlighted by Thick Of It creator Armando Iannucci and others here. Namely, there is nothing too ridiculous to exist anymore. When real life is so absurd, satire is difficult. These acts might not be inherently political in their outlook, but they are representative of social realities in Britain today. In an interview with Vice in 2016, Chaudry said “it’s an art form to do something really bad, well,” and it’s artists who have managed to do that the best that have been some of the most successful of 2017. Skidiki pap pap!