This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
We live in the year 2017, which means many strange things. Among them is the fact The Sunday Times now purrs enthusiastically about Peckham. Although perhaps enthusiasm doesn't quite capture the rhapsodic serenity of tone the paper takes in its justification of tagging the once-derided neighbourhood as "the best place to live in London".
"The area's story in a nutshell," it beams, "is the swift transformation of a crime-ridden, no-go patch of south London into a hipster rival to Dalston, and latterly a middle-class hotspot." What they're trying to say, of course, is that now Peckham has been gentrified, it's considered what they deem "respectable": the sort of place white male graphic designers put in their Tinder bios, where broadsheet writers cycle in search of the best sourdough spot and where middle-class Home Counties Goldsmiths students down pints at pool club Canavans. It's astonishing the difference a decade makes.
Back in the day, though, it was the kind of neighbourhood used as a spook story for suburban parents to frighten their rebellious kids. Reportage would only ever zero in on its long-standing reputation for gang violence and/or mass unemployment. This was—the narrative dictates—an area gripped by poverty and everything that comes with it; crime, violence, generational worklessness and despair. A hard place, with slum pockets. The days of white-washed gentrification and "We Love Peckham" tote bags still gleamed well in the future. It rarely, if ever, found itself mentioned in the same vicinity as monetary success and never in terms of what estate agents would call "desirability".
The story of Peckham finds its odd reflection in the career of one of its most famous sons: Nathaniel Thompson, better known as Giggs—the godfather of UK rap. For fans only dimly aware of the past, viewing Giggs through the prism of 2017 can seem as though he is the quintessential A-list rap mega star: features with Drake; a groaning shelf of awards; a number 2 album (last year's excoriating Landlord); ubiquitous hit singles; iconic, mythology-building anthems ("Talkin Da Hardest"); sold out tours. Even The Telegraph praised his recent sold out show at The Royal Festival Hall for its "energy" (though the praise is modified slightly by their referral to Giggs as a "grime veteran" but full marks for effort). UK rap and, yes, grime are apparently now broadsheet-friendly pursuits.
But take a step back into the mid to late 2000s, and the very idea of a sold out Giggs show on the Southbank would have seemed like a fever dream fantasy. This was an artist hemmed in by his past, having spent two years in prison for fire arms possession in 2003. His attempts at live performance in those early days were often aborted before they had a whiff of success through the efforts of Trident (the specialist Metropolitan Police unit tasked with investigating gun crime) as well as the legislative dead hand of Form 696, the risk-assessment document that many promoters and artists have claimed racially discriminates against shows performed by black and brown MCs and DJs.
This much is now common knowledge, but what it doesn't explain is how an artist with little conventional industry buzz eventually became a desirable proposition for one of the most prestigious labels in the country, when he was signed to XL Recordings in 2009. You can't simmer the answer down to one factor, or even a simple causal chain of events, but to come anywhere near you'd need to acknowledge the importance of a set of compilation mixtapes that shaped, perhaps inadvertently, the future dynamics of UK urban music culture as a whole.
The Best of Giggs series, hosted by DJ Big Ryde was, hyperbole aside, like no other hood tape before it. Offering a prolific mixture of new tracks, freestyles, prior releases, skits and fragments, the four-part series—made by assorted members of SN1, the collective comprised of Giggs, his brothers Joe Grind and Gunna D, plus Kyze and Tiny Boost—acted as a broad and brilliant snapshot of Giggs's range as an MC and lyricist. Released as physical mixtapes and drip-released online throughout the late 2000s, they quickly became a local phenomenon, available around the area in a variety of guises and spread almost solely through that most difficult to assess barometer: word-of-mouth.
Upon the arrival of Best of Giggs' first edition in 2008, UK rap seemed to contain little in the way of street-oriented content and themes. It was grime, not rap, that still had a monopoly on that—for the time being. Before the series was released, the genre only existed in form of what Giggs has referred to in conversation with Tim Westwood as "old school man like London Posse, Rodney P. They used to do their thing and that—but it wasn't like gangster shit… I was just the one that jumped through the furthest. The UK rap scene was already there, before me." So it still existed, in the margins—but only as a vague eccentricity that was separate to garage and grime. However, despite a few outliers like Roots Manuva or Foreign Beggars, often the lyrics and beats sounded either recycled or reflective of American norms rather than UK realities.
The Best of Giggs series kickstarted a fresh, UK-orientated, self-consciously street element. This was unapologetically harsh music that held a mirror up to real life. If it was violent, well, life was violent. If it seemed unduly harsh, well, life was unduly harsh. Guns, the omnipresent threat of violence, random acts of terror, hyper competitiveness, drugs, gangs—this was life. In an interview in these very pages, Giggs is asked about growing up in the Peckham of that era. "It's just what you grew up in. You don't know any different," he says. "Peckham's a mad place. Unpredictable. You don't know what's going to happen throughout the day or the night. Today in the morning everything's cool. In the afternoon you're in mad beef."
These tracks found a ready audience all over the city from people living similar lives, who found no cultural representation—outside those first flowerings of grime—that seemed to adequately reflect the texture of their experience. Flogged from car boots and stalls, or greedily downloaded from MySpace or more illicit music-sharing sites, it's hard to put a precise number on sales, but the spread and reach became obvious upon Giggs's first performance of "Talkin Da Hardest" (the first track on Best of Giggs 2) in Ayia Napa. At the time, he actually thought the women in the audience were paid to help beef out the crowd. It was only when the lyrics started to get enthusiastically spat back at him did he realise that his sound had spread far beyond the narrow confines of his home postcode.
This, aligned with the relative, cumulative success of his myriad of other tapes, such as 2007's Hollow Meets Blade (bearing the dark, underground hit "Sink A Boat" with Blade Brown) cemented his reputation as a distinctive voice offering something almost entirely new. It was only with the street level success of his own compilations that the idea of signing to a label of XL's stature became a reality.
Another crucially important fact was production. Before the Best of Giggs tapes, UK rap instrumentals didn't really exist in the way they do now. There just wasn't a Ruff Squad, Footsie or Jammer at the forefront. It's not that the talent wasn't there, it just hadn't yet found the necessary conditions under which to flourish. Giggs himself notes how in the very earliest days it was matter of spitting over either garage or old American beats until the influence of Buck "making hard shit" galvanised him and others in Peckham to do the same.
It's a progression you can clearly hear throughout the Best Of compilations. The first is full of repurposed old school rap beats. But by 3 and 4, it's an entirely different matter as the likes of West Coast tinged banger "Pain is the Essence" (with frequent collaborator Dubz), "Always on the Rebound", or standout "Ice Cream Man" from Best of Giggs 3 show a growing instrumental maturity and complexity. The production is dark, allusive, unique and completely indivisible from what we like to think of as the distinctive Giggs sound. Where grime ran into the short-fused ADD realm of 140bpm, the slower contours of rap instrumentals brought out the latent menace, pain and subtlety of Giggs's lyrical style. The result sounds akin to the soundtrack to a Grand Theft Auto loading screen, but set to the grey concrete streets of Old Kent Road.
A decade later—in a vastly changed musical landscape and a radically altered London—it all seems so distant. 2017 might be the year in which mainstream media channels can enthuse over young black men whose art they despised and whose lives they found frightening, or a year that sees middle class university students sincerely throwing up gang signs to 67. It might be the year that holds the mainstream breakthrough of Nines, or a slightly undersurface takeover by Skrapz. Yet without Giggs's immense, boulder-rolling labour in the preceding decade, as the "first UK gangbanger stepping on red carpet", it would have remained an impossibility. These tapes are both testament to that past and the foundation on which the present lays. Influence doesn't come in much more comprehensive package than that.
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