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Britain’s rap revolution

The 2010s have been a dramatic time for Britain’s rappers and MCs. Having started the decade scrambling to make pop hits, the UK’s rap stars are ending it headlining Glastonbury and with arms full of awards

Rap Revolution

Words: Will Pritchard
Illustration: Tom Noon

The UK’s MCs are ending the decade on a high.

In this year alone: Stormzy headlined Glastonbury and covered Time magazine; Kano sold out the Royal Albert Hall; Dave won the Mercury Prize; and AJ Tracey’s Ladbroke Grove has spent 34 weeks in the chart, and counting. Reach further back into the recent past and you’ll find Ivor Novello awards, an MBE for Wiley, any number of co-signs from Drake, and crossover features from the likes of Stefflon Don (with French Montana) and Ms Banks (with Tinashe). If there’s been a defining trend in the UK in the last 10 years it’s been British rap musicians’ long-awaited takeover of the mainstream.

“With the glory days of the first generation of grime gone, the scene’s elders were reduced to churning out electro-pop fodder”

Ironically, the 2010s began with something of a whimper for UK MCs. With the glory days of the first generation of grime gone, the scene’s elders were reduced to churning out electro-pop fodder like Can You Hear Me (AYAYAYA) and Heatwave in order to chart. It’s bizarre to think that in 2010, Example may have been the most popular rapper in the country.

Some would dispute the claim that grime had fallen off completely. The fourth edition of Lord of the Mics landed in 2011. Artists like P Money, Merky ACE and D Double E were still putting out music and playing bookings, and the instrumental side of the genre continued to tap a rich vein of creativity. However, the point at which Skepta released a porno as a music video in a bid to “do something that nobody else has done” arguably confirmed the scene’s identity crisis and signalled that the creative well had run dry.

Doldrums seemed inevitable.

Rap Revolution

Few people would have named Meridian Dan as the MC most likely to deliver grime its defibrillator shock, but the infectious German Whip proved to be just that. Dan’s credentials as a sometime member of Tottenham’s Meridian and Bloodline crews, and the track’s features from JME and Big H, helped it bridge the gap between mainstream and underground in a way that no shameless shot at the charts ever could. Along with Skepta’s That’s Not Me and Stormzy’s Shut Up, it signalled the beginning of a cultural shift that would eventually see Tory party culture minister Matt Hancock pen a 2017 op-ed for The Times about how much he loves grime and exporting it around the world.

Brushes with mass popularity weren’t necessarily new for UK MCs, but to achieve such sustained recognition without compromise was virtually unheard of. When Dave and Fredo’s Funky Friday went to the top of the singles chart in October 2018, DJ Kenny Allstar – a longtime advocate for the UK’s homegrown scene – called it “a turning point in the culture,” arguing that “it showed that they could do their music on their own terms, without watering it down or making it more poppy.”

“grime’s influence had outgrown its own confines”

An update in 2016 finally gave grime its own category in the iTunes store, but this was arguably too late. Not only because streaming would soon surpass downloads for the first time, but because, by now, grime’s influence had outgrown its own confines. The success of its leading artists had forced open doors in the industry, attracted an extensive new audience, and stirred the ambitions of UK MCs from a far broader spectrum.

Influenced as much by dancehall and Afrobeats as they were by US rappers like 50 Cent, MCs like J Hus, MoStack and Kojo Funds were experimenting with new hybrids of the Afro-rap sound pioneered by artists like Sneakbo, Timbo and Naira Marley. Giggs, meanwhile, continued his inimitable rise to dominance alongside a vanguard of trap rappers such as Suspect, Fredo, and Nines. In south London, crews including 150, 67, 410, Harlem Spartans, and Zone 2 were developing a sound of their own – drawing influence from the nihilist tones of Chicago drill artists to paint a bleak but revealing picture of inner city life that revolves around crack cocaine and retributive violence. Elsewhere, the likes of Dave, Little Simz and slowthai were ploughing their own distinct furrows, and Stefflon Don and Yxng Bane emerged as bonafide pop stars-in-the-making.

Rap Revolution

Whilst in the past, distinct movements like these might face the threat of dilution in the pursuit of mainstream recognition, this time around the decentralisation of the industry – as well as learning from past mistakes – meant that artists were less reliant on appeasing traditional gatekeepers. Scenes could incubate at their own pace and, crucially, the platforms showcasing these artists were growing alongside them too.

Consider the now infamous 2016 Evening Standard review of Skepta’s triumphant Ally Pally sell-out show, in which the author mistook energetic reloads for technical malfunctions. The booming success of platforms like Link Up TV, the revamped GRM Daily, Mixtape Madness, and BL@CKBOX now meant that artists could easily reach an audience of millions without needing to be understood by newspaper critics.

At the time of writing, GRM Daily has 2.38 million subscribers to its YouTube channel, Link Up TV has 1.69 million. Mixtape Madness has 811,000, while BL@ CKBOX, which is known for identifying and showcasing emerging talent, boasts 128,000. By way of comparison, the BBC Radio 1Xtra channel has 1.02 million. Once again, these platforms borrowed from the grime pioneers. Jamal Edwards’ SBTV (1.15 million subscribers) had paved the way for online freestyles and music videos – itself a more widely accessible version of the physical DVDs used to document the scene’s early days.

Rap Revolution

And in the same way that online forums like RWD and GrimeForum provided direct access to artists and spaces for passionate fans to congregate and chew over the latest releases, beefs and radio sets, the proliferation of social media allowed the day-to-day machinations of these expanding scenes to play out in real time. This constant, intimate access helped fans feel more directly connected with artists and their music – regardless of where they were from.

This summer, when Dave, from Streatham, south London, invited a fresh-faced 15-year-old from Wells, Somerset, up onstage at Glastonbury to go bar-for-bar with him on Thiago Silva he created a defining moment for the festival. He also simultaneously demonstrated the expansion of grime and UK rap fanbases outside of the country’s urban centres, into the suburbs and beyond.

“musicians are still being blamed for the rise in youth violence”

However, in some ways, UK MCs still face the same top-down challenges they did 10 years ago. While Form 696 – the risk assessment form used to stifle grime and countless other black British-led genres in their prime – has gone, musicians are still being blamed for the rise in youth violence. The Metropolitan police has actively targeted rappers in the capital, forcing the takedown of their music videos and invoking anti-terror laws to prevent them from recording or performing. A DCMS select committee report in March this year uncovered evidence of “persisting prejudice against urban music and grime artists.” Picture editors at national newspapers still can’t tell two black men apart.

And while the recent plaudits earned by artists such as Stefflon Don, Ms Banks, Lady Leshurr, Little Simz, Flohio and more are richly deserved, it’s worth questioning why female MCs are still so often confined and othered in their own separate category.

Rap Revolution

Likewise, despite the world-shrinking effect of the web, artists outside of the capital remain neglected by a London-centric industry. Coverage of regional music scenes is invariably accompanied with a dose of sneering or bewilderment at the sound of a non-southern accent. The success of MCs like Aitch, Jaykae, and Mist remain the exceptions that prove the rule.

The tide on these latter issues is shifting, albeit slowly. And with the increased bargaining power gained over the past decade’s foundation-setting, the UK’s MCs enter the new decade as a power unto themselves. It may have taken what seems like forever, but the world is finally tuning in to these important voices. Now let’s hear what they have to say.