It’s a rap: spotlight on UK hip-hop

Chantelle Fiddy discovers how UK hip-hop came to conquer much more than just the charts...

Kyle Fisher
  • By Kyle Fisher
  • 17 Dec 2012
  • min read

Chantelle Fiddy discovers how UK hip-hop came to conquer much more than just the charts.

The British hip-hop scene isn’t what it once was, that’s for sure. Plan B, now three albums deep and with a couple of films under his belt, can be heard offering commentary over the BBC Radio 4 airways. Meanwhile, doing ‘an Ed Sheeran’ - setting up your project by successfully collaborating with rappers and emcees on an album - has become a marketing term in its own right.

Amplify Dot looks set to be leading the new female charge, having signed to Virgin earlier this year. Similarly it was Birmingham’s own Lady Leshurr (published by EMI for near on three years) who demolished Urban Development’s last MOBO Tour. She offered up more energy on the stage than Lil Wayne and a shot of e-numbers. Unsurprisingly, Busta Rhymes is a fan.

If you’re in your early 20s or younger, you would indeed be forgiven for thinking the urban stars have always shone bright, what with Tinie Tempah, Tinchy Stryder, Wretch 32, Professor Green, Devlin et al hogging the limelight over the past few years. The numbers are pretty impressive too. In 2010 Tinchy’s own Star in the Hood clothing range, then available in over 100 stores nationwide, grossed more than £1m. This year he‘s collaborated with Goji on a range of headphones, selling at between £29 and £69 a pair.

Then there’s the music. Take Tinie Tempah; as well as enjoying international success, his debut album Disc-Overy spurned seven hit singles. He’s already performed at Glastonbury with Snoop, collaborated with Wiz Khalifa and Kelly Rowland, and actually sold some albums while he’s at it. Not bad for a boy who used to run his own blog and mailing list.

As for Wretch, the rapper that nobody thought ‘looked right’ for the commercial game, he now boasts one of the best bands on the live circuit, The Team, and the chart hits to go with it. Put that in your Traktor and ride it. While Devlin has quite possibly become the modern man’s Paul Weller-cross-Eminem, barely a month goes by without Music Week mentioning another business deal entered into by Professor Green - Doritos and Puma for starters.

But, of course, it wasn’t always like this. Kids, there used to be a time when Tim Westwood’s show was 90 percent US hip-hop. Tis true. When Kano, then signed to 679 Recordings for his debut Home Sweet Home, made it onto Westwood’s BBC Radio 1 show in 2005, it was a BIG deal. You see, a decade ago our US counterparts really did rule the roost - Snoop Dogg, Slick Rick, Jay-Z, Nas - were we putting out music anywhere near as good? Hardly. Are we today? Definitely. Admittedly acts like Skepta, Wiley and Sway may find themselves having to take a more dance-led direction to finally enjoy the commercial success that critics have long had them down for, but the music still talks volumes.

Now in my early thirties, even the supposed forefathers, the very foundations of hip-hop in this here green and pleasant land, passed me by. I’ve since been schooled on the massive achievements of stalwarts like The London Posse back in the 1980s, who at one point played before Nelson Mandela. But it was Fallacy, Fusion, Roots Manuva, Skinnyman, Rodney P and Klashnekoff that were fighting to be heard on Kiss 100 amid the UK garage and subsequent emcee-led style that was taking hold of inner cities. As record deals crumbled in garage’s wake, UK rap as a commercial entity was effectively dead.

Nowadays, the entire landscape has changed. Grime, rap, is there even a difference anymore? It was evolution in the rapping art form coupled with the growth of social networking that saw a ritual ditching of traditional American idiosyncrasies in favour of the all-embracing multicultural Brit. With a generation of emcees who’d grown up around jungle and sound system culture, as well as admiring the abilities of Eminem, 50 Cent and co, the melting pot really began to boil in the late 00s. And today we get to call it the UK rap industry.

The role the internet plays in the continued growth is apparent. It’s indeed the rap industry that has, for years, unintentionally set the pace when it comes to online marketing agendas. As DJ Semtex explained to me last year, much of the power lies in a collective approach to services like Twitter. ‘Everyone on our scene is working together - artists, DJs, journalists, bloggers and fans. Collectively we push the same iTunes link for an artist on the day of release. Everyone wants to see each other succeed - even artists that don’t like each other are encouraging their following to buy their rivals’ music - that’s got to be worth at least several thousand sales on a Sunday afternoon.’

One such example is Boy Better Know record label boss JME, aka Jamie Adenuga. While more of the commercially successful artists have shunned the organic grime and rap sound that took them to pirate radio in the first place, acts like JME still exist in all of their authenticity. His track 96 F**Kries from earlier this year was reportedly just ten sales short of entering the UK Top 40. For a song with no chorus or structure, it was a big statement.

With a financially sustainable underground scene running parallel to the mainstream antics, those artists with big YouTube hits or mixtapes are given a leg up to make money on the live circuit. How unsigned rappers like north Londoner Joe Black, whose online-only Reallionaire mixtapes have notched up over 100,000 downloads, achieve nearly a million views on a video they tweet just once has many well-paid executives scratching their heads. But the challenge for artists like Joe, who’s now working on his debut album, is converting the views into sales.

‘We’re looking at ways to deliver the product directly to the audience,’ explains Ashley McDermott, A&R manager at Urban Development, where a recent deal with Bucks Music is allowing the company to develop, publish and release acts with a fresh approach. ‘There are distribution channels that while not necessarily chart eligible will give us the sales we need to make an impact on the live circuit and beyond. The strategy we have in place for Reallionaire: the Album isn’t that dissimilar to what a label would do, but when it comes out in early 2013, we’ll be looking at fan-led incentives, and putting the product directly in the consumers hand at shows. We don’t expect to sell 100,000 copies but if we can translate 10 percent of downloads into sales, we’ll be very happy.’

Another act that the tastemakers have their eyes fixed on is Mikill Pane, who’s been waiting in the wings for many-a-year. In the past six months he’s secured a deal with Mercury Records and was signed to Bucks Music by its new A&R Director Sarah Liversedge. He’s a witty wordsmith; his photos and accompanying captions on Instagram are enough to rival anything The Sun’s subs have to offer, and have allowed his star to rise both online and on the live circuit.

Finding ways to utilise the technology that many major labels have long since fought against has revolutionised the ever-growing capitalist set-up of the rap industry in this country. While a decade a go, a job at Touch Magazine, Hip Hop Connection or RWD was one of the few career options you had in the urban music industry, we now have the American infrastructure we long envied. Friends become managers, stylists, social media assistants, grass roots PRs, A&R, brand consultants, directors, entrepreneurs… It’s the bigger picture.

One such example is Jamal Edwards, 22, better known as the founder of SB.TV, whose strap line boasts ‘the UK’s leading youth broadcaster’. ‘Suddenly the bio on Edwards’ Twitter account – media mogul – doesn’t seem like an exaggeration...’ says The Sunday Times. ‘SB.TV’s Jamal is grime’s Simon Cowell…’ adds Dazed & Confused. With Richard Branson on speed dial, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago Edwards was a one-man band, gushing over his work experience placement with the BBC. Having begun his career as an aspiring footballer and emcee, it was a college course in Media & Moving Image that saw Jamal edge closer to his actual beginnings as an entrepreneur. Juggling filming on his £20 NEC phone with a part-time job at Topman, events unfolded on his estate when he began filming his friends rapping.

‘I’d wake up in the morning and I’d film myself but then I realised music channels weren’t playing what people wanted to hear,’ Edwards explains. ‘They weren’t supporting the scene like they do now… I just wanted to create a platform where I could push all these good artists. Showcase talent not status, as my colleague Liam would say’. Last year also saw the launch of Just Jam, Edwards’ own record label imprint over at Sony.

The channel, credited with launching Ed Sheeran’s career, has also tipped Chepstow’s finest Elro, who’s now signed to 679 Recordings and working with Mike Skinner and The D.O.T. Even listening to a selection of Elro’s bars gives a real indicator as to the variety of styles now been channelled in the UK rap scene: ‘Cause I’m a chilled out drunk when I drink right/ And I’m aware of the fact my body ain’t built for the fight night/ But it gives me a chance to relax and forget the fact that I’m tall and white/ But a bottle of vodka neat later/ I keep drinking that ego inflater/ I start thinking I’m Brad Pitt only less chiseled and more tragic…’

With more upcoming bloggers and videographers following in SB.TV’s wake, it’s clear to see that UK hip-hop has surfaced and is here to stay. The burgeoning scene can safely harbour both boundary-pushing and populist songwriters, producers and publishers. And, while the world watches the likes of Tinchy Stryder, Wretch 32 and Tinie Tempah leading the pack with their shrewd, progressive attitude to success, their ambition is obviously catching on at home.

Listen to Chantelle Fiddy's UK hip-hop playlist here.