Black British music often forms as a product of grassroot movements. Not having the same access to the mainstream as their white counterparts, talent on this side of the pond has routinely straddled the underground, creating momentum that can later pierce through into the wider nation’s stratosphere. Even then, institutional barriers such as the Metropolitan Police’s former Form 696 has threatened the ascent of genres such as grime over its near 20 year rise to glory. ‘We know they’re just trying to shut down grime, because if it was anything else they wouldn’t have this issue,’ MC P Money told the BBC in 2017.
Elsewhere, Black British women in pop, have spoken about racial stereotypes placed on them at the height of their success. The Sugababes’ Keisha Bunchanan mentioned on her personal YouTube channel that many national outlets branded her as the ‘angry Black woman’ and ‘bully’ during her time in the group.
Despite the many barriers placed upon them, Black artists in multiple regions across the country have shaped quintessential eras in British music at large. The building blocks of UK rap and its many offshoots such as grime and UK hip-hop led to the meld of both worlds — best showcased in Stormzy. Stormzy’s Glastonbury debut last year is just one example of the heights of our impact to date. 20 years ago, we saw a similar sphere of influence in the juggernaut project Born to Do It. Craig David’s collision of garage and R&B, aided in marking garage as a dynamic and important British genre. To many across the globe, it acted as a formal introduction to the DJ EZ-backed sound.
In celebration of Black British music and its evolution, here are 10 pivotal releases across the last 20 years that have helped shape the underground Black British music.
Estelle - Lovers Rock
As a child of West Indian heritage, Estelle has always made sure to show glimmers of her roots across her discography. Take the reggae-infused Come Over from her sophomore LP Shine. The simmering, reggae leaning single broke the US Billboard Hot 100 upon its 2008 release. It’s on her fourth album Lovers Rock however, that she offers up a full ancestral embrace, tributing the 1970’s reggae-offshoot across the project's 14-track set.
From its Luke James assisted-beginning, softly laden guitar runs ease listeners into the wholly soothing set. Estelle is perhaps at her most vulnerable, fully exploring her relationship with love here — in its various forms. The project also sees Estelle soaring as a singer, her raspy vocals at their most comfortable throughout. Lovers Rock is one of many strong representatives of West Indian’s influence on British music. The sound grew wings in London once it began, with producer Dennis Harris — alongside Dennis Bovell — even creating a record label in its name in 1977.
Kojey Radical - Cashmere Tears
Kojey Radical has been an instrumental part of the loosely labelled alternative hip-hop sphere for close to half a decade. Taking inspiration from spoken word in his early career, Radical articulated his societal and relationship woes across both ambient, hip-hop and lo-fi infused soundscapes. A Lament To Rose for example, talks about the nuances in women and their interactions with men in metropolis societies. As he grew, so did his cadence. Nowadays, he leans into the grit in his voice, pairing this with a near-flawless use of tone. After Winter on his In God’s Body EP is a potent example of this evolution as a wordsmith.
However, on Cashmere Tears Kojey Radical delivers his most ambitious project to date. Not to be confused with his debut album — still to be released — this project sees the Hoxton native experiment with jazz throughout. On Where Do I Begin he unpacks his mental health traumas and flaws in his character as the saxophone helps to represent the noise in his mind. Lyrically, Radical also finds the balance between his more complex, layered verses and easy on the ear, lighter touches, creating a universe that satisfies all listeners. Overall, Cashmere Tears is one of the most ambitious UK rap projects released in the last few years and places Kojey Radical as an undisputed leader of the next generation of UK hip-hop pioneers.
Ojerime - B4 I Breakdown
Despite it’s fickle representation on a mainstream level, R&B has been a consistent arc in the UK’s underground arena. Artists such as Angel, Taliwhoah, Col3trane, Serpentwithfeet and more have allowed the genre to flourish and expand nationwide across the 10’s. Another artist who stands as an undisputed part of this renaissance in the sound is Ojerime. The south London songstresses sultry 4U EP landed in 2018 and debuted her rich tone and abstract, ‘90s inspired universe. Across electronic-leaning, ‘90s rooted celestial productions Ojerime painted her own canvas for the masses, instantly winning over grassroot lovers of R&B.
In 2020, after a hiatus of sorts she returned taking her electronic concoction to further heights. Titled B4 I Breakdown, Ojerime is now confident in her voice, using it to form adlibs to cushion her verses and choruses a lot more here. You can still hear the traces of her TLC and Brandy influences, but she infuses her own touch also, even leaning into horn-based instrumentals on Give It Up 2 Me, nodding to avante-garde jazz. B4 I Breakdown is hazy in places, sometimes sombre, but overall it begins to build a particular pocket within the UK R&B landscape that’s instantly recognisable and addictive once penetrated.
Sneakbo - Brixton
Before it had a name, Sneakbo was creating early examples of ‘afro’ inspired genres in London. The Brixton native was loud in his Vybz Kartel love and homage, with Sneakbo’s version of Touch Ah Button making its way to YouTube in 2011. From Blackberry Messenger ‘ping’ references, to Patois and British slang, Sneakbo represented the start of a new decade that wasn’t inspired solely by grime and that leant into diasporic originating genres.
Brixton strongly ushers in both dancehall and afrobeats inspirations, Sneakbo reigning as a man who can make both worlds attractive. On the Giggs assisted Active, percussion-based instruments surround both rappers, which hints at the beginning of afrobeats and Nigerian pop’s impending reign in London. Across the album, there’s even more direct winks at afroswing, with Afro B and Team Salut helping to shape the sound across album-track Body Close. Sneakbo embraces his pioneer status here without trying to be any of his successors either.
Akala - It’s Not A Rumour
At a time when grime had started to make headway across parts of the country (particularly North London), Akala debuted a sound which took aspects of it — see Shakespeare — juxtaposing this with classic rock and hip-hop. Telling Britain that he did not seek US approval across It’s Not a Rumour’s introduction, Akala possessed a similar nonchalance that he’s had throughout his career here.
Sonically, It’s Not A Rumour is earth-shattering in its instrumentals, with Akala addressing classism, familial ties and politics throughout. It’s obvious that he’s always had a radical mind, but it’s great to hear his politics accompanied with musical backing, delivered in a rhyme-form, the same messages resonate in a slightly different way here.
Lotto Boyzz - Afrobbean (The Genre Definition)
Birmingham based duo Lotto Boyzz decided to help in aiding the then simmering afro-swing pocket, with a definition of the sound called Afrobbean (The Genre Definition). In 2018, Lotto Boyzz’s Ash gave a comprehensive definition of what their title — and wider sound — was comprised of. ‘Afrobbean is basically a mix between African music and Carribean music [...] We merge them together to create this. It's just basically based off of vibe, the instruments used and [...] yeah it's just different,’ he told MTV.
Across the project, dancehall homage makes itself pronounced on the project's title track, with Jamaican-verbiage included also. This is marinated with strong afrobeats melodies and instrumentals throughout. Afrobbean helps to build off of the Sneakbo and J Hus assisted foundations of the sound, adding a more serene element to the sub-genre. Although it’s now called afro-swing at large, Afrobbean was an ambitious attempt by the Birmingham collective, which, to a part of the country, was also used as an early name for the British-born creation. A S1mba or Darkoo wouldn’t exist without the contributions from acts before them including Lotto Boyzz.
Mis-Teeq - Lickin’ on Both Sides
When Alesha Dixon, Sabrina Washington and Su-Elise Nash prowled onto the scene as Mis-Teeq, they again carried with them the then dominant UK garage sound. However, their amalgamation of hip-hop and R&B melodies helped make the trio distinct and usher in a variety of listeners across the spectrum.
Taking garage to the top of the charts, the groups debut album Lickin’ on Both Sides debuted at number three on the UK’s Official Charts, ushering the ladies into the pop-arena simultaneously.
What set Mis-Teeq apart was their ambition and personality at the time. Alesha’s unapologetic personality, which fragments her bars on songs like That Type Of Girl and They’ll Never Know. On the latter, she’s blunt and transparent regarding her personal struggles, making the group even more alluring. There’s a worldly appeal across Secrets of the Night, especially in the production. It’s instantly reminiscent of Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall with the thumping baseline and elastic ‘90s infused-R&B. Lickin’ on Both Sides presented the foundations of a strong British offering, with the grit and realism to match.
Big Brovaz - Nu-Flow
Yet another collective, Big Brovaz had it all at the height of their career. Movie soundtracks, breakthrough success and an unmatched flair. Nu-Flow rooted the foundations for this trajectory.
Across the groups debut, you can hear soulful melodies and a sonic direction which didn’t mirror the early 2000’s US hip-hop landscape. Sure, some of the male members of the group often adopted a slight New York twang across a plethora of singles, but for the most part, the productions felt wholly English. A lot of their songs were grounded in coming of age concepts and were easy enough to follow. Big Brovaz were not a complicated collective — despite their size. If you wanted familiarity wedged with humour in places, Nu-Flow provided an intersection that still allowed listeners to take the group’s music seriously.
JME – Famous?
Many know that JME is the undisputed lyricist of his family. At the time of his 2010 debut Famous?, grime had reached the mainstream with help from Skepta, Kano, Dizzee Rascal, Boy Better Know etc. On Famous?, JME quickly asserted that the project would add to this canon on 123 stating, ‘This is grime, it’s not rap’. Adopting a flow that would dominate in grime clashes across the country, the North London rapper is authoritative throughout, adopting the spirit of a renegade still needing to prove himself.
As a project, Famous? is minimalist, with JME evidently ignoring the need for validation or commerciality. This is to JME’s benefit as he’s unrestrained when it comes to themes in particular. On Show, he references his run-ins with the police — sometimes with Skepta, as well as the politics ‘on road’. Funnily enough, a decade later, as UK drill entrenches itself, rappers such as Headie One draw similar parallels across their projects also. It may not be mentioned as much as other projects of its time, but Famous is likely to have inspired the Chip’s and Devlin’s who saw career heights years after this release.
Lemar - Time To Grow
Lemar helped contribute to the UK R&B scene across the 2000s, following his run on Fame Academy in 2002. Quickly developing a soulful brand of R&B on his inaugural Dedicated release the Tottenham raised singer returned a year later, leaning further into this pocket.
Titled Time To Grow, Lemar’s sophomore album is able to engage an adult-contemporary market — through its mature, sometimes classically leaning productions — while encapsulating younger demographics simultaneously. Some of its lyricism feels elementary, but Lemar soars vocally, adding flavour to the male R&B space nationwide. Armed with classic singles such as If There’s Any Justice, Lemar was able to win his first MOBO’s for this release. As one of only a few hypervisible Black men in the R&B space in the mid-late 2000s, Lemar represented the sound well, shying away from singing in a US accent also. This showcased that a Black-British talent could succeed — and reach multi-platinum status still — being themselves.