The lyrical genius of UK hip hop

M explores the poetic evolution of UK hip hop lyricism, from its roots in the Windrush Generation to modern-day greats like Dizzee Rascal and Giggs.

Jesse Bernard
  • By Jesse Bernard
  • 18 Oct 2023
  • min read

Over the past 50 years, hip hop songwriting has been primarily built around storytelling and world-building, elements which can be traced back to the genre’s roots in gospel, blues and jazz music. At its core, the retelling of the Black American experience, both individual and collective, is the very clear thread that weaves these styles together, greatly influencing the music that is created.

To understand the fabric of hip hop in any country it has a strong cultural presence in, an acknowledgement of migration patterns is imperative. While the Great Migration — when approximately six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern and Western states between the 1910s and 1970s — birthed a wave of industrialism and urbanisation in major cities across the US, Black migration to the UK didn’t occur en masse until the Windrush generation of the mid-20th century. Many of these Black immigrants came from Caribbean countries where both gospel music and sound system culture were prominent, and these two traditions were brought with them upon their arrival to the UK, forming the roots of Black British music.

Fast-forward to 1980s Britain, which, to many, evoke ugly, This Is England-style images of Thatcherism, widespread social unrest and the National Front. But for young Black people in Britain, this decade marked the shaping of a Britain that was markedly different from what their parents and grandparents first encountered. They were arguably the first generation of Black people in the UK to self-identify as being British, though, it should be noted, they still primarily considered themselves to be Black first. This generation had to contend with rising youth unemployment levels along with the antagonism, prejudice and racism they regularly faced from those they shared classrooms, workplaces and public spaces with. Long-standing tensions between the Black community and the police, stemming largely from the latter’s disproportionate use of the ‘sus law’ against young Black men, sparked riots in Brixton, Tottenham and Toxteth in Liverpool.

Young Black people were already able to creatively express their frustrations at this time through reggae and dancehall music, but thanks to increased media exposure from the US, they were also learning how their stories could be told in other forms. Early UK hip hop acts such as Demon Boyz, London Posse and Monie Love, who all emerged on the scene in the late '80s, began crafting the language rappers on these shores are still using today, basking in the freedom afforded by a relative lack of songwriting rules.

Despite this, UK hip hop did suffer from something of an identity crisis during those early years. With the genre still finding its feet in this country and US acts only just beginning to tour internationally, several UK artists began to rap in American accents in the belief it would give them the necessary crossover appeal on both sides of the pond. London Posse member Bionic was instrumental in changing this approach, as the group blended their style of rap with ragga music, while the later emergence of jungle, UK garage and grime gave license to British artists to feel empowered by their accents and speak authentically in a language their audience could identify with.

Dizzee Rascal’s song Sittin’ Here, which opened his seminal 2003 debut album Boy In Da Corner, was a watershed moment for what would eventually become grime music. Consciousness of thought wasn’t necessarily new to the jungle scene Dizzee (pictured below) came from, but Boy In Da Corner was a completely new entity; an undiscovered and uncharted area of music. Music critics and fans alike would come to cite Sittin’ Here as a powerful stream of consciousness that explored themes of depression and youthful angst:

'I'm just sittin' here, I ain't saying much, I just think

And my eyes don't move left or right they just blink

I think too deep and I think too long 

Plus I think I'm getting weak cause my thoughts are too strong

I'm just sitting here, I ain't saying much, I just gaze

I'm looking into space while my CD plays

I gaze quite a lot, in fact I gaze always

And if I blaze then I just gaze away

My days.'

Dizzee Rascal

It wasn’t until the early 21st century that UK hip hop, spearheaded by the likes of TY, Skinnyman, Akala, Jehst, Klashnekoff, Shystie, Lady Sovereign and Roots Manuva, began to establish itself as a substantial force in British music. Each of these artists possessed undeniably British cadences and language yet still operated in their own unique spaces, illustrating the breadth of styles within the genre. Take Skinnyman’s 2004 debut album Council Estate of Mind, which represented the working-class through his tales of growing up in housing estates in Islington, one of the UK's most socially deprived areas. The metaphor-laced rhymes of Hackney’s Klashnekoff, on the other hand, possessed punchlines that vibrated through the speakers and hit your chest. To this day, he’s still recognised for creating one of the most memorable UK hip hop anthems in Murda, in which he infamously referenced the 1999 murder of Panorama presenter Jill Dando.

A few years on came the rise of road rap, which was more akin to the gangsta rap found on the east and west coasts of the US. Giggs’ 2007 track Talkin’ da Hardest was the torchbearer, with the Peckham rapper taking the beat from Dr. Dre and Eminem protégé Stat Quo’s Here We Go and making it undeniably British. If you were to ask anyone today who that beat belongs to, most would say Giggs because of the way he gave rise to a completely new style of songwriting in UK rap. His lyrics were simple but effective, employing rhyming couplets so it felt as though each verse contained multiple haikus as opposed to the more traditional storytelling heard in rap:

'Flipping like a quarter a brick

Bag 28 with a thought of a jib

Anybody thinks they can talk to my clique

Will end up covered in red like a portion of chips

Pour me a drink

Big fur jacket, that's the thoughts of a pimp.'

Giggs has never been one to shy away from articulating his experiences of life on the road: rappers of his ilk see the brutal reality of street life, which, in some ways, is its own level of consciousness. Talkin’ da Hardest offered a more rounded, if bold and illicit, view of what inner city life was truly like for many young Black people. If the late ‘90s had witnessed a lyrical shift towards more ostentation, Giggs sought to drag the form back towards a rougher and more ominous path as though he was saying, ‘This is what this life is really about’.

In a country that routinely neglects the working-class and other marginalised groups, and where social mobility is exclusive, telling your story through music is one of the ways in which UK rappers and MCs can take hold of their narrative. This was never more vividly and profoundly felt than on So Solid Crew member Swiss’ 2005 track Cry. I remember first hearing the song when I was in Year 10, and for those that looked like me, Swiss gave us a language that spoke to our existence. We couldn’t quite explain why we had to work twice as hard, but we knew that we had to. The murders of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, Damilola Taylor in 2000 and Anthony Walker in 2005 reminded us that we were the other in the most violent of ways.

Cry was the balm to both Sittin’ Here and Talkin’ da Hardest. The song saw Swiss attempt to answer why Dizzee felt the way he did on the former, while also attempting to offer some perspective as to why people like Giggs ended up being pulled towards the street:

'Does the lord half care?

They're just eating bread while everybody starves there

Look what happened to the motherland

They don't wanna see Blacks the same as another man

And just cos our skin's a different colour

I don't change colour, but they call me a coloured man

There's only so much you can take in

When your head's nappy and with the shade of a slave's skin

The ghetto spent most of my days in

I ain't in prison, but I feel like I'm caged in.'

It was as though Swiss was expounding on the many notes he took over his years growing up in south London, leading him to ask questions of why the likes of Dizzee and Giggs had to be in the positions they were in in the first place. Cry gave young people the words they couldn’t find, imagining a world where Sittin’ Here and Talkin’ da Hardest didn’t exist and instead offering hope and a sense of perspective. There was a Black consciousness beginning to form in UK rap, and while the artists might not have always been able to articulate just how and why life was that way outside of the music, if you gave them a pen and a pad, they could rival some of history’s most prolific thinkers when it came to race and social class.

Then there were those who found themselves straddling the very thin boundary between grime and rap, which still exists today. Justin Uzomba, formerly known by his stage name Mikill Pane, recalls attending rap events as a teenager where grime MCs would attend, and vice versa. There was a mutual respect between the two genres: after growing up and living in the same neighbourhoods and going to the same schools, many of these artists would then cross paths at these events, particularly as spaces were few and far between for rap and grime at the time.

By the mid-2000s, there were three clear strands under the umbrella of hip hop in the UK: UK hip hop, UK rap and grime. The nuances between the three could generally be separated by tempo and the medium in which they were delivered. At the time, grime existed primarily in live radio sets or clashes, while UK hip hop took on a more traditional format through its mix of studio albums and live shows (a more accessible form for audiences who weren’t in regions where pirate radio was prominent). UK rap, meanwhile, largely consisted of freestyles over US rap beats.

While US hip hop has historically been seen as setting the gold standard when it comes to songwriting and storytelling, UK hip hop’s influence can’t be underestimated. With a clear and traceable lineage that separates it from the US, the UK proudly exists in its own lane — a fact that could only come about through an acceptance and embrace of our roots and history as Black and marginalised people in Britain. Indeed, in 2023, artists such as Central Cee, Dave and Little Simz can be regarded as prominent and genre-leading globally, not just the UK.

UK hip hop’s unique history stands it apart from the country where the genre originated. It can feel like an uphill battle to prove this due to the overarching lore and canon of US hip hop history, which has been retold endlessly. But what has come from the UK since hip hop’s introduction to these shores is more than capable of standing tall, still proudly embracing its authentic roots.

This article appears in a special edition of M Magazine celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip hop. You can read the magazine here.