Dave (Credit: JM Enternational)

The radical, resistant roots of UK hip hop

From Smiley Culture calling out everyday prejudice to Stormzy verbally targeting a Prime Minister while headlining Glastonbury, UK hip hop artists have never been afraid to speak out. M explores the roots of the genre’s rebellious streak.

Will Pritchard
  • By Will Pritchard
  • 11 Oct 2023
  • min read

Rebellion runs through hip hop like the grooves on a 12-inch record. It’s impossible to unpick the sound’s defining characteristics from its liberational roots, which were built on samples of expressive, subversive jazz and funk tracks that mirrored the rhythmic structures of slave songs, themselves passed down from the cotton fields and the Underground Railroad to segregated public housing ghettos and the streets that snake out from them. US rappers and MCs have sailed over these beats for half a century and counting, speaking ignored truths to entrenched powers. This is just as true of the UK’s homegrown hip hop pioneers, who wove their own narratives of struggle and release through a tapestry of US-inspired sampling and post-Windrush sound system culture.

It was the early 1980s when David Emmanuel, performing under his Smiley Culture stage name, began experimenting with a ‘fast chat’ style of reggae toasting over the scooped bass bins of the Saxon Studio International sound system. In a manner that mirrored his boom-bap counterparts in the boroughs of New York, he found slim pockets between the rumbling dub basslines and clattering hi-hats and snares to fill with his whip-smart observations about life as a Jamaican in south east London. His 1984 debut single Cockney Translation offered a guide to East End dialect, swapping cockney offhands for patois aphorisms and foreshadowing the 21st century’s boom in multicultural London English in the process.

But laced in with Smiley’s cheeky chappy persona were stark stories about the realities of the prejudice Black people living in the UK faced at the time. His second hit single Police Officer, also released in 1984, recounted a common instance of police harassment: Smiley is pulled over by the cops, but the story takes a turn as the policeman hassling Smiley eventually recognises him (‘You what? Did you do that record, Cockney Translator?’) and requests an autograph in return for letting him go. Some 27 years later, another encounter with police would end tragically for Smiley as he wound up dead during a raid on his home. An inquest returned a verdict of suicide, but Smiley’s family — who were never shown the report produced by the Independent Police Complaints Commission — have strongly disputed the finding.

While Smiley’s music in the 1980s was released against the backdrop of race riots in south London, sparked by heavy-handed policing of the Black community in Brixton, his death — and the suspicious circumstances surrounding it — would add tinder to a fresh pile of tensions years later that would ignite with the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in 2011. London, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham burned through a summer of what was the most significant stretch of civil unrest in modern British history.

The distinctly Black British meld of sound system delivery and forthright, observational lyricism plied by the likes of Smiley Culture (pictured below) and contemporaries like Tippa Irie and Maxi Priest would be picked up by 1980s UK hip hop crews like London Posse, Cookie Crew and Demon Boyz. Their songs balanced braggadocio with brotherhood that extended across borders, while throwing off the faux-American accents that, until then, were commonplace among homegrown British hip hop artists. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Black Rhyme Organisation to Help Equal Rights (or B.R.O.T.H.E.R.) supergroup brought together rap acts and reggae MCs for a string of releases protesting apartheid policies in South Africa and inner-city gun crime, while also raising funds for sickle cell anaemia research. When groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy brought their brands of firebrand rap activism to UK shores, it was the likes of London Posse they brought along to tour with them.

Smiley Culture (Credit: Alamy)

These early forays would ultimately lay the foundation for the many future iterations of underground UK hip hop culture — and the activist helix in its DNA would continue to be passed down as subsequent generations of beatmakers and rappers produced new evolutions. By the mid-'00s, rappers like Akala and Lowkey had taken up political loudhailers, while the likes of Klashnekoff (with his debut album The Sagas Of…) and Skinnyman (Council Estate Of Mind) built cult followings with their unfiltered visions of the lives of the overlooked, underserved and discriminated-against. Despite a common tendency among the wider public, and those in power, to dismiss rappers as either dangerous or clownish, over time their voices — and audiences — have grown to the point of being unignorable. By 2017, grime MCs were being sought out to rally votes, under the somewhat clunky #Grime4Corbyn banner, for a shift in the political status quo. When Dave took to the piano at the 2020 BRIT Awards and branded then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson ‘a real racist', the news cycle ran for days.

For all those artists taking the fight to political power-bearers, there are just as many UK rappers who’ve found success and then turned their attention more directly to their communities. Not content with dropping their back-to-back 7 Days and 7 Nights mixtapes in 2017, Croydon duo Krept & Konan established a youth work project, The Positive Direction Foundation, at the secondary school Krept himself had attended, providing working-class kids in their neighbourhood with access to creative workshops and the chance to expand their horizons. Before his death in 2022, SB.TV founder Jamal Edwards established a network of youth centres, with the similar aim of plugging a gap in youth service provisions following more than a decade of government-led cuts to the sector. Road rapper Nines took an even more direct approach to supporting his community: handing out hundreds of Christmas turkeys to his Church Road estate neighbours while filming the video for his mixtape hit My Hood in 2011.

Given the linguistic dexterity required of the form, it’s hardly surprising to see hip hop artists’ words proving so potent. For some, this has extended beyond the recording booth. Akala’s charisma and ability to articulate complex ideas of class, race, colonialism and structures of oppression — and to do so in way that is not only informative, but invigorating — has made him something of a modern-day apostle. While his ideas were laid out in thorough, practical detail in his 2019 polemic memoir Natives, they’re arguably most widely known from a clip of him dismantling Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known as EDL founder Tommy Robinson) during a 2013 episode of the BBC Three debate show Free Speech — footage which does the rounds with reassuring regularity.

As a growing handful of UK MCs have begun to achieve household name status, their role as advocates — and agitators — has only become more significant. Stormzy has used his profile (and deep pockets) to fund everything from a publishing imprint focused on supporting writers from under-represented communities to Cambridge scholarships for Black students. And when actions alone won’t suffice, he’s proven adept at picking his moments to make his voice heard: be it calling out the government’s response to the Grenfell disaster while performing on stage at the 2018 BRITs, donning a symbolic Union Jack-streaked stab vest for his Glastonbury headline slot, or saving a tee-up call-and-response line on his 2019 hit Vossi Bop for a since-disgraced former Prime Minister (‘Fuck the government, and fuck Boris’).

Yet despite being a fixture of contemporary popular culture, homegrown UK hip hop is still forced to strive against every odd. In recent years, MCs have found themselves being forced to defend their artistry against heavy-handed attempts at state censorship, including the use of terrorist legislation to restrict how acts can release and perform their music. Rap lyrics have an increasing presence in criminal court rooms in the UK too, where they’re used to prove guilt or propensity for serious criminality. These developments reflect not only a latent prejudice against Black art forms, but a broader misunderstanding of the communities they grow from — and presents yet another front for activist-minded artists to fight on.

But history, and all the fight and fervour that comes with it, is firmly on the side of hip hop here. As more fans and followers come to learn of the genre’s radical, resistant roots, it’ll be their voices joining in to demand a more vibrant, undeniable and fairer future.

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