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End of the road: the rise of road rap and the uncertain future of the hardcore continuum

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  • Martin Clark on what's next for UK street music.
  • published
    27 Apr 2012
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Jostling amidst a scrum of a dozen or so fellow mic men, the rapper finally extracts himself from the dense hoods up, such that he can face the camera.

Lolling from side to side nonchalantly, with the look of someone who knows he’s the centre of the ends’ attention but is trying hard not to let on, he lets the harsh white light bathe his face before wiping the expression clean from his face. And then the smile breaks across it. “Look, look, look… You see I’ve been thinking about my life lately / My life’s crazy / and it’s kinda fuckin’ with me….”

This is London road rap.

It comes from grime’s heartland and in some cases now owns much of it. It is grime-like yet also in many ways so completely derivative of US rap as to seem only to bear a passing connection to the UK hardcore continuum that grime was born out of: check Fekky Ft Blade Brown, Fem Fel, Youngs Teflon & C-Biz’s ‘Ring Ring Trap Remix’ for one of the more blatant examples, though there are hundreds on the YouTube channels that act as hubs for this scene.

Derivative much of it may be, yet one session is different. The rapper in the camera light, K.Koke, is making it to the front of a Mashtown Freestyle featuring R.O.S, G.Money, 2g, J Spades, Frostman and Asco. In this live session they’re not trying to impersonate bling US MCs. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s road.

These MCs, apart from K Koke (who escaped a murder charge last year), are relative unknowns. This only adds to its immense appeal: a perennial joy/frustration of the ‘nuum is there’s always “dark matter” in the system, scenes incubating and mutating that you haven’t clocked no matter how hard you thought you were looking. The excuse is always that at the beginning they’re indistinguishable from their musical backdrop, in this case the sprawling global hip-hop genre.

And yet  there’s something so utterly familiar about this video. This is grime, this is grime in so many ways: the London estate location, the DIY aesthetic, lyrics about the perennial combative them/me MC-fixation/paranoia, J Spades’ touch of Jamaican “yard” influence, bars as a vector to street status and reputation, the most hype reserved for lyrics about the ultimate power vector, i.e. guns, Grime Daily’s YouTube channel as broadcast medium. And if you’re looking for “unifying” credentials you can hardly write it off as a niche concern: it’s had over 175,000 views.

Frostman’s bars are especially compelling:

“I flip for some property,
You flip for some fashion,
And ratting’s at it highest,
N*ggaz snitching with a passion,
It’s MOB: I dis ‘em when I lash ‘em,
N*ggaz be like “Frostman’s scared”
But it’s different when I catch ‘em.”

Like most grime, the bars are deprived of much of their power when written down, shorn of the rich cultural metadata embedded in the audio: the MC’s accent, pitch, intonation, cadence, nationality, locality and heritage – his “flow”, basically – are all lost in two dimensions. Frostman gets a rewind for these bars – not something grime invented whatsoever – but something it certainly zoomed in on and magnified, especially for MCs.

Look at the surroundings of this video. The estate after dark, the gang signs and postcode references, the flossing in sunglasses, the mandem gathered, rudeboys of different racial backgrounds hyping together in front of the camera, the obligatory mentions of incarcerated friends before the bars start, the us/them dynamic of the lyrics, interspersed with drug and violence references and the guy rocking the “ghetto-ridiculous”* fur around his neck, not to mention the guy in the full-on balaclava! You know if you wander into this environment as an outsider and act like a fool then it’s “on top,” quickly. “Come around with your dodgy hair cut and I’ll push back your Mohican…” spits one of the MCs, though it’s unclear if he’s talking about outsiders or weak wannabe-Balotelli locals.

Despite the menace and danger of this video, what’s so compelling about Frostman in clip is his smile. It’s instantly disarming. K Koke’s all grins too and when the happiness breaks across their faces the sense of cultural distance is bridged by the familiar feeling that it’s just a bunch of lads having fun: boasting, showing off, singing along to punchlines in support, mobbing each other at rewinds like the rapper has just scored a screamer in the top corner from 30 yards. It’s just…cool; something anyone who’s been out with the lads can identify with.

As well as grime, it’s also pirate radio, in spirit: one mic, one focus for the performance being broadcast by a community for a community, loaded with local references (postcodes, slang, subjects…), outside the jurisdiction of broadcasting authorities, outside the jurisdiction of middle/upper class culture “authorities”. It’s grass roots, DIY transmissions. It hardly seems almost a decade since ‘Conflict’ set Dizzee and Crazy Titch against each other to the backdrop of the east London skyline, or those early proto-grime shows before grime productions really got going, where the DJs would play US R&B and rap instrumentals before the MCs arrived.

Yet this is not pirate radio. The waning of the influence of pirate radio as a medium – one that has been a consistent feature of nuum genres from rave to jungle, garage to grime and dubstep – has been in part obscured by the rise of the broadcast medium that has taken its place: social media. Most people will take a path of least resistance and if your aim is to get on the radio waves and the commercial stations and government broadcasting authorities won’t let you and your mates music in, then the path of least resistance is to start your own station, buy a transmitter, microwave link, set up a studio in an illegal or semi-legal spot and risk unwanted attention from Offcom (formerly the DTI) to get on air. But if your aims are instead a simpler, more fundamental need, the need to be heard, if your unit of street currency is reputation, then in 2012 the path of least resistance is video camera + internet connection + YouTube channel. 175,000 pageviews says it’s achieved its aims.

For completeness’s sake, recent ad hoc evening scannings of London pirates in the last year have turned up a smattering of trad house and old-school garage, reggae/dancehall and new drum & bass shows. There’s the occasional African/Christian talk show and a whole heap of Turkish and/or Kurdish stations – just as many as the reggae pirates. UK Funky has some shows on Live FM, Rinse and Déjà Vu, and grime maintains a presence via Rinse (and Logan’s Kiss show). But in reality these days the FM frequency feels disjointed; the focus and energy is coming from social media – podcasts, downloads, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, YouTube, UStream, etc.

While it shouldn’t really matter how music and performances reach their audiences, the waning of pirate radio’s influence is problematic for the continuity of the ‘nuum. Pirate radio is helpful to observers because it’s distinct. The stations and studios and the personnel that run them are, by the illegal nature of the medium, hard to access. In the past you had to know someone; you were either in the community or you weren’t – especially during a time where you couldn’t just Tweet/FB message station management. But if the medium that replaces it is indistinguishable from how everyone else reaches their audiences, a key pillar of the ‘nuum’s identity dissolves.

If Mashtown’s video is not pirate radio it’s categorically also not grime either. It’s a UK-based US-inspired hip-hop scene that’s defined itself against grime because of the commercial career moves of many of the top MCs . As 2G – the little MC shakily getting blooded (“you know you’re good!”) like Tinchy Stryder was nearly 7 years ago on Rinse FM – says  “hold heat/I ain’t trying to ‘Shake a Leg’ like Roll Deep…” “Nah!” agrees his mate.

This is hip-hop, rapping over hip-hop beats, Nas instrumentals in some cases – all of which are far too slow to be mixed into grime/dubstep/UK funky, etc. Lyrics are loaded with as many Americanisms as local slang terms, familiar hip-hop hand gestures, the posse shot, NY baseball caps, guys in god chains drinking brandy, rhymes that actually rhyme rather than the “one line flows” of grime (bars that end in the same word, not different rhyming words), the lyricism of the slower tempo (“what you say” rather than grime’s “how hard you say it”) focused on similes and metaphors as likely to be about Michael Jordan as Hackney mandem.

If this isn’t grime but has all its energy, and it isn’t pirate radio but has its kinetics too, it raises a key question: could the energy possibly dissipate out of the ‘nuum? Could its core participants and audience move on permanently? It’s a testament to the hardy perennialism of the ‘nuum that it’s even a question of note – but of note it is.

In a 2010 article for Dancecult, recently resurrected for his talk for The Wire‘s Critical Beats series, Simon Reynolds outlines several ways that traditionally the ‘nuum regenerates itself and gets round impasses:

•    Strategy 1: Keeping the Faith/Renewal Through Recombination
•    Strategy 2: Drawing in New Material from “Outside”
•    Strategy 3: Lines of Flight (lateral connections)

Road rap might previously have been seen as the result of “Drawing in New Material from ‘Outside’” – the ‘nuum using the current strength of US hip-hop to regenerate itself. But what if this time the vector works in reverse, dragging the vibe out of grime and permanently into local road rap, permanently aligning itself with the global hip-hop canon?

In a 2009 blog post entitled ‘The Nuum And Its Discontents, # 1 Centripetal Versus Centrifugal‘, Reynolds adds some useful definition to his theory. While this exceptional piece is well worth reading in full, in summary he defines two different sub-components to ‘nuum genres: “core structuration features” and more varied “flava” elements. That which is constant and that which varies in the ‘nuum, essentially.

Simon’s piece reads:

“The core structuration features are central in terms of the nuum’s evolution, which depends on core structuration features that originate in a relatively small number of primary precursor genres–hip hop, dub reggae, dancehall, house, hard techno/Eurorave–but have been drastically intensified and mutated. Rather than flitting in and out of favour, these are the building blocks of the sound(s), its beams and cornerstones. They include:

•    Breakbeat science (developed from hip hop)
•    Bass science (developed from dub reggae; also from hip hop/electro)
•    Vocal science (developed from house)
•    MC fast chat (developed from dancehall)
•    Mentasm-stab and variants (developed from hard techno/Euro-rave)”

By contrast there are the occasional “flava” elements – “essentially spices or garnishes, functioning to enhance appeal.” Reynolds includes “jazz, Latin, industrial/EBM, R&B, soundtracks, Detroit techno, sub-classical, rock, electro, acid house, ambient, Italohouse, Brazilian, blacksploitation funk, world musics of various kinds”, though each iteration has its own blend of flavas.

Returning to 2012 and the idea of dark matter in the system, you can see exact parallels between the currently most active areas of pirate culture and the core structuration features: hip-hop, reggae/dancehall and house/hard techno/euro-rave.

House, hip-hop and reggae dancehall are the ‘nuum’s perennial closest cousins, working on parallel paths usually with far larger scale, infrastructure and visibility than any given ‘nuum genres of the time. But recently much of the pirate spectrum and spirit has been taken up by these cousins, rather than by ‘nuum genres themselves. Road rap has been spitting out hundreds if not thousands of mixtapes (check UKrapmusic.com), UK dancehall grinds ever onwards and Rinse, Deja and even LiveFMUK have been increasingly dominated by house of the global variety.

The Yellow/Circle/dubbage movement was covered here in 2010 and it remains possible that this movement could yet evolve into something UK/local and sufficiently distinct from its global house cousins. But in the time that’s elapsed since that piece was written, it’s become unclear whether that community actually want such distance and distinction; their centripetal force curves them back to global house’s traditions, not away from it.

In his Dancecult piece Simon describes how dubstep has been “recharged by an influx of ignorance, a new breed of historical know-nothing fans,” and that “this suggests that something new may come out of it: the wobble sound (considered by cognoscenti to be a bastardization of true dubstep) has become a genuine hardcore, with a revived association with drug abuse and rowdy behavior.”

The thing is, while all this is true, the know-nothing fans are increasingly either UK students packing UKF raves or US ex-Emo kids dancing to DJs like Skrillex and one of the main things they have little or no knowledge of, or indeed grass roots connections with, is the ‘nuum. It’s Pendulum all over again, metal-as-trojan-horse-for-dance. “Something new” may well “come out of it,” but the reality is it’ll have next nothing to do with the next iteration of the UK-centric hardcore continuum. In fact, reflecting on Pendulum or drum & bass in general, when it disconnected itself from the main continuum and changed its audience in the late ’90s at least the top DJs remained original ‘nuum pioneers: Fabio, Grooverider, Andy C, Hype, Shy FX, etc. But with dubstep, in many cases (Skrillex, Borgore, Mount Eden, Datsik, Excision, Bassnector, Doctor P, Modestep, Flux Pavillion, Nero, etc) you’ve got neither audience nor DJs who’ve had deep connections with the growth or genesis of the scene (Skream, Benga and Coki being the increasingly isolated exceptions here). If they know nothing, then the music won’t have anything to do with the ‘nuum and its values.

Where does all this leave us with the ‘nuum? Pirate radio is being replaced with a primary medium that is indistinguishable from media used by all other musical continuums, road rap is absorbing grime’s road energy into hip-hop’s traditions, house continues to satisfy ravers’ need to dance without a strong sense of local identity, breakbeat/bass science rudeness or flava. Grime and UK funky continue to iterate in interesting ways, ways that show real promise but can’t claim the seismic bursts of intense energy they once saw. Dubstep fans who reject brostep have dispersed into either purist halfstep traditionalist stasis (“the dungeon sound”), floating islands of the post-dubstep archipelago, trad European house  and techno, homogenizing crate-digging revivalism and eclecticism, US trap rap and juke. So what’s next?

An analogy from virology springs to mind. As the influenza virus continues day to day, copying itself to carry on, it makes mistakes and mutates its own DNA very slightly. Scientists call this viral drift and the body can cope with new infections as they’re sufficiently similar. Very occasionally the copying goes badly wrong and it makes something with quite different DNA: scientists call this viral shift. In this case body isn’t primed to deal with the virus and huge epidemics occur, as in the 1917 influenza epidemic that killed more people than World War 2.

The viral analogy works well for the hardcore continuum. Scenes tick along, with a fairly large amount of shared DNA (core structuration features) between its iterations. Little mutations occur (flava elements + swapping in/out of the prominence of core structuration features) and the scene drifts forward, infecting new fans. Then a shift occurs (a “wot do u call it?” moment) and an entirely new and utterly infectious scene explodes, like grime out of UK garage, and everyone gets infected, their defences overcome.

But what if, instead of mutating itself into something entirely new, the ‘nuum’s next mutation is the dominance of one of its core structuration genes over all others, such that it mutates its DNA back to an essentially known form such as hip-hop, house and dancehall? Fellow lovers of jungle, garage, grime, UK funky and dubstep will take no great pleasure in this possible outcome of over two decades of inspirational music – and yes, the ‘nuum never ceases in its ability to confound and surprise – but perhaps this is the one surprise it hasn’t yet thrown at us. In 2012 this is a potential outcome that must be considered, because right now, an entire generation of rappers ain’t trying to ‘Shake a Leg’ like Roll Deep anymore.

Further links to check:

•    UK rap music (free mixtape D/Ls)
•    Official UK Mixtape award nominations here and here
•    Fekky “Ring Ring Trap remix”
•    Tallman and Kaz “Ridin High”
•    Big Chess “Hometown”
•    Rap City: SRG Ft Bellyeon “Wave Like Blue – New Wave Order”
•    Don Strapzy aka Dru Blu “F64”
•    Krept (of Krept and Konan) “Paranormal Activity”
•    This is UK Rap vol 1 (compilation CD)

* “Ghetto ridiculous” is a term Dusk and I made up in contrast to “ghetto fabulous” about a 12 years ago at a Touch FM pirate radio “station meeting” in Tottenham when one guy wore a comic hat with furry ears and a mickey mouse jumper yet acted po-faced and deadly serious, as if silently challenging you to say something. It was like the harder he was the more ridiculous clothes he could wear without anyone batting an eyelid.

Martin Clark
blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.co.uk

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