It’s been a massive year for British MCs, whose experiments in grime, Afrobeats and beyond continue to make the UK a thriving space for exciting new sounds. Ian McQuaid picks 10 tracks that shone over the last 12 months.
2017 was a strong year for UK MCs. Afrobeats continued to unite both forward-thinking clubs and mainstream radio. While there may have been comparisons to the grime explosion of the early ‘00s, this sound is much closer to that of the UK garage era, when commercial success and singalong hooks were the order of the day.
Elsewhere, fans of the UK’s illustrious history of nihilistic rave could find new kicks in the UK drill scene. In many ways drill is to grime as Afrobeats is to garage, with camcorder videos shot on sink estates, violent lyrics, vicious crew beefs and a deliberately obtuse use of slang and numerically-coded gang names that made the scene impenetrable to outsiders. Despite often eschewing anything as weakly commercial as a chorus – there were at least three tracks released under the title ‘No Hook’ this year alone – drill has evolved into one of the most exciting MC-led sounds of the UK: the fairly rigid sonic palette of doomy bell clangs, 808 bass and rattling snares forces MCs to display real skill and charisma to have any chance of standing out.
Grime meanwhile provided mainstream radio hits for a gilded few – your Stormzys, Bizzles and AJs – while a world of younger artists struggled to make much impact with their 140 BPM attacks. Grime’s time hasn’t passed, but it may no longer be part of the zeitgeist. Away from the massive hits hurtling out of the rap world, there has also been an undercurrent of artists pushing more ostentatiously cerebral sounds, from the resistance trap of Kojey Radical to the electronic experimentation of new favorite Octavian. As with 2016, there has rarely been a time in British MC culture when there has been so much talent producing so much variety for such a wide audience.
IAMDDB announced herself as a major new talent with ‘Shade’ and the 2016-released ‘Leaned Out’. The Mancunian singer/rapper has an effortless cool in her sound, a thrilling mixture of hazy Auto-Tune trap like Young Thug and the blunted trip-hop of Massive Attack.
‘Shade’ takes its time, its uneasy strings a looping backdrop over which IAMDDB raps, sings and ads-libs; she’s a loose-limbed performer refusing to be trapped by song structure. With a clutch of videos on her own YouTube channel clocking in at a few million views, it’s almost certain that 2018 is going to be a big year for an artist who currently seems peerless.
Dave Feat. MoStack
Dave has mastered the art of less-is-more. While other artists bombard the streets with tracks, Dave carefully spaces out his releases so they feel like real events. Any one of his singles in 2017 could easily have made this list; ‘Samantha’ and ‘Game Over’ are particularly great examples of his ability to mix thoughtful lyricism with club-ready beats. However, ‘No Words’ just edges it. Delivered with a wry grin, Dave’s distinctively melodic delivery is a complement to MoStack’s sprawling, wild flow. It’s just the right balance of calm and chaos.
TG Millian x Naira Marley x Blanco
‘Money on the Road’
When the TG Millian-only ‘Money on the Road’ leaked and was subsequently posted to numerous bootleg YouTube channels that thrive on illegal UK rap uploads, the track ended up with hundreds of thousands of plays. It was testament to just how thirsty young fans were to hear the Harlem Spartans mainstay switch up his drill flow and come with an entirely new sound: a fusion of Afrobeats melody and roadman lyrics delivered over a pretty, tick-tocking riddim. It is entirely unique.
With TG joined on the full release by fellow HS don Blanco and much loved underground legend Naira Marley, the track steadily grew to become a huge club hit. It should have been the first step on TG’s road to stardom, but it, unfortunately, was the last thing either he or Blanco did this year. TG was already in custody when the tune dropped and Blanco was arrested soon after.
Kamaal Williams Feat. Mez
‘One Take Freestyle’
When long-time grime videographers Tim and Barry heard that Mez had been freestyling over the epic space jazz of Kamaal Williams, they decided to get them in a studio with Williams’ full band and film the results. What they got was one of the most innovative grime records of the year.
Mez spits like he’s taking on a grime set, racing through every bar he has over 10 minutes while Williams leads a squelching, bass-heavy jazz jam. It’s a relentless, uplifting ride that’s powered along on a joyous energy. There’s a rumor that Mez is planning on recording an entire EP of this kind of jazz-grime fusion. On the basis of this performance, he’d be mad not to.
Afro B x Yxng Bane
‘Juice & Power’
Afro B remains in his own lane. His link-up with Yxng Bane on ‘Juice & Power’ dropped near the start of 2017 and steadily grew in stature as time went on. Its appeal lies in two key factors: Afro’s distinctive voice and N2ThaA’s unusual production. He created a slow paced, reggae-influenced vibe that owes something to the space and sub-frequencies of dubstep, almost as though he were working on a 100 BPM update of the classic DMZ sound.
Octavian is looking like the future right now. He was born in France but has enough UK in him to drop bars such as “I’m like blimey”. His husky flow sprawls all over the avant-trap beats he favors and his current calling card, ‘Party Here’ – which has caused a minor eruption amongst London’s thirsty A&R community – demonstrates his ability to spit over slow-motion house as easily as he tackles sparse 808 riddims.
Skengdo x AM
‘Mad About Bars’
Thanks to the dizzying flood of music released by drill crew #410 in 2017, members Skengdo and AM had already built a fair amount of hype before they recorded their ‘Mad About Bars’ freestyle for DJ Kenny Allstar. But no one was quite prepared for what followed. The live performance, recorded in a single take, saw the duo perfectly matched – Skengdo’s belligerent street threats set against AM’s deep bass tones.
Most of what Michael Dapaah, aka Big Shaq, became famous for with ‘Man’s Not Hot’ was a direct parody of this video, from the skududu-dudu kinetic sound effects Skengdo drops to AM’s intricate mathematics. If nothing else, ‘Mad About Bars’ definitively proved that drillers are just as capable of doing it live as anyone in the grime scene.
‘No Don’ has the greatest drop of the year. Birmingham duo Lotto Boyzz had been bubbling under with a couple of more linear Afrobashment tracks when they linked up with producer Amos and started recording in a new way. Rather than jumping on pre-existing beats, they switched to writing from scratch, a decision that led to the unique structure of ‘No Don’. The surprise switch into Ash’s descending melody that lands 16 bars in has caused devastation everywhere, forcing the duo to rewind the track time and again when playing live.
While most of the drill and grime scenes concerned themselves with beefing each other, Kojey Radical was beefing the entire system. ‘After Winter’ draws on the lexicon of road rap and spikes it with references to things like the Emancipation Proclamation and artist Chris Ofili (who is known for working with elephant dung), all in the name of exploring the value and power of art in dystopian times.
‘Did You See’
Of all the great music produced by J Hus in collaboration with Jae 5, ‘Did You See’ is their finest moment and one of the best tracks of the year. The beat is simple and elegant and Hus’s boastful lyrics are surprisingly light-hearted and insanely catchy. While the main body of the song is built from sparse elements, Jae 5 isn’t afraid to experiment and his own manipulated vocals are as much key to the track’s staying power as Hus’s timeless delivery.
Ian McQuaid is a DJ, A&R and journalist based in London. Find him on Twitter.