Road rap sprang up in London during the mid-2000s, emerging from grime’s heartland in a period when the genre was out of favour.
For a few years, road rap temporarily eclipsed grime as the primary mouthpiece of the inner city’s forgotten youth. Originally centered around South London locales like Brixton and Peckham, road rap eventually spread across the entire capital with hotspots in areas from Hackney to Harlesden.
Road rap is largely derivative of US rap, but should not be confused with UK hip hop—a genre that has a rich history dating back to the 1980s. UKHH encompasses everything from Skinnyman-style street authenticity to a more backpack-oriented vibe heralded by artists like Jehst. Road rap instead maintains a much narrower focus and – like grime – emerged from the poorest pockets of London.
Many of the tracks included in this list find the MCs spitting over vintage American hip hop instrumentals, from Nines on OutKast’s ‘Two Dope Boyz’ to the Usual Suspect Gang going toe-to-toe over the Havoc-produced beat for Tragedy Khadafi’s ‘What’s Poppin?’. Despite this, road rap MCs are, for the most part, not trying to mimic the bling and braggadocio of their US counterparts. Compared to the vast majority of American hip hop to gain popularity over the last decade, road rap is far more abrasive and authentic.
The reality that most of the artists featured in this selection have spent considerable time in prison (with a few still behind bars) is testament to the veracity of their tales. Years after the genre reached its peak at the end of the 2000s, nearly every MC included here has remained a relative unknown outside the murky realms in which they operate. The main exception to that rule is Giggs. The SN1 leader, now with two albums under his belt on XL Recordings, is one of only a handful of artists featured in this list to forge a solid career in music. The undisputed king of road rap, Giggs appears on no fewer than five tracks included in this selection, and it was honestly difficult to limit that number to so few.
This list is an attempt at capturing a cross-section of the road rap scene, touching on all sides of London and including a spread of tunes from the genre’s early days until now. I’ve also attempted to highlight the various strains of what is sometimes maligned as a monotonous genre, from the hybrid Naija/dancehall stylings of Naira Marley and Max Twigz’s ‘Marry Juana’ and the determined optimism of Sneakbo’s ‘Champion’ to Giggs’ straight grease and the dead-eyed teenage brutality of John Wayne.
I’ve recorded a mix featuring all 20 tunes in this selection, with the tracks listed here according to their running order. The tracks do vary a little in recording quality, and there are a couple of other DJ drops in the mix (shout out to Mykal Million), but that was unavoidable. Hopefully it serves as a rounded introduction to one of the most compelling UK musical movements of recent times.
Short and sweet, the most relaxed and introspective track in this list comes courtesy of North West Londoner Nines. The Church Road representative espouses the repetitive nature of road life over the ‘Two Dope Boyz’ beat made famous by OutKast. The spacious instrumental serves as the perfect foil for Nines’ laidback and nonchalant delivery.
‘Are You Alone?’
K Koke’s anti-informer anthem ‘Are You Alone?’ is directed at Darren “Spider” Mathurin, “Britain’s first black supergrass” and a former associate of the Stonebridge rapper. Koke warns Mathurin to never return to the estate from which they both emerged following Spider’s decision to co-operate with police. On ‘Are You Alone?’, the one-time Roc Nation signee is simultaneously vexed and anguished; every bar stings with pain and is delivered with sharp intent.
Never has a nursery rhyme sounded so cold. The playful beat and chorus of Tempman’s 2008 cut ‘Weatherman’ only serves to highlight the malice contained in his verses, with the Brixton MC’s gruff, abrasive vocals offset by the light-hearted and mischievous instrumental. “Carry your umbrellas,” warns Tempman, or you’re gonna get wet.
T. Boost, Billy & Y. Spend
Pretty sure this was on a Giggs mixtape, but I can’t remember which one. Tiny Boost, Billy and Young Spend wax lyrical about firearms and running through houses over a pitch black Three 6 Mafia instrumental, and it’s hard not to believe them. The track exemplifies the brooding aggression that was present in most road rap back in 2007 and 2008, but the tune’s success doesn’t just lie in its veracity. The trio tread nimbly over the ‘The End’ beat, with the seamless interplay between the three youngers especially impressive.
‘London Streets’ is taken from Morrisson and Seaker’s 2010 mixtape Currently Getting Currency, another canonical road rap tape. Interestingly, Morrisson is the only East London-based MC included in this list. He emerged from the grime stronghold of Newham in the late 2000s and quickly developed a large following before the trajectory of his music career was stifled by a prison sentence. He’s been out for a while now but hasn’t dropped a project as good as this.
Probably the best posse cut to emerge from the murky realms of road rap. K Koke’s Usual Suspect Gang (with a little help from Brum Town vet Jaja Soze) paint a grim picture of life in North-West London over Tragedy Khadafi’s ‘What’s Poppin’ instrumental. All five MCs provide equally fine 16-bar verses that lament the harsh realities of life in the now-demolished Stonebridge Estate.
Fem Felon feat. Giggs
‘Smash Out The Peng’
Upon leaving prison in 2005, Fem Fel (formerly Fem Felon) spent some time as a member of Giggs’ SN1 collective alongside Gunna Dee, Joe Grind, Spender, Young Giggs, Kyze and Tiny Boost. Fel’s ‘Smash Out The Peng’ is one of the more upbeat entries in this list thanks to a shoulder-shruggin’ instrumental from Ren TheProducer. Giggs is on the hook and also delivers one of the most memorable (and maybe the fastest) cameo verses of his career.
Blade Brown feat. Giggs & Fem Felon
‘Sink A Boat’
Blade Brown and fellow South Londoner Giggs joined forces in 2009 for their stone-cold classic Hollow Meets Blade mixtape. ‘Sink A Boat’ was arguably the highlight of that tape, a dark-as-fuck tale of cocaine, firearms and 3210s with Fem Fel on the hook.
‘128 Bar Massacre’
Krept and Konan have their first major label album out in July, featuring YG, Rick Ross, Jeremih and Wiz Khalifa. The pair’s polished brand of road rap (see 2013 single ‘Don’t Waste My Time’) may have landed them a deal with Virgin/EMI, but years before that it was their decidedly darker Redrum mixtape series that put them on the map. Krept and Konan were once members of the Gipset collective, and this track finds Krept on his ones wreaking absolute havoc on the instrumental for Juelz Santana’s ‘Rumble Young Man Rumble’.
‘Talking Da Hardest’
Arguably the quintessential road rap tune, delivered over Dr Dre’s instrumental for Stat Quo’s ‘Here We Go’. ‘Talking Da Hardest’ was originally released as a freestyle on Giggs’ classic 2008 mixtape Ard Bodied (although it was floating around for a little while before that), and the anthemic number cemented the Peckham raconteur’s position as the figurehead of the road rap scene. Giggs’ slow, lazy flow and six-feet-deep voice inspired a legion of imitators, with a generation of South London MCs bearing the hallmarks of his menacing delivery. Despite this, nobody does it quite like the man himself.
P.Y.G.’s ‘Coming Up’ encapsulates the youthful bellicosity of road rap better than any other tune. “You’re always chattin’ on MSN, you should feel a piece of the knife / Stab you in your head, stab you in your chest” proclaims a teenage Stigs in a vicious opening bar that sets the tone for the rest of the tune. The rest of the Peckham Young Guns follow in a similarly brutal fashion, delivering their horror show lyrics with a confronting conviction that belies their age, and a vigour that makes many modern road rap tunes seem toothless in comparison.
There’s something about this track from John Wayne (now Johnny Gunz) that sets it apart from the bucketload of similar efforts that deal with the same limited subject matter. It might be the absurdly graphic, murderous lyrics (“Shootin’ up the block is moist / Where’s your satisfaction?”) or possibly the unnerving, almost disturbing conviction with which the grisly bars are delivered. I’m not really sure, but six years later this one still stands out.
Giggs feat. Tiny Grem
Pure unadulterated grease from the undisputed king of road rap and definitely one of his finest ever tunes. Unfortunately for his accomplice Tiny Grem, ‘Soldier Riddim’ was the peak of his career – TG was sentenced to 12 years behind bars in 2013 for possession of a loaded submachine gun, crack cocaine and heroin.
Skrapz feat. Nines
‘Breakin It Down’
You might recognise Skrapz as a former member of grime collective SLK (alongside Flirta D, Ribz, etc) where he went under the name of Skrapsta. Following a brief stint in prison, he emerged with the Skrapz Is Back mixtape in 2010—a bona fide road rap classic. This tune features a verse from regular co-conspirator Nines and is arguably the highlight of that tape.
‘Brick Walls This High’
R.A. (an acronym for Real Artillery) is a core member of Brixton collective Roadside Gz. The group gained notoriety within the grime scene in the mid-00s for their dynamic brand of “gangsta grime”, delivering a clutch of classic mafioso-influenced mixtapes that blended elements of both grime and rap. R.A. was given a life sentence in 2009, but continues to record sporadically behind bars. This track surfaced on YouTube in 2013 and finds the incarcerated MC laying waste to what would later become known as the ‘Hot Nigga’ instrumental.
Aside from possessing enough technical nous and verbal dexterity to out-spit pretty much anybody anywhere, Roadside Gz’s R.A. has an immeasurable talent for distilling the pressures of road life into deeply evocative lyrics. R.A.’s well-documented criminal history may have prevented him from ever having the chance to pursue a serious musical career, but it did provide him with some life experiences that, when translated into bars and lyrics, generated some of the most upfront and vivid accounts of street life in London (or anywhere, really).
Fekky feat. Young Spray & Frisco
Big Fekky, with a little help from Young Spray and grime veteran Frisco, provides the most hype entry into this list. His ubiquitous 2012 single ‘Bang’ is unapologetic and brimming with bravado—pure strap talk is all you’ll find here apart from boundless energy and machismo. YG The Producer and TrimzBeats do their best Lex Luger impersonation on the 808-heavy beat. Bonus point to Young Spray for the Funky Dee reference.
Naira Marley & Max Twigz
Whilst most road rap tunes borrow extensively from long-established American templates, Naira Marley and Max Twigz ‘Marry Juana’ finds the pair proclaiming their love for weed over a luminous dancehall riddim (with plenty of Auto-Tune used in the process). Naira Marley’s heavy Nigerian accent also provides something a little out of the ordinary. The pair’s dead-eyed number ‘Bang’ is also worth a listen – it comes like a South London take on the Chief Keef tune of the same name.
Kyze feat. Giggs
Another more recent tune, Kyze’s 2013 single ‘Punani’ features yet another cameo appearance from Giggs. The SN1 pair proclaim their love for pum pum over a ragga-tinged instrumental that interpolates a vintage Bagga Worries sample. This one is definitely the most jovial tune featured here, and goes to show that not all road rap is doom, gloom and shanks.
Brixton’s Sneakbo is one of few artists featured in this piece to achieve some sort of chart success. A brief stint in Feltham prison threatened to derail his career, but the last three years have seen the former GAS Gang representative crack the UK top 30 singles chart on three separate occasions. But before the (relative) chart success, Sneakbo made tunes for a vastly different audience. ‘Champion’, a version of the Chris Brown-featuring Chipmunk tune of the same name, is one of the more easily digestible of his older tunes, a motivational number that is tinged with optimism.