UK rappers have cut ties and gone DIY – now they’re breaking through stronger than ever
The so-called grime revival has been overshadowed by the breakout success of a new generation of UK rappers creating fresh hybrids of drill, Afrobeats and hip-hop, from 67 and Avelino to J Hus and Dave. Will Pritchard finds out how the stars of the underground are making it big on their own terms – major labels be damned.
Top ten albums, sell out headline tours, a Mercury Prize, cosigns from global megastars. To say the past couple of years have been good for grime would be something of an understatement. In fact, to call that an understatement would be an understatement in itself. Matt Hancock MP claiming to be a big fan of Skepta even gave grime its ‘Tony Blair inviting Oasis to Downing Street’ moment (though that might be inflating the Culture Minister’s standing somewhat).
For the most part the plaudits have landed on established members of the scene – DJs, producers and MCs who have been honing their craft since the early days, like Wiley, Skepta, JME and Kano. But this focus on grime’s heritage has also left the genre open to accusations of nostalgia mining. In 2016 – to borrow an observation from Butterz boss Elijah – grime seemed to generate more documentaries about its origins than it did new albums.
That celebration of grime’s roots is deserved, but it misses the real excitement when it comes to homegrown talent. The UK’s current rap scene – encompassing US and African-influenced styles beyond the grime template laid down by Wiley and co – has, over the past year or so, been plotting its own takeover.
The scene’s standard bearer is Giggs, an MC who connects a young generation of rappers with London’s road rap lineage. The Peckham-born MC has long been a dominant force in the underground, and was signed to XL for several years until last year’s Landlord. Released on his own label, SN1 Records, last summer, the album charted at number two – no mean feat for an independent artist who, just a few years ago, couldn’t play a show without police interference.
“The YouTube channels have basically taken over the pirate radio stations”Morgan Keyz
Last year’s MOBO Awards nominations were studded with young artists emerging from this scene, many of them with just a handful of YouTube videos to their name – videos that have racked up millions of views. The winner of the Best Song category was Abra Cadabra (pictured top), whose ‘Robbery Remix’ featuring Krept & Konan was a defiantly underground, uncompromising choice – it may not have been played on Radio 1, but on YouTube it’s been watched more than eight million times.
“I believe that UK rap is already at the forefront of the mainstream,” says Posty, who, as CEO of GRM Daily, has played a vital role in UK rap’s video revolution. “Statistically, particularly with the rise and rise of digital, we are seeing rap, grime and other urban genres lead the music industry with higher views and listens than what people deem and perceive to be ‘mainstream’.”
YouTube channels like Link Up TV, GRM Daily, SBTV and BL@CKBOX are drafting in new rap talent at a staggering rate. “The YouTube channels’ role has basically taken over the pirate radio stations,” says Morgan Keyz, a music video director who also does A&R for Sony Music. Scroll through the comments on the latest videos and you’ll see the same usernames cropping up again and again, discussing tracks with the same passion you’d have previously heard during radio call-ins.
“Rappers are selling out tours from coming on Charlie Sloth’s show and rapping. That to me is beautiful”Akala
Caroline Simionescu-Marin is the XL Recordings A&R behind New Gen, a UK rap collective-cum-creative project that’s just released a full-length album on the label. “YouTube channels run things now,” she says. “The kids are all subscribed to the YouTube channels. That’s where they see everything first, and the kids are the champions.”
UK drill crew 67, one of the acts featured on New Gen, describe YouTube as “everything in the rise of UK rap,” while fellow New Gen MC Avelino calls it “integral”. Not that YouTube alone can create an artist out of nowhere, adds Simionescu-Marin. “Bear in mind that you have to be a good artist first. You can’t actually be shit.”
Akala, a veteran of the UK hip-hop scene, puts it in softer terms. “Look at a platform like Fire In The Booth,” he says of the series hosted by Radio 1Xtra’s Charlie Sloth. “It’s got nothing to do with hype, it’s just, come on, can you rap? And rappers are selling out tours off just coming on Charlie’s show and rapping. That to me is beautiful, because it’s about the craft.”
But digital success can only go so far. Posty believes there is now a need to take ownership and “create a sustainable industry that we can call our own.” For Akala, what’s needed is to build on the current climate with traditional output: “More and more bodies of work, more albums.”
Right now it appears that the UK underground is in a position to take on the challenge. Without their hands being tied by major label purse strings – a hindrance which scuppered grime’s breakthrough in the noughties – artists have been able to cut their own groove, catering directly to fans while being free to collaborate and create hybrid styles. From the straight-talking street tales of 67, Mist and Skrapz to the introspective lyricism of Dave and Avelino and the dancehall and Afrobeats-indebted tunes of J Hus, MoStack and Belly Squad, there’s strength in the breadth of sounds bubbling up – although this variety has left fans and journalists scrabbling for a term to replace the increasingly stretched ‘UK rap’ catch-all.
For XL’s New Gen project, Simionescu-Marin took the Kanye West approach by bringing a whole squad of talented collaborators into the studio together. “Collaboration is the key – you can have multiple writers and multiple producers and make an amazing body of work,” she says. “We wanted to emulate that.”
Featuring young artists like Avelino, Stefflon Don, Abra Cadabra and Kojey Radical, New Gen is undoubtedly a strong representation of the current scene – but it still struggles to capture the full breadth of what’s going on underground. What it does show is that a big label (XL is independent but has the financial advantage of having Adele on its roster) is willing to invest in young talent – but having grown up in the shadow of grime, this generation seems willing and able to remain totally independent.
It’s not just YouTube that’s helped the new generation build careers with barely any capital behind them. Ditto is a service that allows artists to circumvent the traditional label system by getting their music onto major download and streaming platforms such as iTunes and Spotify – and once you’ve got that, you’ve pretty much become your own label.
These independent distribution platforms have brought money right to the grassroots, affording the scene more creative freedom and helping UK rap to break out of the pigeonhole it had been put in by the wider industry. And in a scene defined by integrity and authenticity, remaining unsigned and unaffiliated doesn’t exactly harm your credibility, either.
The next question is whether YouTube views and Spotify streams will be enough to sustain the scene’s rising stars to the next stage in their careers – producing those bodies of work Akala spoke of. Now that so much of the money to be made from music comes through live shows and touring, it will be vital for these artists to start packing out venues and festival tents – and for the cops to leave them to it.
But the speed at which artists like Dave, Mist and 67 have been selling out shows so far, and the presence of early breakouts Section Boyz on so many of last year’s festival line-ups, is a good omen. With albums from J Hus and and Nines expected this year – this time through traditional label channels – 2017 will be a litmus test year for UK rap’s relationship with the music industry at large. We’ll be watching closely – and not just on YouTube.
Read next: 10 grime and UK rap artists to watch in 2017