From the sound system scene in the ’80s to the rise of UK Drill in the ’10s UK rap and have had a long journey. Here is a brief, but in-depth guide.
It’s a complicated affair attempting to record the history of UK rap and hip-hop. Artists from outside of London have historically struggled to gain a foothold in music media. It reflects the wider attitude held towards regions of the UK beyond the Southeast. With the majority of Britain’s Black working-class residing in the North and Midlands, many have been left out of important conversations regarding rap in the UK. Also, rap’s history within the UK has never quite made it to the mainstream until very recently, save for a handful of artists over the years such as Roots Manuva, Rodney P, Skepta, and Giggs.
Throughout its history, UK rap has always cross-pollinated with other sounds such as garage, funky house, grime, and — more recently — afrobeats, trap, and drill. It’s reflective of the nature of Black British-led sounds that dates back to when dancehall became heavily influenced by electronic sounds in the 1980s. It was never safe to label garage or grime as rap due to the heavy influence the traditions of toasting have had on both genres. Reggae is the tree from which hip-hop and grime both emerged as Sweetie Irie once said. Through the art of toasting, it’s more accurate to say that both genres exist as genealogical cousins.
UK rap and British hip-hop are two different strands of the same artform. While the labeling doesn’t suggest much difference between the two at first glance, each had their own unique cultures and practices, which made the distinction much more visible. As UK rap began to rise through the mid to late aughts, British hip-hop has been pushed further underground. However, its relationship with rap couldn’t be more intrinsically linked despite those clear distinctions.
The 1980s: Sound systems and the birth of UK hip-hop
In the 1980s, a wave of descendants of the Windrush Generation found themselves leading the UK sound system scene. The likes of Peter King, Tippa Irie, Ragga Twins, and Smiley Culture spit using the traditional format of toasting but they did so utilizing electronic methods and sounds ushering a new era for dancehall, while signaling the birth of a rap style that would lead to garage, drum and bass, jungle and grime less than a decade later.
On the traditional hip-hop side, it’s difficult to talk about the 1980s without recognizing the trailblazers: The Wild Bunch (who later became Massive Attack), London Posse, and Rodney P. Before the 1990s, most UK rappers were adopting American accents, with the hope that would help build their profiles. The late Derek B would be one of the first UK rappers to achieve chart success through hits such as “Goodgroves” and “Bad Young Brother,” both released in 1988. There were a number of record labels also emerging that gave UK rappers a home, such as Positive Beat Records from Ladbroke Grove; Low Life Records based in Leeds; Music of Life which Derek B was signed to along with acts such as Demon Boyz, MC Duke, and, much later, Asher D.
The 1990s: The Bronze Age of UK Rap and Hip-Hop
There were a handful of prominent MCs such as Rodney P and Blak Twang — who released his debut single “What’s Goin’ On” in 1995 — but most of the scene would be comprised of local, regional acts such as Overlord X, Dominant Force, Demon Boyz, and Krispy 3. One of the reasons why these groups weren’t able to break out of the underground was because hip-hop, in this style, was considered too American, with the industry and media considering it inauthentic. However, what the industry hadn’t taken into consideration was just how easy it was for MCs to localize their style of hip-hop.
Tricky is another MC whose influence can be heard in today’s rap scene and that was because of his avant-garde charisma and individualism in a scene full of crews. He is from Bristol and that meant he was often going to be left out of the conversations regarding the lasting impact of ’90s UK rappers. Tricky was more trip-hop than rap and Bristol was the birthplace of that scene in the UK. And the scene originating from the west country isn’t a coincidence either. The Southwest is culturally far from London but it meant that regional distinctions were beginning to develop across the country.
Roots Manuva would also emerge in the late ’90s with his debut album Brand New Second Hand, released in 1999. However, it was “Witness,” released in 2001, that brought the Stockwell rapper to national prominence with its wobbly production and south London twang that was attributed to the Caribbeans who resided in the area for decades.
Across garage, jungle, and drum and bass, rap wasn’t so readily defined as that in those circles, it was just MCing or spitting. It began to create a clear divide between more traditional hip-hop sounds although artists in the differing scenes often embraced each other and performed on the same tours. Sticky, Glamma Kid, Heartless Crew, Pay As U Go Cartel, Ms Dynamite, General Levy, Riko Dan, and Stush were all but a few of the names leading those respective scenes in the ’90s right through to the 2000s.
The early 2000s: Grime enters the fray
By the turn of the millennium, UK rap was intrinsically linked to garage. If you were to find straight rap, at this time, it would’ve been found in the form of UK hip-hop. When So Solid Crew emerged in the early 2000s, the DNA of rap would change as they began to flirt with slow-tempo sounds — particularly on 2003’s 2nd Verse, the group’s second album. Pay As U Go’s “Know We,” arguably one of the first grime tracks ushered in a new style of garage that was more ominous and bass-heavy than before. Over the following years, the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Roll Deep, Nasty Crew, Ruff Sqwad, and Boy Better Know would emerge at the tail-end of garage’s height of prominence.
It was through grime that platforms such as Risky Roadz, Lord of the Mics, Grime Forum, Hyperfrank, Prancehall, and Butterz arose. Grime, compared to garage, had become a multimedia genre, capitalizing on the internet connectivity and DVDs which allowed the scene to thrive nationally. Although many of these platforms emerged in the mid-2000s, they were all apart of the underground media establishment that honestly and authentically captured the essence of grime at the time.
On the other side of the line, Ty, Jehst, Foreign Beggars, Skinnyman, and The Streets began to emerge, embracing the traditions of UK hip-hop. These rappers localized the themes of UK’s sociopolitical climate at the time while maintaining a soulful sound of hip-hop. There was also a level of grittiness that suited the bleak, grey landscape of working-class Britain. The scene was underground but these were artists often supporting US rap acts such as Mos Def, Wu-Tang Clan, and Pharoahe Monch.
The mid-aughts: The Explosion of Road Rap
Grime was lively as ever and a firm scene was established by 2005. Beyond the pirate radio sets at Rinse FM and Deja Vu FM, MCs were beginning to release full-length projects. Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner, Ruff Sqwad’s Guns N Roses, Wiley’s Treddin’ On Thin Ice, and Kano’s Home Sweet Home each laid the blueprint for the quintessential grime album, dispelling myths that the scene was never made for full-length feature projects. And young MCs such as Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder, N-Dubz, and Griminal were all waiting in the wings biding their time.
In areas such as South London, road rap became the predominant sound. Sonically and thematically, it was the closest precursor to the drill and trap we hear today. Arguably the biggest and most successful acts to come out of the road rap scene were Krept & Konan and Giggs, who embraced slower yet more ominous tones. Although many had come before those acts, their signature sounds sparked a shift where future drill artists such as Croydon’s SL cites Giggs as an early influence.
The road rap scene was made up largely of local legends such as North London’s Young Spray and North Star; Gipset, which featured Krept & Konan; and S.A.S — the UK arm of Dipset. At times it was often difficult to distinguish the difference between rap and grime since a lot of MCs were beginning to cross over from roughly 2005.
MCs such as Sway and Klashnekoff left their distinctive imprints on hip-hop over the years. Sway embraced his Ghanaian heritage and Klashnekoff did so with his Jamaican roots. Both were gifted lyricists in his own right, capable of spinning every man they were on a track with. However, many of the hip-hop MCs would routine collaborate with artists from other scenes such as garage, jungle, rap, and drum & bass as a way of crossing over but also highlighting that due to these scenes being made up of predominantly descendants of Black immigrants, there was no one scene that ever stood completely on its own. It’s this fluidity that has made the British scene so unique and innovative despite not necessarily having a buying market as sizeable as the US.
2010s and Beyond: The Golden Age, the birth of UK drill and the new rap frontier
It was this decade when UK rap went mainstream. However, it wasn’t just one song that broke the floodgates such as Stormzy’s “Shut Up Freestyle” or Dave and Fredo’s “Funky Friday” which went to number one on the UK charts. It was a culmination of hits for the past nine years making the Top 40 that saw UK rap in a space it had never previously been. The grime veterans still have their roots firmly in the scene but Wretch 32, Skepta, Kano, D Double E, P Money, Ghetts, and many others have each released albums that not only sound much different to the underground releases of the Noughties but it also shows that these artists were able to adapt to younger audiences who were enamored with rap much more than grime.
In recent years, the UK rap tree has grown and expanded due to the social phenomenons that took place earlier in the decade. Access to platforms such as YouTube and streaming sites have given younger artists a broader and more diverse soundscape to take inspiration from. While drill was born in Chicago — via the likes of Chief Keef, Lil Reese, and King Louie — it migrated to the UK and ultimately replaced grime as the sound of Black youth. Road, or street rap, was very much underground but it wouldn’t be until the rise of south London crews such as 67 and Section Boyz when drill and trap came to major prominence in the UK. More recently, acts such as Skengdo & AM, SL, Unknown T, and K-Trap have been leading the current wave of drill artists rising to popularity.
UK rap is firmly in the mainstream now with the likes of Dave, J Hus, Stormzy, Mo Stack, Kojo Funds, and more repeatedly finding themselves in the charts. The triumvirate of Dave, J Hus and Stormzy have each released record-breaking albums that have signaled the beginning of a golden age.
It’s become harder to define and separate these scenes because of the internet and the exposure to past sounds that younger artists now have, coupled with the nostalgia of youth and the DNA of Black British youth-led music. While there have been strict rules in defining what each of these scenes is — whether they are rap, hip-hop, jungle, grime or trap — those rules are beginning to disintegrate. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means that artists themselves don’t have to pigeonhole themselves to one particular branch of that tree, allowing them to cross over much easier than their predecessors. If the past is anything to go by, the next 40 years show incredible amounts of promise for the Black British music scene.
Jesse Bernard is a London and Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared on The Guardian, Dazed, FACT, Noisey, Crack Magazine, BRICK Magazine and more. His work can be found at @marvinscorridor.z