Image: Dizzee Rascal and Wiley in London, 2002. Credit: David Tonge/Getty.
Author’s Note: Work on this TIDAL Magazine piece began as a primer on U.K. rap, grime and drill, but took on additional gravitas in light of the protests that have swept the globe this summer. The U.K. has a long legacy of police brutality, entrenched poverty and black communities being subjugated: It is the crucible in which some of the country’s greatest records were forged. With slave-owner statues being pulled down, and the winds of change blowing across Britain, the musicians gathered here and the route they took to prominence feel more necessary and appreciated than ever.
From the outside, it can be hard to parse the mutations and subdivisions of MC-led British music. In 2020, the drill coming from the U.S. and the U.K. might not sound too dissimilar. Pop Smoke’s use of East London producer 808Melo on his breakout mixtape Meet the Woo was a clear sign of lines blurring in ways once unimaginable. Similar struggles exist on both sides of the Atlantic: against repression, state violence, ingrained dismissal of black and brown art; for betterment, enrichment and continuation of an infinitely creative and vivid culture. But the path by which we arrived here looks vastly different to our American cousins.
There are a few mitigating factors that explain the U.K.’s difference in development. As in the States, pirate radio and mixtape culture is crucial here: The same reverence is paid to a bootleg of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley performing at notoriously rowdy rave Sidewinder as, say, to Big L and JAY-Z hopping on Stretch and Bobbito circa 1995. However, London to this day remains the epicenter of the industry, limiting the regional evolution and competition that allowed cities like Memphis, Houston, Chicago and New Orleans to develop their own talent away from the coasts.
Just as important is the absence of a political reckoning that fueled the big bangs of American rap. Instead, reggae, calypso, punk and ska harbored revolutionary voices of disenfranchised peoples. In 1978, reggae group Steel Pulse performed “Ku Klux Klan” live on British TV in white hoods, a watershed moment for anchoring the issue at home. The riots of 1981 exposed tensions within multicultural Britain, but at the time it was white groups like the Clash who took the fight to people’s record players. That summer, the Specials hit No. 1 with “Ghost Town,” describing the desiccated state of the country and how their mixed-race band could no longer perform due to trouble from the far-right National Front. In ’84, “fast chat” pioneer Smiley Culture had a hit with “Police Officer,” describing racial profiling with enough of a smile to be palatable to white audiences. (The star died of a stab wound in 2011, sustained while police searched his home in England — an incident officially ruled a suicide but shrouded in mystery to this day.) Yet these were isolated outcries. With no equivalent to Public Enemy or N.W.A, and no cataclysmic event like the Rodney King riots to birth a timely crossover like The Chronic, British rap took a slow creep to prominence.
Instead, MCs made their mark through dance music, with feet firmly in the Caribbean community. Notting Hill Carnival became the place to experience the future via dubplate; from there, DJs in the 1990s spinning jungle, hardcore, dancehall and UKG in clubs became the foil for MCs to make their mark. International stars like the Prodigy and Massive Attack (formerly the Wild Bunch) were all over the radio, helping acclimatize the mainstream to the sound of the streets. By the new millennium, a delayed breakout moment was occurring, with a multitude of styles from the underground about to go supernova.
“Let’s Push Things Forward”
Original Pirate Material (2002)
Boy in da Corner (2003)
“Pow! (Forward)” (2004)
The Bug feat. Flowdan & Killa P
London Zoo (2008)
Skepta feat. JME
“That’s Not Me”
Dave & AJ Tracey
Thiago Silva (2016)