The Evolution of U.K. Rap

A listening guide and playlist parsing the mutations and subdivisions of MC-led British music.

by

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.

For starters, no one could align on a name. In 2004, scene linchpin Wiley — more on him later — was decrying lazy categorization, as the press (and, to an extent, fans) couldn’t make up their minds. UK Garage (UKG), Eski, Grime, 2step, Urban: the nomenclature wasn’t fixed, but the U.K. was undoubtedly stepping out of the long shadow cast by American hip-hop.

Similar struggles exist on both sides of the Atlantic: against repression, state violence, ingrained dismissal of black and brown art...

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.

Flash-forward to Stormzy performing at the BRIT Awards 2018, delivering a livid freestyle about the black and brown bodies that burned alive in London’s Grenfell Tower under the Tory government’s uncaring eye, and British rap was the dominant center of the country’s cultural and political conversation. For so long undervalued, the dazzlingly inventive MCs who uphold it are undeniable now, having gone from mutation to mutation and strength to strength.

We have gathered the history of the sound in a brand-new playlist entitled UK Rap Classics. But we can’t speak about them all, much as we’d love to. So with apologies to Derek B, P Money, Akala, Krept & Konan, Jammer, Chronik, Headie One, Devlin, Heartless Crew, Smoke Boys, Wretch 32, Ghetts, Ms Banks, Chip, Meridian Dan, Griminal, Frisco, Skengdo & AM, J Hus, Skinnyman, Sway, Tricky, Little Simz, Big Zuu, Ty, Klashnekoff, Southside Allstars, Nines, Stefflon Don, So Solid Crew and many others, here are seven key tracks and 14 more that mark the evolutionary steps of MCs in the 21st century.

The Streets
“Let’s Push Things Forward”
Original Pirate Material (2002)

Next Steps:
Roots Manuva: “Witness (1 Hope)”
Ms. Dynamite, Sticky: “Booo”

The Streets are buried so deep in British psyche, it’s hard to recall a time they were just an idea in Mike Skinner’s head. “Has It Come to This?” cracked the pop charts, but “Let’s Push Things Forward” stands as the manifesto. It is at once an echo of the ’80s ska explosion, a road map of references — Reebok Classics, the London Underground, UKG label Nice ‘N’ Ripe — and home to lines that broke from American tradition: most tellingly, “’round here we say birds not bitches.” Original Pirate Material was easily the most impactful debut in the burgeoning U.K. sound. Until…

Dizzee Rascal 
“Sittin’ Here”
Boy in da Corner (2003)

Next Steps:
Wiley: “Wot Do U Call It?”
Kano: “Ps & Qs”

… Dizzee Rascal. Think of Boy in da Corner as the British equivalent of Illmatic: a preternaturally skilled teen MC surveying the world around him, concluding that it’s fucked and conspiring to rule it anyway. It’s tough to pick a definitive track from the early days of grime. Kano, later a star of Top Boy, had a slew of anthems. Wiley is the sound’s Founding Farda, and would be livid at his protégée-turned-rival getting the nod. Yet Dizzee was truly the one who made the world pay attention, chronicling cycles of despondency over alien instrumentals that reflected the alienation of inner-city high-rise life. Britain had a raw and real new movement.

Lethal Bizzle
“Pow! (Forward)” (2004)

Next Steps:
Ruff Sqwad: “Xtra”
Roll Deep: “When I’m ’Ere”

Set over Dexplicit’s stop-start “Forward Riddim,” Bizzle’s “Pow!” was a turning point for grime as a political punching bag, getting banned from the airwaves and in clubs. Form 696, a document used by the London Metropolitan Police to break up non-white parties, was conceived partly in a response to this. It didn’t stop “Pow!” being chanted in London during anti-government protests circa 2010 though, or becoming one of grime’s definitive anthems. It’s also generally emblematic of posse cuts at the time, with many MCs vying for space — taking the blistering energy and rewind-worthy bars of pirate radio sessions and parlaying them onto record. You could see Lethal Bizzle as something of a Ludacris figure, a crowd favorite never truly taken seriously by the critics. If so, this is his “Move Bitch” — carnage guaranteed, every time.

The Bug feat. Flowdan & Killa P
“Skeng”
London Zoo (2008)

Next Steps:
D Double E: “Street Fighter Riddim”
Tempa T: “Next Hype” 

By the late ’00s, dubstep was in its ascendency and grime stars were usually found in the charts as rent-a-cred fodder for pop stars. To counter that, Kevin Martin (the Bug) had the idea of alloying the gravel-pit enunciation of his favorite MCs, Roll Deep’s Flowdan and Killa P, to a subwoofer wobbler. “Skeng” was one of the first grime-dubstep hybrids that truly gelled, as well as a needed return to Jamaican toasting roots. Hearing the gold-toothed and imperious Flowdan spitting “you don’t wanna see me get evil” was no mere taunt. With a clever numerical theme that felt like a clock ticking down to doomsday, this is one of the U.K. underground’s most notoriously cold-blooded anthems, a black hole on black wax.

Skepta feat. JME
“That’s Not Me”
Konnichiwa (2016)

Next Steps:
Mumdance feat. Novelist: “Take Time”
Sir Spyro feat. Teddy Bruckshot, Lady Chann & Killa P: “Topper Top”

A comeback for the ages, “That’s Not Me” was a springboard for Boy Better Know to go from underground heroes to festival headliners within months. After time in the weeds, MCs were fed up. Skepta had himself succumbed to hokey crossover attempts, making his willingness to disown his recent history and get back to basics so powerful. Meridian Dan’s “German Whip” had cracked the door open for pure grime to rule again, but the Adenuga brothers kicked it in, revitalizing the sound as a phenomenon that could hold its own on the world stage. With a video that cost just 80 pounds, and with JME acting as a wickedly clever foil to Big Smoke, grime’s second imperial phase began here.

Dave & AJ Tracey
“Thiago Silva”
Thiago Silva (2016)

Next Steps:
Lady Leshurr: “Queen’s Speech 4”
Stormzy: “Shut Up”

By the mid-2010s, a new generation of MCs were in full flow. The potential of distributing freestyles via YouTube was being latched onto with vigor: Lady Leshurr captured hearts with a barrage of clip art and catchphrases and, before be became a generational icon, Stormzy was shooting DIY videos with his mom as co-star. Yet “Thiago Silva” wins out on swagger alone. It is a durable linkup between two rising stars that showed how U.K. rap could keep the winsome references (from Nando’s to J.K. Rowling) but project ambition beyond their horizons. In 2019, AJ Tracey fronted the first UKG million-seller in 20 years; meanwhile, Dave, having earned a Drake co-sign and a stint in the reborn Top Boy, won the Mercury Prize for his incisive and highly political debut album, Psychodrama. Brazilian soccer star Thiago Silva even got back to them with approval of their viral anthem, confirmation of grime’s international appeal.

Unknown T
“Homerton B” (2018)

Next Steps:
67: “Lets Lurk”
SL, Pa Salieu: “Hit the Block”

Unknown T’s diamond-cut syllables and depth-charge bass denotation helped lift U.K. drill onto Notting Hill Carnival sound systems and the singles charts: “Homerton B” was a ubiquitous street anthem heard all of summer 2018. But as gang-centered drillers have reintroduced the fear factor, the police have ramped up their attention, curtailing the rise of many promising stars: Headie One is in the pen, Skengdo & AM are banned from performing live in certain London districts for fear of inciting turf war, and Unknown T spent seven months with a murder charge pinned to him before his exoneration in February. It’s proof that U.K. drill is no joke — nor is the U.K.’s distinct, evolved and vital underground-gone-overground scene as a whole.

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