British hip hop
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|British hip hop|
|Stylistic origins||Hip hop, urban, garage house|
|Cultural origins||Early to mid-1980s, United Kingdom|
|Typical instruments||Turntable, synthesizer, rapping, drum machine, sampler, guitar|
|Derivative forms||Trip hop|
|Drum and bass, dubstep, grime, UK garage|
British hip hop is a genre of music, and a culture that covers a variety of styles of hip hop music made in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland (The United Kingdom). It is generally classified as one of a number of styles of urban music. British hip hop was originally influenced by the dub/toasting introduced to the United Kingdom by Jamaican migrants in the 1960s–70s, who eventually developed uniquely influenced rapping (or speed-toasting) in order to match the rhythm of the ever-increasing pace and aggression of Jamaican-influenced dub in the UK and to describe street/gang violence, similar to that in the US. UK rap, or speed-toasting, has also been heavily influenced by US hip-hop. British hip hop, particularly that originating from London, was commercially superseded by grime, however, after a post-millennium boom period, the genre remains a hotbed of talent.
In 2003, The Times described British hip hop's broad ranging approach:
"...'UK rap' is a broad sonic church, encompassing anything made in Britain by musicians informed or inspired by hip-hop's possibilities, whose music is a response to the same stimuli that gave birth to rap in New York in the mid-Seventies."
Following an initial flurry of interest from major record labels in the 1980s, by the early 1990s the scene had moved underground after record companies pulled back. In the mid-1990s hip hop in the UK started to experiment and diversify — often mutating into different genres entirely, such as trip hop and began making inroads into the US market. Knowledge, was England's first documented rapper (Black Echoes Magazine January 1980). While many rappers such as Derek B could not help but begin by imitating the styles and accents of their U.S. heroes, there were many who realised that to merely transpose U.S. forms would rob U.K. hip-hop of the ability to speak for a disenfranchised British constituency in the way that U.S. hip-hop so successfully spoke to, and for, its audience. Attempts were made by U.K. rappers to develop styles more obviously rooted in British linguistic practices — Rodney P of the London Posse deliberately chose a London accent — although many succeeded only in adopting a slurred hybrid that located the rap "somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean."
Early years: 1980s
As in the US, British hip hop emerged as a scene from graffiti and breakdancing, and then through to DJing and rapping live at parties and club nights, with its supporters predominantly listening to and influenced by American hip hop. Unlike in the US, the British hip hop scene was cross-racial from the beginning. This is due to the fact that various ethnic groups in Britain tend to not live in segregated areas, even in areas with a high percentage of non-white individuals. These places allow youth to share a cultural interchange with one another including musical genres such as hip hop.
Cross pollination through migrating West Indians helped develop a community interested in the music. The integration of sound systems represent a distinct British Caribbean influence. Sound systems allowed for powerful syncopated bass runs and the ability to bring this sound to different venues creating a club culture. There were, however, British tunes starting to appear — the first ever British hip hop tune released on record was actually "Christmas Rapping" by Dizzy Heights and released on Polydor in 1982, and not (contrary to popular belief) "London Bridge" by Newtrament released on Jive records in 1983, though prior to this British artists were rapping live or recording amateur tapes.
There were earlier pop records which dabbled with rap — such as Adam and the Ants' "Ant Rap" from the 1981 album Prince Charming and Wham's "Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do)" (Inner Vision, 1982) — but these are often considered pop appropriations of US rap.
Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals" (Charisma, 1982), featuring the New York hip hop group World's Famous Supreme Team, was the breakthrough hit that introduced the genre to Britain — as well as several other tracks from McLaren's Duck Rock album, which as a whole experimented with many musical styles from around the world. The album used techniques that have been established in hip hop in the United States, such as sampling and scratching. Over the next few years, more UK hip hop and electro music was released: Street Sounds Electro UK (Street Sounds, 1984), which was produced by Greg Wilson and featured an early appearance from MC Kermit, who later went on to form the Wilson produced Ruthless Rap Assassins; The Rapologists' "Kids Rap/Party Rap" (Billy Boy, 1984); DJ Richie Rich's "Don't Be Flash" (Spin Offs, 1985). Releases were still few and far between, and the scene remained predominantly underground.
Although record labels began to take note of the underground scene throughout the 1980s and 1990s, radio play and publicity were still a difficulty in helping the fledgling scene to grow, and the scene only managed to survive through word of mouth and the patronage of pirate radio stations around the country. Mainstream radio did play British hip hop on occasion, and instrumental in giving the scene wider recognition were DJs such as Dave Pearce, Tim Westwood, and John Peel.
British Hip Hop in the 1980s was not, of course, just confined to music and break-dancing, but also involved the spread of New York City-style Graffiti — another integral element of American Hip Hop culture — to London and other UK inner-city areas, both on walls and trains. The most direct influence was, however, on Graffiti painted in London Underground trains. Teenagers from inner London and other European cities who were into Electro-Hip Hop and had family and other links to New York City had by the mid-1980s taken up some of the traditions of subway Graffiti and exported them home, although legendary New York writers like Brim, Bio, and Futura had themselves played a significant role in establishing such links when they visited London in the early-to-mid-80s and 'put up pieces' on or near the west London end of the Metropolitan Line. Almost as significantly, just when Subway Graffiti was on the decline in New York City, some British teenagers who had spent time with family in Queens and the Bronx returned to London with a "mission" to Americanize the London Underground through painting New York City-style Graffiti on trains. These small groups of London 'train writers' adopted many of the styles and lifestyles of their New York City forebears, painting Graffiti train pieces and in general 'bombing' the system, but favoring only a few selected underground lines seen as most suitable for train Graffiti. Although on a substantially smaller scale than what had existed in New York City, Graffiti on London Underground trains became seen as enough of a problem by the mid-1980s to provoke the British Transport Police to establish its own Graffiti Squad modeled directly on and in consultation with that of the New York City MTA. At the same time, Graffiti art on London Undergroung trains generated some interest in the media and arts, leading to several art galleries putting on exhibitions of some of the art work (on canvass) of a few London train writers as well as TV documentaries on London Hip-Hop culture like the BBC's 'Bad Meaning Good', which included a section featuring interviews with London train writers and a few examples of their pieces.
Rappers of the 1980s
Kinetic Effect hit the scene in the early 1980s and was part of the rap outfit 2 the Top as D-Koy. In 1981, he teamed with Insane Macbeth to record "Borderin' Insanity," which was released in 1993, and had a limit 500 green vinyl availability. In 1995, Kinetic Effect recorded 'Man Bites Dog'/'The Effect of Fear' Their song "The Rhythm I Give ‘Em," made the UK Top 10 Hip Hop chart. Other notable rappers of this era include London Rhyme Syndicate, Cash Crew, Shogun MC, Hijack, MC Untouchable and Dee Lawal.
Building on Derek B's success, Music of Life went on to sign groups such as Hijack, the Demon Boyz, Hardnoise (later Son of Noise) and MC Duke. Their Hard as Hell series mixed homegrown talent like Thrashpack and the She Rockers with US artists such as Professor Griff. Music of Life was swiftly followed by other labels such as Mango Records and Kold Sweat. Another successful British hip-hop artist that emerged from Music of Life was Asher D, whose Jamaican origins showed through in his vocal style.
Moving away from its US roots, British hip hop started to develop its own sounds: acts like Hijack, II Tone Committee, Hardnoise, and Silver Bullet developed a fast and hardcore style, while many other acts took influences from elsewhere.
Caveman and Outlaw Posse developed a jazz influenced style, whilst MC Mell'O' mixed jazz and hardcore. London Posse, Black Radical Mk II And Dj Ruf Cut And Tuf C were more influenced by reggae and Disco whilst the Wee Papa Girl Rappers, Cookie Crew and Monie Love achieved chart success with more radio friendly hip hop.
Despite the chart success of some British-born hip hop artists — for example Slick Rick, Young MC and MF Doom, who all moved to the US at an early age — the majority of the scene was still underground and small scale.
In 1987 Positive Beat Records  came out of the hotbed of early UK Hip Hop, Ladbroke Grove, London with two releases. The label followed up the single 'Its Getting Rough' by 'Rocky X and D-D Dance'  with the bold and seminal 'Known 2 be Down' album. This featured Sir Drew (of KREW and Newtrament), MC Flex, She Rockers, Rapski and more of West London's finest rap talents.
In 1988 Rapski released 'The Connection'  on 12". The track was taken from 'Known 2 Be Down' and was an early example of mixing Hip Hop and Reggae in a (London) Style. More was to come in the early 1990s in the form of MC Reason aka Voice of Reason with 'Symbolise / HouseQuake' and Jonie D with 'Which Base / Ride On' which was performed live on ITV in 1991.
A mindset began to develop — typified by the Gunshot tune "No Sell Out" (1991), or Son of Noise's tune "Poor But Hardcore" (1992) — that distrusted successful artists who did not utilise the hardcore style most associated with the scene. Silver Bullet's chart success was applauded due to an uncompromisingly rapid delivery, whereas Derek B and Rebel MC were scorned when their more pop influenced styles earned them success. Such artists were often branded "sell outs".
Hip Hop Connection — the first major British hip hop magazine — was founded in 1989 and by the early 1990s the British hip hop scene seemed to be thriving. Not only was there a firm base of rappers in London — such as Blade, Black Radical Mk II and Overlord X — but many distinct scenes developed nationally.
Bristol's scene (specifically, the St. Pauls area) produced The Wild Bunch (later better known as Massive Attack), and major crews like the Scratch Perverts and Smith & Mighty, and later became the home of trip hop.
As the scene grew, it became less common for British rappers to imitate American accents (those that did were often ridiculed) and British rap became more assured of its identity.
Caveman signed to a major label — Profile Records, the label home of Run–D.M.C. — and Kold Sweat came into their own, discovering groups like The SL Troopers, Dynametrix, Unanimous Decision and Katch 22, whose "Diary of a Blackman" was banned by Radio 1 for using a sound clip from the British National Front.
In 1991, Hijack released The Horns of Jericho (Rhyme Syndicate Records, 1991) on Ice-T's recently formed Rhyme Syndicate label. The first single, "The Badman is Robbin'", was a top 40 hit and they went on sell more than 30,000 albums.
British hip hop was affected by the record industry clamping down on sampling, beginning to charge for the use of samples and prosecuting those who used them without permission. Larger US acts could afford to licence samples and still turn a profit for their labels, a luxury not available to many smaller UK artists.
One such victim of this was the Milton Keynes formed The Criminal Minds. Their first two releases in 1990 and 1991 were bogged down by potential sample clearance problems and thus were only ever made available in small numbers, yet rate amongst some of the finest pieces of UK hip hop recorded. As breakbeat hardcore music started to become very popular in the UK in the early to mid-1990s, The Criminal Minds turned their attention to making this type of music instead.
The predicted UK hip hop boom never achieved its predicted success. The Horns of Jericho (Rhyme Syndicate Records, 1991) was never released in the US, while record companies dropped artists, citing poor sales and lack of interest. Mango Records closed down, and the British public began to turn their affections to jungle, a fusion of breakbeat hardcore, hip hop and reggae.
In the period between 1992 and 1995 the only group to make much impact was The Brotherhood. They released their first record, simply called 'Brotherhood EP', as a low level white label in 1991 on Trevor Jackson's Bite It! label. They went on to release 'Wayz of the Wize' in 1992, then 'Untitled 93' and 'XXIII' in 1993, and 'Hip Hop N' Rap' in 1994, all on the Bite It! label. None of the records sold huge numbers but they managed to gain good air play on the Tim Westwood show and DJ 279's show on Choice FM, gaining them a solid following across the UK. Bite It! also released quality tracks from artists like Pauly Ryan and the Scientists of Sound.
As the old rappers left the scene, a new generation, raised on hip hop and electronica, was coming of age: The Herbaliser released Remedies (Ninja Tune, 1995), Mr. Scruff released the "Frolic EP Pt 1" (Pleasure Music, 1995), Mark B released "Any More Questions?" (Jazz Fudge, 1995) and DJ Skitz released "Where My Mind Is At/Blessed Be The Manor" (Ronin Records, 1996) featuring a young rapper called Roots Manuva on guest vocals who had previously released the single "Next Type of Motion" (Sound of Money, 1995).
Record labels that attempted to merge British hip hop style and sensibilities with modern dance music began to emerge, like Mark Rae's Grand Central (home to Aim, Rae & Christian, and Fingathing, among others) or DJ Vadim's Jazz Fudge. Increasingly, these artists managed to avoid the issues surrounding sampling by making music themselves (bands such as the Stereo MCs began playing instruments and sampling their own tunes) or searching out more obscure records where a most cost effective licensing deal could be arranged.
British hip hop began to go through a renaissance, its style shifting from the hardcore template of its youth and moving into more melodic territory.
The Brotherhood managed to break a major deal with Virgin Records in 1995. Continuing their relationship with Trevor Jackson as their producer, they released 3 singles ‘Alphabetical Response’, ‘One Shot’, ‘Punk Funk’ and their album Elementalz, all in 1996. Their work was met with critical acclaim and they toured solidly with American artists including Cypress Hill, The Roots and WuTang, but big record sales seemed to be very elusive and they parted ways with Virgin in 1998.
In late 1996 Will Ashon starts up his new Ninja Tune backed label Big Dada and plans a roster of performers. Bandit of Birmingham's MSI/Asylum crew informs Will of Juice Aleem as he is contemplating who can truly represent the ethos of the new label. Ashon is impressed with the demo and agrees to have Aleem on board. The results of this is the first release of the now iconic record label: in 1997 Juice features on Big Dada record label's first ever release, "Misanthropic", under the pseudonym "Alpha Prhyme", a collaboration between himself and Luke Vibert.
In 1998 Mark B and Blade released "Hitmen for Hire EP", which featured guest appearances from Lewis Parker and Mr Thing (of the Scratch Perverts). The EP was a success, and led to the successful 2001 album The Unknown, which despite never charting in the UK top 75, was still a top 100 success and an even more bigger success within its genre. Also, the album spawned the 2001 top 40 single "Ya Don't See the Signs", which was a remix by Feeder frontman Grant Nicholas, after the title track was a top 75 hit and Blade with Mark B supported Feeder. The same year, Bristol's Hombré label released the "2012 EP" from Aspects, a benchmark release within the movement. Roots Manuva, Blak Twang, Mud Family, Ti2bs, Task Force, Phi Life Cypher, MSI & Asylum, Jeep Beat Collective and Ty all came to the public's attention, while veteran acts Rodney P, Mike J, and MC Mell'O' returned to the scene.
A new generation of artists emerged following the turn of the century, including Jehst, Idyllic, Nicky Spesh, Bion, Whitecoat, Ricta, Foreign Beggars and Usmaan. At the same time a new style of electronic music emerging in the early 2000s, influenced by, UK Garage, Dancehall and Drum and bass. The new genre was dubbed grime (sometimes called eskibeat or sublow) and effectively superseded UK hip hop in both popularity and the mainstream conscious. Notable grime acts include Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Kano, Lethal Bizzle, Tinchy Stryder, Skepta, JME, Jammer, Ghetts and Devlin. During this period UK hip hop artists have also continued to emerge with N-Dubz, Sway DaSafo and Giggs establishing themselves in recent time. Grime music saw some early success in America with Wiley, Kano and Dizzee Rascal,all releasing music across the atlantic. The mid 2000s saw some controversy regarding the lyrical content in grime music. Records such as Pow! (Forward) (2005) by Lethal Bizzle have allegedly made numerous references to guns and subsequently been banned from receiving air play. According to leadership, hip-hop may often glorify gun culture and violence. Dizzee Rascal has spoken back, claiming that his existence and the music he made was “a problem for Anthony Blair.” However, there are British artists who argue that British hip-hop should not be lumped together with grime or American hip-hop and the various stigma attached to it.
The embrace of the "gangster style of hip-hop" has brought about criticism from political figures like David Blunkett, who worries that British hip-hop may perpetuate violence. British hip-hop, claims Roots Manuva, "is more healthy" than American hip-hop, and is about making the music than is it about exploiting wealth or hitting it rich.
Success followed The Streets' 2002 album Original Pirate Material, and he became one of the first of the new breed of British hip hop artists to gain respectable sales, though his verbal style resulted in him being shunned by many artists in the scene. Such success has caused a surge in media exposure of other British hip hop acts. Welsh rap group Goldie Lookin Chain also achieved chart success with their tongue-in-cheek take on hip-hop.
It was at this point that UK Hip-Hop splintered into two genres and ideologies. Key records such as Skinnyman's Council Estate of Mind, Jehst's Return of the Drifter and Klashnekoff's The Sagas Of... were released, cementing the reputations of the artists and opening up the floor for new artists to emerge. Labels Low Life Records, run by prominent political rapper Braintax, and Young N' Restless started and became the starting point for many.
At the same time, just as Garage was losing momentum, Grime was creating interest. Wiley's Treddin' on Thin Ice was a cornerstone of the genre, and one-time friend Dizzee Rascal won a Mercury Music Prize for his debut Boy in da Corner. From then on, grime artists were the only rappers for interested record labels, and UK Hip-Hop's buzz came to a halt.
A new generation of young socially conscious hip-hop musicians has emerged as a counter to the grime scene that many in the UK Hip Hop Scene perceive as commercial. These rappers strive to bring attention to both positivity and lyricism as well as the injustices of war, gentrification and racism, following in the tradition of conscious rappers such as Nas, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Amongst these artists who proudly define themselves as "Hip Hop" rather than "Grime" are the likes of Klashnekoff, Akala, Wackman, Swag Blanket and the Poisonous Poets. Perhaps the rapper with the biggest underground support not getting coverage by the mainstream media is rapper, political activist and poet Lowkey who has toured America and worked with notable acts such as Immortal Technique, Dead Prez and Chuck D of Public Enemy.
At the turn of the decade, Grime started to dominate the UK single and album charts. Acts such as N-Dubz, Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk emerged in 2009 to wide commercial success. Tinchy Stryder scored two number ones with songs Number 1 and Never Leave You and became the best-selling British solo artist of 2009. The following year continued the success of the previous, with acts like Professor Green and Tinie Tempah breaking through to even bigger commercial success and also critical appreciation. The debut album from Tinie Tempah called Disc-Overy went to number one in the UK album chart and was certified platinum on 1 March 2011. He also won a Brit Award for his number one single "Pass Out".
Despite the commercial dominance of Grime during this period, rapper Plan B found success with his 2010 Hip Hop and Soul fusion album The Defamation of Strickland Banks, followed by the soundtrack album Ill Manors in 2012, both of which peaked at number 1 in the UK Albums Chart.
Road rap (also known as UK Rap and British gangsta rap) is a genre of music that came to a fore as a backlash against the perceived commercialisation of grime in the late 2000s in London. Road rap retained the explicit depictions of violence and British gang culture found in some early grime music and combines it with a musical style more similar to American gangsta rap than the dance music influences of grime. The most famous exponents of this style include Krept and Konan, Sneakbo, Giggs, and K Koke. The road rap scene centres around mixtape releases and YouTube videos with some of the genres more popular acts getting mainstream recognition. The genre has been criticised for the relenteless nihilism and violence in its lyrics as well as its links to gangs and gun crime with many rappers serving prison sentences. In similar with grime, road rap has suffered from pre emptive policing with Giggs claiming that the Metropolitan Police have set out to deny him the opportunity to make a living from music having banned him from touring.
Backlash against commercialisation
Since Grime's post-millennial boom period coincided with UK Hip-Hop's, the eagerly anticipated commercial breakout of the latter did not come to fruition. Instead, acts such as Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah, Chip and Wretch 32 were signed to major labels and their traditional sound tweaked to fit a pop sensibility. However the lineage of these, and many UK rappers, is unquestionably grime rather than UK Hip-Hop.
There is a common belief within the underground hip hop community that true hip hop is music relevant primarily to the disenfranchised listeners, rather than the mass market. Because of the belief that mainstream acts are paid large sums of money by the major labels to make music tailored to the current mass market, these artists often face a backlash and accusations of 'selling out' from the underground community.
The growth of British hip hop was given a boost when in 2002, the BBC launched a digital radio station 1Xtra devoted to "new black music" including hip hop, R&B, UK garage, dancehall, Grime and drum and bass, however 1Xtra does not play exclusively British hip hop. The cable and satellite, Channel AKA (formerly Channel U) also has the profile of British hip hop and grime.
Women have contributed to hip hop's evolution in Britain from the beginning. The current British hip hop scene features strong women like Estelle, Baby Blue, Shystie, and Mercury prize winners Speech Debelle and Ms. Dynamite.
Women in hip hop often confront a large amount of sexist stereotyping. Recently, many female British hip hop artists who confront this stereotyping have become popular. Grime artist Lady Sovereign achieved success both in the UK and the US. Ms Dynamite (also known as Lady Dynamite), who released her first album in 2002, has become known for the political and social commentary in her music. Singer, songwriter, and rapper Estelle said of the difficult position of female rappers: “I think they get a tough ride because some of them don’t see themselves above and beyond the bullshit and no one’s really given them that breakbeat.”
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