Some have argued that UK hip-hop is in a strong position right now. Tinie Tempah’s ‘Disc-Overy’ has gone platinum, the likes of N Dubz and Chipmonk have scored number 1s, and the door still appears to be open to the underground for those willing to crossover. But really, this is pop music. A fair amount of digging still needs to be done for those looking for a bit of substance to their UK rap, and it doesn’t look like the arrival of
recent albums from Jehst or Roots Manuva is going to change that. So what’s the future for those of the ‘lost generation’ of UK hip-hop that appeared so promisingly at the turn of the century?
From its arrival on these shores in the mid ‘80s until the latter part of the ‘90s, hip-hop was still very much an American’s game. Acts like Rodney P and his cohorts in London Posse may have chosen to rhyme in the non-rhotic tones of the capital, but on the whole the genre was concerned with aping those across the water. A sprinkling into the mix of the reggae flavours that had been prevalent in British music since the ‘60s brought a fresher, more unique hip- hop sound to these shores, but the accents and content still remained stateside.
It wasn’t until the mid ‘90s, in what could be considered as the dawning of the second age of UK hip-hop, that the real originality began to emerge. Will Ashton’s Big Dada imprint was the source of much of this activity, and the likes of Roots Manuva, Luke Vibert, and Juice Aleem all passing through its doors in the following years. From the turn of the millennium and into the 2000s, underground British hip-hop hit its stride. Jehst had the beats and the intelligent wordplay, Klashnekoff had the bangers and the swagger, Skinnyman was the veteran schooling all with an array of tight flows (and one solitary album masterpiece), and Roots Manuva had all of the above and a little bit of something different besides.
An established British flavour – largely drawing on the mid ’90s production style of New York counterparts DJ Premier, Pete Rock, RZA and the like – was in place, just in time to see a diffraction of the underground into the next phase of UK hip-hop. Much of this was centred on what became known as ‘grime’, a ferocious and hard-hitting style that evolved from a heady mix of British underground styles – jungle, drum & bass, garage and hip-hop among them. Its leaders – most notably the indomitable producer, emcee and all round godfather Wiley – created a uniquely British sound, largely unaffected by American styles at the time (the twin dynasties of Timberland and The Neptunes were busy transforming hip-hop in the states), and one that appeared at the time to be destined to remain underground. The release of Dizzee Rascal’s debut ‘Boy in da Corner’ changed that as it scooped the Mercury Music Prize in 2003. The floodgates opened, and many artists that had cut their teeth on the unforgiving grime circuit went pop and hit the charts; Roll Deep, Kano, Lethal Bizzle, and most recently Tinchy Stryder among them.
So what’s the future for UK hip-hop? Recently we’ve seen a diffraction of the old guard: Foreign Beggers collaborations in the charts, Roots Manuva losing his edge down a dark alley of half-baked dancehall rap etc.
The new generation that broke through piggybacking on the brief wave of grime crossover success, aesthetically mimicked their American counterparts while simultaneously being repackaged as a fresh British invasion (no amount of references to Scunthorpe in a tune will save you from the inevitable second album R&B/pop crossover collaboration with Ke$ha). Mirroring their stateside companions in style and production, the likes of Tinie Tempah, Strider, and post ‘Boy in da Corner’ Dizzee Rascall also show a similar lack of interest in the genre’s underground heartland.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is not a disgruntled moan about “the state of hip-hop today”, or some kind of lament for a nostalgic “golden era”, as hip-hop needs to evolve and mutate as much as any other musical style in order to avoid stagnation and repetition (plus ‘Pass Out’ is a certified banger). This is more a nod of appreciation in the direction of those on the UK underground still ploughing on with what they do best, neither swayed by a desire to crossover nor to dip their toe into the murky waters of other related genres.
The most recent example of this came in the form of the latest release from Jehst: one of UK hip-hop’s most consistent and tireless performers. ‘The Dragon of an Ordinary Family’ appeared on his own YNR imprint this June, and is 16 tracks of classic William Shields. Crisp, golden-era beats, Jehst’s scathing observations of society and sharp wordplay – it didn’t work commercially before, and it won’t in the future, but that’s not the point. Tracks like ‘England’ and ‘Starting Over’ provide a solid link to when UK hip-hop had taken just the right amount of American textures and had turned it into something new, and that’s what Jehst is about. So whether the next wave of UK hip-hop is dominated by a shined up version of vocal dubstep that’s unrecognisable from its genre roots, or something wholly different and fleeting in longevity, it’s comforting to know that artists like Jehst will still be flying the flag for those that crave the boom-bap.
Jehst recent album ‘The Dragon Of An Ordinary Family’ is available now on YNR Productions.