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In the face of it's leading contemporaries, where does British hip hop rank on the global scale and what are the causes of it's set-backs?

Hip Hop is truly a global phenomenon. Its humble origins lie in the alienated and forgotten spaces of the South Bronx ghettos in the early 70s when magazine editors and record producers dismissed the craze as an insignificant passing fad. It’s subsequent meteoric rise and takeover of the global music market is yet to be matched by any other genre. From the favelas of Rio, the shanty towns of Johannesburg to the bars and clubs of Bangkok, hip hop’s many facets, from culture to corporation, have been embraced and appropriated. However, as the US shadow still looms large over the scene, many regional scenes, such as the British one, have struggled to find and gain recognition for their own unique hip hop identity.

When the youth of Britain first heard Sugarhill Gang’s global hit “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, they were quick to embrace all elements of the hip hop culture. When speaking to B-boys and B-girls from back in those days, it would seem that those early times were all about making London sound, move and look just like the south Bronx.  Max was an early breaker and later a prolific writer with the NonStop Artists. Going by the name Cane, he and his crew, inspired by the already cult film Style Wars and the now legendary volume of photography “Subway Art” aimed to cover the train carriages in Graf part of an overarching aim to “bomb [graffiti] every train on the Underground” and “make London look just like New York.”  This was no easy task; British Transport Police removed the graffiti much faster than their New York counterparts and subsequently, Max rarely saw his pieces after a quick sneaky photograph in an abandoned train yard.

Nonetheless, despite these difficulties, Max’s crew recalls how quickly the culture took hold. “By the early 80’s, everyone I knew either was a breaker, rapper, DJ, or writer”.

The year that “Rapper’s Delight” was unleashed on Britain’s youth was the same year Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory for the conservatives, beginning an 11-year term that was characterised by hard line economic policies that affected the poor most brutally. By 1982, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five unleashed the seminal track “The Message,” the lines “You grow in the ghetto, living second rate/ And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate” seemed to be chillingly relevant. The miner’s strikes and the Brixton uprisings were two extreme manifestations of the growing discontent with the ruling order that prevailed amongst the underprivileged of Thatcher’s Britain. Maggie, adept at whipping up nationalist impulses to win votes, also inadvertently highlighted how irrelevant this ‘nation’ was to large sectors of British society. Just as the particular circumstances of the black poor in post-civil rights New York contributed to the birth of hip hop there, it is no coincidence that Britain’s embrace of hip hop came at a time where the policies of the ruling forces seemed particularly out of step with the less privileged of society. Chips from Cash Crew, a collective that enjoyed success in the mid 80s, describes this tension as the obvious breeding ground for hip hop expression: “You know when things are compressed like that, things have got to explode in one way or another. So it’s very extreme, like the art work going on in the yards, risking life and liberty to throw some shit up, you know, extreme expression.”

However, it took a while for this ‘extreme expression’ to go much further than recreation. Some of Max’s fondest memories were of the notorious ‘Train Jams’ which took place on the London Underground in the mid 80s. Members of the tight-knit London hip hop community at this time would meet at a pre-arranged tube station and effectively take over a train carriage “When we set off we selected a near empty carriage away from the driver. On entering the carriage we removed the lights (you could in those days) to create a darker more suitable environment. The only light now came from the platform. Several people had music boxes playing funk, rap and breaks. The darkness, the music, the people, the graffing, it was a wonderful experience.” While the train jams took place on the London Underground, for the party-goers the soundtrack was for the most part US based:  “We listened to artists like Kool Moe Dee, James Brown, LL Cool J, as well electro, like Kraftwerk.”

It is no surprise then that the first British rapper to achieve pop success, Derek B, rapped with an American accent and flow. While this aided his commercial success, both in the UK and in the States, as British hip hop matured and attempted to become more comfortable with its unique identity, this homage to New York was seen as detrimental to the British scene.  However, Derek B’s success was the basis of the hugely significant Music of Life Label, established in 1986 by Simon Harris. The label, the first British hip hop label, went on to sign some of the most prolific names in the hip hop scene including Hijack, the Demon Boyz, Hardnoise (later Son of Noise) and MC Duke. The artists on the label drew on a variety of specifically UK influences and contributed greatly to the development of British hip hop’s unique sound.

Another key gatekeeper in the development of the British Hip Hop scene was Tim Westwood. His 1987 BBC documentary on the hip hop scene Bad Meaning Good, the UK’s answer to Style Wars, highlighted the eclectic musical influences that characterised Britain’s relationship with hip hop. The film included performances and interviews with Cookie Crew, a female ‘hip-house’ duo and the heavily reggae influenced London Posse. In one scene in the back of Westwood’s car, Bionic from London Posse talks about his unique style of rapping: “Number one, I do it in my own style, I was a reggae MC before so I still chat reggae lyrics but in a Yardie accent and I use my own cockney accent, I don’t use an American accent or nuttin’, that’s what’s keeping English people back, rapping in American accents.” Bionic’s dilemma - the plethora of influences available to him and the need to create a ‘London Posse sound’ - would be central to the way that hip hop developed in the next few years.

Music of Life artist Hijack from Brixton faced similar dilemmas. When Tim Westwood played their 1989 single "Hold No Hostage/Doomsday of Rap" on his Capital radio show it became an underground hit across Europe, bringing them to the attention of West Coast rapper Ice T. Ice T signed the group to his own Rhyme Syndicate Records label, and they recorded and released the single “The Badman is Robbin.” They recorded their first album “The Horns of Jericho” around the same time but ironically, the hallmarks that had captured the attention of Ice T and their contemporaries in Britain – their Public Enemy inspired ‘Britcore’ style and British accents – were deemed unpalatable to US audiences by Warner Brothers and their album was never released stateside. Conversely, the example of Monie Love, a female rapper from Battersea, shows how far rapping in an American accent could get you. Taken under Queen Latifah’s wing, she enjoyed international acclaim and became a member of one of hip hop’s best loved posses – the Native Tongues collective.

The experience that Hijack faced raises many issues around British identity in hip hop. As the birthplace of and largest market for hip hop in the world, success in the US is understandably a measure of success. However, this relationship with the US put British artists, both then and to this day, in a catch 22 situation. Anything that is deemed to be aping America is seen by those at home as lacking ambition, ‘holding the scene back,’ and superfluous and second-rate by those abroad. Yet attempting to find a new path or style is equally problematic in the often elitist world of hip hop. Some US hip hop commentators think that British artists simply shouldn’t bother. “When rappers try to project ‘hardness’ in a British accent, it can sound real forced and false to American ears” claims Jeff Mao, a columnist for American hip hop magazine XXL.

It is hardly surprising that hip hop in the UK sounds foreign to US markets, and it's not just about the flow or accent. Chips, from Cash Crew, a group who enjoyed success in the mid to late 80s, believes that the unique racial ‘mixes’ that are apparent in British culture are a direct influence on the unique hip hop sound that was generated here, “A Black Person in Britain is a very unique being compared with other black identities in the world. For one thing, we’re still relatively new here, maybe 2 generations deep. So because of that, you know, we do have our sound over here.”

Being unique and going against the grain, as Chips puts it, the “fuck you I’m spinning on my head” philosophy is as relevant now as it was under the Conservative era. “We still have a problem with the British identity,” says Chips “I don’t care, Union Jack, it don’t wash, you can have Union Jack bandanas all of that, but for me I cannot associate with the Union Jack or the St. George cross. Symbolism, I believe, carries energy and I just think that other people here cannot really relate to the official symbols of Britain.”  While Chuck D’s definition of hip hop as “black people’s creativity” is still relevant, as hip hop has grown into a global force, it has crossed racial and cultural boundaries to forge links between all youth that view themselves as inhabiting the margins of society.

As Rakim once said “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at,” and in Britain no one more demonstrates the truth of Rakim’s lyric than the figure of Tim Westwood. Let down by the school system, who failed to recognise his dyslexia in his formative years, he told a reporter for The Observer in 2004, “I was worthless, man. I was clueless at work and poor at sports. My dad would have been happy had I become a butcher.” In an era that the working class economic struggle was seen as a failure, his identification with early hip hop which spoke of life on the margins and being brought up second rate is no less genuine than any other inner city youth. But Westwood was white; he was the son of a Bishop, went to fee-paying school and was born in the seaside town of Lowestoft in Suffolk.

However, it is testament to his passion and loyalty to the art form of hip hop that he has become a well-respected and legendary figure in the history of British hip hop, albeit hated for his phoney US, gangster drawl. Max remembers Tim as “just a regular ordinary guy who liked hip hop,” and that is essentially his biggest strength. A 50-Year-old man, his use of language, the way he dresses and his sheer enthusiasm for every tune he plays are more akin to a 15-year-old boy. For Westwood, hip hop is more play-acting than social responsibility: “This is show business, people don’t want to listen to the show and it be mad fucking straight. It’s a hip hop show, they want some realness in there.”

Be that as it may, his support of the British scene in the early days seems out of step with his more recent concentration on the commercial side of US rap which many claim glorifies guns and gangs. Tim is adamant about the limitations of hip hop, both as a negative and positive force - “the world made hip hop, hip hop didn’t make the world” - and also about the limitations on his power to reverse the stagnation of the UK hip hop scene: “I just think a lot of artists out there haven’t been making hit records. If you wanna get big and elevate the scene, you’ve got to make hit records.”

So is Westwood just another suburban white kid appropriating hip hop for his own benefit? Or is his lack of sentimentality toward the British scene just being ‘real’? DJ Supreme, from Hijack, who was part of the golden age of UK hip hop, agrees with Westwood: “Hip hop is not a charity business. I believe you will always find your way through once you can prove you can stand on your own two feet as an artist. Right now, UK hip hop hasn't got a leg to stand on and no one’s going to hand out wheel chairs to support it. Until the right group/artist comes along with the winning sound, image and show and hits it big, no one’s going to pay the UK any attention.”

Chips from Cash Crew disagrees. Having spent a lot of time in France observing the hugely successful hip hop scene, he became increasingly disillusioned with the British scene. “I’ll be honest with you, in comparison with other countries in the world, hip hop doesn’t really live in this country.” It’s not hard to see why Chips might admire the French scene. The French hip hop scene, the second largest hip hop market in the world, really exploded around 1996, the same time that they established their first national hip hop radio station, SkyRock which became the engine of the hip hop scene, spawning many gold-selling artists. This, coupled with French government’s policies to uphold the French language, dictating that 40% of all music played on radio stations must be in the French language, resulted in a hip hop scene where even US artists struggle to match the success of their French counterparts.

Almost 30 years after “Rappers Delight” and, despite the fact that the UK has given birth to a number of well-respected artists and nurtured many different styles that reference hip hop including Hip-House, Ragga, Trip Hop and Grime, no scene has as yet been a serious contender either at home or abroad for commercially successful US hip hop. Support by legal radio stations is undoubtedly one key to success. The birth of black music station 1xtra bolstered the profile of British rap considerably, giving a platform to artists such as Dizzee Rascal and The Streets, who went on to gain high record sales and critical acclaim.

When Sway, a relative unknown and unsigned artist won the MOBO award for Best Hip Hop Act in 2005, fighting off competition from 50 cent and The Game, he dismissed claims that homegrown hip hop was not being supported by radio stations.  In an industry driven by big money, “if Britain had a product that’s worthy of being exploited, there would be people that want to exploit it for financial gain,” he claimed.

So what way forward for British hip hop? While artists like Ty, Jehst, Lewis Parker and Skinnyman provide diversity and patiently produce high quality music to a loyal fan base, the scene does not seem to have progressed enough to create sufficient interest anywhere else. “It doesn’t look good. The problem with the scene over here is that people are still tripping over the same stone. There is no link with the foundations, so that the new talent can be guided what not to be, the young are making the same mistakes. There is less opportunity now,” says Chips. Providing more opportunity for artists such as in the French hip hop scene is surely where the future is. The exposure and support given to home-grown artists has elevated it to such a degree that DJ Supreme thinks that this is where the future for British rap is at: “Hope isn't all lost for UK hip hop. There is another approach - get signed by a German or French label where 'real' hip hop has a large share of the commercial market. If you're good enough they'll take you in. You might see this as jumping ship, but I'd say your damn right!”

1st November 2007

The Rise and Tribulations of British Hip Hop
By Jemma Desai