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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Jonathan Kanengoni

‘Hip-hop is rooted in rebellion’ - as the genre turns 50, UK artists hail our own unique and powerful scene

Hip-hop, according to Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, “changed the world”. And this month marks a significant milestone for one of the most pivotal scenes in music history, as the genre celebrates its 50th anniversary.

To mark the moment, the BBC will air a special series about the history and importance of the genre, as well as its influence in the UK, hosted by DJ Trevor Nelson.

Filmed in the iconic surroundings of Maida Vale recording studios, which have hosted everyone from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin, 1Xtra’s Nelson invited a genre-spanning selection of UK rap talent to take up a throne on The Rap Roundtable. The show features Dizzee Rascal, Kenny Allstar, Avelino, Harry Pinero So Solid Crew’s Lisa Maffia, Ms Banks, Poet, Big Narstie and Kojey Radical, along with radio presenter Yinka Bokinni.

The Standard was given an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the far-reaching conversations, which spanned three separate filmed panels and explored a wide-reaching set of topics; ranging from the distinct qualities that set apart the UK scene from hip-hop’s US origins, to highlighting the enormous influence of rap titans like Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, and Missy Elliott on contemporary rap.

As the upcoming documentary charts, the genre first emerged in the Bronx when the Jamaican-American DJ Clive Campbell – better known by his stage name DJ Kool Herc – began using turntables to loop the instrumental breaks from hit singles, and spinning them out into extended, percussive versions. MCs and dancers soon began flocking to the emerging scene, with graffiti, fashion, dance, and music all informing what we now know as hip-hop.

By the late Seventies, hip-hop was shaping up into a full-blown phenomenon. Fatback Band’s King Tim III is widely regarded as the first commercial hip-hop record, while Sugar Hill Gang’s’s Chic-sampling Rapper’s Delight broke through into the airwaves and exposed the genre to a much wider audience.

“Black folks couldn’t speak out – and that’s why hip-hop was so important, because it became our main voice,” Chuck D told the Standard earlier this year. “Any other voice would get you killed. This music was a beautiful art form, it brought grace and dignity – and it changed the world.”

Though the roundtable explores the vast impact of US hip-hop, many guests also draw fascinating comparisons between scenes on both sides of the Atlantic, and pinpoint grime as an influential moment where the UK rap scene split from its American reference points. As Nelson points out, Dizzee Rascal winning the Mercury Prize with his 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner marked a real turning point, in part paving the way for the enormous success of grime-influenced stars like Skepta and Stormzy years on.

“The UK didn’t find itself in terms of hip-hop until grime stamped itself as its own genre that had to be linked to hip-hop,” London rapper Kojey Radical tells me after filming, “because of the nature of it being DIY and coming from black music”.

Ahead of grime, though, came the more polished, garage-influenced sound of groups like So Solid Crew. “We took a lot of melody from [US] rap, which was really important in making us who we are,” says the group’s Lisa Maffia, who pinpoints the US rapper Eve as a crucial influence. “Coming in as the only female in So Solid alone was tough, and it was what I needed, as an artist,” she says. “It was what created me as Lisa Maffia; it was really important for me, because it was a male dominated industry, so I had to fight for my way to be recognised.”

(L-R: Big Narstie, Ms Banks, Poet) (PR Handout/BBC)

“I still bang out most of their old school tunes in the gym now!” says radio presenter and fellow panellist Yinka Bokinni, talking about So Solid Crew. “They sort of made me feel like… this feels like a man’s world, but we [women] exist, and we do it well.”

Then, of course, grime appeared in the UK in the early-to-mid Noughties, with the emergence of pirate radio stations like Rinse FM and Déjà Vu creating platforms which would promote artistsnow seen as the pioneers of the genre, including Dizzee Rascal, Kano, and Lethal Bizzle.

“Kano was the hardest one rapping,” Kojey says. “He was almost like an urban legend; he was like the Loch Ness monster, or the bogey man. You have all your favourite spitters talk about their favourite rappers and pause when it comes to Kano, and go, oh but that brother K, he’s different.”

Picking apart the distinct components of UK rap as it continued to develop, Kojey points to a DIY ethos that coincided with the internet throwing everything open when it came to influences and exposure. By around 2006, new avenues like SB.TV were giving emerging rappers a new opportunity to reach thousands of ears, and played a crucial role in giving early breaks to the likes of Dave, Stormzy, and Boy Better Know; the grime collective which includes Skepta, JME, and Wiley.

“I’ve seen everyone, from as early as their first SB.TV freestyles,” Kojey says. “It’s a different perspective for me because it’s nice to look around and see how everyone’s developed, see what everybody’s blossoming into. Bro, I was there when Little Simz was 11 and winning the Battle of the Boroughs in Hackney Empire. To see Little Simz headlining festival after festival, on TV screens, doing everything under the sun whether it’s clothes, or books, or whatever, that’s insane to me. I’ve seen this person since they were a literal child go through the scene. Everyone’s growing into their artistry, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

“The best parts of hip-hop come from the inner sense of just trying to make it, and the freedom of experimentation because of how low expectation is,” he continues. “You can experiment as much as you want when you know that nobody’s expecting you to drop five hits a year, and get onto the charts this many times, or sell this many records.”

UK hip-hop has since developed into a new sound, one that takes influence from drill music and Afrobeats, and the next generation of rappers are breaking into international markets, driving the hip-hop scene as a whole, rather than just countrywide. Dave and Central Cee’s Sprinter has become the latest example of how UK hip-hop is competing with US hip-hop in international markets, and it boasts the biggest number of streams ever within a week for a UK rap song.

Without a doubt, rap is one of the most innovative and popular genres in contemporary music; in 2019, Stormzy stormed Glastonbury with one of the greatest headline shows in recent memory, while US rapper Kendrick Lamar brought equal levels of experimentation to the table with his theatre-inspired 2022 Pyramid show. By 2021, the popularity of hip-hop and rap in the UK had increased six-fold from 1999, with the genres accounting for over a fifth of singles consumed, according to Official Charts Company.

(L-R: Yinka Bokinni, Kojey Radical, Lisa Maffia, Trevor Nelson) (PR Handout/BBC)

“When Sprinter came out I was in South America, and I heard it playing every day, fresh from the day it dropped. [That would be] unheard of five years ago, when there were less musical avenues,” Kojey says.

In looking back at the journey to rap’s current dominance, Kojey pinpoints early moments where pioneers spoke up, whether it’s OutKast declaring “the South has something to say” at the 1995 Source Awards, to Jay-Z’s defiant appearance as Glastonbury’s first rap headliner in 2008. In the lead-up to the now historic show, he had been dismissed by Noel Gallagher; “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury,” he said. “It’s wrong." Jay responded by opening his landmark set with a mocking cover of Oasis’ Wonderwall.

“Hip-hop in its essence is rooted in rebellion,” Kojey says.”When you’re talking about your own circumstances or surroundings and wanting to break free, a lot of that is rebellion. Occupying spaces that weren’t necessarily designed or initially meant for us, to create these big shockwaves. Prior to that moment I’m pretty sure people would’ve considered Glastonbury to be a white festival,” he says.

Kojey is optimistic about the future of the genre, but also urges a need to stay true to the original essence of hip-hop as it becomes more and more commercially viable.

“The problem with music is… it’s almost like the door’s too open,” he says. “Put it like this, if I’m on the TV, and I say something smart about neuroscience, just one smart thing… they’re not going to give me a PhD. But you can be on whatever show in the world, and say one thing that rhymes, and when you come out they will stick a mic in your face with an engineer, in order to capitalise on this moment and this hype; like, let’s just make a song. It does diminish the artistry of people who spend a long time working on their craft.

“So as much as it is a good time to be involved in this scene and grow, we always have to ask people about the intentions of why they’re making music,” he concludes. “Fifty years on, we’re still celebrating this thing that we made by ourselves, so it’s definitely important to us. We need to keep protecting it so that in another 50 years we can celebrate it with the same vigour and pride that we have now.”

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