English Eccentrics: The New Golden Age of UK Rap Individualists
It’s no secret that British rap is in rude health right now. Following the resurgence of grime through the second half of the 2010s – culminating in Stormzy’s triumphal Glastonbury headline set last year – and the rise of Afrobeats and drill, it’s omnipresent on pop radio, the charts, and multi-million-view videos. New generation MCs like J Hus, Jaykae, Dave, Ms Banks, Young T & Bugsey, Headie One, Slowthai and Aitch are household names, while grime originators like Wiley, Ghetts and Kano are still riding high too.
But these superstars are just the tip of an immense, and sometimes very strange iceberg. While grime, drill and the rest continue to provoke and innovate, some of the most interesting things are happening in the interzones between, or even completely away from, standard genres. There is an anything-goes experimentalism going on, a readiness to fuse anything with anything, but also - crucially - a sense of freedom for young, mainly black, artistes to try out roles outside what’s normally been allotted for them by the entertainment industry.
There are several things going on here. First, hip hop globally has been opening up to ever more extremity in its stars, whether in flamboyance or introspection. This is the age of Kanye, Drake, Cardi, Megan, Tyler, Kendrick – each radiating uniqueness – not to mention a legion of face-tattooed Soundcloud rap dredgers of the grim depths of human experience. Hip hop culture is steadily slipping out of the grip of alpha male icons, and diversifying radically as it does.
Second is the UK’s hybrid nature. Where in the USA the country and its African-American population is big enough to have huge regional hip hop scenes in many states and cities, Britain has always tended to more ebb and flow. Caribbean soundsystem culture, Britain’s own rave styles, and latterly West African sounds have always intermingled with US influences, so many people making hip hop style beats and rhymes ended up as something altogether different. Think Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, Nightmares on Wax, then the birth of drum’n’bass, garage and grime.
Grime and rap have long since stopped being just (literal) urban genres: there’s a reason that the footage of a young rural white kid rapping along to Dave at Glastonbury caught the public imagination last year. And this hybridisation will only keep going as Britain diversifies further: among current stars, Birmingham’s Jaykae is of English, Irish, Pakistani, Afghan and Egyptian heritage, and West London’s Big Zuu is Sierra Leonean-Lebanese. Throw the huge range of regional accents within a relatively small island into the mix – as well as Birmingham, places like Manchester and Nottingham are starting to chip away at London’s dominance – and further innovation is inevitable.
Finally, Britain genuinely does love an eccentric. Previously the country’s most successful rappers (or rap-adjacent vocalists) have been one-offs like Tricky, Roots Manuva, Mike Skinner (The Streets), and grime’s had its share of oddballs from Wiley on down. And in fact these fit into a long and deep tradition of mouthy, wordy provocateurs – “gobshites” as they have it in the North of England – from John Lennon to Johnny Rotten, Ian Dury to Shaun Ryder, whose influence seeps through even in unexpected corners of hip hop culture.
Summing up all the talent out there is an impossible task, but to get you digging deeper, here’s a selection of ten of the best videos from recent months – and there’s a longer playlist at the end, taking in the last couple of years and including some bigger names. Be warned: this is hip hop culture and there is some spicy lyrical content to say the very least: but it’s also smart, deep, surreal and a whole lot more besides. We can’t promise the next Dizzee Rascal is here, but there’s a lot of joy to discover.
One of the most exciting aspects of the UK to watch is the influence of the currently electric young jazz scene. Big names already incorporating this include Little Simz and Kojey Radical. Even J Hus, one of the biggest names in street rap, has a deep jazz sophistication to his Afrobeats/hip hop fusion, thanks to his in house producer Jae5. And one of the most interesting new names on this front is Rarelyalways. Already known as a jazz bassist, having played alongside hip names like Kamaal Williams and Tomorrow’s Warriors, he’s now launching solo as a producer-rapper – with absolutely remarkable beats that bring his dense, conscious rhymes vividly to life.
A complete newcomer – before this single her only previous appearance has been a guest spot on Little Simz’z last EP – Alewya is an Ethiopian-Egyptian-British vocalist with a deep love for a range of underground sounds. Sweating is a classic in the making: a hymn to the sensuality of soundystems, and a clear marker of a talent to watch.
LORAINE JAMES/Le3 bLACK
Twenty-three-year-old Loraine James has made a huge splash in the world of abstract electronica – notably making leftfield music site The Quietus’s album of the year last year. But though her sounds are very often close to the Aphex Twin, Autechre or Kode 9, she also also refers to the sounds and words of fellow young black Londoners, whether referencing grime and rap sonically or, as here, working with uncompromising MCs. The electronica/rap crossover zone is definitely another one to watch closely, with another classic having emerged this year from Louis Cook with Brain Rays, and leftfield producers queuing up to work with young drill rappers.
The producer/vocalist GAIKA from Brixton, South London, has also crossed over with the international electronica world, releasing on the legendary WARP record, and making his upcoming EP with the Mexican NAAFI collective. His music touches on Afrobeats, dancehall and more, but always with a darker-than-dark, highly politicised, intensely poetic lyricism. He’s been prolific since 2015, but never scattershot: each work seems to build further towards a total vision, and it feels like we’ve only heard the beginning of it so far.
BAD WITH PHONES
Southeast Londoner and part time Berlin resident Bad With Phones is at the sensitive end of the spectrum – so much so he makes Drake look like Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Over a scattering of tracks over the past couple of years, he’s created an aesthetic all his own, with introspected lyricism half sung half talked over rolling beats and elegant melodies. A long, long way from champagne-popping aspirational rap values, on his recent Colors Studio home broadcast, he played an acoustic guitar and swigged cheap cornershop white wine from the bottle – and the performance was all the more powerful for the nonchalance.
From the sprawling South London district of Croydon, and cousin to UK rap’s current king Stormzy, Nadia rose burst onto the scene with the ebullient pop-dancehall-rap of the Highly Flammable EP in 2017, then went quiet thanks to industry wrangles. Now she’s back, though, and on the tracks she’s released so far this year clearly has sex on the brain to quite an intense degree. However she’s lost none of her one-step-ahead brilliance at wordplay, so where she goes next will be fascinating.
As a DJ and producer covering all the bases across the continuum of rave, dancehall and hip hop, and as an MC, solo or in the sprawling LEVELZ collective, the larger than life Chimpo embodies the seriousness and silliness of his hometown Manchester to an amazing degree. LEVELZ, after all, called themselves “Wu Tang Clan meets The Happy Mondays”. Surprisingly, though he’s been working for many years, Chimpo has only just released his debut solo album in HIA, and it’s both hilarious and a very serious musical undertaking. His LEVELZ crewmate Black Josh just dropped a bit of a classic in the MANNYFORNIA album, too.
“Barely five foot. Lesbian” reads the typically no nonsense Twitter bio for the nunchuck-swinging, mile-a-minute spitting new talent from the East Midlands town of Northampton (home also to Slowthai). From the moment she appeared, guesting for grime production legend Terror Danjah, she went in hard – belligerence and technical excellence coming from ever pore – but there’s an openness and sensitivity to FFSYTHO which makes her stand out even further and suggests enough complexity to make great works as she increasingly experiments across styles.
One of the lesser remarked on effects of the rise of UK rap has been its infiltration into rock festivals, where it has reached some of its biggest audiences; black artists from the cities presiding over mosh pits. And that, along with the emo/Soundcloud rap of the US, has inevitably created new fusions. Artists like BVDLVD and Bob Vylan are fusing trap with punk, metal and emo, but perhaps the most interesting is scarlxrd: formerly a bubbly, facile YouTuber, he became disenchanted with his very 21st century fame and after a faltering attempt at nu-metal, turned to a genuinely affecting kind of trap metal, which has built a huge following.
Lots of British rappers have been connecting with their African heritage with great creative results – witness most recently Big Zuu’s visit to his mother’s original homeland of Sierra Leone. But Magugu was Nigerian born and raised on the streets of Lagos, and since moving to the UK – though he adapts his deep and rich vocal tones effortlessly to styles from grime to drum’n’bass – has brought the city with him, frequently rapping in Pidgin (indeed he called an album with Welsh producer Stagga Pidgin & Chips). Magugu combines darkness, humour and party-rocking technique with ease, and without question has what it takes to reach a much wider audience.
Check out the full playlist now.
Cover: Alewya by Christina Ebenezer
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.