An Intro Into UK Rap
Updated: Aug 5
Due to accelerated globalization, our world has become increasingly culturally homogenized. Across the globe, we now share and access the same brands, foods, applications, art, literature and in this scenario music. And perhaps one of the fastest-growing genres of music is UK rap. There are multiple subgenres of UK rap, and various artists who implement various melodic and harmonic techniques to create a distinct sound that encapsulates their message. It has changed over the years and continues to change as new artists enter the scenes and impart their own perspectives on the musical sphere. So, allow me to provide an insight into the genre that is UK rap.
As part of research for this article, I watched a masterclass video featuring the “The Godfather of British HipHop” Rodney P and he drew attention to many key points that I’d like to share with you. The evolution of UK rap was a complex one with various factors influencing the direction it took and allowed it to become a prominent musical scene. Firstly, it is important to note that UK rap is an aspect of the UK HipHop culture (which includes graffiti, breakdancing and street dress) but the music was arguably the easiest to sell. The core influences on the origins of UK rap (in my opinion) were: sound system culture, American rap, and social circumstances.
Whilst the American rap genre was gaining prominence globally, people—aspiring artists and otherwise—were tuning in and tried to emulate this and in Rodney P’s personal experience when he travelled to New York realized how futile this was. He was originally part of a group called London Posse who as argued by The Daily Telegraph, gave “UK rap an identity of its own”. In Rodney’s narration, he discussed how Americans loved the Cockney accent and concluded that “rapping to Americans with a fake American accent [was] a really stupid idea. This was perhaps one of the first steps taken to establish a distinct sound and pioneer UK rap.
Sound system culture describes the musical culture of Jamaica which was brought over to the UK during the Windrush generation, and it consisted of street parties and reggae music. It held great significance to people of the culture since they didn’t have their music being represented in mainstream media and thus this was their connection with home. Sound system, though it may seem initially targeted for Black communities, it resonated with White people of working-class backgrounds as they all experienced a common struggle.
Those part of the windrush generation played an integral part in craft UK rap as it is today.
Radio 1 was established in 1967 as part of BBC to challenge the rise of pirate radio, which was put Black music in the limelight. Pirate radio allowed Black artists to gain exposure which drew attention to Black rappers and eventually in 2002, Radio 1Xtra was established as a sister station to Radio 1 and was dedicated solely to Black and urban music. (NOTE: UK rap isn't exclusive to Black people).
It is also important to mention the subgenres of UK rap and how they interact with each other. UK garage grew in the 1990s with upbeat, syncopated rhythms for something to dance to. Drum and bass heavily influenced the rave scene connecting it with rap whilst drill and trap (some more recent developments in rap) derive influence from their US counterparts. Grime comes from garage and grew in the early 2000s. Of recent, Afroswing has developed adopting influences from the genre that is Afrobeats. The rap scene is constantly changing and we must appreciate the variation that new artists continue to bring.
The UK rap scene has indeed gained its own distinct sound and has taken the world by a storm, but it isn’t without its critiques. Undoubtably, music can be used as a vessel for expression of individuality, of circumstance, and a celebration of self. But the main controversies around the UK rap genre is to do with the lyrics used and the conduct of the rappers themselves. The lifestyle that is discussed could be considered immoral and, in some cases, illegal. The conduct of some mainstream rappers, UK or otherwise, is also questionable. Regardless, musicians use their work as a medium of expression and we have the choice whether or not to engage.
Ironically, this was the article that I found hardest to write (considering I’m from the UK) but I thought that I’d give you some of my favorite rap songs.
Shut up: Stormzy. This is definitely my go-to Stormzy song. It features him in his iconic red Adidas tracksuit in the park with a group of friends. The song is straight flow, exuberating vibes, and confidence. Can’t go wrong with a bit of Stormzy.
Body 2: Tion Wayne, Russ Millions, Ardee and more. This song surprised me in a good way. It features Black excellence and was a combination of various artistes that bring something different to the rap world and when they all added their own style, it amounted to pure quality.
Twenty to One: Dave. I think Dave is a visionary. His lines are pure poetry, and the flow of the harmonies and melody together is simply stunning. One thing that stands out to me about Dave is that he tackles deep topics in his music, and he does it so lyrically. He’s phenomenal.
This isn’t all the history of UK rap and there are indeed many more aspects to it, but nonetheless, it was a whistle-stop tour to a style that has been and continues to grow in prominence.
Lyle, P. (2008) ‘An England Story: how Jamaica changed the voice of teenage Britain’, The Telegraph (Preprint). Available at: An England Story: how Jamaica changed the voice of teenage Britain (Accessed: 23 July 2023).
Finch, J. (2020). The Cultural Impact of Migration: The Impact of Sound System Culture on Britain. (online) Halcyon. Available at: https://www.halcyonwax.com/post/the-cultural-impact-of-migration-the-impact-of-sound-system-culture-on-britain (Accessed 23 July 2023).
Slideshare.net. (n.d.). UK Rap Timeline. (online) Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/cruddypacs/uk-rap-timeline (Accessed 23 July 2023).
YouTube (2020). Masterclass: The History & Evolution of UK Rap to Grime with Rodney P. (online) Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVBzWUslBgU&t=1349s (Accessed 25 July 2023).
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