Not so long ago we at Warm & Easy published a feature covering artists from the UK making alternative hip-hop. The purpose of this was to introduce those uninitiated with the scene to a few of the rappers from different corners of the UK doing their thing to diversify the landscape of urban music. Whether it’s Brian Nasty’s glitchy production or K The Infinite’s poetic storytelling laced with references to anime, the artists that comprise the UK’s alternative hip-hop scene are all wonderfully weird and talented.
The scene is a burgeoning one and is still very much underground and in need of more attention from the mainstream. But not everyone agrees with this notion. In response to the piece one twitter user decried each artist on the list, claiming that their “alternative narratives” were nothing more than watered down bullshit and that they were collectively ruining UK rap. I don’t have time to sift through the myriad of unsolicited opinions that is Twitter to find the specific tweets nor do I want to as this piece is not about naming and shaming anyone. As people and as consumers of media, we are all entitled to our own opinions. However, the idea that artists like Denzel Himself and The Northaze are somehow polluting UK rap purely because their subject matter doesn’t deal with the harsh realities of the streets seems problematic to me.
Freedom of expression is an important thing and if rap is about anything, it’s about expression. It always has been. To discredit an entire scene because the artists within it aren’t documenting life on the roads is damaging because it suggest that there is only room for one kind of narrative in UK rap. This is quite frankly ludicrous, the obvious reason being that people’s realities are not the same therefore their subject matter will also be different. But going even further, this way of thinking implies that the only way for UK rap to be credible or legitimate is for it to cover topics like guns, drugs and violence; as if talking about those things is the only way to be perceived as ‘real’, ‘tough’ or any other appropriate synonym.
Limited to music alone, this way of thinking isn’t incredibly dangerous but when applied to real life the consequences can be dire. ‘Watered down’ can be easily replaced with ‘weak’ or ‘soft’ and to argue that music that doesn’t recycle the prominent topics of genres like drill is soft is not a far cry from arguing that not being involved in those things makes a person soft. This idea is harmful and is not the sort of thing that needs to passed on to impressionable young people. While it might seem as though I am making a mountain out of a molehill, it isn’t much of a stretch to link the idea of alternative hip-hop being watered down to the idea of not doing road making a person weak; not when the reason the scene was accused of being watered down in the first place was because of the topics presented by the artists within it.
In Nosiey’s ‘Don’t Call It Road Rap’ documentary, Dimzy of 67 spoke about the fact that the crew never “woke up and said, ‘yeah we’re a gang’”, instead they decided to try and make something of themselves through music and they’ve achieved exactly that. All a group like 67 does is talk about their own reality, they never sought to glorify a particular lifestyle. The ability to discuss one’s reality is something that should be awarded to any rapper. Different does not equal watered down.
When thinking about the influence music can have on young people, the importance of the UK’s alternative hip-hop scene only becomes more apparent. Besides dicking around in school, I managed to keep my nose clean while growing up and I spent my early teens indulging in the best of what Kerrang! magazine and Slam Dunk festival had to offer. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Odd Future that I began to care about rap music because despite being a black kid from a working class background, I couldn’t relate to what the vast majority of rappers I was familiar with were talking about, especially in the UK. What I could relate to were the feelings of anger at institutions and adults and being frustrated because that one girl you liked wasn’t interested at all. When Earl Sweatshirt said that he was “too black for the white kids and too white for the blacks” that resonated with me. Odd Future set me on a path that led to me discovering the likes of Childish Gambino, Chance The Rapper and Mac Miller and I credit them with birthing my appreciation of rap music from both sides of the pond.
Fast forward to 2018 and many of the people that spent their adolescence admiring the aforementioned artists and ones similar to them are making music themselves. In the states there’s America’s Favourite Boyband Brockhampton and in the UK we have the likes of Jack Jetson, whose intricate internal rhyme schemes could rival even Earl’s. These days a kid similar to how I was (and still very much am) doesn’t even have to look to the states to find rap that they can relate to. A young listener in search of something different can now look to Neverland Clan, Toshiro Steel and slowthai.
UK Rap is evolving. UK Rap meaning any music made in the UK that has rapping in it (let’s not play a game of semantics, guys.) We have grime, we have drill, we have alternative hip-hop, we have the likes of Loyle Carner and Pertrelli giving their take on the boom bap sound and in a little corner of the internet we have NineOuh making music for the kids “posting anime memes”. Weirdos like Childish Gambino and Tyler, the Creator have gone on to become Grammy nominees. The UK’s alternative hip-hop scene is growing exponentially, with talents like Yugi emerging from the shadow realm out of nowhere, and pretty soon the scene will be too strong to ignore. Let’s support our own, even if what they’re doing isn’t what we’re used to because no matter which way you look at it, the UK is where it’s at for rap music right now.
Words: Sulaiman Fell