British hip-hop: Going overground

British hip-hop artists should be thinking bigger, rapper Ty tells Matilda Egere-Cooper
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When Ben Chijioke first broke onto the embryonic UK hip-hop scene back in the mid-90s, it was hard to imagine that in 2006 the rapper known as Ty would still be going strong, such was his disdain for the commercial conventions of the modern rap game.

Below the surface, UK hip-hop has battled to maintain a consistent personality since Rodney P's London Posse established themselves as the first act indigenous to the UK ("Rodney P was one of the first generation of people to rap in their own accent and make it so attractive," says Ty. "I had an incredible American accent!") and creative off-shoots like drum 'n' bass, trip-hop, garage and even grime have had a fickle existence. So the rapper's latest affair, Closer, stands as more than another personal achievement. Call it another example of indie hip-hop which hasn't fallen victim to Americanisms and inner-city stereotypes that have denied the scene much needed profiling and has, instead, resulted in it being labelled as a seasonal trend. "We have a culture that has been prevalent within the music industry for 20 years, maybe more," says the rapper. "So it's not a fad."

But now that Ty has received the international acclaim and the accolades, including a Mercury nomination in 2004, it's a small wonder that the rap veteran is on a mission to change the rules of the underground scene. "I think the type of artist I am, I can appeal to way more than just a niche market," he says, while getting comfortable in his chair inside the office of his label, Big Dada - also home to the esteemed Roots Manuva.

"I think I make music that speaks volumes. Like, 'Wait A Minute' was a song that I've seen different people in different countries dance to. My idea of being independent is the ability to say what I really want to say without institutional bias. That is all. I'm not interested in wearing a backpack, or wearing a T-shirt that says 'fuck the majors'. I'm not interested in not being allowed on television."

The rapper believes that underground hip-hop must maintain its autonomy while asserting itself in the bigger picture. While indie rockers often gain kudos from the likes of NME, underground hip-hop consistently fends off the commercialised hip-hop movement to get noticed by the very institutions created to celebrate the scene - with the exception of a few unique outlets, such as Radio 1Xtra and the seminal British rap manual Hip-Hop Connection.

"I love being independent, but being independent is giving people an excuse to not allow us to be noticed," says Ty. "We're independent, but we're still significant. 'Underground' doesn't mean you shouldn't have television programmes. Where are our television music programmes? Where is one programme on television that's run by us, promoting our music, showing our newest videos, our newest releases? We used to have it before. All of a sudden, it's cut dead. What I'm trying to say is, I'm not celebrated for who I am. And I want to be celebrated for who I am. It doesn't mean I want to be commercial."

The rapper's popularity has afforded him the privilege to think bigger, unlike the numerous MCs in the scene who are content with mixtapes, pirate radio and a DIY music video channel, Channel U. Only a few rappers, such as Sway for instance, are keen to replicate Ty's broad success by taking a unique approach to music-making and marketing.

"They want more," says the rapper. "You can see it. The music is changing. Look at the way they're rapping. Look at their videos. They're not doing chants anymore. They're rapping. You have artists making records. Nobody wants to stay in a shoebox only. They just don't want to stay where they are." He adds: "No one is challenging the system though."

Starting out making his name on tracks by I.G. Culture's New Sector Movement, MC Mell "O", DJ Shortee Blitz and DJ Pogo and hosting The Lyrical Lounge, a hip-hop club night, Ty has made a revolutionary rise through the ranks, all down to sheer integrity and defiance towards the system.

His full-length debut album Awkward came in 2001, and with that wise lyricism, a penchant for spoke-word, and an eclectic style inspired by his Nigerian roots and jazz and funk predilection.

By the time Upwards was released in 2004, the penny dropped for many of UK hip-hop's detractors. Here was a rapper who dared to be different and had the ability to get props from beyond his local manor. Given the critical-acclaim of his sophomore album, he's had the opportunity to work with Blur's Damon Albarn, Fela Kuti's drummer Tony Allen, and he even provided the rap vocal dub for Grammy-nominated Don Cheadle in the film Ocean's 12. Ty's latest album boasts collaborations with De La Soul and Speech from Arrested Development.

The rapper says a copy-cat culture within hip-hop is preventing it from growing and developing. As a result, it's often difficult for Ty to be set apart by outsiders because of his independent status.

"People look at underground rap from this mainstream, condescending vision of black music in the UK," he says. "What is subliminally being suggested is our music is too underground, is too black, and is too urban, so we're not given the same respect. I want to just be out of this urban box that I've been put in, this rapper box, because I'm black and I come from Brixton. I can't have a point, or have a dialogue with someone from the Netherlands or from Norfolk or from the deepest, darkest, regions of Nebraska because I'm a rapper? There's more to us than these boxes."

He continues: "I can understand why you would have a problem with young boys in hoodies, talking about stabbing and shooting. But when you put me into the same category, and I'm doing something completely different, then I'm beginning to suspect it's something else. Then I'm like, this isn't about my music, it's about meaning none of us can come through the door, and if none of us can come through the door, than that's institutional racism. And if that's the case, you need to tell me that, rather than me sitting here thinking I'm independent, and that's why I'm not on television."

However, Ty is content that he's been able to cross into new areas - especially with the youth of the grime generation. It was Channel U that allowed the thirtysomething's music to resonate with a younger audience, thanks to the heavy playlisting of his 2004 single "Wait A Minute". "I had my preconceptions," he admits. "I thought they were against me and then I'm realising that they're not. A lot of people feel the same way about the war; a lot of people feel the same way about Rwanda."

It's one of the reasons why the rapper has maintained his relationship with Big Dada, the hip-hop imprint of the notoriously trendy Ninja Tune. Founded by hip-hop scribe Will Ashton in 1997, Big Dada has gained a reputation for unveiling strong, national and international alternative hip-hop acts.

"The reason why I stuck with this label is because I knew I would be allowed to say what I want to say, and people judge it from there," says Ty. "I never knew I would have this amount of respect in the hip-hop community, or around the world. It's given me hope about the open-mindedness of people around the country. I've been able to make songs, make music and present a non-stereotyped vision of a young person with something to say."

The album Closer is out on 16 October on Big Dada