British hip-hop heads out of the underground

Amid accusations of sell-out and crossover, the UK's hip-hop artists want to win fans while staying true to their scene. By Matilda Egere-Cooper

In 2010, British rappers rule. sbtv, an online entertainment channel, recently shot to the illustrious "trending topic" status on Twitter following the growing success of its f64 series – a collection of videos showing rappers delivering their best freestyles in 64 bars; and at least four rappers grace the UK Top 20 singles chart this week: Chipmunk, Tinie Tempah, Plan B and Professor Green. The success of the latter two is more impressive given their connections within the UK hip-hop scene, a community of MCs which has struggled to impact on a broader scale. Both artists rolled in underground circles before signing to Mike Skinner's The Beats label (it folded in 2007) and Green has long made his name as one of the best battle-rappers in the country, and is now being hailed as the "British Eminem".

But judging from the way all of these chart-toppers have quickly fallen into the pop market and the dazzling world of tabloid acclaim, it's becoming hard to define what UK hip-hop is nowadays. "Anybody who makes it commercially from, say, the grime scene won't be categorised as grime on iTunes," points out Sway, who won the Mobo for Best Hip-hop Act in 2005. "It'll get categorised as hip-hop, and what is that telling you? Even the masses see it as the same music."

If that's the case, what has happened to the movement established by veterans such as Rodney P in the 1980s and which has since strived to differentiate itself from its American forefathers? "I don't think much of a hip-hop scene exists anymore," says 26-year-old Green, real name Stephen Paul Manderson. "Now, it's kind of everything together; people rap, people spit over grime. I'd say there is a UK scene, and, in a sense, those older rappers never really went away, so everyone can get more exposure now. But, hopefully, we're building up the first real foundations for the scene and it will flourish and make money."

Green is something of an anomaly – while he's signed to Virgin Records and his INXS-sampling "I Need You Tonight" leans heavily towards the pop spectrum, he's lyrically qualified enough to classify as a hip-hop artist and has managed to avoid disdain from his older contemporaries. But a growing army of underground loyalists insist there are exceptions and are determined to preserve UK hip-hop in fear of its losing its essence – which is less to do with the style of the music, but more about its ethos.

"I think rappers have found our voice within the UK to some degree, but we have to be very careful with what we label hip-hop and what we label rap music," says Akala. "KRS-One said it best – hip-hop has continued in the traditions of jazz, reggae and blues, and all these music forms were really about continuing African cultural expression throughout the diaspora, the struggle for equality and passion and human upliftment. It's a cultural art-form aimed at spreading its consciousness – whereas rap music is a corporate product which is largely soulless and is devoid of spiritual and nutritional value."

The 26-year-old Akala's latest album, DoubleThink, is an intelligent and experimental outing created to prove that UK hip-hop can have many dimensions – as long as commercialism isn't the priority. "We have to be careful not to view all exposure necessarily as good for the culture. A diluted derivative of the culture can be paraded as the culture and then people lose the essence of what it really is and actually think hip-hop is about trying to sell people champagne and jewellery."

Similarly, rapper Ty has recently championed the return of traditional hip-hop with his new album, Special Kind of Fool. His stance is that the hip-hop scene is poised to re-establish itself, providing there is a balance between the different varieties, which some argue also includes grime music.

"There's definitely a lack of clarity in regards to what hip-hop looks like now, but I think we've needed that," he says. "What we lacked before in the hip-hop genre was people who were willing to make commercial strides, and now we have it in abundance. But I'm coming from a hip-hop perspective with regards to the music I'm making, and I think some artists are coming from a rap perspective – in 2010 that is, 'How do I get on television, how do I make commercial music?' Hip-hop is a thing where there needs to be at least some genuine connection with the person and the music that they're making. So I'm just holding the middle. I'm going to make sure hip-hop is still the thing that excites people, otherwise in two years we're gonna have everyone rapping over commercial music."

Blak Twang agrees. As one of the first British rappers to emerge in the mid 1990s, the Mobo Award winner (real name Tony Olabode) had his first taste of commercial success with the single "Trixsta" featuring Estelle, in 2002. The 38-year-old has been maintaining an underground following ever since, and has used his single "Before N After" as a tirade against the commercialisation of MCs, pointing out: "Before the digital downloads, before [Channel] U, before MTV Base, there was a true UK scene that was creative." He admits he's optimistic about the younger generation, but believes there should be room for artists such as himself who've been championing the scene for years. "The version of hip-hop now, let's be honest, is non-challenging, non-threatening, non-thought-provoking and just really fun music, which is alright because everything has a place in this world," he says. "But then, when the other style of hip-hop comes out, maybe the type that makes you think a bit and is not so dumbed down, will the mainstream accept it and really address the balance and still present a good picture? Is radio still gonna support it? Are the TV stations gonna show the videos that aren't love songs with an uptempo dance beat behind? So, that remains to be seen."

However, not all hip-hop affiliates are choosing to shy away from pop and are embracing hip-hop's new guise. Example (Elliot John Gleave) released his first single, "I Don't Want To", in 2007 and sought to put a humorous spin on the genre, with songs poking fun at being a white rapper from Fulham ("You Can't Rap") before signing to The Beats. With his second album, he has decided to do outright pop.

"You've got two sides of the coin in the UK – you've got people who've come from grime and people who've come from hip-hop," he says. "But it doesn't really matter because everyone's putting out pop songs now. But I don't feel like I owe hip-hop anything. Hip-hop is there, it's music – no one owes anything to a scene. I love hip-hop, but when people say, 'I can't believe you're making dance, you're a sell-out,' I'm just like, it's just music at the end of the day."

The key to establishing hip-hop's identity in the long term is infrastructure, says Sway, who points out that Dizzee Rascal should be lauded for developing his own label, Dirtee Stank, and attempting to bring through his own artists. This kind of positive independence hasn't been observed since the heyday of indie label Lowlife Records and its stable of artists, which included hip-hop veterans such as Skinnyman, Jehst and Mystro. But following its demise in 2008, it's like everything associated with UK hip-hop abandoned ship – from record stores in London such as Deal Real, Scenario Records and The Beat Hut to the print edition of Hip-Hop Connection magazine, now only available online. The urban-poppers and post-grimers, however, have stayed one step ahead of the game in terms of entrepreneurship.

"From a commercial aspect, they're winning, and from an underground aspect, the hip-hop artists that have been there doing it are still there doing it," says Shortee Blitz, hip-hop DJ at Kiss FM. "But not everyone is looking for commercial success, they're there because they love making music and they love telling their story in their own way. But these new artists have hip-hop to thank because, in the mid-Nineties, it was a novelty for a lot of artists to rhyme in their own accents, but now these new artists are making hits from it."

Despite the grey areas surrounding the identity of UK hip-hop, up-and-coming MCs are optimistic about the future. The 25-year-old Chima Anya believes people are hungry for something different in UK hip-hop and it's time for labels and A&Rs to respect the range of artists. "I'm hoping the UK can get to the point where it can support diversity in hip-hop – maybe Professor Green is the evidence of that, of where you can have the grime or funky-house artists topping the charts but you can also have a more traditional UK hip-hop act that can do well."

Likewise, 26-year-old Skandal, who hails from south London and calls himself a "new-school" artist, says hip-hop music will always trump urban pop. "No disrespect to Chipmunk and Tinchy, et cetera, but I think artists out of our scene, in my opinion, will make slightly better music. The thing about hip-hop artists is we won't compromise too much. If we're going to get in the charts, it's with our own music. I think a lot of the younger kids might be being told what to make, but I think hip-hop will be doing things a bit differently."

Example's album, 'Won't Go Quietly', is released on 20 June (Data). Professor Green's single, 'Just Be Good To Me', ft Lily Allen, is released on 27 June (Virgin). Ty's album, 'Special Kind of Fool', is out now (Republic of Music). Chima Anya's album, 'New Day', is released on 10 May (Phoenix Down).

Akala's album, 'DoubleThink', is released on 3 May (Illastate). Listen to three tracks from the record below.

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