I'm black and I'm proud to be a British soul genius

From hip-hop to r'n'b, the likes of Omar and Roots Manuva are the musical envy of their American counterparts. So why aren't they topping the charts?
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The Independent Culture

The DJ booth of London's Jazz Cafe is lined with promotional stickers of hip-hop groups. Next to a colour rosette of Jay-Z, the American star who went top ten with "Hard Knock Life" in 1998, is a monochrome silhouette of the now defunct London trio The Brotherhood. The difference between the natty gloss of the former and the drab design of the latter is a potent symbol of the gulf in status between American and British rap. That The Brotherhood sticker has been daubed with an insult only rams the point home. It's exactly the sort of stigma that has dogged not only British rappers, but British r'n'b and soul artists for years.

The DJ booth of London's Jazz Cafe is lined with promotional stickers of hip-hop groups. Next to a colour rosette of Jay-Z, the American star who went top ten with "Hard Knock Life" in 1998, is a monochrome silhouette of the now defunct London trio The Brotherhood. The difference between the natty gloss of the former and the drab design of the latter is a potent symbol of the gulf in status between American and British rap. That The Brotherhood sticker has been daubed with an insult only rams the point home. It's exactly the sort of stigma that has dogged not only British rappers, but British r'n'b and soul artists for years.

To take hip-hop first, the scene has evolved considerably since The Brotherhood, a group briefly courted by the style press back in the mid-Nineties. Roots Manuva's Brand New Second Hand (unjustly omitted from the 1999 Mercury Prize shortlist) and Me-One's As Far As I'm Concerned are as good as anything the Americans have to offer, yet their profile and sales are modest to say the least (is it any wonder when they're denied the video budgets of Jay-Z or Busta Rhymes?). The Bronx not Brixton is still where it's at for most punters. The situation isn't helped by the media, who perpetuate unflattering comparisons of black British artists with their African-American counterparts. Last month, when The Guardian described Melanie B's single "Tell Me" as "wannabe American r'n'b, of course", it compounded the kind of dismissive stereotyping that, for instance, black British comedian/rapper Richard Blackwood has suffered (a poor man's Will Smith, say some, uncomfortably echoing the whole Lenny Henry/Eddie Murphy parallel of the Eighties).

IG Culture, a British producer who under the name New Sector Movements, has created innovative hybrids of soul, house and jazz that have won him acclaim in New York as well as London, argues that the comparisons are wide of the mark. "Aside from different histories, you're talking about different cultures. We walk different, talk different, move different. The Caribbean is our reference," he believes. "We've picked up on certain elements of American music, but do it our own way in England. I think making it as a black musician in the industry is a difficult thing because we haven't got the network that the African-Americans have, who've been in the industry so much longer. That's why it seems we're behind - but artistically we're not."

Canterbury born singer Omar is proof positive of this. His brand of soul is tinged with reggae and salsa influences (his parents are from Jamaica but he also has Cuban ancestry), and he's been hailed as a genius by Stevie Wonder. But he's only had one top 20 hit, "There's Nothing Like This" in 1991, and his label RCA dropped him two years ago. The irony is that Omar, along with other mid-Nineties Brit-soul acts Brand New Heavies, Young Disciples, D-Influence and Opaz have had a significant influence on American counterparts such as Erykah Badu, Maxwell and D'Angelo. Omar et al were the latest in an evolutionary line that goes back to Jazzie B's Soul II Soul collective in the early Nineties and Loose Ends in the late Eighties. These earlier groups enjoyed chart success here and in the US, and constituted a major leap in quality from the days of the Earth,Wind & Fire-like outfits Light Of The World and Hi-Tension. Nevertheless, 10 years after Jazzie's bassy drawl urged us to "get a life" only Gabrielle, Shola Ama, and, most recently, Jamelia have been able to take domestic soul back to the top of the charts.

One of the few black British artists to have enjoyed consistent commercial success is Sade. It could be argued that her pop inclinations and her looks have enabled her to sell 40 million albums, but in her view gender and race are the major issues. "I think it's easier for black women than black men in society," she recently told the magazine Echoes. "Black men have a much harder time because they're more of a threat." Indeed the "dangerous" black male is still a highly charged subject. A few years ago, it briefly looked as if Mark Morrison was going to transcend that, but his hard-man image went badly wrong, landing him briefly in prison.

Does the media and music business have a problem with a black male playing the rock'n'roll card? Omar thinks so: "On my second album I started using strings, they [the record company] told me 'no' because all the musicians would have to be paid. And I was like: 'And...?' They said replace the strings with keyboards. Just after that I saw Jason Donovan, who's on the same label as me, on Top Of The Pops with my string section! The people in the record companies had very little understanding of black music as such. My influences - reggae and salsa -just scared the shit out of them."

However black British artists have kicked down a few doors in recent years thanks to a greater black representation within the music industry and media. The UK Garage/r'n'b movement spearheaded by Craig David in part owes its mainstream success to figures like Trevor Nelson and The Dreem Teem on Radio 1. But we have to be very careful in interpreting the breakthrough. The fact is that there's a new generation making pop music with a black sensibility that's far removed from the challenging hybrids of soul, house and hip-hop pioneered by Omar, New Sector Movements and Me-One. The much vaunted underground sound of UK Garage has already lost credibility. Chris Wells, editor of Echoes, agrees."It's easier for a black artist to make pop these days, but it's just as hard now for Omar to make quality black music as it was 20 years ago. To get an acceptably musical place somewhere in the middle is extremely difficult. Sade does, but nobody sounds like her. I don't think it's easy at all for British black artists to make quality music."

In other words, don't make the assumption that Craig David and co are making cutting edge black music just because they're black. It leaves us in an ambiguous situation. On the one hand, black British artists are selling. On the other, sadly, British black music which takes its American models and colours them with a unique, genuinely innovative Caribbean inflection is still a marginal force.

New Sector Movements' 'No Tricks' is out now (Virgin); Omar's 'Best By Far' is released tomorrow (Oyster); Sade's 'Lovers Rock' is released on 13 November (Epic)

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