Sound of the urban underground

Urban artists are turning mainstream – but will popular success kill their credibility? Matilda Egere-Cooper reports
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The Independent Culture

Talk about an evolution. Since the tail end of last year, urban music has enjoyed a healthy presence in the UK singles charts, helped by the North's garage-inspired bassline migration to the capital and the return of MC Estelle, who recently had a four-week stint at No 1. Solo stars like Taio Cruz and Jay Sean are also reeling in groupie love and seminal outlets such as BBC 1Xtra, Choice FM, MTV Base and RWD magazine have been revived by a new wave of optimism. "Things are definitely showing signs of picking up again after a relatively quiet period," says HMV's Gennaro Castaldo. "You only have to see that Madonna worked with Timbaland on Hard Candy to realise that urban is back on the way up, at least in terms of profile and perceived credibility."

Cruz, a singer-songwriter and producer who had his single "Come On Girl" peak at No 5 in March, says that he's found success by refusing to limit his music to one genre. "I always listen to what is good; I'm a producer and a songwriter. I actually don't like being put into that urban category simply for the fact that in the UK, they usually find it as an excuse not to play your records."

According to Semtex, a hip-hop DJ at BBC 1Xtra, the disc-spinners are also catching on to a broader approach to genres. It's a method that's worked for Timbaland, who ditched the hip-hop beats for a racier electronic approach, while American R&B star Ne-Yo has reportedly announced he's bored with "traditional" urban and will use new sounds on his next album after spending time in London. "I think with music at the moment, the borders are kind of down," says Semtex. "I think that whole 'this is hip-hop and that's R&B' snobbery from three to five years ago has gone. If you're a club DJ you have to play everything now – you have to touch on the bassline line, you have to play grime, you gotta play hip-hop, you gotta play R&B. I think people are more open to playing different sounds and hearing different sounds. People want a change."

He argues that making music for the clubs has helped to revive the scene. IXtra's DJ Cameo, who championed the likes of bassline artists T2 and H two O, says that this country's dance music tradition has been UK urban's saving grace. Bassline, for instance, has been bubbling away in Sheffield since the mid-Noughties, and is becoming the predominant genre in urban music. Its emergence into the mainstream has seen T2 land a No 2 last November with the single "Heartbroken", followed by another No 2 from H two O in February with the single "What's It Gonna Be".

Record companies have been cashing in by releasing compilations of the new sound and it looks set to grow even bigger. "I have a lot of influence with the artists in the underground, and last summer I was telling them they need to move towards dance music," says Cameo. "In this country, if you are a rap act, it's a lot harder to make it, but because dance music is something that's in our culture, it's only normal that artists should embrace it. They'll have a better chance of going into the charts and I think the latest bassline tracks have definitely proven that. The good thing about dance music is that it crosses all boundaries. That's why if you combine urban acts with dance music you're opening doors all over the place."

Choice FM's Chris Phillips agrees, and explains that even Estelle's "American Boy" possesses a club-like quality. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, R&B has been around 80-90bpm. There's a whole new soundscape coming out of America that's a lot faster, and it's a lot more... reminiscent of the rave scene that used to drive here in the early- to mid-Nineties. What's different now is that it's distinctively uptempo – Estelle, Flor Rida, Mary J Blige are all coming out with singles that are 150-160bpm, which is traditionally the sound of a club house record. This is accepted, especially in this country where it seems that anything below 100bpm is considered a little bit ploddy and specialist."

One artist putting this formula to the test is Wiley, whose new single "Wearing My Rolex" is a far cry from his grimy gems of the past. The electro-house clap-a-long comprises a catchy hook, a sultry vocalist and a video of a troupe of foxy dancers running around at night – minus the East London MC. ("It was just wrong," he says of the video. "It's just not me.")

Personal tastes aside, it's got hit graffitied all over it, and has been lauded by the likes of Zane Lowe and Jo Wiley. "It's a top five, it's going to pay me money so I can feed my children, that is the bottom line," he says. "To win England, I believe you have to please the people in England, so that is what I'm trying to do. The grime scene is going to take longer than planned and by the time it does blow I might be a bit older, so that's why I've had to take these steps. Even though there's electro on ['Wearing My Rolex'], it's still Wiley. I didn't have to change my language."

"I think everyone's got to evolve and I think that's what Wiley is doing," says Laura Lukanz, music manager at 1Xtra. "He's just such an innovator. He leads the way so the next thing he does should hopefully be something completely different again. You've got to look at the market. Rihanna, Kanye [West] and Timbaland are making pop records now. You can't be hung up on making music for your peers."

"Wiley has given us a record where anyone can play it," adds Semtex. "I always tell artists, you have to make me look good in the club as the DJ. There's only a few people who have ever been able to do things without conforming. If it's so hot, you're going to be picked up anyway. That's what happening with the Wiley record."

As the saying goes, there's nothing new under the sun. Think back to 1999 and some would argue that the UK urban scene has come full circle. At that time, the radio-friendly, two-speed garage movement was coming to a head, and paved the way for garage artists to piggy-back the electronic dance sound to make it in the mainstream. The likes of So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite, Oxide and Neutrino and even Craig David were able to launch careers with a sound that was born out of the clubs. "The last time there was a big burst of artists going in to the charts was when garage was at its peak," says Cameo. "That was predominantly dance music. Craig David's track 'Fill Me' is a bit like Estelle's track now."

So if their success is fuelled by the dance scene, what does this mean for artists in the long term? The moment David and Ms Dynamite chose to depart from the music that made them successful, commercial acclaim was followed by a loss of credibility in urban circles, as well as record sales. The same was observed in grime, which saw exponents such as Roll Deep Crew pulled out of the mainstream after they chose to broaden their horizons into a more pop territory. The difference this time, according to MTV's Jasmine Dotiwala, is that there's no longer a reliance on the record labels to make things happen – especially when the definition of UK urban has changed. "To be fair, I don't know what UK urban means any more," she says. "If you put Estelle's single 'American Boy' and Adele's single 'Chasing Pavements' together, they're both just catchy pop records; you wouldn't know the difference. From my perspective, urban means music that has come from inner-city kids who are inspired to make great music and are obviously inspired by the hip-hop lifestyle."

"I don't think there's a formula for urban music any more," says Phillips, "because people who consume that music are also into all sorts of other stuff. It just depends on good music and bad music."

Dotiwala insists that there's more freedom now for artists to produce whatever they feel under the urban banner. "A lot of us have unified and begun to say: 'Look, we're not having it any more. There's a lot of talent out there in the inner cities in the UK and if the industry isn't going to do something about it, than we the broadcasters will get out there and make the most of it.' That way, the record labels will kick themselves for not having signed or supported these people in the first place."

Wiley, who has signed to Atlantic Records-imprint Asylum, plans to shape his career with limited help from his label. "If I get a top 10 or a top five and I'm earning a lot of money, I won't need labels any more, I'll just need major distribution – finally. Some urban people go on labels and get told what to do and do it. Big up to them people, but I'm different. I always have visions for my own thing."

Of course, there's not a simple rule artists can follow to ensure that this urban renaissance in the mainstream will have a lasting effect for them. Some take flight to the US, others change their sound, and many dream of landing a major label while others are content with their MySpace buzz. Whatever the case, this summer is looking likely to be a hot one for urban. "It feels like our homegrown talent here are starting to open doors that were previously shut," says Jordan Kensington, the chief executive of the Urban Music Awards. "Estelle's four weeks at the top of the singles chart proves to labels, general music fans in the UK and worldwide that the UK urban music industry has a high calibre of talent that needs to be given a fair chance and decent playing field as their counterparts within the other music genres. It totally wipes out the argument that mainstream UK isn't interested in urban music. So 2008 is looking to be a very promising year."

'Wearing My Rolex' is released on Monday on Asylum Records