Music: Brothers and sisters are doing it for themselves

UK rappers and producers putting the hip back into UK hip hop.

When hip-hop culture started spreading its tentacles across the Atlantic back in the early 1980s, its effects were instant. The breakdancing, graffiti art, DJ tricks and music were embraced by an increasingly urbanised youth. In the 20 years since, the boundless energy, creative expression and street-wise sound has become an enormously widespread phenomenon. In America.

The story of UK hip-hop is slightly different however. After the initial enthusiasms produced talented British rap acts in the early Eighties, such as The London Posse, Katch 22, The Demon Boyz and Overlord X, the scene began to fade. A small amount of die-hards still produced records for other die-hards to collect and listen to. Spray-paint sales were slightly strengthened by "graffers". Linos were kept to one side for the occassional head-spin. But aside from the occasional album or promising artist, not much has happened over the last decade.

Until now, with a resurgence of interest, particularly in the rappers and producers. Of all the facets of British hip-hop culture it has been the music that has been the hardest to keep alive. The two main criticisms that are endlessly churned out are that British MCs sounded too much like their American counterparts and our producers make sub-standard music.

But over time, the critics have at least been silenced. This year especially has seen an unprecedented number of releases which possess strong production as well as a very British identity. Tony Alabode (aka Black Twang) is acknowledged as one of the artists who first began to get attention focused back on to UK rap. He has been voted best UK hip-hop artist; has received a nomination for the prestigious Black Music Awards and has won a MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) award.

"I released my first single in 1995." He says. "After that came a couple more and the feedback we were getting seemed to indicate that this was what people wanted. So I made an album. But the album never got released due to label politics. I went back to the studio and started again. We had some distractions from major labels, but it was always the same thing. They'd call up and express an interest and we'd get the ball rolling. But when it came to the crunch, they chickened out."

Although the album will be released this month, Tony's predicament highlights another long-time barrier for the UK scene - a lack of interest and support from major labels who are, perhaps justifiably, unwilling to provide financial backing. This obstacle has been surmounted by a spate of independent labels.

Mark B, a producer who is involved in two such labels, K'Boro and Jazz- Fudge, explains: "The quantity of releases has improved because of the independents. People were shopping around for majors but first you have to prove to those people that you can sell records. Between K'boro and Jazz-Fudge we are hoping to put out a record a month."

Another label which has found a receptive market is Big Dada, an independent set up last year as an offshoot of the avant-garde dance label Ninja Tune. Big Dada has a mission to "put out quality hip-hop ... wherever it's from". It has been responsible for recording and promoting UK artists such as Juice Aleem, Part 2, and Roots Manuva. And they are set to release a compilation.

This entrepreneurial spirit seems to pervade the whole scene now. As Tony says, "artists find friends who can do the artwork for records, other friends who work in mastering studios, friends who have access to recording equipment; people are more aware that majors only see them as a product and they want to do things themselves."

This accounts for the quantity of releases, but what about quality? Why have British artists only just started to sound British? Rapper MC Ty believes it's been a natural evolution. "It's like learning to play an instrument. When you first start out, you imitate, you mimic. As you gain confidence, you start to sound like your favourites. The next stage is your own style."

Ty reckons that we are now at that final stage. "A rapper must use a UK accent, a producer must make a song that represents the UK. The entire musical landscape should reflect the physical landscape that we live in. An audience can then relate."

In terms of production, it seems that the same process applies. Combined with a new influx of technology, producers are concentrating on finding their own sound. DJ Skitz, a London producer responsible for the impressive "Fingerprints Of The Gods" EP last month says: "This is definitely a new era. People have honed their skills. Production-wise, people are just taking their time and not just churning it out. Rapping-wise, people now realise that it's good to be natural and to talk about what you know. If you're talking about everyday living in London, then you're not talking about running around with a gun are you?"

Part 2 hail from the unlikely location of York and work closely with rapper Juice Aleem (from Birmingham), and is perhaps one of the most avant- garde producers, eschewing the bass-heavy style of the Americans.

His passion for both graffiti and production are equal: "I've been finding breaks for years," he says, "and I know that I've got influences no-one else has got. My art-work has a Dadaist/Surrealist edge to it, and that's what I want my music to reflect."

So what of the future? Although cautious to claim a new renaissance for British rap, most artists are excited and believe that right now is a great opportunity.

Nebula and Nzareen, a female duo with a combined age of just 38, have seen the effects at their live gigs. "We've performed at places like The Blue Note and The Jazz Cafe which have a mixed clientele, and everybody was really enjoying it," reports Nzareen. "I really believe that the thread is gonna go right through the needle this time."

Juice Aleem sees a difference between the current resurgence and the mere flashes that have gone before. "There's often a problem when only one person is pushed forward to represent a whole scene. You need a group of artists and that's what seems to be happening right now."

Indeed, this month sees Black Twang's debut (finally) as well as the Big Dada compilation. Other artists such as Roots Manuva, who has featured on the latest Rebirth of Cool project (a mainstream landmark for UK rap) has just signed to the latter label for an album deal, and most others questioned are feeding from the current positivity and have album plans.

Even the perennial in-house hostilities that have divided artists and audiences in the past seem to have abated. A homogeneity is apparent that reveals the passion and desire to succeed. The whole purpose of hip-hop in the first place was to provide an expressive outlet for a silenced minority. Now we shall see how loud the UK can shout.

THE ARTISTS

BLACK TWANG

One of the most humourous and relevant voices around at the moment. 19 Long-Time ... Live from the Big Smoke is out at the end of June.

ROOTS MANUVA

An avuncular figure in UK hip-hop and tipped to be a leader. Signed to Big Dada for an album.

MARK B

Producer for numerous UK artists, including Blade and The Mudd Family. Runs K'Boro records and is involved with Jazz-Fudge.

DJ SKITZ

Producer behind 'Fingerprints Of The Gods' EP on Ronin records. Very reggae-influenced. JUICE ALEEM

Birmingham MC, a floating member of Nu-Flesh 4 Old.

PART 2

Avant-garde producer who works closely with Juice Aleem. Produces quite dark, minimal sounds. Also an internationally reknowned graffiti artist. Runs Nu-Flesh Music.

SKELETON

Extremely distinctive rapper who featured on The Fingerprints Of The Gods EP.

TY AND SHORTEE BLITZ

Duo who perform live a lot. Ty MCs while Shortee Blitz DJs. Next single on Wayward.

NEBULA AND NZAREEN

Talented female duo (both 19) whose first release 'London Bridge' has caused a stir.

BLADE

Old-school rapper who has been releasing records fairly consistently since the early years. On Mark B Hitmen for Hire compilation.

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