Hip-hop and it don't stop: What does the future hold for Hip-Hop Connection?

One British rap magazine has outlived all the US giants – even 'The Source'. Ian Burrell asks its editor how 'Hip-Hop Connection' has survived 20 years, and what the future holds

It is fair to say that Skinnyman, a figurehead of British hip-hop, is unlikely to ever be mistaken for 50 Cent, the ripped and tattooed New York rap icon. Emaciated he is, as skinny as a doppio espresso, as well as white and born in Leeds – and, on this Monday night in a packed London club, he's angry as well.

"Peace, unity, love and having fun," he tersely lectures his young audience on the central tenets of hip-hop culture, drawing on the words of its founding father Afrika Bambaataa. Not graffiti, breakdancing, scratching or even rapping, and certainly not the gun-toting and drug-taking that much of the media now associates with this most controversial of music genres.

There is one especially notable exception to that media rule: an East Anglia-based magazine that has defied publishing economics to become the longest-running hip-hop title on the planet, outlasting even the so-called rap bible, New York's The Source, which is currently attempting to get back on its feet after going bankrupt in 2006. Hip-Hop Connection, which is 20 years old this month, has a curiously English sound to it, the "connection" part somehow reflecting the distance between the British scene and the culture's roots in the South Bronx.

But among the British rap aristocracy, who turned out in the magazine's honour last week at a traditional breakdancing, beatboxing, battle rhyming and booty-shaking session known as The Jump Off, HHC is revered. They were all there. Normski, the television presenter and photographer of the hip-hop old skool, turned out in a black brimmed hat and a suit decorated with safety pins. The pioneering British rapper MC Duke showed his pedigree in a fetching Burberry house check suit and brown bowler. Shortee Blitz, the larger-than-life turntable king, with Maseo from the great New York rap crew De La Soul, stood at his shoulder. All came to pay their dues to a publication compiled in a house in Cambridge.

Earlier, in a quiet Soho bar, before the head-spinning and lyric-spitting had begun, the man behind Hip-Hop Connection, Andy Cowan, 41, explained how he has devoted his career to the project.

Let's be blunt about this: hip-hop is in a bad place, under fire not just from appalled politicians and moral guardians but from large sections of the music-buying public who find it uninspiring. Cowan can't disagree. "It's fair to say that people are bored of the diet they're being served of middling gangsterism mixed with lots of special guests and R&B artists. It's got a bit staid."

Worse, the people that still actually like the music are especially prone to downloading it for free. "Hip-hop kids were always quite savvy, technology adept and ahead of the pack," says Cowan. "It's a magpie form of music, and there's a poetic justice that something that's based on burglary is being burgled in reverse."

The upside is that the difficulties of the American rap mainstream have provided a reality check that has allowed the British scene to flourish. "UK hip-hop is, oddly, in the healthiest state it has ever been," says the HHC editor, explaining that British rappers have given up fantasies of becoming bling-laden global superstars and put their efforts into building their own homegrown sound. He cites cutting-edge labels such as Young 'n' Restless and Low Life Records, which represents Skinnyman, as well as the rappers Asaviour, Taskforce and Klashnekoff. "In the last few years we have upped the UK content quite a lot in the magazine, because it's more reflective of the times," says Cowan, so softly spoken that he is at times almost inaudible. Though he'd struggle to compete with Skinnyman in a freestyle rap battle, his love for rap music is not in doubt.

Hip-Hop Connection began life as a phone number, a hotline run by Dave Pearce (now a Radio 1 DJ) where rap fans could get information on upcoming events. The magazine it spawned was founded by Chris Hunt, beginning as a one-off publication with female rappers Salt-n-Pepa on the cover. Cowan joined 10 issues in.

The original publishers were Music Maker Publications, based in the unlikely location of Ely. The title was later sold, first to Future in Bath, and then to James Palumbo's Ministry of Sound organisation, where it was encouraged to follow a more commercial musical tack. Cowan admits feeling discomfort that Mariah Carey once made it on to a cover (with the headline "Mariahhh!"), though a request that Mel B from The Spice Girls might merit the same treatment was deemed as a step too far, and led to Cowan and the team going their own way after buying the magazine back from Ministry.

For much of its history, Hip-Hop Connection has had to compete with both The Source (which sold 1m copies in the US at its height, and around 17,000 in Britain) and XXL, another slick American production. It did so with good journalism, scooping exclusive interviews with rap stars such as Slick Rick and Rakim from under the noses of the American magazines. Cowan says his title is also more critical in how it judges new releases. "The reviews in American magazines are generally quite poor because they're actually afraid of offending the major record labels."

Cowan's task has not been made any easier by hip-hop's frequent association with inspiring everything that is wrong with urban life. "Hip-hop, Hollywood and video games are always cited as the chief protagonists whenever there's a moral panic," he says. "It's a cheap shot." The magazine has tried to make a positive contribution, working on advertorials with the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident team and offering to collaborate with Scotland Yard on a CD of anti-knife crime tracks.

Despite everything, Hip-Hop Connection has survived to put out its 20th-anniversary issue, and as well as releasing its first-ever compilation album of 20 UK rap anthems, it is about to go on a fresher's week tour of British universities next month. Skinnyman will be on the bill, teaching students from the class of 2011 about his Council Estate of Mind, as his acclaimed album is called, and demonstrating an originality of which Cowan greatly approves.

"The original message of hip-hop, I think, was to be yourself," he says. "Anything, if you really feel it, can be hip-hop."

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Graduate Consultant - Sales Recruitment - £35k ote

£18000 - £25000 per annum + £35k ote: h2 Recruit Ltd: Looking for your first s...

Recruitment Genius: Advertising Media Sales - Print, Online & Mobile

£19000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing house has been ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Award winning Peterborough base...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?