This year is shaping up as the year that rap from regional Britain trades sniggers and guffaws for "braps" and gun-finger salutes (good things in hip-hop parlance). Rappers including Ghostpoet, DELS, Bang On, Lady Leshurr, RoxXxanne, Envy and Wrigley are reeling off somersaulting couplets and searing bars, putting Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry and Ipswich on the UK's flourishing rap map.
Considering rap has been a school playground pastime and a part of nightlife since the mid-1980s, the passage of homegrown rappers into the UK mainstream has been a long time coming. And for rappers from outside of London, it's been even longer. Now that black British music is ruling the mainstream, so the rappers on its fringes (geographically and stylistically) are coming in from the cold.
A variety of factors have laser-corrected the music industry's myopia, including grime and the internet. Will Ashon, who founded the pioneering London-based indie-hip-hop label Big Dada (Roots Manuva, Ty, Wiley) in 1997, marvels at how times have changed: "If you were an A&R in the 1990s, why would you go to Birmingham or Newcastle and check out the buzzing scene? It's a long way and the thought is, it won't be as good as London. There used to be gate keepers and they were in London; however, with the internet the regional thing starts to break down."
Even 15 years ago, Ashon looked beyond London for talent. "People who aren't from London seem less hooked in to a scene with a set of rules about what's cool, how you hold yourself and move, and what you rap about." He highlights how as scenes become established, individuality wanes. "The first generation of grime – Wiley, Dizzee, Kano – had distinctive voices, you could never mistake one for the other. But now young MCs rap in a generic grime style, and they're not immediately distinctive."
As a result, fans, A&Rs and labels are looking further afield for rappers with a different swagger and twang, and something else to say. Here's a guide to where some of 2011's most exciting MCs have been shaped.
For a city so influential in shaping modern music (Joy Division, the Haçienda, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Oasis), Manchester has been surprisingly barren in rap terms. Broke'n'English flew the flag in the early 1990s, while Grand Central Records specialised in DJ Shadow-style instrumental hip-hop mosaics with Rae & Christian, and Aim.
The rainy city in 2011 seems more grime-focused. Liquid, Shifty and Wrigley have drawn plaudits from Tim Westwood (Radio 1) and Wiley, the grime godfather and kingmaker who was instrumental in the careers of Dizzee, Kano, Chipmunk and Roll Deep. Wiley has brought Wrigley into his rising talent collective the A List, giving the hungry, feisty MC a platform to prove that "if you think Manchester's like Corrie, it's not".
The scouse-rapper Bang On breaks off from watching Jeremy Kyle (no, really) to explain how he made his mark in 2009 with "Scally Thug", his take on Rusko's "Cockney Thug", and signed to Big Dada last year.
He's unlike any rapper you've ever heard – his scouse street slang flows like a dam-busting torrent, requiring picking apart, and his YouTube videos could do with subtitles.
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The single "Hands High" sees the Adidas tracksuit-clad 20-year-old walking the streets of Toccie (Toxteth) with his mates, playing footy
with the local Somali kids and raving with a pub full of old geezers. Over a thundering dubstep backdrop, Bang On breathlessly references terrorism, Tasers and bizzies (Police), handling the "aggy" bass ruckus with aplomb.
All you really need to know is that his debut LP will be out in the latter half of 2011 and he's the rap equivalent of a shot of adrenalin.
You would think Birmingham homeboy Mike Skinner would've inspired plenty of Midlands geezers to upload freestyles on YouTube. However, his success was famously achieved in moping Estuary English.
So it seems the Polydor-signed 21-year-old RoxXxanne might just be the rapper to light the second city's rap touch paper. Like many young MCs, she's been raised surfing hip-hop, grime, dubstep, garage and d&b.
RoxXxanne brings her hobby, boxing, into the vocal booth with a one-two hit of pugnacious attitude and agile rhyme combinations building towards knock-out punchlines. Her tenacity and talent is pulling Brum-rap up by the bootstraps. "Do you roll with the hype crowd or lead the herd you're in?" she asks, and wears her "endz" on her sleeve: "0121 – Birmin'ham, stand up."
"Cov-Town is where I became a man," says Ghostpoet (aka Obaro Ejimiwe), thoughtfully stroking his beard. "Coventry opened my ears to what I wanted to create and the sound I wanted to put forward, it gave me the tools to do what I'm doing now."
What Ghostpoet is doing now is mesmerising, reflective blues-rap rooted in the everyday (he references KFC, A-levels, Weetabix). He has been feted by Mike Skinner as well as Gilles Peterson, who released the 28-year-old's LP Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam on his Brownswood label.
Although poles apart, Ghostpoet feels grime was vital in his genesis: "When grime came along and I found about Wiley making music using PlayStation and taking it direct to DJs, I realised you didn't need to sign to a big label." Without an alternative hip-hop scene in Coventry, Ejimiwe turned to MySpace and found like-minded souls such as Micachu, DELS, Kwes and Sampha. 'Seeing Micachu and Kwes progress was a big encouragement, it pushed me to develop and be myself,' he says.
Big Dada's DELS, whose debut LP, GOB, is out in April, declares the Suffolk town as instrumental in shaping him as a rapper who deals in clever concepts, evocative imagery, emotion and songs. "I like being the outsider, being from Ipswich makes me stand out a bit more. It's the reason my music sounds the way it does, because I've always done my own thing," says the softly spoken Kieren Dickins.
It also has its advantages in terms of profile: late last year, DELS' first Ipswich gig saw Dickins hailed as a "World Hip Hop" star on the front page of his local newspaper, the Evening Star. "I hadn't even released an album," laughs the self-effacing twentysomething. "It was a good gig, my family, friends and teachers were there. At the end this old guy from Ipswich said to me, 'We need some Ipswich rappers.' I said, 'I am an Ipswich rapper I just don't have a strong accent.'"
With Hot Chip's Joe Goddard (another connection made via MySpace) producing more than half of GOB, perhaps DELS will fulfil the promise of that Evening Star headline.
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