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."
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