The growth of grime and UK rap
Just like their American counterparts, rappers from the UK rap and grime scene have long had an image problem when it comes to their acceptance in the mainstream. Their artistry, being born of articulating the ignored experience of deprived communities, typically makes for a grittier identity than those from other genres. Consequently, for many rappers, that persona is deemed an essential measure of credibility; so much so that many rappers will exaggerate that image when they really aren’t about that life.
Yet when that identity has met the mainstream, it’s traditionally struggled to find itself compatible with a more commercial sphere. The necessary professionalism, etiquette and maturity needed to operate beyond the periphery of the underground has often not been forthcoming from rappers. That’s manifested itself as tardiness when attending professional engagements, a distinct lack of media training (not every sentence needs to be rhetorically punctuated by “you get me?” when you’re on a mainstream platform) and an unawareness of some behaviours and vernacular just not being appropriate for mainstream audiences.
Even the ability to show a lighter side hasn’t always been apparent; incredulously, there’s been an underlying view that momentarily losing one’s screwface might actually erode the perception of an artist’s credibility. It was akin to the bashment scene before the likes of Elephant Man injected some of the fun back into the genre with his colourful visuals and acknowledgement of the dancing culture within the genre.
An inability to separate the road from the radio, incriminating themselves and others with reckless talk, and glamorising rather than articulating tales of the road, was once all too commonplace. Some might say said artists were keeping it real. But from a business perspective, it was keeping it real dumb.
That didn’t help the perception of the culture either. And given most rappers are black or assume the culture of the diaspora, it didn’t help the perception of the black community either (and we’re undoubtedly facing our own image problem without needing the aforementioned to compound it).
However, in recent years there’s been a shift and the scene has found a professionalism and maturity that it lacked for years. That’s provided a conduit for more artists, and the scene overall, into the mainstream and without necessarily needing to compromise with a watered down product. No longer is it mandatory to be tense at all times and even a burgeoning voice of genuine social consciousness has emerged.
It’s hard to pinpoint when or how the change came about. In the era of Chip (when he was still Chipmunk and mentioned in the same breath as Ice Kid), Tinchy Stryder et al entering the scene, major label investment in their media training was very obvious. Nevertheless, let’s not forget Chip came through via Alwayz Recording before signing to a major label. The business savvy of Alwayz Recording in knowing how to play the mainstream game was therefore apparent even before Sony got involved. And it was a similar story for others of that wave.
Tinie Tempah, one of the most commercially successful artists from the scene, quickly gained a reputation in the industry for his professionalism. In Tinie, there was an artist who was from a scene that was rapidly gaining traction and he eschewed the traits that meant the mainstream were still reluctant to engage with the artists who originated from it. He was punctual, articulate and knew how to engage his audience on a respective platform.
Newer and younger artists, who would have once been stuck with a paradigm of ignorance from previous artists, now had an exemplar on how to act accordingly beyond niche success while reaping the benefits of commercial and critical acclaim.
Achieving commercial and critical success has long been considered a challenge, just as the notion of rappers maintaining their credibility while showing a capacity for not taking themselves so seriously has long been elusive and seen as a dichotomy. The belief that these are mutually exclusive has long held back the scene but there’s been a shift in that perception to its betterment.
Giggs, undoubtedly one of the hardest and certified rappers in the scene, carries unquestionable authenticity in his bars. Yet he’s undoubtedly contributed to refuting the view that rappers need to be constantly tense. Check his Instagram account and contrary to what many might expect (and what the Daily Mail would gladly have you believe), you’ll see banter galore that in no way dilutes his credibility. Nor has his content changed in the process.
Buck, Giggs’ manager, brings similar content to his social media and like Giggs, he doesn’t feel compelled to perpetuate the portrayal some might ignorantly expect. A criticism of the scene was that its major players didn’t show any growth but Giggs and Buck show exactly why the scene has finally been able to move forward in embracing maturity without any loss in credibility.
On New Years Eve, Buck posted a video advising people to avoid any drama and to stay away from anywhere that might present avoidable trouble. For Buck to send such a positive message, but from a perspective of credibility that others might not possess, shows just how far the scene has matured and the direction it’s hopefully taking.
As the scene continues to grow, so does its social awareness. The 2017 UK General Election saw Labour make huge gains and the support of the scene and its fans for the Labour leader, accompanied by the hashtag #grime4corbyn, undoubtedly contributed to that. Although unlike some endorsements of politicians by musicians, this wasn’t a gimmick. Jeremy Corbyn’s desire and championing of social equality, juxtaposed with the inequality and growing poverty that has characterised Tory Britain, resonated with the scene.
This wasn’t faux political engagement. The socio-economic injustice of Tory Britain was something many within the scene had experienced first hand and were able to relate to. Furthermore, it signalled the advent of a social and political consciousness. Just look at how many from the scene have been vocal about Grenfell Tower, just as Stormzy was at the Brits? Whereas the dialogue occurring now would have previously been limited.
Increased unity and a willingness to collaborate has also facilitated the growth within the scene. One of the reasons southern rap experienced popularity while New York fell off was that southern rappers worked together while New York rappers wouldn’t. The UK scene has done the same and it’s brought about an attitude that means it no longer remains stagnant in its maturity.
Just as the players within it have matured, the grime and UK rap scene is finally beginning to evolve with them. While entry to the scene is typically at a young age, we can’t all maintain the mindset of our teens as we’re faced with the trappings of adulthood. Like Chris Rock said, no one wants to be the old guy in the club and the scene was at risk of becoming that old guy.
The grime and UK rap scene hasn’t lost any credibility as it modifies its outlook. Indeed, there are now artists that admittedly have a more commercial sound but that’s part of the scene’s expanding breadth. It’s also alongside the harder and signature content that it’s best known for. Instead, the scene is gradually losing the narrow perspective that long kept it in the shadows of the success and growth it’s now capable of achieving.