By Alex Bartiromo
I have always considered myself something of an Anglophile. Growing up in New York, I admired the wit and expression that the British seem to possess and display effortlessly. I was raised on Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By re-runs on my TV and The Kinks on my stereo. Hell, I am listening to Blur as I write this. So, despite the fact that I have never even come close to setting foot on the land of Ray Davies and McVitie’s digestive biscuits, it comes as no surprise that, when I first started getting into hip-hop, I would turn to Great Britain immediately. It also probably comes as no surprise that most Americans are not like me in that sense, and there are a few reasons why.
Now, I am going to speak in generalities that are not representative of the entire population, but rather reflective of the experiences I have had in America dealing with hip-hop from the UK. And so, from what I have seen, Americans tend not to give British hip-hop the benefit of their attention for reasons which range from interesting to absolutely ridiculous.
Let’s start with one that falls into the latter. The first and most common thing that Americans hear and dislike when they listen to British hip-hop is the accent. Lame, I know. Many of my friends and peers whom I have tried to expose to rappers such as Task Force or Rhyme Asylum say that they simply cannot take the claims of the rappers seriously because of how they sound. Considering that many Americans are willing to listen to Ol’ Dirty Bastard or Danny Brown, this argument holds no water. However, there are two factors that may play into why it is made anyway. The first is that people are uncomfortable with the unknown or uncommon. Because a British accent is not something that Americans are used to hearing in this context, they are disconcerted when they hear it and immediately conclude that they do not like it at all. Most people can relate to this; if not in hip-hop then in their government’s attitude towards immigrants or exotic food. The second reason is that many people in the US associate a British accent with being posh. This sounds silly, but while they are not totally oblivious to the goings-on of their cross-Atlantic neighbor, many Americans erroneously assume that Great Britain is Downton Abbey and that it lacks the urban havoc that US hip-hop is so representative of. Anyone who paid attention to last year’s London riots or any EDL protest could see that this is simply not true, and yet the notion persists. For these types of people, a little bit more education and a great deal more exposure would go a long way.
Another argument that I have seen wielded against UK hip-hop is that the lyrical content is not relatable to stateside audiences. While it is true that UK hip-hop has much more of a self-depreciating streak than its American counterpart, and while UK “battle” or horrorcore tracks generally have more elements of fantasy (compare “Now you wanna run around/ talkin’ ‘bout guns like I ain’t got none/ What you think I sold ‘em all?” to “I was fed breast cancer and bottles of Arsenic/ Blind swordsman wandering darkness/ Fuck cash, I’ll drop the queen’s severed head in the offering basket”), many of the tropes, themes, and topics mentioned in UK hip-hop are the same as the ones that abound in US hip-hop. For example, Enlish’s 2011 release, Cold Lazarus, has a mix of battle tracks and introspective raps that is essentially a Cornish take on the classic 90s hip-hop album format. I’ve found that the people who say that UK hip-hop is not “relatable” simply do not listen to very interesting music in general. Their distaste for interesting UK hip-hop does not actually to do with how it compares to American hip-hop, but rather how it compares with pop hits in the charts. Indeed, these people would probably enjoy “Bonkers”, but would reject Boy In Da Corner altogether (for the record, I think “Bonkers” is a good pop track).
One of the most confusing things that I have heard about UK hip-hop over here is that Americans invented hip-hop, and are the only ones who can make it properly. People who espouse this point of view must be incredibly lazy and unwilling to give any sort of “different” music a chance, because the argument has so many holes in it that it practically does not exist. If this argument were true, then modern rock music would not exist in the US and Skrillex would be working an office job in Los Angeles! What would happen if black people decided that, since they created blues music, white people could not practice it? Well, there goes Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, you name it. This argument is so insipid that it is difficult to even think about without grimacing, so let us move on.
So far, the points of view presented have been, for the most part, weightless, and have consisted more of random prejudice than legitimate reasoning. Perhaps there is one, however, that is worth fleshing out a bit, and that is that UK hip-hop is simply not as original as its American counterpart and therefore is less interesting. If one were to look at the mainstream, this claim would appear true. Artists like Tinie Tempah or Professor Green bring little new to the table, and are greatly indebted to their forebearers, such as Eminem or Dizzee Rascal, whereas, in the US, even the most mainstream of artists, like Kanye West or Drake are constantly innovating and changing the expectations of their listeners (whether or not their music is good is a different debate). Even classic UK rappers like Jehst or Skinnyman are bound to remind listeners of Nas, Big Pun, and to an extent, early Ice Cube.
However, this argument falls short in regards to the modern UK underground hip-hop scene. An American who claims that his countrymen are the ones setting the standard for hip-hop would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the US who combines streetwise observations, political theory, and poetry into his songs, as The Ruby Kid does, or someone who could rap about being lazy in as overtly positive tones as JollyJay and H-to-O do. And let’s not forget that the entire genre of grime is an offshoot of hip-hop in the UK itself, one that Americans have not even dabbled in. Like most music, the main creative force comes from the underground, from artists who are hungry and willing to experiment and not from those who are already at the top (with some exceptions, of course). Americans who are willing to see that in their own music but not in Britain’s are a bit myopic in their musical taste and should explore a bit farther.
This piece may seem a bit moot to readers of this blog, because you guys already like UK hip-hop. However, it is important to understand why some Americans seem to miss the point of the music so much, and I hope that I explored some of the main reasons. My ability to reference artists is limited by the fact that I am a semi-knowledgeable, but ultimately casual fan of UK hip-hop, and not an expert by any means. It is also worth repeating that I am generalizing about the experiences I have had, and I am sure there are many Americans who listen to UK hip-hop and appreciate it as much, if not more, than I do.
- 10 Classic UK Hip Hop Tracks You May Not Have Heard (tomclementsuk.com)