by Mike Vinti
Local festival Boom-Bap announced its line-up last week to considerable hype from Facebook’s ‘heads and a somewhat more muted response from the Norwich/ Norfolk public at large. Boom Bap, as the name suggests, is a hip-hop festival — this year it’s taking place in the Suffolk countryside from 5th-7th June. It’s been running for a few years now and is part of an expanding hip-hop and rap scene in Norwich and the surrounding marsh-land between here and Yarmouth. So far they’ve announced Odd Future’s kid wonder Earl Sweatshirt and Skepta collaborating New York group RATKING as headliners, with cult legends Jehru the Damaja and Homeboy Sandman taking high slots on the bill as well. If you were to visit the corner of the internet where rap nerds meet, you’d find thread after thread of discussion and hype surrounding each of these artists, but talk to most people in Norwich or even at the youthful bubble that is the University of East Anglia and they won’t have a clue who you’re talking about.
This is no slight on those people, music is subjective, there’s a lot of it, blah blah blah, but I couldn’t help but wonder why in particular so few people, outside of those who are borderline obsessed, know about Hip-Hop in the UK?
The immediate and obvious answer is that it’s a genre whose roots are firmly on the other side of the Atlantic. Hip-hop was born and bred on the streets of big, tough American cities like New York and Chicago (east sideeee) with high levels of unemployment and street crime, a struggle that thankfully, isn’t as familiar to people in the UK as it is in the US. However we’ve had the internet for over ten years now and America has been exporting musical trends to the UK since Hendrix, so the logic that hip-hop doesn’t resonate with people in Britain because of geography doesn’t really stand-up.
So what about cultural issues? The UK and the US aren’t worlds apart culturally, but there is some difference and the caricatured ‘mainstream’ incarnations of hip-hop that end up in the British charts can create a picture of a genre that revels in its own success and likes to show it off; a tendency that has never gone down to well on our fair isles.
Yet most hip-hop, contrary to what ITV and Sky News may think, isn’t exclusively about diamonds and the objectification of women. It’s political, emotional, and for want of a better word ‘real’. Hip-hop has its own notion of authenticity; as long as you make good music and don’t forget your roots you’ll be respected. Unlike so much of the popular music that dominates the charts hip-hop is made by mostly working class artists and shock horror, it reflects the reality of life in the ‘ghetto’ for many people.
Since its breakthrough into the mainstream, which for many people was when a white guy started doing it (shout out to slim shady), hip-hop has been constantly criticised for glorifying violence, drug dealing, and homophobia; most often by middle class parents and white, middle aged men on the TV. These are problems that should be understood within their context.
Guns, drugs and gangs don’t exist because people started rapping about them; people started rapping about them because they existed.
This isn’t to excuse problematic views that some rappers hold, but it’s important to note that these are real struggles. Everyday people in the richest and supposedly most powerful nation on earth have to navigate these challenges and hip-hop is part of that navigation, it’s a means through which people that have been denied opportunity can speak out and if they make it big, get out. In the words of the late Capital Steez ‘it’s a shame that flipping crack’ll be the best alternative if you don’t make it rapping’.
Hip-hop is a genre steeped in oppression, the reality of life in Englewood or on the corner of 64th and Normal is complex and often dangerous. Local authorities have more or less abandoned many of the neighbourhoods from which hip-hop grew. Much like inner city London, schools are under-resourced, job are underpaid, and social housing is underfunded, not to mention the issues surrounding race in the US.
Many of the artists within hip-hop’s canon reflect these struggles and take aim at those at the top, who protect police officers from prison time when they kill unarmed black men — Eric Garner, Michael Brown, sadly the list goes on — while at the same time enforcing mandatory minimums on drug charges that disproportionately affect minorities.
When the system is so heavily rigged against the poor and minorities, can you blame rappers for bragging about their wealth when they make it?
Hip-hop is the ‘political revolution’ the music press have been waiting for since Grunge turned out to be more about Heroin than poverty — the Telegraph just haven’t realised it yet. On their latest album Run The Jewels hit back against the ‘global grand dragons’ that run late-Capitalism, brilliantly mocking and taking down the establishment while at the same time capturing the raw aggression and disenfranchisement of the streets. If you haven’t listened to it you’re missing out. RTJ2 was universally hailed as one the albums of last year, but sadly it’s one of the few hip-hop albums to get mainstream coverage.
Boom Baps’s two headliners are perfect examples of intelligent, progressive hip-hop that has been ignored by a lot of the mainstream press. Earl Sweatshirt spits broken, dark poetry about the tribulations of growing up in LA and RATKING rap about the gentrification of New York with boundless enthusiasm. There is an entire world of political and boundary pushing music that could be classified as hip-hop, every city in the US has its own sound and every borough within that, and if you’re not open to it because you’re ‘not really into rap’ then more fool you.