by Mike Vinti

For the past few years, hidden away from the mainstream media, and even much of the music press, British Rap has been flourishing. Rap in the UK comes in two major forms; Grime and UK Hip Hop. The Grime Renaissance of 2014/5 has seen the genre reinvigorated, keeping the best elements of its mid-2000s domination and pushing its boundaries both in terms of lyricism and production. On the UK Hip Hop side of things, labels like High Focus and Blah! Records have been slowly gaining more and more of a following, carving out a fresh faced, DIY oriented scene and shrugging off the ‘crusty’ aspersions that have come with the genre for so long.

Due to the frankly immense volume of rap music coming out the UK right now, this article will be in two halves, each dealing with one side of Britain’s rap world ­­— this week, UK Hip Hop!

While hip hop in the US has slowly become co-opted by major labels and product placement (looking at you Dr. Dre) the recent blossoming of the British scene has been almost untouched by them.  As such, the communities surrounding both UK Hip Hop and Grime take pride in a collaborative, grass roots approach to making music.

High Focus Records, founded by Fliptrix, is one of the most high profile outfits for UK Hip Hop. It specialises in an anglicised, exaggerated version of ‘Boom Bap’ and has become the focal point of a scene that’s found new life. The label maintains a strong community ethos despite its growing success and you can catch its MCs and producers all over one another tracks.

As such, the communities surrounding both UK Hip Hop and Grime take pride in a collaborative, grass roots approach to making music.

The stars of the label are undeniably UK Hip Hop ‘super group’ The Four Owls. They consist of four of High Focus’ most talented MCs: BVA, Fliptrix, Verb T, and Leaf Dog. Their lyrical dexterity and wicked sense of humour has earned them respect, both within the UK and from across the Atlantic. Their latest album features production from Gang Star’s DJ Premier and they’ve been touring almost non-stop since 2012, including at Norwich’s own Epic Studios last week, where they tore the place apart. For those readers unfamiliar with the cartoonish tendencies of the 90s hip hop from which High Focus draws its inspiration — be aware, these guys don’t do it by halves.

(The Four Owls © youtube)

For those readers unfamiliar with the cartoonish tendencies of the 90s hip hop from which High Focus draws its inspiration — be aware, these guys don’t do it by halves.

Dirty Dike in particular has a tendency and talent for spitting deliberately offensive, crude and often gruesome bars, and many of his label mates find themselves in murky waters from time to time as well. While it may offend some, this kind of brash, ‘no fucks given’ approach to song writing is what makes High Focus important in the current UK music scene; shattering the twee world of James Bay and The Voice in favour of bars about outrageous crimes, self-deprecating put downs, and hard hitting production. More importantly, it’s hilarious. See Dike’s new single ‘Future Posse Cut One Thousand’ for a rundown of the labels brightest and best.

For those more into ‘conscious’ rap, fear not, our drizzly isle can still provide some home grown hip hop for you. London based Hawk House put out easily one of the best classical hip hop albums of 2014, on either side of the Atlantic, in the form of ‘A Handshake to Your Brain’. Structured like a series of lectures, fusing science with street life through songs titled as Topics, Interludes or Experiments, the album deals with everything from gang peer pressure to ‘the weaponised mind’.

What sets Hawk House apart from the crowd however is both the presence of a female MC, a welcome change in the UK scene, and the emotiveness of their work. Their ability to craft deeply personal yet highly accessible verse is shown best on ‘Her Anatomy (Interlude 1)’ a moving, complex ode to a rape survivor that simultaneously humanises and empowers the ‘her’ in question. It’s some of their best lyricism and a far cry from the misogyny that lingers over a lot of hip hop. Their ability to create incredibly moving and ‘conscious’ hip hop in a way that is neither preachy nor overly emotional, combined with a chilled out, diverse catalogue of beats means ‘A Handshake to The Brain’ is a perfect example of the UK Hip Hop scene’s strength.

(Hawk House © postelliot)

Akala straddles both sides of the British Rap world, able to hold his own against any Grime MC when it comes to speed or delivery, yet focusing on hip hop on record. His lyricism is notorious among those in the know, and his latest album is streaming on Noisey currently. Heavily conscious and political, Akala raps about everything from institutional racism to social justice. Listening to him freestyle feels like you’re learning something and there are Members of Parliament who could get schooled on politics by him. He’s also the only artist to be granted a ‘Part 3’ to Charlie Sloth’s Fire in Booth sessions on 1Xtra. All three parts bear repeated listening. Anyone that doubts the political potential of rap, sit down and take notes, you’ll be a better person for it.

Anyone that doubts the political potential of rap, sit down and take notes, you’ll be a better person for it.

More and more artists from both ends of the UK Rap spectrum have been cropping up in Norwich of late, with Manchester’s The Mouse Outfit playing Epic Studios last night(Friday 3rd April) and Akala, Jam Baxter and, High Focus label-mate, Edward Scissortongue having all graced Bedford’s Crypt courtesy of Norwich’s own MAD Collective.

Hip Hop in the UK has come a long way from the mumbled, smoked out attempts of the 90s. The artists above are just some, and not even necessarily the best, that Britain has to offer when it comes to hip hop. Aspiring ‘heads should be sure to check out Rejjie Snow, Sub Luna City, and Jesse James Solomon for extra-listening. As the US continues its ATL/ Trap obsession, it’s refreshing to hear some regional accents keeping the old school alive, as well as pushing it forwards.

Read Home Grown Part 2: Grime.

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