Grime has got INSANELY BIG in the last few years. More excitingly many of its leading figures have managed to hold on to creative control and their credibility. The basic conditions of the music game have changed and are still in flux. This in mind, we at team UKHH, still think that grime’s older sibling, UK hip hop, is yet to have its finest hour.
While believing that UK hip hop’s golden era could be around the corner may seem foolishly optimistic, it might not be that far- fetched. As the wheels of industry have been turning in overdrive to push grime’s armoured battalion loudly forward into new territory, another less documented explosion has been occurring. A relative lack of investment and share of the spotlight hasn’t stopped artists across the country advancing the style in countless directions. Hip hop has taken creative leaps forward and for those leading the charge, it’s started to pay off.
In celebration of the innovators who are paving the way for a wider audience for the genre (without allowing themselves to be watered down), here’s a list of 12 acts and why they’re relevant in 2019…
Since this list has to start somewhere, Ocean Wisdom seems like a natural choice. The top billing High Focus artist already knew what he was onto with Chaos ‘93 and said it brazenly in his lyrics on the debut album. With an undeniable talent for stringing together aggressively rapid flow patterns that could have easily meant gravitating towards grime, the MC tied his flag to the hip hop mast, blending the genres together as formidably as anyone else has done to date. And the rest is history. With second album Wizville dispelling any doubts that Chaos was an anomaly, Wizzy stayed true to his style without going pop or full grime and pulled in features from names as impressive as Dizzee Rascal and Method Man.
With huge shows, millions of views and truckload of money in his wake, what happens next is anybody’s guess. Whether the third LP will be dropping on HF or a major label, or his style takes a turn, his body of work and consequent explosion so far has set a standard that’s raised the profile of UK hip hop sizeably.
The fact that it’s even possible for Kojey Radical to be famous at all, spells something unprecedented and massively exciting for the UK’s hip hop and grime scenes. Perhaps even for the music industry at large.
In a way, the last decade or so has primed the public for Kojey’s arrival. Grime has laid the paving towards smashing a ceiling on real artists that has seemed to always exist. Enforced by the rule that it’s impossible to get truly big, without in some way diluting or sacrificing the ethic that made an artist good/great to begin with. With links to and influence from grime that have allowed him to capitalise on that fan base, the stylistically unpigeonholeable Kojey has incorporated an educated rage, political leanings and propensity for poetry into his output that puts his music up therewith the most powerful hip hop lyricists. More than just meaning that his music resonates with hip hop die-hards, the appetite for Kojey’s message amongst grime’s huge following is hopefully a sign that a renaissance of conscious lyricists (hip hop and beyond) in the UK could be on the rise.
Catching the final date of Kojey’s Can I Speak Tour in Camden in November was a serious moment. Playing to a packed out KoKo with guest appearances from the likes of Wretch 32, Shola Ama and Etta Bond, the atmosphere in the crowd (that included Kojey’s family members) was completely electric. Beyond a triumphant homecoming, the show felt like a vindication for someone who’d stayed fiercely true to an ethic, choosing to take the road less travelled and reaching peaks that should be impossible for somebody so opposed to the status quo.
A year ago, Kojey had already been about for time and built himself an impressive body of work and dedicated following. 2018 saw him put out his most accessible music to date without dumbing down, smash a bunch of big festival slots, a European tour and gain a celebrity level of fame. If anyone can be expected not to let that kind of platform water them down, it’s Mr Radical.
We’ve been watching Simz since Marilyn. Way back then in 2013, the teen MC was already mad adept with the flow. Much like Remus at the time (who also slayed his verse on ‘Marilyn Monroe’), Little Simz exuded musical leanings informed by a deep immersion in real hip hop and a lyrical maturity way beyond her meagre years.
Since then Simbi Ajikawo has levelled up her career again and again, taking leaps forward while seemingly being unphased by the cyclone of attention around her. Having already been on a steady rise in the UK, the moment of realisation that she might be on the road to becoming truly huge came in 2017. Doing the obligatory online rinse of bars the day after the BET Awards, there was Simz completely bodying the opening verse of a cypher with a mob of stateside Gs. As a relatively small fish in the shark pool of US hip hop, not only did she seem unworried but she styled on them and laid down some fire that made a bunch of MCs performances that year look weak.
Fast forward. At present Simbi has established herself as a global threat. With an impressive tour history, lucrative brand partnerships, 5 EPs and 2 full albums, her own expanding independent label (AGE 101), global distribution and her own frikkin festival already behind her… she’s in a stronger position than ever ahead of third album Grey Area. The slew of singles already released from the new project sound like an artist grown into something harder and more assured. Musically, Simz new material that’s dropped thusfar is both nostalgia inducing and fresh, both US influenced and screaming of London, both on trend and subversive. 2019 is going to be big.
As one of High Focus records’ starting line-up when the label first surfaced, Jam Baxter is another artist on this list whose style since day should intuitively seem completely antithetical to mainstream success. Appearing around 2009 (on HF supergroup Contact Play’s Champion Fraff), Jam possessed a lyrical approach that shared more in common with Def Jux wordplay on the more abstract sub-scene of American hip hop that had blossomed out of the death of the Golden Era, than it did with any of his UK contemporaries at the time. Blending a constant use of darkly complex metaphors that require decoding to digest (drawing from the school of thought pioneered by the likes of Aesop Rock) with equally complicated but more rigid and distinctly UK flow patterns, his style (despite imitation) remains uniquely his.
10 years later, mention Aesop and 95 out of 100 young-uns think you’re talking about Asap Rocky. But a tonne of them know who Jam Baxter is. While obviously that point is massively skewed by the fact that he’s UK and Aesop might still carry bigger clout with the youth in the States, what’s impressive is that in 2019 having a subversive taste in the bizarre end of hip hop isn’t a precondition for being a JB fan. His strange abrasiveness hasn’t been an impediment to his success.
Pinning his notoriety to being part of the HF behemoth since it began, would be a gross oversimplification. His style played a big part in them blowing up in the first place. Tracking forward to the present day, latest release Touching Scenes takes Baxter’s unlikely viability a step further. Single ‘Saliva’ features the same disgust at the world he’s always spewed, rolled into a beast of a tune that sounds chartable. As this was followed up quickly by a track featuring triple Brit Award winner Rag’n’Bone Man, the question of where the glass ceiling could be for a rapper as scathing as Baxter, is still up for debate.
Which brings us neatly to…
In terms of character, you have to possess a bunch of it to become a global star and not let it change you. Rag‘n’Bone Man is a rare example of doing exactly that.
Having taken a massive deal with Columbia Records that catapulted him to a level of fame beyond any of his Rum Committee fam or High Focus label mates, the artist put in the required time playing (at least to a degree) by the rules of the big league in order to establish himself as an award-winning bankable name.
2018 seemed to herald the end of that play-nice groundwork period. Having elevated himself to the point where his name carries enough weight that he can do whatever he wants, Rags chose to return to the fold with a string of releases featuring him doing away with the pop melodies altogether to focus on the music that gave him his first leg up from obscurity. Release ‘Smoke Screen’ saw him feature under the pseudonym Ennio Lion with Jehst earlier in the year (possibly down to label restrictions on the use of the Rag’n’Bone Man brand). Shortly after he cast off the shackle of thinly masking his involvement and started putting the name he’s popularly known by on releases, including mega-tune ‘Standard’ with Foreign Beggars.
Rag n Bone Man’s reappearance in the UK hip hop scene with a select number of features on tunes by a few of its heroes including Dabbla, Jam Baxter and Dirty Dike lends added weight and legitimacy to the hard-earnt momentum that the genre has finally started to gain.
Manchester in recent years has experienced an explosion in UK hip hop talent, that has established a distinct identity for the city while growing the scene’s viability through a number of key acts managing to cross over creatively in multiple directions, making music that is both intelligent and accessible.
So much so that choosing an entry which epitomises the ‘Manchester hip hop sound’ is very difficult. The Mouse Outfit? Good shout. But with their ever changing line-up of guest artists, pinning down who/what they are is hard. LEVELZ? Absolutely ridiculous line up of MCs. But with their range of influences, a stretch to label their body of work overall as hip hop.
Our final selection, residing at Room2 Records (along with a host of other artists who’d be worthy of this list) are something of a super-group, straddling members of both collectives above. And they’re hip hop as fuck. Somehow, given A) the calibre of the music they’re making and B) the spotlight their line-up is in as a result of separate outputs, Voodoo Black at present are massively under-exposed. Consisting of DJ Cutterz, Sparkz, Dubbul O and Ellis Meade, VB make hooky, infectious, rhythm driven Mancunian hip hop of the highest calibre. We’d put them high up on our list of acts most likely to blow up over the next couple years.
With a musical style and general ethic that on the surface might make the Blah Records bossman seem like the least likely to dent the mainstream, Lee Scott has managed to do just that. And is only continuing to grow.
In part, this is no doubt down to some very hard grafting, both as a surprisingly shrewd businessman and as possibly the most prolific lyricist out of anyone in recent years. Whether Lee’s style is your cup of chai or not, it’s impossible to deny the magnitude of what the Cult leader has achieved.
The genius that’s allowed Blah to grow at such a scale is essentially a knack for playing everything as a strength…
Can’t afford to rapidly expand a label that puts out a huge amount of content for a high number of artists at the same time as paying a tonne on making every visual look pro? Make weird, intentionally shitty quality videos your trademark. Can’t outflow the most tech spitters? Make not giving a fuck about that your ethic. You can’t argue with “I don’t care.”
While making light work of taking any potential hurdle and turning it on its head into a step up, over the years, something massive and ungodly has formed around Lee. Whether by chance or as an inevitable outcome of the sheer gravitational pull of so many minus-fucks-given creating a black hole of amused nihilism around Blah’s centre… Lee Scott has surrounded himself with an increasingly sizeable gang of artists with the same mindset and ethic. There’s strength in numbers. While organising the messy crew of reprobates that make up Blah Records/Cult of the Damned into any kind of unit is presumably similar to herding cats that did all the catnip, all that potential chaos has been harnessed and unified under the banner of “fuck it” into something unstoppable. The beast that is Blah has continued to lurch forward unchecked.
If this list was based purely on stats (sales/views), Gen ‘The General’ might seem like the odd one out. Undisputedly the longest in the game out of this line up, Genesis Elijah owes his place on the roster to an impressive adaptability.
This growling tank of an MC comes from the era where UK hip hop arguably took its biggest surge forward, while grime was in its infancy and as a scene very much hip hop’s younger brother. Gen’s album Deh Pon Road, is one that epitomises the sound of UK hip hop in the early to mid 2000s. While UKHH camp and presumably a lot of our readership have a huge amount of love for the sound of that time (including the artists still making music that resonates at that frequency today), respect is nonetheless due for acts that can stay true to what is at their core while upgrading and modifying themselves in a way that keeps them current.
Staying ill while embracing the future is Genesis all over. 2018 saw the lyricist drop two EPs, How To Lose Fans And Alienate Listeners and It Will All End In Tears, in addition to killer releases unrelated to either project (see ‘5AM In Wakanda’ and ‘Spooky’). Incorporating everything from dancehall-esque vocoders on UK rap style hookage , to trap and grime instrumental stylings, Genesis mashed together everything new into his sound all the while interspersed with his signature spitting style.
Whether Gen has reached the heights of some other artists on this line-up (or ever does) isn’t what makes his career trajectory relevant for this list. Criminally overlooked or not… The fact is that Gen is bankable. Gen’s stylistic viability to date is a blueprint on how old dogs can adapt to smash out the new tricks of their youngers with all the assured style gained from years of experience. In an imaginary future where UK hip hop blows dafuk up by 2020, the ability to evolve possessed by the likes of Gen could be what ensures that hip hop’s old guard will have a seat at the table.
It’s fair to say that UKHH can be firmly placed in the category of IAMDDB fans. The debate of whether she really fits into the category of hip hop (and therefore the scope of artists we cover) has come up a few times and each time resulted in unanimous support for her inclusion. Most of the time, doing at least some raps is kind of the prerequisite for a vocalist being allowed to stand under the umbrella of UK hip hop. Exceptions occur though and as the UK’s answer to Erykah Badu for the trap generation, IAMDDB is one such outlier.
Another example of the Manchester scene’s seemingly infinite ability to nurture artists that create their own unique facet on the city’s increasingly vibrant hip hop spectrum… IAMDDB is the sort of artist whose music sounds so much like RIGHT NOW, that it seems unbelievable that she’s been making it that way for more than a minute. As if waiting for the present to catch up, Diana Debrito, emerged (at least on to our radars) in September 2016 with Inka collab ‘Leaned Out’ as a seemingly fully developed artist. Informed by a love of Jazz and harmonies, empowered by a do-whatever-feels-right ethic and normally found occupying a sonic space in the wavy, trap-influenced corner of hip hop, the Northern songstress has been on a constant rise.
Having already laid some formidable ground work, 2018 was well and truly her year. Triumphs included: The continued runaway success of 2017’s ‘Shade’ spiralling it upwards to true anthem status (now over 20 Million views on YouTube), a consistently dope handful of solo releases, featuring heavily on the third album from The Mouse Outfit, a massive touring schedule and becoming a global style icon. She still seems bare humble all things considered.
Trying to sum up what 808INK are musically is nigh on impossible in any specific sense. Creating a sonic landscape that is unique unto them from a garage in Deptford, the terrain changes stylistically from one tune to the next. MC/Producer combo Mumblez and 808Charmer draw on everything from G-funk to house. Underneath the melting pot of styles that endows their music with the constant ability to surprise, one dominant influence at the core of their sound is the constant that gives the 808INK sound cohesion. The “Dreality” world they’ve created for themselves undoubtedly owes its spirit and its rhythmic roots (both in production and flows) to hip hop, both US and UK.
Above all, consistently making tunes that are both credible and danceable is key to their continued success. The effectively simple method of dropping banger after banger has ensured radio play, club rotation and festival shows popping the fuck off. Whether it’s the house influenced ‘Suede Jaw’ that’s been a go-to energise tune at UKHH HQ for 3 years now, the infinitely bump-and-grindable ‘Top Flow’ or the aggressive Uzi burst of last September’s ‘Gummy Bears’, 808INK provide hype in abundance.
If this list seems a bit High Focus heavy, that shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Fourth and final mention on this list goes to Zander Whitehead aka Fliptrix. With an impressively profuse creative work-rate that’s involved; dropping 7 solo albums since 2010, 2 albums as one quarter of The Four Owls, countless features and live performances all over the world, Flips has achieved a huge amount as an artist. Impressive as that is, the biggest impact he has made in the music scene is as the lanky workaholic behind the wheel of High Focus Records.
The label, which came about partly by chance (when Jehst gave Zander the advice to put out Theory of Rhyme himself instead of a long wait for it to come out on YnR), has exceeded what anyone could have expected at the time. Beyond becoming the biggest UK hip hop Independent, HF has expanded the scene itself.
Success always comes with at least some haters. Taste is subjective, so if you don’t like HF that’s neither right or wrong. That said, next time you hear a hipster in their early 20s trying to cultivate the aura of a scene elder by telling some keen teenagers that High Focus is for young, white kids who only know about High Focus, it might be worth resisting the urge to slap everyone in the conversation and instead point out the following…
1. Some of the lesser known rappers they deem more credible are on labels that have literally thrived or even came about because of the cash influx into the scene created by the spending power of the ever expanding HF fanbase.
2. For years the label has been home to veterans such as King Kashmere, Ramson Badbonez and Verb T who were earning their stripes before hipsters were even a thing.
3. They’ve never gone even remotely pop. They’ve just got popular.
4. Hipsters criticising HF for being the gateway drug to hip hop blatently got into hip hop via HF two years ago.
In conclusion… Massive big ups to Flips for building a
monster of a label from scratch.
Children of Zeus:
Consisting of vocal duo, Konny Kon and Tyler Daley, CoZ are a testament to how far you can go when you inject a little soul into the mix.
While remaining undisputedly hip hop, Children of Zeus’ tendency to embrace other genres has been key to their success. Appropriately Signed to the musically eclectic First Word Records (amongst a spectrum of jazzy-funky-neo-souly-electronica and beyond), the duo has built dedicated followings in other scenes that have greatly aided them on their rise. A big part of that is down to Tyler Daley’s unique singing voice that appeals to soul fans as much as his bars do to hip hop heads. The same talent for melody has seen him become hot property for the warm, chilled end of liquid drum and bass, with a number of big name collaborations including Red Eyes, LSB and DJ Marky.
Ratings from the DnB community for these outings as a guest vocalist coupled with wide adoration of the massive Lenzman version of CoZ’s ‘Still Standing’ (which won Best Remix at the 2016 Drum & Bass Awards) has allowed them to attract a large number of fans in another demographic that a lot of hip hop artists don’t infiltrate.
2018 saw the release and runaway success of Travel Light. With a subsequent tour that saw them playing all over the country throughout the summer including a tonne of festivals that placed them high on the bill, the transition of the two Mancunians into the big leagues was complete. As a finishing move, in the final moments of 2018 Children of Zeus dropped The Winter Tape LP for free. Intended first and foremost as a thank-you to their fans, the completely dope project also carried the implication that they’re in the position where they can casually hand out gold. Which is a big hint at the likely calibre of what they’ve got planned next. Just watch.