Most Brits can relate to the frustration of hyper-stereotyped impressions of UK culture- “tea and biscuits”, and so on. Nowadays, however, you’re just as likely to hear (equally terrible) impressions of UK ‘roadmen’ thrown in the mix, in no small part thanks to the international success of Top Boy and Drake’s relentless championing of UK music.
The UK has never quite got the respect that it deserves for its contributions to hip hop canon. Narrated by Ashley Walters (AKA Asher D), of So Solid Crew and Top Boy fame, BBC Sounds’ new audio series ‘How the UK Changed Hip-Hop Forever’ aims to rectify this, from Slick Rick to Ribena, in view of hip hop’s upcoming fiftieth birthday on 11th August.
Tracing the traditional hip hop narrative that many will be familiar with (spoilers: It started in the Bronx), ‘How the UK Changed Hip-Hop Forever’ makes a notable departure in exploring the often overlooked British influences that were behind some of these landmark moments. Jay Z’s time spent on Harrow Road in the 80s, or the featuring of audio from Public Enemy’s 1987 Hammersmith Odeon performance on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for example, are compelling deep-cuts that serve the point well, albeit still slightly confined to the gaze of American popular music.
It was especially pleasant to hear the series’ exploration of drill music, and how British producers such as Axl Beats defined the sound just as much as Chief Keef. This cross-Atlantic dialectic reached fruition with the recent success of Central Cee, possibly the most popular drill artist yet.
Personally, this series also gave rise to the question of why these early contributions were so silent, so overlooked. For example, why did it take Estelle moving to the US to make it big, or for Timbaland and Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Your Freak On’ to shed light on Whitehall’s burgeoning Desi music culture at the turn of the century?
Recent moments like Drake recognising some of the best rappers as coming from the UK have been a long time coming, and have taken the combined efforts of a whole nation of artists and platforms. There may not be much in common sonically between Slick Rick and Central Cee, but both are connected by a common culture and musical lineage, and you can’t tell the story of the latter without the former. Fifty years on from the birth of hip hop, there is some small smugness to be found in knowing that the UK is now an integral part of the global hip hop story. Period.