Despite being rampantly commodified to pander to popular tastes and thus losing much of the old spirit of dissent it used to evoke, hip-hop has always been and will continue to be a voice for cultural outsiders wanting to challenge hegemony and power. Although many hip-hop artists will at some time or other spout off inevitable establishment-bashing tropes, very few will remain so unflinching in their disdain for the power-hungry as Lowkey. The UK emcee of half-British, half-Iraqi parentage endeavours to shine spotlight on subjects that those in power would rather keep hidden, in addition to making a conscious decision to forgo corporate backing entirely in a bid to leave one of the most remarkable legacies, not only in hip-hop, but in modern music. Though yet to be co-opted by the mainstream, Lowkey can still boast remarkable pulling power; his videos regularly garnering hundreds of thousands of views within very short periods of time on YouTube with the aid of Guerilla-style filmmaker Globalfaction. His current fanbase now spans continents, thus proving the transcendent power of his music.
In his fledgling years he, like many other London emcees, cut his teeth battling, cyphering and freestyling at Deal Real, a hip-hop workshop on Carnaby Street to which he can attribute his initial development and growth as an artist. Allied to this is his credible stream of underground releases, which includes Dear Listener, his critically-acclaimed debut album released back in ’08. A veritable feast of UK hip-hop treats, it will remain a UK hip-hop classic much in the same vein as Voice of the Great Outdoors by Task Force and Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind. Since then, Lowkey’s stature in the game has increased to such an extent that the hype surrounding his new album is quite simply unprecedented for an unsigned hip-hop artist. His long-anticipated sophomore release titled Soundtrack to the Struggle is a vast 20-track assemblage spanning various stages in the artist’s creative process over the last year or so. Indeed, this is an album the world simply needs to hear, from a man who can boast the pulling power to single-handedly change the current state of hip-hop. By acquiring an organic, solid and loyal fanbase, he is encouraging his audiences to become savvier about the music they consume and is forcefully pushing the case for the independent artist. An outspoken critic of Western governments and cultural imperialism, Lowkey has become a leading light in a new wave of hip-hop music emanating from the UK that aims to agitate the industry and hopefully change people’s opinions about the world for the better.
Perpetually wearing his heart on his sleeve, he projects his vehemently anti-imperialist stance, such as by rebuking the out-and-out sociopathy of political leaders, namely President Obama. Indeed he unapologetically lambasts the US president in a stream of unilateral invective with Obama Nation: ‘The world’s entertainer, the world’s devastator / Bomb Venezuela to, Mesopotamia’. So far garnering over 1.5 million views on YouTube, the song is reflective of the prevailing discontent with the current president in society and even in mainstream hip-hop. Such is the case that a lyric of Lupe Fiasco’s is sampled in Obama Nation Part 2, a track released earlier in the summer: Glenn Beck is a racist, Limbaugh is a racist / Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit. Edmonton rhymer Black The Ripper features, as does M-1 of afrocentric political hip-hop duo Dead Prez who both do an effective job of conveying stark messages to the listener. Production-wise the effect is also chilling, with its sparse minor piano keys and minimalist drum beat riff all courtesy of Nutty P. The West London beatmaker extraordinaire features prominently in the album’s production stakes, such as on Blood, Sweat and Tears, a track which celebrates the trials and tribulations of the struggling independent artist who overcomes a wealth of setbacks in the industry through assiduous endeavour. Featuring Klashnekoff, previously of Terra Firma and an undisputed luminary of the UK hip-hop scene, the track is most certain to please UK hip-hop enthusiasts.
Production-wise, the album is further bolstered by the presence of celebrated UK beatmaker Quincey Tones, who’s previously worked with likes of Yungun, Royce Da 5’9”, Masta Ace and Q-Unique, and famed for his remix of Jay-Z’s “I Know” which was dubbed better than the original. Displaying his deft approach to sampling, he produces Cradle of Civilisation, a heartfelt ode to Iraq (Lowkey’s ancestral homeland) featuring a poignant chorus sung in Arabic by Mai Khalil, a British RnB-style singer who features prominently on the album. With Lowkey expressing his slight anguish at never having visited his motherland, the theme is of the Middle East is a personal one and one that runs through many of the album’s other tracks. The Butterfly Effect for example, is a narrative told from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq and a joint courtesy of Beatnick and K-Salaam, an underground producer from the Midwest of Iranian heritage who’s previously produced for the likes of Dead Prez, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Long-time Lowkey producer Sivey appears, albeit this time only as guest producer for Voices of the Voiceless, a track which was released over a year ago as a single. Featuring Immortal Technique, an outspoken New York rapper and activist who has risen over the last decade from the Public Enemy phoenix, it’s a fated collaboration of two very like-minded emcees fighting for similar global causes.
With surprisingly funky, upbeat production from another UK-based producer ShowNProve, Hand on Your Gun exposes the duplicity of the weapons industry: First in my scope is BAE Systems / They specialise in killing people from a distance. Similarly, Lowkey is a fierce critic of Israel’s military oppression of Palestine. A rather poignant reminder of this is contained in one of the albums six skits in which he excerpts Jewish-American scholar and anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein’s impassioned rebuke against the “crocodile tears” of Jews who continually exploit gentile guilt about the Holocaust as a means of justifying the “torture” and “intimidation” of Palestinians. Well documented for his activism, and having campaigned tirelessly for Palestine, visiting Ramallah and the Gaza strip in the process, Lowkey outrightly condemns the Jewish State in his song Long Live Palestine, a track released a couple of years back and one virtually all of his fans will have heard before: Don’t get offended by facts, just try and listen / Nothing is more anti-semitic than Zionism. Though you might not always agree with his head-on approach to sensitive and complex issues like the Middle-East, you can’t help but be enamoured of his honesty and steadfastness in his beliefs. No more is this demonstrated than in perhaps his most controversial track to date, Terrorist. Producer Red Skull Beats provides the instrumental and stands out on the album as an exceptional beatmaking talent by reconciling emotion with a hard-hitting boom-bap style. Indeed the track can be appreciated for its sonics as well as its message about the word “terrorist” and how the word is used to cast entire races and religions as the enemy. Chiseled with a heady blend of haunting acoustic guitar loops and loping choruses, the track is irresistibly well-crafted and hones the key themes perfectly. Terrorist Part 2, featuring production from Last Resort and vocals from People’s Army affiliate and 17 year-old protégé Crazy Haze, a fellow British rapper of Iraqi descent, is a variation on the original with its clever call-and-response dialogue, choppy sampling and more orthodox hip-hop vibe.
Unencumbered by a worry of reprisals resulting from his seditious content, Lowkey speaks plainly without a trace of irony and stays unerringly serious about the causes he supports and the principles he upholds. Though perhaps occasionally coming across as slighly dour with his lack of nuance, he still proves he is like all human beings, subject to the same emotional frailties and sensibilities. Also exploring themes closer to home, Lowkey expresses his opinions on the recent UK riots in Dear England, and, far from being an apologist for this summer’s events, he imparts forceful messages about the real sociological implications of the riots with an underlying sense of pathos. Indeed aside from his very direct expositions of social and political disenfranchisement, he is also equally conscientious of deeply-ingrained personal issues, ranging from the treatment of women in society in the Paul Weller-inspired ‘Something Wonderful’, right through to the theme of mental illness (something particularly resonant with him after the tragic suicide of his brother, to whom he devoted a deeply heartfelt track back in ’08 titled ‘Bars for my Brother’). Dreamers which received airplay on the 24th September on BBC 1Xtra alludes to those suffering from mental illness, and to those who retain their imagination and don’t allow their thinking to be constrained by life’s exigencies; indeed it’s more far nuanced and introspective than many of his previous songs. Such deeply human sentiments are also reflected in Too Much, a song which features Shadia Mansour, a British-Palestinian female vocalist, in which Lowkey speaks plainly yet sanguinely about the corrupting influence of money in today’s society. Released a few months back as a video shot by Globalfaction in beautiful Cuba displaying a very natural, earthy environment, devoid of materialism and excess but positively bursting with beauty and colour. Mansour’s singing is stunning in this, and also low-key enough to cede spotlight to the song’s transcendent theme and overall message.
With a vision encompassing not only the UK but the entire globe, Lowkey proves that hip-hop lays not in the hands of the cultural conservatives and the big businesses, but in the hands of the people. Without doubt his most accomplished work to date, Soundtrack to the Struggle marks a culmination of years of devotion and toil as an independent artist. By including artists with similar stylistic and cultural aims, the album also has a greater cohesion and weightiness than his previous releases. Although I don’t think it quite approaches the realm of masterpiece just yet, it’s still a monumental album nonetheless.
Purchase ‘Soundtrack to the Struggle’ on iTunes.
Twitter @ LowkeyMusic1