An American Perspective on UK Hip-Hop

By Alex Bartiromo

I have always considered myself something of an Anglophile. Growing up in New York, I admired the wit and expression that the British seem to possess and display effortlessly. I was raised on Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By re-runs on my TV and The Kinks on my stereo. Hell, I am listening to Blur as I write this. So, despite the fact that I have never even come close to setting foot on the land of Ray Davies and McVitie’s digestive biscuits, it comes as no surprise that, when I first started getting into hip-hop, I would turn to Great Britain immediately. It also probably comes as no surprise that most Americans are not like me in that sense, and there are a few reasons why.

Now, I am going to speak in generalities that are not representative of the entire population, but rather reflective of the experiences I have had in America dealing with hip-hop from the UK. And so, from what I have seen, Americans tend not to give British hip-hop the benefit of their attention for reasons which range from interesting to absolutely ridiculous.

Let’s start with one that falls into the latter. The first and most common thing that Americans hear and dislike when they listen to British hip-hop is the accent. Lame, I know. Many of my friends and peers whom I have tried to expose to rappers such as Task Force or Rhyme Asylum say that they simply cannot take the claims of the rappers seriously because of how they sound. Considering that many Americans are willing to listen to Ol’ Dirty Bastard or Danny Brown, this argument holds no water. However, there are two factors that may play into why it is made anyway. The first is that people are uncomfortable with the unknown or uncommon. Because a British accent is not something that Americans are used to hearing in this context, they are disconcerted when they hear it and immediately conclude that they do not like it at all. Most people can relate to this; if not in hip-hop then in their government’s attitude towards immigrants or exotic food. The second reason is that many people in the US associate a British accent with being posh. This sounds silly, but while they are not totally oblivious to the goings-on of their cross-Atlantic neighbor, many Americans erroneously assume that Great Britain is Downton Abbey and that it lacks the urban havoc that US hip-hop is so representative of. Anyone who paid attention to last year’s London riots or any EDL protest could see that this is simply not true, and yet the notion persists. For these types of people, a little bit more education and a great deal more exposure would go a long way.

Another argument that I have seen wielded against UK hip-hop is that the lyrical content is not relatable to stateside audiences. While it is true that UK hip-hop has much more of a self-depreciating streak than its American counterpart, and while UK “battle” or horrorcore tracks generally have more elements of fantasy (compare “Now you wanna run around/ talkin’ ‘bout guns like I ain’t got none/ What you think I sold ‘em all?” to “I was fed breast cancer and bottles of Arsenic/ Blind swordsman wandering darkness/ Fuck cash, I’ll drop the queen’s severed head in the offering basket”), many of the tropes, themes, and topics mentioned in UK hip-hop are the same as the ones that abound in US hip-hop. For example, Enlish’s 2011 release, Cold Lazarus, has a mix of battle tracks and introspective raps that is essentially a Cornish take on the classic 90s hip-hop album format. I’ve found that the people who say that UK hip-hop is not “relatable” simply do not listen to very interesting music in general. Their distaste for interesting UK hip-hop does not actually to do with how it compares to American hip-hop, but rather how it compares with pop hits in the charts. Indeed, these people would probably enjoy “Bonkers”, but would reject Boy In Da Corner altogether (for the record, I think “Bonkers” is a good pop track).

One of the most confusing things that I have heard about UK hip-hop over here is that Americans invented hip-hop, and are the only ones who can make it properly. People who espouse this point of view must be incredibly lazy and unwilling to give any sort of “different” music a chance, because the argument has so many holes in it that it practically does not exist. If this argument were true, then modern rock music would not exist in the US and Skrillex would be working an office job in Los Angeles! What would happen if black people decided that, since they created blues music, white people could not practice it? Well, there goes Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, you name it. This argument is so insipid that it is difficult to even think about without grimacing, so let us move on.

So far, the points of view presented have been, for the most part, weightless, and have consisted more of random prejudice than legitimate reasoning. Perhaps there is one, however, that is worth fleshing out a bit, and that is that UK hip-hop is simply not as original as its American counterpart and therefore is less interesting. If one were to look at the mainstream, this claim would appear true. Artists like Tinie Tempah or Professor Green bring little new to the table, and are greatly indebted to their forebearers, such as Eminem or Dizzee Rascal, whereas, in the US, even the most mainstream of artists, like Kanye West or Drake are constantly innovating and changing the expectations of their listeners (whether or not their music is good is a different debate). Even classic UK rappers like Jehst or Skinnyman are bound to remind listeners of Nas, Big Pun, and to an extent, early Ice Cube.

However, this argument falls short in regards to the modern UK underground hip-hop scene. An American who claims that his countrymen are the ones setting the standard for hip-hop would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the US who combines streetwise observations, political theory, and poetry into his songs, as The Ruby Kid does, or someone who could rap about being lazy in as overtly positive tones as JollyJay and H-to-O do. And let’s not forget that the entire genre of grime is an offshoot of hip-hop in the UK itself, one that Americans have not even dabbled in. Like most music, the main creative force comes from the underground, from artists who are hungry and willing to experiment and not from those who are already at the top (with some exceptions, of course). Americans who are willing to see that in their own music but not in Britain’s are a bit myopic in their musical taste and should explore a bit farther.

This piece may seem a bit moot to readers of this blog, because you guys already like UK hip-hop. However, it is important to understand why some Americans seem to miss the point of the music so much, and I hope that I explored some of the main reasons. My ability to reference artists is limited by the fact that I am a semi-knowledgeable, but ultimately casual fan of UK hip-hop, and not an expert by any means. It is also worth repeating that I am generalizing about the experiences I have had, and I am sure there are many Americans who listen to UK hip-hop and appreciate it as much, if not more, than I do.


  1. Matt said:

    Tinie Tempah, Pro Green, Dizzie Rascal, Kanye West, Drake. None of those are hip hop so why mention them…….i cant believe you say kanye and drake keep it fresh. What by selling out even further every song?

    Shocking lack of knowledge in general considering you have a hip hop blog. What about mentioning slick rick one of the oldest and most respected hip hop artists being english and if your going to talk underground mention the american underground which has a much stronger and better scene than ours. Uk hip hop always was and always is will be weak until people who actually have something to say start rapping. Theres lots of people that put out a decent track here and there but i dont think there is even 1 classic uk hip hop album in existence. Rhyme asylum are the only uk hip hop consistently worthy of american talk, all the others arent really hip hop or just arent good enough. Also how can you compare rhyme asylum lyrics with dre’s lyrics while talking about horrorcore. There are also so so so many consious rappers in america who are spitting much rawer political and social shit than ruby the kid.

    As you can see I disagree with alot of your article and get the impression your trying to big uk hip hop up when theres nothing to big up. Go praise france or germany where they actually spit over hip hop beats not some bullshit weak ass shit labelled hip hop to sell more. Snowgoons and mop couldnt come to england on their european tour as no one was interested in promoting it, that shows you how pathetic our scene is, too many faggots in england act like they love hip hop etc but dont have the first clue about it and dont do anything to support it. I think alot of americans dont like uk hip hop because its just not very good as opposed to thinking english people are posh etc. i rate this guy highly but hes got no exposure at all and thats a big problem in the uk scene, no one wants to sign proper hip hop acts as they dont really sell here. You either have to sell out or spit over grime if you want to rap successfully in england.

    Hit me back with a reply if you disagree with anything or just want to talk hip hop.

    • Alex said:

      I thought I left a reply already, but oh well…

      First off, this is not my blog, so spare Tom any criticism directed towards me.

      As I mentioned above, whether you like Drake or Kanye is a totally different question; I never said they “keep it fresh” (in fact, I strongly dislike Drake). All I was trying to point out is that they are constantly inventing or playing with new sounds and making original contributions to the hip-hop world.

      The reason I didn’t mention someone like Slick Rick (and perhaps I should have) is because the type of people that I was referencing either do not know or do not care who Slick Rick is and what he means. I wanted to focus mainly on modern UK hip-hop and the opinions people have of it here.

      You go on to mention that “there is[n’t] even 1 classic UK hip-hop album in existence” and that “it’s just not very good”. Obviously, I disagree, but just saying that you do/don’t like it makes it difficult to engage in a legitimate debate, because you don’t really give any reasons why. I didn’t mention the “American underground” because it wasn’t relevant to this piece. Clearly, it is bigger and more developed because the US is where hip-hop was born and bred, to use a euphemism. There is really no point of comparison, and I wasn’t attempting to do that in this piece.

      I compared Rhyme Asylum and Dr. Dre to accentuate the differences between the styles. I thought that was clear.

      I also did not claim that Ruby Kid is “rawer” than anyone, just that he is totally original, and that I have not heard anyone in the US who sounds like him musically or stylistically.

      As for the music scene, it may be true that there are “too many faggots” and that “no one wants to sign proper hip-hop acts”, but since I do not live in and have never visited the UK, I am not in a position to judge that. My article was not meant to explore the reasons why the music may be a certain way, but rather how people react to it.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Ben said:

        Hi, I just wanted to say I liked the article. I have to say that I don’t think the guy that posted that other comment is actually a fan of uk hiphop so I don’t see how he has an opinion on this matter. I am English and have grown up listening to pretty much nothing but hiphop and I appreciate good hiphop no matter where it is from. There is some very good uk hiphop artist out there, such as taskforce, jehst, rhyme asylum, jam Baxter, fliptrix, dirty dike, leafdog, sonnyjim, stig of the dump, dr sytax and many more but I’m not going to list them all. If there is any there that you have not heard then I suggest you have a listen. I don’t understand why Americans say they can’t accept uk hiphop because of the accent when there is a variety of accents within american hiphop. I think another problem is the fact that the good artists over here are hard enough to come by without actually searching for them and that’s over here do I can’t imagine how anybody in the states would hear about them without being interested already. Anybody in the charts over here, such as chipmunk and dizzee rascal aren’t really hiphop and dont do the uk hiphop scene any justice. Also they actually derive from the grime scene which is actually pretty much a scene of its own now and seen as very narrowly linked to uk hiphop. Something that I think certain Americans need to learn is that we are not trying to steal hiphop from its originator. We are enjoying a genre that America has brought to us and trying to get involved but by using our own style to it rather than try and copy it.

    • SUCHroxwell said:

      Matt is clearly in need of a hip hop education. To state that there are no classic UK albums is either simple trolling or sheer ignorance. See: Hijack – Horns of Jericho / Blade – Lion Goes… / London Posse – Gangster Chronicle / Gunshot – Patriot Games / Skinnyman – Council Estate of Mind / Roots Manuva – Run Come Save Me, etc.

      The truth is, hip hop as a genre, has always struggled with the album format. Indeed, there is only a relatively small number of US acts that are/were successful in creating a coherent LP. See Run DMC / Public Enemy / EPMD / ATCQ / Gangstarr / Poor Righteous Teachers / De La Soul and maybe just a handful more. That’s not to say there aren’t other one-off classic LPs, but these are generally the exception to the rule.

      Personally, I’d argue that there hasn’t been a classic US hip hop album since Nas’ ‘Illmatic’, but maybe younger heads would disagree.

      Indeed, I would suggest now, hip hop has all but abandoned the ‘Album’ in recent years. The rise of the Mixtape has resulted in the LP being something of a lost art. Albums are almost redundant, as how we listen to music has changed significantly.

      Immortal technique, Vinnie Paz, RA, Lost Cauze etc. I love em all, but not one of them has released a great album. Good, yes. Great, no!

      As to why UK hip hop has failed to succeed in the US. The answer is multi-faceted. In the past, US hip hop was notoriously parochial with artists selling the bulk of their units in their home state/county. When you didn’t listen to out-of-state music you were hardly going to go check what was happening overseas! When hip hop finally hit the mainstream (mid to late 90s), the UK scene lacked the investment to push the polished and accessible sound the pop charts required. UK black music has always been deemed too much of a risk to garner much financial support from the industry. Seen very much as a niche market, a view that has only started to change in the last 5-7 years.

      I agree that there is possibly also elements of undelying mild xenophobia that prevents a foreign voice being listened to. But then this is nothing unique to Americans. How many UK hip hop fans own, or have even listened to, Australian rap? Further to this, these days, British kids brought up on Grime/Dubstep etc are not really listening to US rap. Their heroes are local, accessible and most of all (perceived) relevant to their experience. K-Koke and Giggs speak to urban london youth far more than the likes of Kanye, Drake etc. These days it’s not unusual to see UK artists headling above US acts. Tables perhaps turning?

      Ultimately, Hip hop is an industry. As an industry it is governed by the market place. As such it has to retain a clear and coherent image so to identify and appeal to the broadest demographic. Id suggest that with hip hop in particular, image is still its primary marketing tool. Remember, this is an indusrty where women and white people are still considered novelty.

      The reality is that ‘real’ US hip hop is just as commercially UNviable as its UK counterpart. Proportionally speaking, Lord Finesse, Dead Prez and Action Bronson (to name just three) have been no more successful domestically than the likes of Jehst, Devlin and Giggs have been in the UK. Simarly, who are the more successful artists, Tinnie Tempah or Immortal Technique? N-Dubz or Snowgoonz? We obviously know who has the talent but that doesn’t equate with success. Unfortunately so, I must add.

      Finally, the production values now employed in UK hip hop is on par with the US. Studios, producers and engineers now have the experience in hip hop that they may have lacked just 10 years ago. Do not be surprised to see UK black music make serious inroads in the US market within the next 5 years. Whether this will be credible music is another matter entirely!

      • Some really interesting points you make there! Would you perhaps be interested in elaborating on them further by writing a piece for the blog? I’d be more than happy to commission it. Email me at tclementsuk [at] gmail com.

  2. solomon said:

    I think U.K rappers are more true to themselves, American rappers tell a lot of lies and get away with it e.g Rick ross, Lil Wayne and many more, in the U.K someone would have exposed them time ago, In the U.K you can’t just come out and start claiming certain things. American rappers are gassed up and ignorant, let those American rappers come to the U.K and they will find out that when we put on the Kettle its not for cups of tea.

    • Luke said:

      Interesting points from everyone here. I totally see both sides of the arguement, and speaking as a guy whose just started producing and rapping in the UK I think maybe I can chime a bit of perspective in too.

      The main problem really is the unoriginality IMO. Not that it’s much of a surprise, as popular music around the world has begun to incorporate a western/U.S mainstream slant, which usually consists of re-hashes of done-to-death ideas and styles. UK hip hop isn’t much different. Stick your ears to the underground though, and you’ll find that the scene is finally defining its own sound… of course people like Roots Manuva have, for me, always been doing their own thing with massive success. It’s all about having the balls to not care what others think and actually having ideas of your own (which is seriously lacking in most forms of popular music anyway)

      The accent and style probably are factors in to this, but attitudes are changing gradually… aren’t they? Good music doesn’t have boundaries, or at least shouldn’t. If the UK spent more time trying to identify themselves rather then copying our US contemporaries, who have defind themselves aptly, this arguement wouldn’t hold weight.

  3. G MAN said:

    I think UK Rappers gass alot of crap too….most of these underground rappers have now turned to talking shit, popping bottles, bling bling etc. The thing with todays music is no one can claim its there! most people are crossing over and expressing interest in certain genres of music. Dub step is a prime example, this originated from south london, its massive its world wide….most americans are using dub step samples in their music whether its hiphop, dance, pop etc, do you believe the originators of dub step sit there and question who better and ask why these so called individuals have taken the music they invented and turned it into main stream music? I believe its all about what sells now adays, the reason why true hip hop will never die was because USA hip hop at its peak was in the early 80’s through to the late nineties, most of the carribean and african population in the UK couldn’t force hip hop the way the USA did, resources were limited and many people in the UK were racist towards blacks. In this day and age the new generation have fought and made a stance and put their own influences into rap and grime to make their own style and genre of music. I wouldn’t say DIZZY OR CHIP MUNK OR TINIE are shit, they have struggled to make ends meat, really pushed their music out there, at the end of the day they need to break bread, if they don’t they will get dropped. I think for many UK artist it is confusing, we are 30 year behind the USA, USA have gone passed the stage of rapping about the ghetto’s, struggles, poverty, there are a few rappers who still rap about those issues in the states but will never make it main stream unless they make a tune which has main stream influences. I think the UK as a whole needs to switch it game up, people don’t want to listen about the truth of struggles, ghettos, problems, if you make music to fit todays generation and trends you will make money enough said!

    The days of the 2pac genre and years are long gone, times have changed, people don’t need to voice opinions through music, expressions are loudly heard now than they were 15 years ago!

    With time comes change and hip hop will be changing/evolving over the next coming decades!

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