By The Ruby Kid
This article, the second guest post I’ve written for this blog, has an interesting provenance and has gone through a few different permutations (which is why it’s appearing about a month after it was first commissioned; I’m not usually that slow when it comes to writing stuff like this). Tom initially suggested that I might like to write something on why the UK hip-hop scene hasn’t, ostensibly at least, produced as much boundary-pushing music as America’s “indie rap” milieu. The question Tom posed was: “why hasn’t the UK produced an Aesop Rock or a Dose One?”
It’s a big question, and I can’t give a definitive answer (so if you’re looking for one, you might as well stop reading now). The question itself is subjective; what if you think it’s a good thing that UK hip-hop has never developed a distinct “indie” or “alternative” fringe in the way that American hip-hop culture has? To really answer it would also require a discussion of UK hip-hop’s origins, some examination of the affect sheer scale plays (i.e. Britain is tiny, America is huge, and the law of averages suggests that a milieu with vastly more artists in it will produce more challenging/interesting art than a milieu with far fewer) and most fundamentally an exploration of what we mean when we use terms like “indie rap” or “alternative hip-hop” (“alternative” to what, exactly?).
I made a few faltering attempts at something approaching a response to Tom’s initial question, but they all drowned in a sea of semantics, contested signifiers, and sub-theoretical, wannabe-crit-theory bullshit. And I hate that stuff. It’s like… why can’t we all just listen to the music we enjoy and let it be? Let’s not overanalyse or waste time on all this intellectual masturbation.
But I hate to pass up a soapboax, and as my rebbe Allan Königsberg says, “don’t knock masturbation: it’s sex with someone you love.” And Tom did ask me to write something, so I figured I’d try and sketch out a few general thoughts on the topic. Whatever “the topic” is. This piece doesn’t aspire to much more than being a catalyst for some discussion and debate, so if it’s taken in that spirit I reckon it will have been a worthwhile endeavour.
In my previous guest post for this blog (”Your Scene or Mine? Why Rappers Should Care More About Spoken-Word Poetry”), I argued that the hip-hop community could learn something from the poetry scene about embracing stylistic diversity and artistic pluralism. That’s the key element of what I think UK hip-hop could learn from US indie-rap, too. What I love most about the US indie scene is its range. Aesop Rock is nothing like Vast Aire who’s nothing like Yoni Wolf who’s nothing like C-Rayz Walz who’s nothing like Slug who’s nothing like Dessa who’s nothing like… you get the picture. But all those artists, broadly speaking, inhabit the same artistic milieu and cultural community – they’re on each other’s tracks, they play similar venues, they’re labelmates, their fan-bases (to an extent; there are race and class issues I’m eliding somewhat here) overlap.
As I said in my other piece, the stylistic diversity that exists in our scene often feels formulaic and sanctioned – you can have your “own style”, but only if it conforms to one of a fairly limited range of pre-determined “types”. Maybe I’m underestimating folk here, but for all that a lot of UK rappers claim to be fans of, say, Aesop Rock, I genuinely feel that if AR ghostwrote a verse for someone to drop to an audience of “real hip-hop” heads, it’d be met from a lot of quarters with, at best, bemusement. People just wouldn’t know how to process it. They’d have no frame of reference. “That was pretty weird… he didn’t say the word ‘lyrical’ or talk about ‘the mic’ or his ‘bars’ or mention how ‘real’ he was once…”
On his track ”Save Yourself”, Aesop Rock weighs in against rappers with a messiah complex thinking that their brand of “real” hip-hop can save the genre (from who/what, exactly?), when actually it doesn’t need saving: it’s a fluid artform, within which people are always innovating. That’s the attitude UK hip-hop needs. Instead, we have a scene hegemonised by the attitude that hip-hop needs to be taken back to the “real” (defined and arbitrated by who?), and then ossified. It’s the exact opposite of a progressive, liberated and liberating attitude to art, and for the probably quite small number of readers of this blog trained in debates about art theory within Marxism, doesn’t it remind you of the Stalinist “realism” that Trotsky and André Breton polemiscised against in their 1938 manifesto?.
(Before anyone calls me out for hypocrisy, I readily accept that my own track “Art Versus Industry” could be deemed to fall into the category I’m criticising here. I don’t disavow those lyrics, but I think my perspective has become a bit more nuanced since I wrote them.)
What hip-hop needs is what all art needs – to embrace the inevitable constancy of change, to understand that new forms can be generated through engagements and even clashes between ostensible opposites, and to reject entirely any notion of a fixed, unchanging “real”, anchored in some mythical golden age. What we should ultimately aspire to is not a more rigorously sub-divided culture or even a clearly demarcated “UK indie-rap scene”, but a mutually-supportive artistic community that embraces and nurtures stylistic diversity within hip-hop, welcomes engagement with other kinds of music and art forms, and encourages the challenging of orthodoxy.
I don’t want to romanticise things in America. The US indie scene has its dogmatists too, and I find indie snobs (on either side of the Atlantic) who won’t listen to a Kanye West record, or refuse to entertain the possibility that there’s something of artistic value in Dipset’s oeuvre, utterly tiresome. But when you’ve got Freeway putting out records on Rhymesayers and El-P producing records for Killer Mike, I think it’s clear that the prevalent impulses there are towards open-mindedness and the breaking of boundaries and barriers rather than their reinforcement.
I’m more excited about hip-hop now than I have been at any point I can remember since I’ve been paying attention to it. Aesop Rock’s new album, plus his “Uncluded” project with Kimya Dawson, Rob Sonic’s new joint, El-P’s “Cancer for Cure” album and Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music”, Das Racist, Danny Brown, Death Grips… all different, all diverse, all challenging orthodoxy – but, crucially, none particularly snobbish or self-righteous about their “indie” status or their unorthodoxy. All forward movement. I can’t put it better than a YouTube comment exchange on Death Grip’s “Double Helix”: “this is the future”, wrote one commenter. “Nah”, replied another, “this is now’s greatest moment.”
If we can abolish “real hip-hop”, or rather abandon the futile and reactionary search for it, then the UK scene might start pushing into the future and creating some of our own greatest moment of the now.
This article talks very negatively about UK hip-hop, and probably gives a misleading impression of my opinion. I don’t by any means think there’s nothing of artistic merit in the UK scene – far, far, from it – and even some of the artists who might see themselves as advocates for “real hip-hop” are people who I hugely respect and whose work I enjoy. And there are also UK artists making music which I think is incredibly original and challenging, as well as enjoyable, so I wanted to include this postscript to draw attention to a few them. I don’t want to shackle them with labels like “indie-rap” or “alternative hip-hop”; they’re just people whose work I think is worth highlighting in the context of this discussion. Readers of this blog may or may not have heard of them, and this list is by no means exhaustive, but I think the following artists are particularly worthy of a click of your mouse, and more:
H.L.I. – if the UK has an “indie-rap milieu” to speak of, you could make a pretty strong case for saying that the Birmingham hip-hop scene is it. Artists like Juice Aleem (who’s worked extensively with Mike Ladd and toured with Dose One) and the rest of the Shadowless crew, MD7, and others maintain stylistic diversity alongside a progressive attitude to the form. H.L.I., made up of emcees Sensei C and Elai Immortal, are two of the scene’s best representatives in my view. I’m kinda biased though, coz they’re my people, so check out their track “Vectors” and draw your own conclusions.
tHe bEiNg – the success of Gasp and Depths in Don’t Flop (following a trail blazed by Respek BA in Jump Off before them) has brought Glasgow’s tHe bEiNg crew to a wider audience. The whole crew is crazy talented, and the diversity of style and approach even within their own ranks is deeply impressive. The standout artists for me are Loki (who is, in my view, simply one of the UK’s best rappers) and Skribbo (whose 2011 mixtape “It Takes A Nation of Baldwins”, released with fellow bEiNg member Butterscotch, is one of the most creative and downright entertaining joints to come of the UK hip-hop scene in a long while).
Mowgli – when this guy’s album “93” got reviewed, music journalists did something right for once and reached for the Def Jux comparisons. “Analyse” is a phenomenal piece of musical and lyrical art.
Clayton Blizzard – Bristol’s answer to Yoni Wolf. Again, I’m biased here coz I’ve played shows with this guy more times than I can count. I’m not sure it even makes sense to call him a “UK hip-hop” artist, but then… what does that label means anyway? Whether performing acoustically (just him and his guitar) or over beats with his DJ, Dr. Spin, Clayton has the rap-in-your-own-accent spirit of UK hip-hop as well as taking a lot from US indie culture (he’s a devoted fan of Why?, and has performed with Sage Francis and Themselves). Clayton, and regular tourmate and fellow Bristolian Ratface, are far better known in the DIY/punk scene than they are in the hip-hop scene. If UK hip-hop expanded its artistic horizons a little, I think that would change. Check out his song “Don’t Send Flowers When I’m Dead (I’ll Never Be On Top of the Pops Now)”.