Subculture: a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.
Hip-hop has always been an art form enriched with various subcultures – gangster rap, comedy rap, conscious rap, etc. At one time the movement in its entirety was a subculture, born in the Bronx and away from wider society. Today, UK independent hip-hop is a subculture of the wider genre and regional hip-hop is a subculture of the independent scene, with artists being generally confined within the boundaries of their own demographic.
Keeping in line with the definition, to my mind and (untrained) ear, hip-hop, more than any other musical genre, embraces regional subculture; local accents are broad and easily recognisable and rappers are keen to base rhymes on their own stories and those related to their specific area. Many people will argue that other music is heavily influenced by regions also. This may be true, but it is not as easy (for me anyway) to differentiate clearly between a band from London and a band from Leeds as it is to tell apart a rapper from Birmingham and one from Liverpool. But is this a good thing?
My home region, the north east of England, is the perfect example of a regional subculture in hip-hop; an area of the UK where rappers rhyme predominantly in their own distinctive Geordie, Mackem and ‘boro accents. Now, in my humble (and biased) opinion, the north east has one of the best hip-hop “scenes” in the UK right now. The artists, if not as vast in terms of numbers as they once were, are certainly more talented than ever. If you’re in any doubt as to the quality of the music being made in the region, check out acts such as Leddie & Smoggy, Jister, Suus, Dialect and the rest of the Keep the Faith family. The north east hip-hop scene is a tight community and artists are keen to support and promote the music of their peers, the problem is, this music does not often reach listeners outside of the area. Why is this?
Musical subcultures are generally regarded as being resistant to the commercial aspects of the genre to which they belong. I feel this is only true to a certain degree. Granted, “going mainstream” as an artist is so vigorously associated with “selling out” that a lot of independent artists are keen to avoid it for fear of having their voice stifled. And it is true that rappers that achieve commercial success are required to change their style and lyrical content to suit record labels; however, you cannot tell me that no underground artist wants to achieve some level of commercial success in their genre? The underground scene is generally all about the music, but no one could ever begrudge anyone making a living from their music – something they love. And it doesn’t have to be done by “selling out” either; artists such as Lowkey and Akala are perfect examples of this. To generate an income from their art, artists must first have their music heard.
This may be me once again saying something biased, but the reason the music in the north east isn’t being recognised on a wider scale can have nothing to do with the quality of lyricism, beats or production, and I’m sure that is the case in other regions too. Is it the regional accent? I don’t think so. I can definitely see how some people from outside the area may be put off somewhat by north east dialect, but give me a regional accent over a put-on American one any day. This problem of hip-hop music not being heard outside of its local scene seems to be one that exists in every area north of London – I feel this is the fault not of the artists, but the fans. The vast majority of hip-hop fans (myself included) have been brought up on a diet of US rap and are unwilling to look at what is happening in their own area, let alone a region outside of their own. Why is it that we fans are willing to invest all of our time and money in hip-hop from across the Atlantic but will not entertain the music of an artist based just a couple of hours up the road? This needs to change – but how?
Well, far from being an oracle, my suggestion would be that first and foremost artists’ need exposure. This exposure needs to come from the fans. Some will argue the point that artists should be doing more to market themselves – I’m not sure what more they can realistically do with what they have available to them. A lot of independent hip-hop relies on the use un-cleared samples which makes it hard to achieve radio airplay, so maybe something can change in that area, but other than that, the responsibility is with the fans to support the local scene, buy the records and promote anything that you love. Not only this, more people need to embrace hip-hop from other regions; this is easier than ever with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and costs absolutely nothing. Read blogs such as this one and visit independent hip-hop websites to discover new artists. Remember that feeling you got when you first discovered Nas or Wu-Tang? That same feeling still exists when you discover some exciting underground UK talent. Without abandoning their local dialect, fans and artists need to work to create a UK wide scene. Local promoters should do more to put on artists from other areas and in-turn artists should be willing to perform further afield. Get local artists known on a wider scale.
Hip-hop is as much about the fans as it is the artists, and working together to extend the parameters of regional subcultures can only be good for the future of the music.
- Hip-Hop and Geography (tomclementsuk.com)
- How Record Labels are Stifling Creativity More than Ever (tomclementsuk.com)