By David “The Mast” Masters

People say that competition isn’t about the winning, it’s about the taking part. As admirable a sentiment as that is, and as true as it may be in some cases, it doesn’t always apply. You win something because, usually, you were the best person competing, and you miss out on winning because you weren’t good enough to take the prized spot.

Every competitive sport is like this. Winning counts. Winning MATTERS.

I’ve always said battle rapping qualifies as a sport, because it does, and anyone who says it doesn’t is wrong. Sure, they aren’t athletes, so maybe it’s not a TRUE sport, but it is a competitive medium. Throughout the 90s and into 2000s, battles evolved from just being on stage and playfully mocking the opponent with verse,  or rocking a crowd (Busy Bee Vs Kool Moe Dee, for example), and became something else entirely. The plight of the MC was vastly stepped up as the craft of MCing became a talent all its own.

In 1996, Nick Accurso and Jason Brunson founded Scribble Jam, America’ largest hip hop festival. It featured everything from live music, breakdancing, DJ sets and MC battles.  It went from strength-to-strength, as everything in the battling scene seems to, and all of a sudden Scribble Jam had traded parking lots for known venues packed out with as many as 20,000 plus fans.

What IS Scribble Jam and why were the battles so important though?

Scribble Jam was survival of the fittest. Scribble Jam was an all-freestyle tournament where you would battle many MCs per day, with zero preparation, on beat. Everything had to be recited off-the-top, or at the very least recited from memory. Rebuttals were the currency during these times. They hit hard enough in written battle leagues of today, but back then, rebuttals were truly a ten to a penny. Anyone who won Scribble Jam almost inarguably deserved it, off the back of the sheer skill it takes to battle that way. When you saw Eyedea, Adeem, The Saurus (Twice), Illmaculate or Nocando crowned as king, you KNOW they won for a reason. You know they had the right to stand up and say, “I do this. This is my area. Get at me.”

Then came the W.R.C. (World Rap Championships), courtesy of Jump-Off. The W.R.C. was a monumental worldwide 2-on-2 tournament that yielded reward of $40,000 each for the winners. The Saurus/Illmaculate, again, won this twice with an unprecedented and, some say, unmatched display of freestyle and written lyricism on top of an ability to cater to each opponent. You won because you were the best. All of the league owners you see, for the most part, plied their craft in the W.R.C. tournaments. Eurgh of Don’t Flop, Organik of King of the Dot? They both started as freestyle MCs, and truly amazing ones at that.

These leagues eventually folded and/or went bankrupt, leaving a hole that sorely needed to be filled.

Like a phoenix from the ashes, we finally received organisations like The Elements League (Canada) and Grind Time (America). These were written battle leagues in which you are told of your opponent and given time to write bars before the event your battle is held out. This added an ENTIRELY new dynamic to the artform. Lyricism became harder hitting and way more relevant due to the ability of being able to write specifically for an opponent. Freestyle rebuttals became more noticeable and effective, too. Especially due to the fact that certain written MCs couldn’t, and still cannot, rebuttal.

It takes a grand amount of skill, bravery and talent to be good and come out a winner, but with promo (No win/loss) battles becoming more popular, crowning true winners seems to be a legitimately dying concept. Can any of these modern day battlers claim greatness over ALL time, or just their era? King of the Dot hosts a Grand Prix in which the winner gets a title shot, and that is written, too. It is a great competition and provides a much needed injection of MCs taking their bars seriously.

Just how much are we missing Scribble or the W.R.C., though? Much is said of The Saurus and Illmac’s legacies (I think Illmac is the best ever due to his top tier domination of both eras), and deservedly so, but would they still be bringing home championships today? Maybe they would be twelve time W.R.C. champs. Maybe Saurus would never win another Scribble, or win four more. Who can say? Nobody, and I do think that is the problem.

If I ever won the lotto, I would put up 10 grand and invite MCs to come perform in a Scribble type tournament. Not only would it force people to really measure their skills in an environment where winning matters, but it would open this generation to an entirely different aspect of battling.

I prefer written to freestyled battles; the content is cleaner and the material is generally much better. The only reason it’s so good now is because of what came before, though.

With that said, The Saurus vs. Justice from Scribble Jam 2006 is the absolute pinnacle of freestyle battles.

“Your name’s The Saurus, but your face is more like the asteroid that killed you.”
“This is America, bitch. Here, Justice is served.”

Amazing. Just amazing.

I don’t know how close we are to ever having something like this again, or ever, but I feel that today’s MCs are missing the chance to hone their craft in an area of battling that matters SO much…but seems to be dying out. I feel that any MC who hasn’t earned their stripes in those kinds of battles will never be a complete battler.

Bring back the freestyle tournament. To those of you who MC in written leagues, I beg you to step your freestyle games up. You’ll win a lot more battles. Trust me.

Can you imagine a Scribble Jam or a W.R.C. with the likes of Nils in it? Tenchoo/Lego as a W.R.C. team? These are the things we’re missing, and I think that is damned tragic.



With his High Focus imprint now deeply embedded in the UK hip-hop scene, indie label boss Fliptrix is one of the few artists successfully carrying the patina of UK hip-hop’s golden-age while continuing to break new ground stylistically. Much like his forbears Jehst and Task Force, the South Londoner thrives with his versatility of expression and seamless ability to imbue real world scenarios with rarefied abstraction.

In the vein of his previous two albums, his aptly named ‘Third Eye of the Storm’ adheres to an uncompromising formula of dense metaphysical lyricism set to a polished score of boom-bap laced instrumentals. 16 tracks deep, the album proves not only his unyielding love for the art form but also what a productive powerhouse he is. In fact, in terms of pure entrepreneurship, there probably isn’t a single UK hip-hop artist out there  working as diligently as the top-flight indie label boss right now.

Aside from the exceptional level of craft in this album, what really sets it apart from anything in the same category is its visionary intensity and focus, bolstered by a stirring soundbed provided by the likes of Chemo, Jon Phonics and Leaf Dog in addition to up-and-comers such as Kontigo and Extrateless. The latter aces a beautifully layered harmony over which guest Farma G laces his trademark cosmic metaphors, while Chemo leavens the ubiquitous stomping drum beats with some dub and reggae-infused double-time in ‘Walk This Way’. Liverpool-based Reklews imparts an old-school flavour with a haunting minor key piano loop in ‘It’s No Lie’, while 184 infuses a loping violin riff into the meditative ‘Mind Traveling’.

With inter-weaving lyrics playing off against a wide array of studio-wrought beats, the creative output on this album is immense. Armed with a cache of verbal ammunition, Fliptrix’s lyrics flow so naturally and so abundantly that each song boasts a narrative thrust comparable to that of a science-fiction novella. Whether he’s painting gritty urban vignettes suffused in monochrome, waxing quixotic about utopian paradises or disclosing more lucid confessions of personal angst or tribulation, his descriptive depth never fails to incline the listener’s mind to higher things.

Further emphasising his strength in self-expression, Fliptrix aligns himself only to a close-nit assemblage of artists. Established acts like Verb T and Jehst are carefully chosen to match the creative vision and stylistic slant of each track, and this proves to be a real masterstroke. Of course, it would have been easy for him to assemble an all-star cast of UK hip-hop’s elite, but by cherry-picking a handful of rappers (only six in total), he has boosted the album’s overall conceptual scope no end. The real collaborative triumph on this album has to be ‘Frontline Terror’ featuring Ransom Badbonez and Jam Baxter which displays a near-perfect synergy between all three emcees.

Thematically, the album is philosophical and sometimes politically charged, but also introspective and complex enough to keep the listener’s mind in fifth gear. Far from the weed-addled, directionless or meta-explorations of many underground artists, ‘Third Eye’ makes for an immersive listening experience with its myriad nuances that evolve throughout his ever-expanding consciousness and post-apocolyptic vision of the world. To match this, his delivery is dextrous and on-point ensuring you’re left feeling the full cerebral force of his words, while the meticulousness of Chemo’s mastering and adlib placement ensures robust production values carry through the raw energy of his distinctive voice and prosody.

‘Third Eye of the Storm’ succeeds both in style and substance. With its expansive conceptual scope and homegrown underground sensibilities, Fliptrix has honed in and expanded on what has made him and his High Focus imprint so successful. In the process, he has achieved his most accomplished work to date and one that further cements why he deserves to be mentioned among UK hip-hop’s greats.

By David “The Mast” Masters

“They only say hip hop is dead ‘cause the dope shit is underground.”
– Joe Budden, D.O.A. Freeverse.

Music has been with me my whole life. I don’t believe illegal downloading is okay and every piece of music I own is bought/paid for. My CD collection has everything from thrash metal like Slayer to Prince. From mellow and jazzy folk artists like Norah Jones, to Norweigan black metal pioneers such as Emperor. If you’re into more electronic sounds, I have everything from Depeche Mode to Burial, from Brian Eno to Kraftwerk. If I like it, I’ll buy it. Good music is good music, to me. Today, I’m here to discuss hip-hop.

My first dalliance with the genre of hip-hop was ‘Prophets of Rage’ by Public Enemy. I was too young to appreciate bars, but something about the aural flow and linguistic punch of Chuck D. managed to hit my inner ear. It felt like swearing in French. If you don’t know what I mean, watch The Matrix Revolutions (it’s shit, but for reference).  After rattling off a barrage of foul language spoken in French, The Merovingian so eloquently states that swearing in said language is “like wiping (your) ass with silk. I love it.”

It was kind of like that. Hearing, “With vice, I hold the mic device. With force, I give it away, of course.” immediately struck me. As I grew older, I gained more and more of my hip-hop sensibilities, morality and code of ethics from that one line. “With vice, I hold the mic device.” Chuck was saying that he grabs the mic, his tool of artistry, with authority and an air of confidence. “With force, I give it away, of course.” Here, he is suggesting (from what I interpret), that if he’s gonna give the mic to you, be prepared to rule it or don’t bother. My point is that I like my MCs to rap well. I don’t particularly care if you have mediocre lyrics so long as the music is pleasing to me. Lyrics, in all music, are nothing more than a good bonus at best. I buy music for the sound. MCing, though, is an art within the music. It is a skill. One does not need to be able to perform linguistic somersaults, à la Canibus, to be a great hip-hop musician. In fact, the best albums are often ones with a heavy balance.

To elucidate: 2pac was never a top seed if we’re discussing lyrics. Ed Lover said that, word for word, when talking to Joe Budden. “I live the era, I knew Pac personally. He is not a top seed if we’re talking about lyrics, which is what BEST RAPPER should mean.” Yet, I would much rather listen to ‘California Love’ than a lot of what Canibus has produced. To judge hip-hop artists is not to judge them as MCs and vice versa.

Where am I going with this? Well, I want to talk about underground hip-hop vs. mainstream hip-hop. To get right into it, and continue from the previous thread, lyrics are typically a huge point of division between the mainstream and the underground. Though the mainstream has always been in the vein of more popular material, thus the more accessible, it did allow for incredibly talented lyricists to ply their craft as hip-hop artists. Nowadays, I do not believe that is so. I’d like to weigh up the changes, why things have changed, and whether I think they are changes for the betterment or decline of hip-hop.

Rewind to the 90s. Everyone will tell you that everything was so much better. Granted, the 90s probably do rack up as the greatest musical years of all time. Not due to nostalgia, but due to the sheer amount of stylistic movements across all genres. You had the grunge movement out of Seattle, the alternative rock movement out of L.A. and the West Coast, and you had the whole new wave of hip-hop artists. This, I believe, is where the current mainstream differs. Allow me to explain…

When Redman, Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan and their ilk came forth, people DID shun them. They dressed differently, they rapped about different things, and they were generally looked upon with the same view many people use today! “Ack! These new guys have no respect!” However, analysing the classic 90s hip-hop albums reveals to us the difference between now and then. Muddy Waters, those first two Wu albums and the affiliated solo efforts, ‘Ready to Die’, ‘The 18th Letter’, ‘Uptown Saturday Night’, ‘Lifestyles ov the Poor and Dangerous’ etc. These albums, if not made by vets, had clear musical links to what came before. Even if they sounded entirely new, they either had musical or influential links to what had proven to be pioneering, quality hip-hop.

Who can analyse a Young Money (you knew it was coming, shut up) track and say that? We’ve gone from musical evolution, to musical creationism. People are looking at all rappers as hip-hop artists, and that isn’t the case. I refuse to label Drake as a hip-hop artist. That isn’t me being afraid of new things, it’s him not being hip-hop. He raps. That’s it. He is no more a hip-hop artist for rapping as Adele is a punk rock vocalist because she too is a singer.

The continuity of history is gone, I feel. Let me clarify, though, that I do not feel everyone HAS to listen to, or like, Rakim or any of those older guys. I just think people should know where things came from, and what music was like at different points in time. Today, the mainstream of hip-hop is all about collaborating with whoever will help you get that money, and if you disagree…you’re a hater. It’s focused on “swag”, a word of which the usage should be punishable with death, and things of that nature. Things HAVE shifted, and I don’t necessarily believe it’s for the better. Taste is subjective, but I find it hard to believe that anyone can watch the last episode of Yo! MTV Raps and not feel depressed. I watched it when it aired, and it saddened me then. Seeing Rakim, K.R.S., Serch, Extra P., Special Ed, Red, Meth, Chubb Rock and many others getting it in to the instrumental Pete Rock remix of Real Hip-Hop by Das Efx is something I will never, ever forget.

They all looked like bums, but did it matter? No. What mattered was their ability. When you ask Drake to recite a verse, or drop a freestyle, he can barely manage three of four bars without pausing for a while. MCs these days have not developed to appreciate the craft of MCing in and of itself, for the most part. The closest thing we have is the B.E.T. Cypher, and that’s nowhere near the same.

“They’re doing alright! They’re getting all that money!”, I hear you say. True. That is a benefit of being a mainstream hip-hop musician. But at what cost? I am no Drake fan, but even evaluating his earlier work shows a magnificent difference between the Drake who did ‘Good Riddance’ and the Drake who does thinks like ‘Over’ or ‘Fall for Your Type’. Compromise is key, more so than ever. A mainstream hip-hop artist is not going to get away with putting a single out with no chorus or hook on it, for example. You would never see a posse cut, A TRUE posse cut, make the grade now. The ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ remix (if you haven’t heard it, then yes, I judge you) would never get the notoriety today that it did when it came out.

Joe Budden most famously put out ‘Pump It Up’ on Def Jam, as well as Focus (which, I believe, he did for DJ Clue and it blew up unexpectedly). They smashed into clubs and everyone bumped it. Then the album dropped and people were horrified to hear self-referential, reflective tracks such as ‘Walk with Me’; a masterfully executed meditation on how fame and fortune can change you and/or everyone around you. They didn’t want that, and so Joe was eventually forced off Def Jam and retreated into the underground. The money wasn’t as good, the exposure was non-existent, but he had 100% control over EVERYTHING he did. The result? Go listen to any of his four Mood Muzik mixtapes. The third installment, specifically, is absolute brilliance. He has lamented his time in the mainstream, even going so far as to say, “I pick anonymity over being famous.” “I’m not worried ‘bout the limelight, ‘cause that’ll manifest when the time’s right.”

Now, we see Joe and his four-headed monster group, Slaughterhouse, signed to Shady Records. When I heard ‘Loud Noises’, I internally screamed like Homer Simpson in Candyland at the prospect of no-chorus barfests coming back into the mainstream. Then I heard ‘My Life’ most recently and began to fear for the group that I truly believed would be saviours. That’s what happens, though. When sales security isn’t a guaranteed shout, do you push on or take the easy way out? Many mainstream MCs have done this, and it’s a regular pitfall. If you listen to Ludacris (yes, the guy who did ‘Baby’ with Justin Bieber) on ‘Incognegro’ or ‘Back for the First Time’, you will be blown away. He was the Southern Redman, at one point. His second album, ‘Word of Mouf’, showed some mainstream sensibilities (who DOESN’T love ‘Area Codes’ and ‘Rollout’?), but it had that Luda-essence. Then, things went wrong.

Most famously, though most often disagreed with, I have to shine the light on Eminem. ‘The Slim Shady L.P.’, to me, is arguably the greatest complete work in hip-hop history. It has great music, side-splitting comedic lyricism/ad-libs and some genuine, thought-provoking material. Lyrically, he not only smashed the ball out of the park on a technical level (‘I Still Don’t’, ‘Just Don’t Give a Fuck’ and ‘Brain Damage’), but he told amazing stories with his words (‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘If I Had’. Fast forward to the time when he realised he could get a lot more money and fame if he did give a fuck, and he’s doing Stan (one of the most overrated “deep” tracks ever. Do not EVER call that song deep, to me, ‘Without Me’, ‘Ass like That’ and the deplorable bandwagonry of ‘Mosh. People call it stylistic evolution, I call it selling the fuck out, to be marginally less eloquent.

There just seems to be a great amount of rappers, but no hip-hop. That is the issue, nowadays. I refuse to believe it’s nostalgia, because it isn’t. I have an analytical, justifiable beef with the way things have gone, and I refuse to support or affiliate myself with the hip-hop mainstream until it sorts itself out. MCs aren’t willing to grind hard in favour of owning everything they do, and doing everything they want. Granted, Drake may want to do what he’s doing now, but I have such unwavering suspicion when I see such a massive stylistic leap in someone’s back catalogue. How can ANYONE see Snoop Dogg doing tracks with Katy Perry and not give a big, loud, Nate Dogg-style “HOLD UP”? There was a time when Triumph by Wu-Tang Clan was a worthy, chartable single. Now, the closest thing we have to a posse cut is ‘Forever’ or ‘Bed Rock’. That’s not ok, and I’m not ok with it.

Make NO mistake, for I am not anti-mainstream. I am anti-what’s mainstream now, and I think that’s perfectly understandable. In 2012, where record labels, though powerful, are becoming less and less relevant, I believe artists should start taking back demand. Artists seem to be in a rush to give something to the labels that can be sold, or remixed. Instead, make the labels want YOU and you will retain the power. Labels need artists. Artists do not need labels. Record labels exist because of musicians, and it will NEVER be the other way around. Demand more, push for more, and make THEM change. There’s room for Young Money, J. Cole and all these mainstream guys, but they are out there, like it or not, representing hip-hop because they rap. All while Elzhi is probably never going to see the exposure they have.

I know we’re in a recession, and I know we’re in a steal-before-you-buy (if you even buy) culture, but please…if you claim to be a fan of hip hop…BUY something independent. Go support Flight Distance or 24/7. Rhyme Asylum or Jehst. Iron Solomon or Illmaculate. Soul Khan or Atmosphere. Just take a gamble on something less than famed and you more than likely will wish you’d done it sooner. I don’t wish to use this phrase, but the true essence of hip-hop (yes, such a thing exists) IS dying and it will continue dying until all that’s left is rapping over an R&B instrumental. That is, unless, people start pushing.

Chuck D. held what he loved with vice, and gave it away to these newer generations with force. I feel like he is being let down. Let’s change that, as fans.


By Rob Boffard

OK, new rule. If you have a show that lasts an hour and a half, and the venue turns the house lights back on at 11pm, you are not allowed to start your set at 10. That’s just stupid. And if you’re Slaughterhouse, that means you have to close your set with the big pile of meh that is My Life as opposed to, say, the rollicking monster of a tune that is The One.

But this rant isn’t about Slaughterhouse. They played the Forum in Kentish Town last night, and were actually pretty damn good. Sure, Royce and Joell might have had to deal with a bored Crooked and a cosmically high Joe Budden, but when it all came together, it was magic. Seeing them open up with Sound Off must rank as one of the must-see live moments in rap.

Before Slaughterhouse came on, the capacity crowd got a set by Smiler. And this is the real point. Smiler isn’t a bad rapper, as his recent mixtape proved. But oh my stars and garters is his live show bad. He came out rapping along to Jump Around (Really?) and then filled twenty-five minutes with sketchy, half-formed tracks and dull a capellas. There was no effort, no energy, nothing to even vaguely suggest that Smiler was opening up for one of the most exciting rap crews around. It was just…ass. Pure ass.

And so here’s my second new rule, and my point. UK rappers are not allowed to moan about not being recognised or given props by their US counterparts.

Do you know why this happens? It’s because your live shows suck.

I’m not just talking about Smiler. I’m talking about UK rappers as a whole. Maybe I’m being harsh. I’ve lived in the UK for five years now, and I’ve only seen three or four thousand performances from UK rappers, so maybe a few passed me by. I am not exaggerating one bit when I say I can count the number of memorable performances out on three fingers. All the rest have been at best unremarkable, and at worst, boring and exasperating. I don’t get it: it’s not as if the UK doesn’t have good music – some of the finest tracks I’ve ever heard are from UK rappers.

Now take this, and hold it up against all the foreign rappers who come here each year. Think of all the amazing live shows you’ve seen: shows that have been put together carefully, that have been practiced, with full cognisance of the fact that people have paid quite a lot of money to see them.

And this is what is so infuriating about UK rappers. How much effort does it take to put a little professional spin on your show, really? A few hours of rehearsal? A coherent set-list? A DJ who knows what he or she is doing? You don’t have to be world-class on your first time out, but if you aren’t putting effort into your shows, then you’re a disgrace and you’re wasting the money of anybody who comes to see you. Well, not my money, because I’ve probably traded sexual favours for the guest list, but you get my point.

There really is zero excuse for this. For me, the standard was set by a three-man crew from Nowhere, Idaho or some such, called The Bodega Brovas. They came to London on tour with Tanya Morgan, and were slated to perform an in-store event at Wyld Pytch. There couldn’t have been more than seven people watching them in this tiny-ass room, with crackly microphones and shoddy decks, but these guys acted like it was Wembley Stadium, and they were opening up for Pac’s comeback show. It was an act that had clearly been rehearsed and fine-tuned, and it was an absolute joy to watch. Nothing but effort and hard-earned skill. I guarantee you that every one of those people in the store went home and Googled Bodega Brovas. You should too, by the way. They’re great.

Meanwhile, UK hip-hop fans have to put up with endless shit-talking onstage, boring freestyles, random shout-outs, a barrage of rewind-that-backs and tracks that fizzle out of existence after two minutes. When we have huge rosters of live brilliance coming to the UK every year, you expect us to pay to watch your pathetic stage show? Get outta here with that bullshit, man.

By Oliver Arditi

My knowledge of hip-hop is limited to what can be seen from the twisting pathways happenstance and my interests have taken me on over the years. My particular areas of musical interest are not delineated by stylistic boundaries (I basically like everything), but more by an interest in creative autonomy, and in what people get up to between the cracks in mainstream culture: the underground, in other words.

At the moment I’m connected to a number of broad currents in underground music: progressive rock, of a kind that blends into the fringes of modern classical and experimental music; the whole arty beard-stroking free improvisation/ ambient/ field recording thing; avant-garde folk music; extreme noisy metal; hardcore punk; and underground hip-hop. Most of these categories enjoy quite a lot of crossover, but hip-hop is more clearly bounded, and seems more self-sufficient, perhaps because it is simply a part of a broader set of cultural and creative practices. It’s also a category that includes a broader range of artistic intentions, ranging from the out-there and uncompromisingly poetic, to the comedic, to the straightforwardly observational and autobiographical. Some of it is separated from the mainstream only by the question of sales figures, although there certainly seems to be a lingering preference for old school production techniques even in those parts of the underground.

At this point I should re-iterate that my impressions are always partial, and any observation I make about the ‘scene as a whole’ is just the view I get from my limited perspective; but before anyone accuses me of being ill informed, or not a ‘true fan’, I’d like to point out that the same is true of everyone. Although there are many people who know far more about hip-hop than me (the estimable Tom Clements to take an obvious example), I will defend to the grave my right to form my own canon, and to refuse the desire any mainstream (even the mainstream of an underground movement) to dictate to me what I should listen to and what I should discount. In fact, this is what I mean when I say ‘underground’; and although large parts of the hip-hop underground would love nothing more than to achieve mainstream success, those same parts understand clearly that any such success, any kind of viable hip-hop practice whatsoever, relies on just such a commitment to the truth of their own experience.

Authenticity is an important element in perceptions of any art form; although it is a very problematic term, from a theoretical or philosophical perspective, the fact remains that anything that doesn’t strike us as authentic, truthful or at least sincere, will strike us as fake. Authenticity is important in any underground music: free improvisation is valued for its truth to the moment, for its unmediated spontaneity; punk is valued for the intensity and commitment of the performance. But I think that hip-hop is unique in the centrality of the term to its creative endeavours, and in the way it is explicitly bandied about as a token of value. It’s very interesting that this should be the case in a music whose production conventions involve the appropriation and re-purposing of existing recordings, but that’s a theoretical investigation for another day; I’m particularly interested in the way that this relates to geography.

An emcee needs to keep their lyrics ‘real’, on a number of levels; they need to represent their life experience with a directness that is unique to this style of music. Songwriters in other genres are free to act like novelists, and adopt the voice of fictional characters, representing experiences quite distinct from their own. The narrative voice of hip-hop is almost always in the first person (yeah, I know, I instantly thought of a dozen exceptions as soon as I wrote that); hip-hop lyricists obviously do diverge from their own experience, but the conventions of the genre mean that this is always a divergence. Sometimes it is overtly signalled, perhaps with a humorous aside that draws attention to an exaggeration, and sometimes the emcee makes themselves out to be a stone-face gangsta draped with gold and bitches without a hint of irony, but this always leaves them open to being ‘found out’, and to their right to make such claims being questioned.

The baseline assumption then, is that the emcee is discussing what he or she knows, representing lived experience as seen from their own specific perspective, in their own social and economic circumstances, in the specific geographical location they inhabit. There’s a lot of history behind this, and to discuss the way this has informed the music over time, with its variable relationship to the actual experience of its proponents, is beyond the scope of this article; it is worthing noting, however, that Straight Outta Compton, one of the founding documents of this approach to rap, specifically proclaims its geographic allegiance as a token of its authenticity.

Among all the underground musical practices I mentioned at the outset, hip-hop is unique in its concern with place, and the part place plays in the construction of identity. Much underground music tends to elide any geography more specific than a country, perhaps because specialist interests appeal to a geographically distributed audience; but conversely, they often rely on local networks to find venues for live performance, with acts clustered in tiny micro-scenes around small towns. My politics (which I won’t waste too much time on here) lead me to favour the local as much as I favour the underground; the ideology, and the political economy, that has turned the vast majority of us into passive consumers of culture, is specifically anti-localist, in effect if not in stated intention. The mainstream is the antithesis of the local, just as much as it is the antithesis of the underground; its mechanisms of representation and reproduction are predicated on a focus on global products and stars. It is a world in which, by definition, the local has no place: if everyone on the planet buys a band’s records, they can hardly be either local or underground. For me the two things go hand in hand.

Hip-hop’s origins are decidedly underground; it is (or was) an inherently subversive form, which got its cultural materials by turning that which was offered for passive consumption to its own purposes. However, given its subsequent commercial dominance, the fundamentally altered circumstances of its production, and the themes that most people would associate with it, it might look an unlikely candidate for a champion of localism. If there is any truly global form in popular music, a form that is recognisable in music, dress, visual art and even body language, from Vladivostok to Rio de Janeiro, it’s hip-hop. But the interesting thing is that while rock bands all over the world have traditionally sung in English, with recognisable simulacra of American accents, people have always done hip-hop in their own languages, and produced beats by sampling the records with which they are familiar.

The British underground hip-hop that I’ve been joyfully discovering over the past years covers a wide range of creative, aesthetic, thematic and political concerns; but one powerful unifying factor is its passionate commitment to its places of origin. It’s not all the sort of thing I like, but even the most unreflecting spew of macho, misogynist clichés can contain a germ of localist specificity, a pride in the particular combination of bricks and people that is Widnes, or wherever the hell it might be. People are not putting on accents to rap any more; if anything they are emphasising their own dialects; not only do they proudly proclaim their origins, as American rappers have traditionally name-checked their neighbourhoods, but there is often a real sense that it is their job to represent their community to the world. And although one aspect of that focus might be a relatively narrow set of horizons, the other is a rootedness, a strength of identity that is very hard to find in an increasingly deterritorialised world.

I’ve got to come clean. I knew pretty much zero about H.L.I . prior to writing this review. However, over the course of several months of intensive listening, my vague knowledge has given way to a more fully formed and complex picture not just of the group, but of a whole other sub-genre lurking in the deepest, darkest depths of the UK hip-hop underworld. Listening to the Birmingham duo was like having a musical epiphany; indeed, Sensei C and Elai Immortal push the envelope so far, they have in the process, come up with a work of outstanding artistry. Put simply, their latest release titled ‘Omniglyph‘ is one of the most exhilarating and extraordinary releases I’ve come across in years.

As a sonic landscape, the 12-track EP is as unique as it is stunning. Providing a sci-fi vision of hip-hop, the duo transcend their musical vision, posing deeply metaphysical questions of the nature of the mind through their sound. The wildly shuffling electronic patterns are very atmospheric, outsized and almost kaleidoscopic in colour, providing musical and lyrical innovation and experimentation way beyond the norm. Omniglyph also has a very mysterious allure; sonically lustrous electronic frequencies are wrought-up and tumultuous, while the themes and concepts are suffused with an otherworldly mysticism.

Its effect is both minimal and maximal; it’s essentially avant-garde but works with very humble ingredients tightly rendered, diligently crafted and sequenced to give way to a layered, cumulative experience. The level of finesse and execution here is sublime and is literally light years ahead of the majority underground hip-hop acts out there. The gossamer-thin electronic pulses and swirling blade beats are something else; they’re almost scientific, but still somehow show a deep and humble reverence for their hip-hop origins. The cross-genre blurring within an essentially hip-hop framework is testament to the duo’s intense, almost zealous level of craftsmanship.

The EP is definitely not your typical boom-bap; it is a high-energy, psychedelic and rhythmically intense assault on your eardrums, that will no doubt translate into a very intriguing set at live shows. While its roots are traditional, the myriad new-age creative impulses edge perilously close at times to invoking pure terror and mind-bending new possibilities.The insane level of multi-instrumental complexity and interweaving elements displays a vigorous urge to entertain but also to educate. The duo achieve this vocally, too; both are clever, cryptic wordsmiths and Sensei C impresses especially with his motley, space-age lexicon while subtler components like Naomi Mighty‘s eerily dissonant siren song plays off beautifully against the heavy, throbbing ultrasounds.

Overall, Omniglyph is a cauldron of ferment and creativity. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s is one of the boldest-sounding releases ever in UK hip-hop. For me at least, it was a transforming experience that has irrevocably changed my perceptions of the hip-hop genre. Retaining just enough of the original elements to push the genre forward, H.L.I. embody a spirit of creativity unparalleled in the UK hip-hop scene by exploring the farthest reaches of the genre’s sonic capabilities.

By Jennifer Castle

It has long been debated in the music industry how the larger labels stifle and shun the creativity of their artists in favour of making “hits” that generate the most revenue. The hip hop industry is one of the worst offenders of this. Along with RnB, mainstream hip hop has taken a particularly harsh battering in recent years. The talent in the genres is still out there – thanks to the plethora of self-promotion and social media platforms that exist nowadays – however, it is now more than ever confined to the underground scene. The true talent and creativity is found only if you have the patience and the time to scratch – or more like dig – way beneath the foamy, glittery, spongy surface that makes up the commercial hip hop world.

Perhaps this is due to certain hardcore artists – some being veterans and even founders of the hip hop genre – reaching a point in their careers when they decide to “sell out”. Take the legendary Snoop Dogg, for example. Snoop’s earlier career was, of course, full of X-rated, raw and downright dirty material. Both his lyrics and his sound were without a doubt among the best the industry had to offer. He set the tone and pushed the boundaries, and hardcore hip hop lovers around the world rejoiced at the very sound of one of his unmistakeable and unforgettable tracks. Imagine how his original fan base felt when he one day decided to team up with serial cheese-inducing hit-maker, David Guetta. Guetta, who had himself once been one of the talents of an underground house music scene (he had DJ’d for over 20 years before making it “big”) had recently hit the limelight through an Ibiza residency at the world-famous Pacha night club. His club night, F*** Me I’m Famous, quickly became a worldwide sensation – largely thanks to his promoter-guru wife, Cathy. His following collaboration with former Destiny’s Child star, Kelly Rowland, took him out of the underground and firmly into the mainstream.

A Hit Factory

What followed was a line of collaborations with some of the world’s biggest “stars”, and hit after hit that sounded, quite frankly, the same as the last. Singers and rappers who had once enjoyed the portrayal of their own unique sound – such as Akon, Rihanna and Lil Wayne – found themselves “Guetta-ifed”. They “sold” their original style to make a sure buck. What was the biggest shock though, was when Guetta and Snoop Dogg released ‘Sweat’.

Hip hop fans were horrified to hear Snoop’s distinctive voice heavily diluted somewhere within a clumsy and crass generic electro synth and booming commercial dance beat. The hit made millions for record label, Priority Records, but Snoop’s longer-standing fans were not impressed, accusing the hip hop star of giving in to commercialisation.

The great thing about today’s underground hip hop scene – as with other genres – is that it encourages creativity like never before. These days we are seeing the birth of new sounds as people seek to get noticed over increasing amounts of competition. Groups such as Die Antwoord, for example (a South African rap and hip hop crew) are coming up with never-before-seen sounds to the point where they have created their own sub genre, Zef. However, when this experimentation is converted into the mainstream music world, the outcome is a generic, diluted sound. The main record labels have recognised this universal sound (typically a mixture of RnB, hip hop, dance and electronic) to be a money spinner. By combining the sounds of each genre (which are each liked by only a limited number of listeners) they are creating a mass appeal. The industry’s obsession with mixing genres is diluting genres like hip hop, stifling creativity of artists signed to the major labels as they all seek to follow this preconceived hit formula.

Diluting Hip Hop

The Big Four record labels continue to serve about 80% of the music industry and since the 2004 merger of Sony BMG, this has become more apparent. They are basically not as good at spotting unique new artists, instead favouring those that are already established and have a good fan base that they can make even wider (by diluting down the originality of the artist and adding the trusted hit-making ingredients). Helen Smith, general secretary of Impala, once said of Universal: “Key independents like Island, Chrysalis, Sanctuary, Mute, Mushroom and V2 have been acquired by the majors over the years. Universal is currently on a huge shopping spree. The effect of that is to reduce the competitiveness of the market.”

Let this be a warning to hip hop fans. If you want to hear real talent, there is plenty of it out there. Before you take out bank loans to follow your favourite Universal artist on tour, consider the authenticity and “realness” of the underground scene. Having a record deal used to represent the epitome of talent. However, these days, an artist stands more chance of having talent without one.