When it comes to the UK hip-hop look and sound, someone’s changed their tune in a major way. I wrote the following in 2008-
“It’s one thing being harassed by charity muggers on the hunt for your sort code on a busy shopping street or having a long distance phonecard thrust upon you at every turn, but the enterprising characters trying to get their Percee on and shift a CD-R because you look like a likely hip-hop consumer (at the age of 30, a massive insult) are the new menace. It’s not even a mixtape. It’s just some UK bloke in beat shoes with hotrock burnt tracky bottoms on with tired bars, recycling Heatmakerz instrumentals. The British rap scene absorbed itself, slowly dissolving, eroded by its own weak attitude while grime kids grafted, battled and shamelessly self-promoted.
Feeling liberated by the joy of feeling absolutely nothing when someone dressed like Barry George demands that we support “the homegrown” — stripped of eccentricity, humour, originality and a deeply dull preoccupation that rhyming off the noggin is the be all and end all (see also, Skillz and Supernatural) it simply devolved. The sense of obligation, that “putting in work” meant pressing up complete shit, sulking, sitting in a bedsit, sick with the bitterness of decades spent practising tags, backspinning and writing rhymes with deliberate references to Pat Butcher and Blair to assert UK status is over. As far as rap goes, keep on outsourcing.
To the angry local lyricists—speed up those rhymes, study Hijack, mention more sorcery and exorcism and fuck off to Germany. Your Britcore sound might earn you a Euro and floor to sleep on. Meanwhile, across the pond, those effortless Parisians can merge rap and graf with no trace of corniness. Extra points for the double time flows and nice jackets.”
Call me shallow, but beyond some tinny sonics and a small-minded worldview that hindered the sound of hip-hop, the look alienated me too. Raised as I was on rappers posing outside the Gee Street offices in head-to-toe Troop and Reebok (back when Reebok was aspirational), or Hip Hop Connection shots of UK crews in Chipie, Air Max Lights, Africa pendants and pinrolls, things just seemed to get squalid. Local rap just became an embarrassment, split into two factions – the night where grime was slightly slowed to a half-arsed mulch of screwfaces and attitude, and the dogs-on-strings, balding with a beer belly beneath a faded Stones Throw fun-free student-friendly headnod, no hint of populism evenings. I never felt either scenes. To truly conquer, I wanted to hear kids on the street listening to UK rap, and for cohesive long-players that weren’t just bought out of sympathy for the scene’s bedraggled patrons. When I saw the atrocious artwork for Blade’s ‘Guerilla Tactics’ I just walked away. I didn’t look back.
Years prior, London MCs looked aspirational. They might have been skint, but they didn’t have the spliff-yellowed forefingers or stretch-necked tees. Unless you’re really good, I don’t want to see a rapping tramp. Album covers were lurid but not lurid good. I don’t hold US rap up as a hotbed of superior design, but there’s weak, and there’s a friend from the call-centre day job’s desktop publishing software. Bar the fine work of Big Dada, and superior mixtape artworkers with international clients like Deftone, great UK rap covers were a ’90s thing. ‘Horns of Jericho’s over-literal underground with punk rock cut and paste, ‘Gangster Chronicle’s newspaper and (the overlooked) ‘Elementalz’s Dave McKean art. An extra mention for Bite It! records’ Little Pauly Ryan sleeve.
It could’ve been amazing. MC Duke’s semi-famous stately home ‘Organised Rhyme’ photoshoot, draped in tweed and gold was some Andre 3000 antics long before ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’…even on that debut ‘Dre was a Jordan man. Of course, the Krown Rulers ‘Paper Chase’ album sleeve in chainmail with a castle behind them was marginally more gentrified, but to a young ‘un, a presumably underpaid (from rap anyway) Duke seemed as flossy as Big Daddy Kane. He also turned up a few years later in a full Burberry suit. A few decades later? Shabbiness reigned supreme. Then UK rap went pop with the appalling N-Dubz, Tinchy and Pro Green, Plan B got wacker. In 2010, the F64 era brought the faith back. All blacked-out in their attire, at least Strapzy, Giggs, Skanx bring a certain swagger where desperation once ruled the scene. I even like SAS’s work more, shorn of that Dipset affiliation. My expectations for the Trident-baiting Giggs’ new album (and XL debut) ‘Let Em Ave It’ are high, but I’m undecided on that artwork. A garish blend of 2000AD, naivety, and akin to a cautionary government-funded pamphlet handed out in an upper school, at least he tried. Any unexpectedly odd touch like that warrants a celebration. Long may this momentum continue.
However, my Gallic preoccupation still remains. Despo Rutti is that dude. This is hard too –