Saturday, 23 October 2010

Staying in the Black

Earlier this week, DJ Nihal Arthanayake on his weekly BBC Radio One Review Show highlighted the precarious state of black music in the UK. He brought up the subject with Giggs ― an upcoming UK rapper from Peckham, London whose song Hustle On is getting good airplay ― asking whether the burgeoning fusion of dance music with hip-hop is killing black music's credibility. It's a good question and one that Nihal has raised with many UK rap luminaries. To a hardened hip-hop aficionado like Nihal it's a concerning topic because it may decimate the long-term integrity of UK hip-hop before it's really had a chance to establish itself as a genuinely important music movement.

The UK urban scene goes back decades with groups like S.L. Troopers, Cookie Crew, Wee Papa Girl Rappers and London Posse releasing songs around the same time New York hip-hop and LA gangsta rap were cementing themselves as formidable American music entities. The music they made was redolent of US hip-hop sound but was distinct because the rappers frequently rapped in patois and often rhymed about life in inner-city England. The music generated was rarely anything more than a niche activity, appreciated almost exclusively by urban listeners. The mainstream FM radio stations never played the songs and music video stations ignored them; although London Posse's videos for How's Life in London and Style surprisingly made it on to MTV Europe.

Flash-forward 20 years and things are quite different. About 10 years ago So Solid Crew released their famed track 21 Seconds that went straight to the top of the UK charts. A couple of years later Ms. Dynamite's album A Little Deeper won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize ― previous winners having primarily been white guys with guitars. A year on and Dizzee Rascal's Boy in da Corner clinched the same award. Acts like Oxide & Neutrino and More Fire Crew scored top 10 hits, signalling that UK rap music was now becoming accepted/ commercial.

The question here is should UK hip-hop cut its nose to spite its face as, much like Nihal says, the black music scene has gone country-wide, now featuring heavily on provincial FM radio drive-time shows. The problem is that the songs cultivating popularity are generic radio-friendly dance tracks containing lightweight rapping about frivolous things. For example, Roll Deep are a part of the UK Grime scene but their recent number 1 charting tracks like Good Times and Green Light share none of the hardened edge of earlier songs like When I'm 'Ere. The reason for this is because the latter failed to make the mercantile impact that recent songs have; songs inoffensive enough to be played in the mainstream pubs and clubs of middle-England where undemanding punters can bop around drunkenly to the generic sonic splendour of them. Even Dizzee Rascal's last album Tongue N' Cheek eschewed the sonic edge of his previous work and settled for a safer pop sound that catapulted it to certified platinum status with sales of over 300,000, making it Dizzee Rascal's best-selling album and generating four UK number 1 chart singles in the process.

The watered down sound of UK hip-hop shares some similarity to what's happening in America, albeit the American urban music scene has evolved over 30 years, firmly establishing its credibility before succumbing to postmodern US suburban 'wigger' culture ― innocuous white adolescents looking for an edgy cause and style that gives them a sense of identity. The eminence of Eminem woke America to the actuality that a white guy can produce good rap music about blue-collar poverty and strife. The arrival of Eminem struck a chord in Europe, especially in the UK where everyone from Plan B, Blazing Squad, Devlin and Professor Green has spread the word of Caucasian fronted hip-hop, and in doing so has arguably cheapened the authenticity of rap music: Professor Green turning it into a torpid joke. All these UK artists are the children of Eminem ― taking their cue from his successful style of marrying hip-hop with jokey discourse. (Maybe not Devlin so much, who seems to take his music more seriously than what it's worth.) If Eminem brought rap to the UK mainstream then maybe that is a good thing, but his legacy is less desirable. Likewise, UK urban acts of black heritage have done themselves no favours in combing inferior hip-hop sounds with Black Lace type novelty value, all in the aim of building an ephemeral fanbase and making some quick cash in the process.

I blame America. The recent trend of hip-hop stars like TI and Kanye West sampling Euro-pop beats ― and with everyone from Kelis to the Black Eyed Peas working with goodtime Euro-dance producers like David Guetta and Benny Benassi ― has damaged the authentic image of hip-hop. (Not to mention that only your dad will consider Black Eyed Peas to be hip-hop.) The cheapening of hip-hop is a phenomenon of our times and may have caused irreparable damage, the kind of damage that can seriously blemish its reputation for good.

As much as one can bemoan the state of UK hip-hop, there's much to be proud of in that visibly black talent like Dizzee Rascal, Chipmunk, Tinchy Stryder and Tinie Tempah are achieving a level of success their predecessors could only dream of. The actuality they've had to tweak their formula and whitewash their sound doesn't nullify the true success of what they've achieved. For example, at the opposite end of the same spectrum, the Kings of Leon have stormed the charts this week with Come around Sundown, already set to be the bestselling album of the year. Elitist music fans are protesting the band's descent into mainstream appeasement, but there's a counterargument to this in that the sound they developed in their first few albums ― which was most pleasing to Guardian reading middle-class British youth ― lacked the accessible pop gusto of radio-friendly tracks like Sex on Fire and Use Somebody. Today, you can walk down a street in Tottenham or Bradford and hear a British black or Asian person listening to those songs in their car; something that would never have happened 5 years back. If these songs are making people happy and crossing over then does it really matter so much? Is the pervasive multicultural acceptance of formerly ghettoised music actually cheapening the product, or merely giving people a good time?

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