[10 January 2008]
Hip-hop has proven itself to be the most elastically adaptable and ideologically pliable musical form of the last quarter-century. I would argue—and I don’t think I would get much in the way of disagreement at this point—that it has already had much more of a transformative effect on world music than rock & roll ever did. All across the planet, kids are grabbing microphones and figuring out ways to spit rhymes against beats. The beats change from culture to culture, and the music’s modular nature undoubtedly contributes a great deal to its almost universal applicability, but the essential, primal thread of music-based storytelling continues unchanged.
Those old-timers in the audience might remember a distant time when the very idea of non-American hip-hop seemed ludicrous. It wasn’t that long ago that the music seemed too steeped in American cultural idioms to ever make a successful overseas transplant. There was, admittedly, quite a bit of chauvinism in this idea, because it hadn’t been that long ago that rock had proclaimed itself to be the universal language. But eventually this idea faded. To the educated American listener, Tupac’s lyrics may have teetered on self-parody, presenting a never-ending parade of nihilism and violence methodically drained of humanity and poetic meaning in a never-ending quest for cynical commercial exploitation. But it only seemed that way, and it wasn’t long before ‘Pac and Biggie were bootlegged across the Third World, landing in places where the exaggerated images of ghetto Armageddon weren’t quite so far fetched. There’s something hard and implacable in M.I.A.‘s rhymes, which retain their terrifying emotional content even when swaddled in the thoroughly Westernized critical context.
But what about Britain? Well, that’s not quite such an easy question. The fact that Britain and the United States share a language has never been an indicator of spiritual compatibility. Rock & roll managed to find fertile soil on both sides of the Atlantic, but that owes as much to a demographic coincidence as anything else: it just so happened that early blues and country records found an enthusiastic audience in a receptive demographic of postwar British baby boomers. It wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion that the direct descendants of Howling Wolf and Bo Diddley would supplant skiffle in the hearts and minds of UK teens. Even since the ‘60s, American and British pop music haven’t always seen eye to eye: punk was an urgent threat to common decency in the centrally-located UK, while somewhat less potent in the geographically sprawling States.
With this in mind, British hip-hop took a long damn time to get off the ground. To a remarkable degree, the music had to be reverse-engineered from unlikely materials. To get to the mainstream of modern UK hip-hop—grime like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, to say nothing of the Streets’ Mike Skinner—you have to understand how grime evolved out of something called UK garage, which itself evolved out of drum & bass and, not-to-distantly, house music. American hip-hop shares common ancestors with house as well (and, obviously, hip-hop still shares a great deal of DNA with all contemporary electronic music), but you have to go all the way back to Afrikaa Bambaataa to see where the family tree branched in America: almost thirty years of fast-moving history, versus less than a decade in the UK. This is not to say that there haven’t been UK-born rappers for almost as long as there’s been rap (big ups to Herbie the Mastermind and Derek B!), but up until very recently the UK scene struggled with ontological notions of identity. Notions of “pure” hip-hop were consistently stymied by proximity to dominant dance music culture, which exerted an overwhelming influence on native attempts at rap that foreign observers have consistently found difficult to comprehend. Hip-hop thrives on authenticity, but where was a hip-hop the UK could exclusively claim as its own?
Massive Attack released Blue Lines in 1991, but it wasn’t long before everyone involved in the Bristol scene was branching out from a rough hip-hop template and into something barely recognizable. Something like Tricky’s Pre-Millennial Tension, while undoubtedly hip-hop in spirit, was simply too far removed from what the genre had become in America for it to be universally recognized as such. Similarly, while popular acts like the Chemical Brothers and Roni Size were eager to identify their debt to hip-hop culture, they also owed too much to native forms of dance music to bridge the gap effectively. Where was the British rap underground? Mostly invisible, unfortunately, at least to anyone beyond of the reach of pirate radio.
One result of this dislocation has been the fact that much British hip-hop has struggled to find an audience in the United States. Even now, a seemingly sure-fire cultural import such as Lady Sovereign (cute, spunky, white chick rapper signed to Def Jam by no less an authority than Jay-Z) has struggled to find traction. The aforementioned Mike Skinner, inarguably the most compelling rapper to find a significant audience outside of his native country, has been unable to find anything but a niche in the American marketplace. But the failure of UK hip-hop to find a market in the States shouldn’t be taken to imply a lack of quality. There’s a lot of good hip-hop coming out of the UK right now, and Well Deep offers a nice snapshot of some of the most interesting work currently being done on the island. America is notoriously impervious to foreign talent, it has been for decades. And until the UK rap scene can produce an outsized pop-presence on the level of U2 or Coldplay (with all the lowest-common-denominator appeal implied by the comparison), you probably won’t hear any Cockney accents on US Top 40 radio.
It necessarily follows, then, that Well Deep presents something of a puzzle to an American listener, even one fairly knowledgeable about the UK scene. Big Dada records have been around for ten years (said anniversary being the occasion behind this compilation), and in that time they’ve published some of the most influential British hip-hop artists—Roots Manuva, Wiley, Ty—as well as some like-minded foreign artists, such as the French TTC and America’s own MF Doom (AKA King Geeddorah), Diplo, and Spank Rock. As you might expect from such a line up, the majority of the music on Well Deep is very, very good. This is undoubtedly an important document of contemporary British hip-hop, but I would stop short of calling it an essential one, because taken as a whole it presents far too eclectic a portrait of the music to be taken as even remotely conclusive. Not to put too fine a point on it, Big Dada is an independent label, and the variety of music on display here is such that it still belies the individualized tastes of its founders.
To their credit, Big Dada have never made a pretence of being anything other than what it is. Formed as a hip-hop-specific arm of British acid-jazz label Ninja Tune, the imprint has been a consistent presence in American independent music stores and college radio stations since its inception. For a long time, Roots Manuva seemed to be the only British rapper with any kind of presence in the States. Back when his first album dropped in the late ‘90s, it had been so long since the UK had produced any kind of reputable hip-hop act that the old adage about the dancing bear applied: it doesn’t really matter how well the bear dances, just the fact that it dances is miracle enough. It didn’t seem to matter, for the record, that Roots was actually quite a deft MC, just the fact that he was distinctly British and also incontrovertibly a member of the hip-hop nation was enough to mark his distinction. “Movements”, off his 1999 debut Brand New Second Hand, is fittingly the first track here, and two more of his tracks are included as well (including the infectious “Witness (I Hope)” off 2001’s Run Come Save Me). The contemporary scene is well represented by Wiley, one of the founding-fathers of grime as well as a member of the Roll Deep crew, although his two tracks are pulled exclusively from his 2007 album Playtime Is Over, and as such his most influential tracks are missing.
But it’s important to remember that, from an American context, Big Dada is as much an outlet for foreign indie hip-hop in the UK as it is an indie label peddling UK hip-hop to the rest of the world. Hence the presence of artists like Spank Rock and Diplo, already well-feted by domestic audiences. There are also folks like Busdriver and cLOUDDEAD, a bit more obscure and certainly nothing remotely resembling popularly appealing, but still hip-hop for all that. Some of the music here shares less with any distinctive UK hip-hop identity than independent, “backpack” hip-hop of a particularly trans-national nature. In other words, the listening habits of college-educated, socially conscious, and introspective young adults don’t seem to change appreciably regardless of national context. I don’t think MF Doom sells that many more copies of his thorny, oft challenging records in the UK than the US.
So what? Are we supposed to discount Big Dada because of the fact that they don’t presume to present anything resembling a national hip-hop identity for the United Kingdom? Despite the fact that British hip-hop has gained much in the way of its modern identity (at least in the US) through Big Dada’s releases, the responsibility for such representation need not fall solely on their shoulders. The fact is, British hip-hop has finally come into its own, and it’s a testament to this fact that something like Well Deep can serve merely to wet the listener’s appetite for further investigation. There’s a lot of good hip-hop here, but more importantly, you have the acknowledgment that there is an awareness of good hip-hop that transcends national identity. It needn’t carry its Britishness like a burden, it should just be good. There is a lot of good music here, British and not, but it’s still remarkable for the fact that hip-hop, and the appreciation thereof, has managed to surpass its roots and find intelligent proponents the world over.