Saturday, December 30, 2006

FMT: Massive

Sounds from the big P-E-R-F-I-D-I-O-U-S-A-L-B-I-O-N

Your main clairvoyant canine Sordid Puppy has been checking the U.K. Hip-Hop scene for some years now. I spent the first of my nascent years in Salford, Limeyland, and the extended (and, indeed, immediate) pooch family tree mostly begins and ends in the Rebel County, so my connection to that side of the pond remains stout. Along the way, during holidays and whatnot, I've done my best to bless friends and relatives over yonder with the best of the American crop of rapping artists and to smuggle any and everything the U.K. has had to offer back stateside.

Rappers from the perfidious Albion have had a difficult time winning any sort of airplay or commercial success from us puritans, and the scene as a whole has had an impossible time making any sort of impression. Yes, Lady Sovereign got signed by Jay-Z, and yes, she is English and raps, but she seems more a novelty act than a legitimate ambassador for U.K. Hip-Hop, so in this Puppy's opinion she doesn't really count.

Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Prize, England's top honors for music of all genres, a few years back with Boy In Da Corner, and built up enough hype to sell a coupla records in the U.S.A., but he wasn't exactly invited to pretend to freestyle on Rap City. Dizzee's still putting out material, and 2004's Showtime, while not as good as Boy In Da Corner, was a decent album (a couple of classic videos: "Stand Up Tall" and "Dream"); since then, he's popped up here and there, selling out shows at Irving Plaza in NYC and continuing to put out records. Point is, Dylan Mills is a good rapper, but you're not likely to hear him on the latest Big Mike mixtape because we'd rather listen to derivative douchebags than something with a bit of originality and style.

There are a couple of other acts to mention, such as The Streets and Kano and maybe a couple others (Roots Manuva?), among the number of U.K. artists that have made some impact in the U.S. They're all distinct from one another, and a few, on comparison, don't even seem like they'd fit in the same genre of music, and maybe they don't. What's similar about all of them, though, is that, despite critical acclaim and reasonable stateside commercial success, they haven't managed to open many doors for their own countrymen. They're not seen as fit for comparison with American rappers, and I'm not entirely sure why.

U.S. hip-hop is stuck -- no, entrenched -- in a bit of a creative rut at present, and the formula of venerable yet aging rappers making records to revitalize rap doesn't seem to be working. The current standards keep plodding along, making the same sort of music they've always made, and the public steadily loses interest.

It's likely that the aspects of the U.K. scene that I find so appealing are the direct results of its failure to achieve commercial success and thus enter the fold of the corporate music industry machine. U.K. hip-hop records get constant play from venues like Channel U, but MTV, even over here (and even on its strictly rap/r&b station, MTV Base), is much quicker to play the latest Chingy ballad than the latest homegrown rap. The same goes for the selection at your local HMV or Virgin Records stores. My point is that though I'm sure U.K. rappers get much love from their local fans and make money selling mixtapes and playing shows, it's hard to imagine any of them being extravagantly wealthy, and most radiate ravenous hunger.

At its worst, U.K. hip-hop is a shameless, empty imitation of its U.S. cousin and elder. U.K. records that blatantly attempt to reproduce American tracks fail in every way, and often end up biting styles that are dated and/or lacking in credibility. Imagine a pack of English characters doing their best St. Lunatics impression. Worse still are the acts that espouse the most negative aspects of U.S. hip-hop, and do so for the sake of having done so; absent from such music is any shred of soul or artistic integrity.

At its best, U.K. hip-hop is a great and refreshing thing. The relative youthfulness of the scene proves capable of translating not into immaturity but rather a new sound and attitude, one that represents a marked deviation from the rap that dominates the American mainstream. Roll Deep, a U.K. crew with whom Dizzee Rascal was once affiliated, has the number 3 or 4 video on Channel U at the moment, titled "Badman," and it's an exploration of the negative effects of gun violence on English communities. It also feels like an indictment of the belligerence and one-upmanship that a great deal of (American) rap glorifies. After the video runs, an advertisement for flashes across the screen. This is a great song with a great message, and, what's more, it doesn't come off as insincere.

I'm also feeling Craze 24. "Ghetto Hotels" is blowing up on Channel U and U.K. hip-hop radio at the moment, and yes, it's a bleak and forbidding portrayal of life in inner-city London, but it's also hopeful; Craze raps about conquering the boundaries that exist between him and his folk and success. Drug dealing and addiction are confronted, not celebrated.

As you'd expect, U.K. hip-hop -- good U.K. hip-hop, at that -- isn't all concerned with examining social ills. I've posted about Sway in the past, but he's good enough to mention again; "Little Derek" is one of my favorite songs of the past couple years, and I appreciate his expressed frustration with the impervious nature of the U.S. scene. A-Tola's sound seems a bit more derivative of the American MCs he undoubtedly admires, but his swagger is decidedly U.K.-by-way-of-West-Indies, and the music is fresh. The "Rep Ur Endz" series of tracks, one for each of London's various regions, is unlikely to leave you scratching your head at the complexity of the MCs' rhymes, but the earnestness of the songs is infectious.

U.K. hip-hop's detractors have adequate fodder for their criticisms. Its MCs and beatmakers are relatively young and unseasoned and, quite obviously, the scene simply hasn't evolved to the extent that its American counterpart has. However, at a time when hip-hop fans thirst for something stylistically and musically original, U.S. rap continues to disappoint, and the U.K. scene offers a burgeoning alternative. While this Puppy certainly hopes against hope that Papoose's debut album isn't utter tripe and that Killer Mike releases something other than a mixtape in the next twenty-five years, in the meantime you can probably catch him bumping an import. I'm in need of some soulful music, and I don't mean Common rapping over Will.I.Am beats about how soulful he is. I mean MUSIC that has a SOUL.


Furman P. Slothra said...

so does sway have an album? i seem to remember a "this is my demo" ep,

Sordid Puppy said...

yea its a legit album...he had "this is my promo vol. 1 & 2," now this album...