Brit-hop front & center
Some of the most exciting hip-hop being created today is coming from Britain. Here's why.
Dylan Mills has been obsessed with hip-hop since grade school. Raised by a single mom in one of east London's sprawling public-housing projects, hip-hop permeated every facet of his young life - kids spray-painting graffiti on gloomy gray buildings, rapping about hardships on street corners, or breakdancing in the park. The sole poster hanging in his tiny room was of Tupac Shakur.
"I must have been 11 or 12 when I started listening to hip-hop, and when I started to understand it," the rising star now known as Dizzee Rascal says from his studio in London, his cockney accented voice is high-pitched and earnest as the teenager speaks over beats in the background. "Especially with Tupac. I really got into him. He said it how it was."
It's been almost a year since word of Dizzee's debut album, "Boy in da Corner," spread like wildfire from critic to critic across the US. But when he won Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Award last fall - besting both Radiohead and Coldplay - the resounding response from mainstream America was, "Who?"
As with most British rappers, Dizzee's US audience is largely limited to critics. But sounds from "Boy in da Corner" are slowly seeping into mainstream radio waves and DJ collections. And Dizzee is not the only British rap star to find an American audience. Ms. Dynamite, The Streets, and the duo Floetry are also turning heads, signaling that US hip-hop fans are growing more willing to listen to their overseas counterparts.
Part of the appeal may lie in the more serious topics British rappers take up, and part may stem from the fact that the British hip-hop artists aren't just mimicking US styles - they've established a whole new style of their own.
"People like Dizzee and The Streets represent something entirely different," says Chris Ryan, who writes about hip-hop for Spin and Blender magazines. "It's not just British guys trying to sound like Jay-Z. Their music is rooted in the UK garage, two-step, and an electronic culture; American hip-hop is rooted in funk and soul samples. That's why Dizzee has such success in Britain - it's a British guy taking these elements of dance culture everyone likes with a more realistic perspective."
When hip-hop burst out of the US in the mid 1980s, it found a near fanatic following in just about every pocket of the world. From Tokyo's high-rises to Rio's favelas, DJs were scratching up records with turntables and mixers; break dancers were sliding across the dance floor like robots gone wild; rappers protested street violence, drug addiction, and racial profiling.
But while many variants cropped up in other countries, they never found a following in the US. As the commercial hip-hop available on most US radio stations evaporated into money-motivated tirades about women bedded and MCs bested, the door was left open for a return to the genre's smart, politically driven roots.
A few talented American musicians began to push their way onto mainstream radio - Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli - but Britain is quickly filling the void.
"The funny thing right now about British hip-hop," Mr. Ryan points out, "is that they've had a pretty lively traditional hip-hop scene for at least 15 years."
But for much of that time the rising hip-hop stars would affect an American accent, as if strictly mimicking their US counterparts. "That was where hip-hop was coming from, and that's what they thought they had to follow to express themselves," says Naomi Aptowitzer, a music and technology teacher at the New Horizon Youth Center in north London.
In other ways, however, British rappers began to shape their own style and image early on. Unlike American stars, who are largely male, British MCs have a higher percentage of females. "In terms of proportion" the guys still outweigh the women, "but there are more female MCs coming up right now," says Ms. Aptowitzer, who has been a famous rapper in Britain since the early '80s as MC Ni.
Ms. Dynamite, whose debut album "A Little Deeper" blew all of Europe away last spring, represents one of many young women in Britain rapping against the misogyny rampant in American hip-hop. "Little sistas, now I really got to let you know," she raps on "It Takes More," "real women ain't sexin for no man's dough. Real women work hard to make the dough. Now, we can all chat about gats [guns] and blacks on blacks ... and all these stereotypes, but that ain't what I'm here for. Show 'em to think higher and aspire for more."
Brit-hop has also welcomed rappers from many backgrounds. Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, a one-man band from Birmingham, is still making waves with his album, "Original Pirate Material." US music critics compare him to Eminem, but that has much more to do with his whiteness than his music.
After fiddling with keyboards since he was a toddler, and growing up listening to De La Soul and the Beastie Boys, The Streets represents another class of people - one he calls "Barratt class" - in suburban projects where boredom is more suffocating than the lack of money.
Both The Streets and Dizzee Rascal were nominated at Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Awards in the fall. Dizzee won for his fast, staccato rhymes over raw, stuttering beats, a result that is both edgy and underproduced. He composed most of the groundbreaking album when he was just 16, and many of the beats sound as if they were recorded in an actual garage.
"How you see me is how I am. My image is really reflective of how I was raised and where I came from. I don't really force it," says the rapper. "If you force it, you're not being true to yourself - and that's what hip-hop is all about."
Some industry watchers think that the lack of crossover in the US stems more from a lack of marketing muscle than a lack of listener interest. And the more American listeners are exposed to imported hip-hop, the greater the demand.
"Hip-hop hasn't quite crossed over and become generalized and homogenized," says Greg Dimitriadis, author of "Performing Identity/Performing Culture." "Folks around the world are using this music to address their local circumstances.... On one level, you've got this one part of globalization where things are spreading globally and becoming more Americanized, and by the same token you've got this intense focus on the local, on neighborhoods. Hip-hop has always been at that particular nexus."