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Brit-hop front & center

Some of the most exciting hip-hop being created today is coming from Britain. Here's why.

By Elizabeth ArmstrongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2004

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.

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"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."