Styles & Forms | British Hip Hop

It is a common enough opinion that the words ‘British’ and ‘rap’ are contradictions in terms. Unfortunately, this is indeed the case and it is solely because of the language barrier: rap delivered in any form of English other than American does not sound authentic.

To attempt rap in the Queen’s English became known as the ‘Derek B Syndrome’, after the enthusiastic British rapper who, at the end of the 1980s, became the most successful of a slew of British rappers – The Cookie Crew, Wee Papa Girl Rappers, Overlord X and She-Rockers included – who failed to equate sales figures with hip-hop credibility. Although, perhaps in Overlord X’s case sales and credibility did run in tandem. Derek B, the self-styled Bad Young Brother, had all the attitude, but his mish-mash cockney/New York accent sounded so out of place in rap’s very stylized vocabulary that it was never going to be anything other than novelty.

Made In Britain

British rappers always seemed confused as to whether they should be ‘keeping it real’ with local speech patterns or going as close to Yankee as they could manage. Either way, this tended to open them up to ridicule from the UK’s hardcore hip hop community. It is no coincidence that British rappers Monie Love and Neneh Cherry (the most successful, in terms of credibility) both spent so much time with family in New York that they had more or less authentic American accents on ‘Down To Earth’ and ‘Buffalo Stance’, respectively. This situation has not changed much today, as the slick-talking Phi-Life Crew are taken more seriously than their counterparts by sounding far more New York than New Malden.

This is not to say that what went on behind the rappers was not worth tuning into. British hip hop producers and turntable wizards soaked up the influences of reggae, rock and numerous other styles, unlike US rappers working within the rigidly structured US music system. As a result, mixmasters like DJ Vadim, The Creators and The Scratch Perverts can hold their own anywhere in the world. This hip hop-based creativity seeped back into the pop sphere too, as outfits like Bomb The Bass, S’Express, Beatmasters, Coldcut and Beats International, an earlier incarnation of Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook, appeared on the UK charts in the late-1980s.

Finding Its Way

In the early 1990s British hip hop found a new potency, acknowledging the ways it differed from US rap and building on its own unique foundations. Jamaican patois – the basis of much UK urban street slang – began driving the lyrical style, encouraging those from solid hip hop traditions to experiment wildly. Rappers Roots Manuva, Black Twang and the more pop-oriented Ms. Dynamite are all riding high, and all deliver their lyrics in clear Jamaican timbres. Meanwhile drum’n’bass, jungle and UK garage are all the result of fusing rap with reggae and other dance styles, with a sense of adventure that goes back to SoulIISoul in the 1980s....

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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