ATC has proudly been collaborating with YouTube channel HipHopMadness since Spring 2019 to bring investigative hip-hop writing to visual life. This piece is a lightly-edited transcript of a video soon to be released by HipHopMadness.
There is a lot to admire about the rise of Grime culture. Compared to American hip-hop, it’s very young: born in the early 2000s as opposed to the 1970s birth decade of American rap. To go from local subculture to the global stage in less than 20 years is impressive, much like the explosion of American hip-hop in the 1990s. Even more impressive are some of the key details of Grime, including the formation of pirate or bootleg radio stations in order to spread the music, almost like a broadcast version of early 2000s internet mixtape culture in the States.
While Grime is very comparable to hip-hop, it has grown into more of its own genre and less of a subgenre due to its unique sonic influences, captured in the bonafide classic album Boy in da Corner by Dizzee Rascal, Grime’s equivalent, in impact, to Nas’ Illmatic. Among these sonic influences include UK garage and house music, hip-hop, and afrobeats, seeing that the majority of Grime artists are first and second-generation Black British men.
With all of these clear parallels to American hip-hop and very unique differences, UK Grime, and the surging UK Drill movement, seem like forms of music that should be able to capture widespread American interest easily. But despite Slick Rick’s past success, Stefflon Don’s mainstream breakthrough, and artists like Skepta, Giggs, and Dave receiving huge American cosigns and achieving solo success in the UK, British rappers simply aren’t catching on in the United States.
Some say it’s the accent, some say it’s the flow, but UK hip-hop artists have historically struggled to break into the US. With similar artist demographics, similar narratives, and the same spoken language, why exactly is it that rappers from the UK aren’t catching on across the pond?
Like most confusing issues in hip-hop culture, the answer is not simple or one-dimensional. A number of factors work against the possibility of UK hip-hop artists blowing up in the United States. Generally speaking, the main factors that come up most in this discussion are the tempo of Grime, unfamiliarity with UK street culture, and a condescending view of British culture as a whole.
To be frank, the gross, sometimes impressive American superiority complex is the one true problem at the core of the UK-to-US crossover issue. But for the sake of a breakdown, let’s look at the other factors.
What Grime is made of
Starting with the music itself, Grime is produced and performed differently from your standard American rap song. It has been noted by many sources that the typical Grime song is produced with a tempo around 140 beats per minute (BPM), making instrumentals and flows sound more hurried than the average American rap song which moves at about 85-95 BPM. Quite literally, many American hip-hop fans are trying to figure out how to get in rhythm with Grime music.
Much of Grime’s musicality is influenced by UK-flavored electronic music, a shaky foundation for Americans trying to grasp aggressive British rap music. The pace at which the music moves makes it more difficult for the casual listener to make sense of slang terms they don’t know, as well as accents they are unfamiliar with.
This takes us to the next issue with the UK-US crossover: the gap in cultural understanding.
Hood niggas? In England? Please…
No matter where you are in the world, a fan of hip-hop is expected to understand American culture in order to make sense of hip-hop’s most important works. American slang terms like “dawg,” “lick,” “12,” “snow,” and “strap” are required knowledge. Knowing Biggie and Diddy are from New York and Pac and Suge are from California is required knowledge.
British street culture, on the other hand, is not a globally-dominant code.
Even with Drake’s best efforts on More Life, not everyone is familiar with slang terms like “bruv,” “ends,” “peng,” and “pagan,” and that’s just scratching the surface. Along with significant differences in pronunciation—like the “f” sound on words starting with “th” and shortened “t” sounds—British lingo is basically a different language to American English speakers. The UK’s geography is also unknown to most Americans, as the difference between places such as Tottenham, Bow, and Liverpool wouldn’t make sense the way it would if you described an artist as an Atlanta rapper or a Bay Area rapper.
British street culture’s irrelevance to American hip-hop fans makes bridging the gap challenging when it comes to Grime and UK Drill music. Without enough context and knowledge, music as lyric and story-based as Grime can never quite connect with foreign audiences. That is an important point to make considering the success of Latin pop and trap music in the United States.
While many of today’s most popular Latin-American artists, such as Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and Luis Fonsi, perform most of their music in Spanish, there is enough of a cultural bridge for Americans to get over the language barrier. From the more familiar 85-95 BPM range, the huge Spanish-speaking populations in major cities, and the club-ready danceability, Latin trap and pop have enjoyed massive success in the United States despite the language barrier because its sound and culture is familiar to Americans.
Returning to the point about British street culture being irrelevant to Americans, the lack of familiarity and the memeability of Drake’s Grime experiments have added to a sense of superiority over British culture and a culture of mockery toward anything British. For instance, since Americans don’t know much of anything about how working-class Black Brits live in London’s ends, the reveal of 21 Savage’s UK-background led to corny, out-of-touch jokes about the Revolutionary War and Peppa Pig.
That’s as absurd as invoking Paul Revere and Rugrats to mock a foreign rapper revealed to have been born in the States.
If it’s not American, it’s not real
Treating everything British as comedy keeps Americans from making an honest effort to appreciate Grime and UK Drill artists. It’s this condescending treatment that made the single “Man’s Not Hot” a viral sensation in 2017. Big Shaq, formerly known as Roadman Shaq, is a parody roadman rapper played by British comedian Michael Dapaah. Big Shaq is a comedic character representing the roadman or British street aesthetic, as well as a struggling Grime artist on the come-up.
The now classic viral track “Man’s Not Hot”—full of UK roadman lingo and cheeky humor over snappy, aggressive drums—was beloved around the world and taken more seriously by American fans than any major Grime release of the year, including Giggs and Skepta’s features on Drake’s More Life and Stormzy’s widely-acclaimed debut album Gang Signs & Prayer.
The success of “Man’s Not Hot” said a lot about America’s current collective attitude toward British hip-hop culture. Mostly, the celebration of Big Shaq made it clear that American hip-hop fans view British rap culture as a goofy, accented imitation of American hip-hop culture. So when presented as comedy, everything cool about Grime and British rappers can be appreciated. But when presented as serious attempts at art and storytelling, UK rappers get tuned out because it simply isn’t real to American listeners despite plenty of similarities between the stories of London’s finest and the more well-known stories of New York and LA rap legends.
An example of this backwards thinking is the reaction to Giggs’ verse on Drake’s More Life hit “KMT” compared to the American reaction to “Man’s Not Hot.” Giggs, known for his silly sense of humor in his otherwise gritty verses, gave us lines like “I love them breasts, lookin’ all perky/lookin’ all Christmas gift-wrapped, lookin’ all turkey,” and the infamous “Could’ve just slapped man, but he wanted it further/Batman, da-na-na da-na.”
In a Vice article written by Daisy Jones on why Americans think UK rappers, and Giggs specifically, are trash, many listeners cited an unpleasant flow and punchlines that couldn’t be taken seriously. Funny enough, most people’s favorite parts of the parody hit “Man’s Not Hot” are the exaggerated gun sounds made by Big Shaq, as well as the title punchline about Big Shaq refusing to take his jacket off for the sake of his roadman look. Hell, people took Rich Brian’s borderline-parody hit “Dat Stick” more seriously than Giggs on “KMT.”
In short, American rap fans don’t know enough about UK Grime culture and don’t care enough in the present to see it as more than a parody of American hip-hop culture. While this is disappointing, UK rappers are proving they don’t need the validation of blowing up in the States in order to make noise and be respected by the rest of the world.
UPDATE 7/27/2020: Edited for diction and citations (hyperlinks)