ATC collaborated with YouTube channel HipHopMadness to bring investigative hip-hop writing to visual life. This piece is a lightly-edited transcript of a video by HipHopMadness. Watch it here.
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.
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 hip-hop 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)
UPDATE 10/1/2020: Edited for formatting
I have been recording and performing music (rap genre) in the UK for quite some time, with marginal success I think; loving UK Hip Hop and Grime always came as second nature. I am American. I am arrogant; but, I have never once known of anyone in my circles belittling or unappreciating the art that comes from here in the UK.
Appreciate the perspective, Mr. Tardis.
Your experience is valid. Commentary on Americans, collectively, is not an indictment of every single American hip-hop participant. That being said, for every American like you, there are plenty who filter out UK hip-hop simply for the accents. Plenty of others don’t like the tempos and rhythms used. Lastly, there’s a simmering sentiment in US rap circles that British hip-hop artists just copy American acts, as you can see in this comment section.
Hip-hop fans in other Western countries are not nearly as resistant to US hip-hop. There probably are some nationalists who don’t want to give energy to artists outside of their community, but hip-hop fans beyond the States tend to accept whatever the US is offering. More importantly, that has become expected. With the rise of NY Drill which largely borrows from UK Drill, I think American hip-hop fans are opening up their ears a little more. But the hearing is still very selective.
This is bizzare and insulting.
Trap music is southern.
Hip Hop is currently dominated by southern rappers like Migos. Atlanta outsells and outperforms NY and Cali at the moment.
And you cannot be upset with Americans for liking our own creations better. We aren’t bothering you so leave us alone and stop copying us.
Quit begging for our validation and blaming your failures on us.
Black Americans are the pinnacle of culture throughout the world off of our own merits. We never allowed anyone not being able to relate to us being enslaved hold us back.
So stop your belly aching, begging, and copy cating and take a note from black America.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment worth responding to. Not sure why you’re pointing out trap’s origins to me: I specifically discuss *Latin* trap. Never said Latinx artists created trap.
I chuckled at the fact that I convinced you I’m British. Also, you’re right, supporting domestic music more than foreign music is the natural thing to do. I have no issue with that.
Now to respond to the last half of your comment: the piece is not saying “UK rappers cannot be validated without the US.” The piece is saying “Despite its recent explosion in quality and popularity, Americans still don’t rate UK rap.” UK rappers in both Grime and Drill are doing their own impressive numbers and creating notable cultural shockwaves. It is the collective attitude that everyone needs to care about what American artists say and Americans don’t need to care at all about foreign artists that I am critiquing.
You’re right to say the UK rap scene needs to find its own path to success. You’re wrong to say UK rap is a mime act. This leads me to believe you haven’t done the research to speak on UK rap. It’s okay if you, an individual, doesn’t want to listen to UK rappers. It’s wack to say you don’t care and then proceed to offer a weightless opinion.
Lastly, nobody wins when the diaspora feuds. Why remain isolated when Black folk stateside and in the UK fight many of the same oppressive obstacles and put it in the music? Criticizing American hip-hop fans (including Black folk) for their general negligence of rap elsewhere is not hate, it is pointing out an area of improvement. Being the cultural juggernaut that it is, I’m sure US hip-hop culture can handle my lil’ article.
Ok British man
You claim that you’re not begging for American validation but then go on to talk about how British rappers need America to accept them. If, as you claim, British rap is “doing impressive numbers and creating cultural shockwaves”, why do you still need America to “rate UK rap” soooooo desperately? If that’s not begging for American validation, what is it? Don’t get me wrong, I love our British brothers and sisters and think America and Britain have much in common and are unquestionably the 2 most important countries on earth but like Tuh said, rap is AMERICAN and most rappers carry themselves like a boss, have swag ect and it’s hard for Americans to see that in people from a country that is unarmed and still has a monarchy from the 14th century in 2021. That, along with the accents, just doesn’t sound or feel authentic to us.
“It is the collective attitude that everyone needs to care about what American artists say and Americans don’t need to care at all about foreign artists that I am critiquing.”
Answer to your first question was just one sentence away!
Answering your next question: I love cultural exchange. I love seeing people value and learn from the self-expression of others. Americans, collectively and historically, struggle to value non-American artists. I wish we were better at that for everyone’s sake.
To say that America doesn’t accept non-American artists is just not true. Look at the “British invasion” and all the British rock bands from the 60’s like the Beatles and Rolling Stones and again in the 80’s with bands like Duran Duran and the Culture Club. But even if we didn’t accept non-American artists or bands, so what? Grime, K-pop ect is nothing more than a slightly altered copy and paste of OUR music. Why *must* we accept every imitator that comes down the turnpike and where is the cultural exchange in us accepting music from every other country that WE innovated?
Hi again Lindsay,
There’s a difference between “struggle to value,” what I said in my previous comment, and “doesn’t accept,” what you have taken from that comment. If you valued grime and UK drill, you would do enough work (e.g. re-read the beginning of the article above) to realize they aren’t copy-paste versions of American music.
(Sonically, K-pop is closest to imitation, but the K-pop industry is next-level in ways that Western pop may have trouble keeping up with in the near future.)
There are also huge race and class implications about how acts like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were received versus how acts like Dave, Headie One and Stormzy translate. Maybe another piece for another time.
I say more on the importance of meaningful cultural exchange across the pond–and give a historical account of UK artists being key innovators in global hip-hop today–in this piece on the history of drill music from Chicago to London and back to NYC.