Skip to content

Hip Hop: 50 Not Out

Jonny Wright


I recently visited the exhibition A Hip Hop Journey: 50 years of Kulture at Leeds City Museum. It takes a nostalgic look back at the origins of hip hop and twins the US history with what was going on in Leeds over the same time period. As highlighted in the exhibition, hip hop is founded on five pillars first expressed by Afrika Bambaataa and his collective, the Zulu Nation. These pillars are breakdancing, graffiti, DJing, MCing and knowledge. I will concentrate here on the triumvirate of DJing, MCing and knowledge. This is not to downplay the other two pillars, but my experience as an artist and as a consumer has been focused on these three. 

Sitting in the exhibition on a graffitied mock New York subway train with my daughter clutching her pink Care Bear (named Pinkie, obviously), I started to reflect not only on how far hip hop had come from its origins in the Bronx, but how far I’d come on my journey since my introduction to hip hop three decades earlier. My Moses Mount Sinai moment of revelation was split over two occasions in the early 1990s. The first tablet I received was when my mum gave me her cassette of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990). The lyrics, the politics, the bass of Chuck D’s voice – I was blown away. This was music to ‘Fight The Power’ to, to be played out of a boom box bigger than Radio Raheem’s in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989). The second tablet was from my neighbour and best friend at the time, William. In his bedroom he’d normally play me something by British rock bands Pulp or Blur, but one morning he put on a CD by Latino Californian hip hop group, Cypress Hill: ‘I never wanted to hurt a n****/ Unless ya come flexin that trigga, I dig ya/ That grave on the east side of town/ I lay ya six feet underground’. These guys were swearing, using the N-word on record – can you do that!? This was rebellious, I wanted in. 

I was growing up in an era of political change; the end of the Tories in the 90s brought with it Blair’s Britain. Across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan’s racially motivated ‘war on drugs’ in the 1980s had spawned gangsta rap as well as more politically conscious hip hop collectives like Native Tongues. I devoured both, but I was coming to this music half a decade later. I was listening to ‘Bush Killa’ (rapper Paris’ brilliant take down of George Bush Snr’s 1990-91 war in Iraq) in the middle of the Clinton administration. Clinton was labelled the first Black President; British pop group D:Ream told us that under Blair ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. For hip hop’s anti-establishment ethos, it was harder now to decipher what power we were fighting. The mid-90s also led to a changing of the guard in rap. 2Pac and Biggie Smalls were murdered, and Puff Daddy’s 1997 ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ tribute to the latter, his protégé, featuring Biggie’s R & B singer widow Faith Evans, was a precursor to the watered down direction mainstream rap was flowing: Puff Daddy would also emerge as one of the front runners in what would become the ‘bling-bling’ era of rap. 

Around this time, I became more interested in the counter-cultural, more anti-capitalist narrative of the Rawkus Records backpacker rap scene, and in any rappers I thought were spitting knowledge, such as Common Sense (now known as Common) and Talib Kweli. But as the king of Big Pimpin’ Jay Z rapped: ‘If skills sold truth be told/ I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/ Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense (But I did five Mil)/ I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.’ 

Could you be commercially successful and ‘spit knowledge’? I’d argue it was nigh on impossible at the time in the UK. Our equivalents of the activist American Muslim actor and rapper Mos Def were certainly not household names, even on the underground scene, but this didn’t deter me. I wanted to be a rapper and I wanted to spit knowledge. Going by the name XYM, which stands for Xpand Your Mind, I wanted to expand my listeners’ thinking. I bought a Casio watch with a recording device on it so I could leave myself voice notes of raps, decades before voice notes existed. I would buy rap singles that had instrumentals on (from Andy’s records in Halifax with my tip money from Pizza Hut) so that I could spit my own lyrics over them to record on my MiniDisc player. I was spitting knowledge, but I was doing it in an American accent. I wanted to emulate the African American artists I respected so much and, truth be told, I didn’t really like UK rap songs, aside from a few notable exceptions like Karl Hinds’ ‘Don Gramma’. Mike Skinner’s The Streets and Ghanaian British duo The Mitchell Brothers were cool, but they weren’t really rappers as I would define them, they were just talking over beats. Ashley Walters (or Asher D as he was known in the British garage collective So Solid Crew) told me that:

‘I believe the definition of hip hop has changed over the years. I feel like that’s a natural progression. Fundamentally, hip hop is meant to be an outlet for marginalised people to get their feelings heard; the music that accompanies the words has always been a sliding scale. When in So Solid, in the early noughties, we had grown up on old school hip hop, but we were viewed as a house and garage collective because of the music we rapped over. Our strong hip hop influence pushed garage into another phase of development and welcomed the birth of grime.’

I have to admit, at the time I was one of those hip hop separatists; I didn’t like the production of garage, I wanted DJ Premier, J Dilla, The Alchemist, Pete Rock, 9th Wonder, those types of boom bap beats, often laced with soul samples. Garage wasn’t hip hop I’d say, but what I didn’t understand at the time was that hip hop isn’t about imitation, it’s about innovation.

In the Leeds exhibition there was a quote up from one of my favourite MCs, KRS-One:  ‘Hip hop is the pursuit of one’s authentic being through the arts.’ It wasn’t until I studied for a year at the University of Maryland in America that I really started owning my authentic British accent. I knew a dodgy American one wouldn’t go down well there and being British was a nice USP. I’d started freestyling, spitting words off the top of the head, I was good and did well in some campus rap battles. I’d begun to find my own voice and, on returning to the University of Liverpool, I also started embracing my Yorkshire roots more. I’d never really been that arsed about being from Yorkshire. Growing up there I couldn’t wait to leave, but when you leave a place, you realise how much it shapes you. 

It was the same when I moved down to London, suddenly I went from an ambivalent northerner to a proud one whose northernness formed an important part of my identity. For a song called ‘Up North’, I had my first radio play on 1Xtra. I’d started to work with UK producers, no longer having to rap over instrumentals from shop bought CDs, and the music of UK rappers had also started to resonate with me. Klashnekoff’s The Sagas Of… (2004), Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind (2004), Kano’s Home Sweet Home (2005), Akala’s It’s Not a Rumour (2006), Sway’s This Is My Demo (2006), Ty’s Upwards (2003), were all albums that I held up with some of the best at the time from the States. I remember being almost moved to tears when I saw Bashy’s 2007 ‘Black Boys’ video on Channel U, Roots Manuva’s 2001 ‘Witness (1 Hope)’ still might be one of the funniest music videos of all time.   

Over the years I’ve performed in Germany, worked with producers from France, Poland, Hungary and Italy, I’ve sold my mixtapes at hip hop festivals in Croatia and the Czech Republic; hip hop has now gone global. Hip hop in America was born out of Jamaican sound system culture and then took influences (and samples) from soul, funk and disco. In the UK, there has been a grime music explosion, which has now morphed into drill. Grime was birthed from garage, and garage was born out of American hip hop, but also out of UK jungle, which was born out of Jamaican ragga. Black music is always evolving and borrowing from itself, and so is hip hop.

Despite this global reach, I believe hip hop is at its best when it is specific to its locality. Justin Uzomba, who used to rap under the name Mikill Pane and who      supported the now deceased American rapper Mac Miller (as well as Ed Sheeran) on tour, is well placed to answer the question of what is particular about UK hip hop?  He responded:      

From my perspective, is the way this generation has figured out how to embrace Americanisms in a British way. Sounding American without ever putting on an American accent. Also, there’s much more diversity in accents, with some of the biggest stars coming not just from London but from Manchester, Birmingham, cities in Ireland and loads of other places that weren’t majorly represented a decade ago.’

Which brings me back to the subway train in the Leeds exhibition. I was thinking, how does hip hop differ in the north of England? Testament, an MC and Beatboxer featured in the exhibition, who lives in West Yorkshire and who I have previously profiled for WritersMosaic, told me:

‘I’d say it’s the way the landscape and the cities and the infrastructure effects [sic] the artists – there is something different about rappers outside London  – there’s more time and space and therefore experimentation and a bit more reflection too. But then there’s often not the infrastructure to help develop these voices.’ 

A music producer, NOISIBOI from South Shields in the North East of England, with whom I made an EP called Northern Connection (2017), added:      

‘As we don’t have the flashy clubs or the same level of consumerism, I find the subject matter from back home is usually a lot more introspective, even melancholic, at times. The music isn’t as different as I think there is a great wave across the UK beat genre, something for everyone. You can definitely tell bars wise when you get more and more towards home. Bit darker, bit colder, just like the region.’ 

Whereas Kemetstry from Huddersfield, who featured on my track ‘Up North’,      didn’t mince his words, like any true Yorkshireman, when he told me: ‘Real Northern Hip Hop MCs stay true to their accent, and not try put on some Southern accent to try fit in.’ 

The fact that ‘fitting in’ for MCs from the UK’s regions might now mean putting on a London accent, and not an American one, shows just how far hip hop has travelled in the last 50 years. Like the exhibition, with its two concurrent timelines for the US and for Leeds, my personal journey has been two-pronged. One has been as an artist learning to become more comfortable in my own skin, with my own voice, realising that the best hip hop songs are often the most personal. Secondly, I’ve developed as a fan, learning to appreciate the music that is created around me. I now listen to a lot more UK rap than American, and that’s not just rappers like the Mercury Prize nominated Loyle Carner who raps on old-school hip hop beats. I love the vibrancy, energy and authenticity of UK hip hop and now the world, from Leeds to the Bronx, is finally beginning to appreciate it too. hop-journey-50-years-of-kulture