Thanks to the resurgence of grime, British hip-hop has never been bigger than it is now. Veterans Wiley, Kano and Skepta have all released critically acclaimed albums – with Skepta’s Konnichiwa winning the converted Mercury Music Prize for best British album of 2016 – while newcomers like Stormzy, Lady Leshurr and Giggs have become the toast of the town. Combine all this with the overseas love from a number of big hip-hop artists, namely Drake and his More Life playlist, and grime appears to be in a great place.
But there’s much more to British hip-hop than grime. While the early incarnation of the genre took its cues from American gangster rap, UK hip-hop has flourished over the years, taking influence from the cultural melting pot the county was built on. Garage, trip-hop, R&B, dub-step, electronica and conscious rap are just some of the multitude of sub-genres and styles making up UK hip-hop.
To help showcase the diversity of the genre, here are 10 of the most influential and acclaimed records highlighting just how great UK hip-hop is.
Universally praised and positioned as pioneers of English rap, London Posse’s sole record Gangster Chronicle was a head nodding, genre defining joyride through London slang and reggae beats that still holds up to repeated listens. The creation of Sipho, Rodney P, Bionic and DJ Biznizz (although Sipho and DJ Biznizz left the group before recording Gangster Chronicle), London Posse performed a harder, dirtier version of rap not heard before. Off the back of the booming “Money Mad” and New York sounding, “How’s Life In London,” Gangster Chronicles laid the foundation for the future of UK hip-hop.
Known as the Godfather of Grime, London stalwart Wiley was one of the originators of grime with a decorated career spanning over two decades. While many point to his debut album Treddin’ on Thin Ice (along with Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner) as helping forge the blueprint for the genre, it’s third album Playtime Is Over that established Wiley as not only a top lyricist, but an excellent producer too. Opening salvo “50/50” was the perfect showcase of Wiley’s lyrical ability while the probing “Slippin” and dub heavy “Stars” are production highlights. “Letter 2 Dizzee” dissects his relationship with former protégé Dizzee Rascal and the Skepta produced “No Qualms” is an aggressive response to Nasty Jack’s “Pimp On Flows” diss track.
Recorded mostly in Australia and swapping hip-hop samples for live instruments, Speech Therapy was the critically acclaimed debut from British rapper Speech Debelle. Citing Tracy Chapman and Meshell Ndegeocello as inspiration, Speech Therapy is a deeply personal collection of songs about Debelle’s upbringing in the UK capital. Detailing the years she spent homeless on “Searching,” the effect of her absence father on “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and the feeling of being in love on the acoustic jazz “Buddy Love,” Debelle shows a vulnerability and emotional side not often heard in modern hip-hop.
A play on the Nas classic “N.Y. State Of Mind,” Skinnyman’s Council Estate Of Mind follows the same path as the hip-hop classic, replacing the ghettos of New York for the inner city council estates of London. The record is intercut with skits sampling dialogue from Made In Britain, a 1982 television film about the British educational system dealing with themes concerning the working class, gang violence, racism and the anti-establishment movement. Skinnyman vents his feelings about the effects of crime and drugs on “I’ll Be Surprised (If I Make It Till Tomorrow)” and “Day To Day Basis,” while taking his frustrations out on the music industry on “Fuck The Hook.” A unique voice in the scene, Skinnyman’s Council Estate Of Mind was a stream of consciousness that still resonates with the current problems plaguing society today.
Former Massive Attack member Tricky found his niche as the face of trip-hop with the release of his seminal record Maxinquaye. Recruiting vocalist Martina Topley-Bird – who he discovered singing on a wall in Brixton – and enlisting producer Mark Saunders (The Cure, Neneh Cherry), Maxinquaye fulfilled Tricky’s vision of an atmospheric, sample-based album driven by his own personal experiences. Delving into death, sex and British drug culture, the record is a hazy smoke of human darkness exploring the underbelly of experimental music on tracks such as the thundering “Black Steel” and epic “Aftermath.” The juxtaposition of Tricky’s growling vocals and Topley-Bird’s innocently soulful delivery is a strangely cathartic experience, with the Isaac Hayes sampling “Hell Is Round The Corner” one of the records stand out tracks.
Before scoring the number one spot on the UK album charts with his soulful The Defamation of Strickland Banks record, Plan B was a theatrical MC whose early work drew comparisons with Eminem. His debut Who Needs Actions When You Got Words – the title derived from the Meat Puppets “Plateau” – is a lyrically dark nightmare boarding on horror core rap. Exposing the brutal reality facing youths growing up in inner city London, Plan B made no excuses for his haunting and vicious lyrics sound tracked by a mix of hip-hop beats, guitar licks and strings. Addressing drug abuse on “Mama (Loves A Crackhead),” gang ties on “Where Ya From?” and underage sex on “Charmaine,” Plan B’s descriptive lyrics are confronting and often pessimistic, leaving you wondering if things really were that bleak.
The haunting and delicate “No Strings…” intro that opens Roots Manuva’s sophomore album is the quiet calm before the storm NME writer Alex Needham labelled “Brit-rap’s finest hour to date.” Absorbing trip-hop influences and electronic dub soundscapes, Run Come Save Me is a futuristic look into the mind of one Rodney Hylton Smith. “Witness (1 Hope)” was the albums big single, influenced by Jamaican dancehall and the Doctor Who theme, with Manuva’s frequent references to English culture imbedding the album with his personality. Manuva’s gruff delivery, lyrical dexterity, along with guest verses from hip-hop favourites Chali 2na, Rodney P and Skeme, helped create a hip-hop classic that’s almost faultless.
The brainchild of 23-year-old Birmingham lad Mike Skinner (who produced and wrote the majority of the album in a tiny apartment in Brixton), Original Pirate Material took the booming garage sound sweeping the UK and paired it with relatable lyrics delivered in Skinner’s likeable talk-rap cadence. A skilled lyricist, Skinner illustrates Original Pirate Material with a combination of English slang, intricate phrasing and witty one-liners, documenting the seemingly bleak surroundings of life in the UK. Skinner conjures images of kebab shops, gloomy pubs and nights out on the piss with tracks “Too Much Brandy,” “Don’t Mug Yourself,” and “Has It Come To This,” while addressing the country’s alcohol problem on “Geezers Need Excitement” and “Irony Of It All.” Album stand out “Weak Become Heroes” details a hedonistic night of illicit drugs, capturing the essence of youth before the perils of adulthood become reality.
The same year the Streets exploded onto the UK hip-hop scene with Original Pirate Material, London born Ms. Dynamite further pushed the boundaries of the genre with debut A Little Deeper. First coming to the attention of music lovers via her bars, Dynamite switches between rapping and singing on A Little Deeper, making it an interesting listen that surprised many. Anchored by hit singles “Dy-Na-Mi-Tee” and “It Takes More,” the album incorporates Dynamite’s experiences growing up in north London against a backdrop of varying musical styles and influences (R&B, reggae, garage, 2-Step and hip-hop), and was the winner of the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize award.
Once the heir to the grime throne, Dizzee Rascal’s career has headed in a more commercial direction, but his debut album Boy In Da Corner is a hip-hop masterpiece the MC has yet to better. Handling the majority of production himself, the then 18-year-old Dizzee crafted an aggressive, dystopian sound providing the ideal foundation for songs depicting the realities of youths trapped by a vicious cycle of gang violence and urban decay. From the sinister opening of “Sittn’ Here” through to the turn up club banger “Jus’ A Rascal,” and reflective finale “Do It!,” Boy In Da Corner is all killer and no filler, helping put grime on the map and turning Dizzee into an international superstar.
Tobias Handke is a writer and editor from Melbourne, Australia, with a passion for hip-hop, pizza and Kurt Russell.