In recent years, huge stars such as Stormzy, Skepta and recent Mercury Prize winner Dave have taken over the rap world. With their distinctive tones and London accents, they managed to set them apart from their American counterparts. Yet as British rappers flood the UK charts, many across the pond still cannot accept that UK rap is a thing. Well, that’s their problem.
Although I am a huge fan of US rap, when it comes to defending my country’s skills, I do so to the fullest. Hip-hop originated in South Bronx, New York, but doesn’t make US rap superior. Despite this – and I speak from experience, having defended my country’s musical talents time and again – US rap patriots are the hardest to convince. I was recently scrolling through Instagram and came across an American hip-hop page with a suggestive comment about UK rap. The post depicted some American guys aggressively doing terrible British accents, the video captioned, “UK n****s when you tell them UK rap is trash”. The comment section was belligerent: “UK rap is shit!” went one epistle. “No one can understand them”, said another. I wasn’t having any of it.
Living in London, I meet many creatives who are always on the go. Many are rappers – all unique with their own flows, talents, and artistry. They prove time and time again that there is something magical about UK rap. So I felt compelled to reply. In short, I ranted about US drill song ‘Welcome to the Party’ having been produced by east Londoner 808Melo. “Don’t compare us to the US no more,” I wrote. “Our shit is great to us. We don’t need US approval”. The UK has such unique talent that I couldn’t take the slander.
But I was once naïve, too. When I was young I believed that to be a rapper, you had to be American. But what do you expect when 99.987% of the rappers you saw on MTV were American? So when my cousins exposed me to (now sadly defunct) TV channels such as Channel AKA and Flava, I discovered legendary lyricists such as Giggs, Lethal B, and Chipmunk (before he became known as Chip). My mind was blown. I was left in awe by the cocky, twisted deliveries from these young boys in trackies. From then, I’ve had great respect and admiration for the UK scene. But the UK’s love for US artists has rarely been reciprocated by those across the pond.
I always wonder why huge British stars can’t rise to the top in the US, even as we’re all over their artists? Over the past year, there have been numerous UK and US collaborations, one of the biggest being ‘How It Is’, a team-up between US rapper Roddy Ricch and the UK’s Yxng Bane and Chip. This track peaked at Number 18 on the UK top 40, but didn’t scrap the Billboard Hot 100. Canada supports us with the likes of Drake and Tory Lanez, who have done a great deal of co-signage with UK artists – including Dave, Wiley, and Nafe Smallz. So why can’t the US support the UK, too?
Even when UK rappers do break through to America, it often seems like an isolated success for each artist. Sure, AJ Tracey and Dave embarked on a joint three-date tour in 2017. And Stefflon Don‘s massive stateside hit ‘Hurtin’ Me’ didn’t get her any further than a XXL magazine co-sign. But none of the above represents the kind of sustained impact you might expect. In America, the biggest UK artist currently is probably Skepta, his collab with ASAP Rocky on ‘Praise the Lord’ having peaked at Number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. But even Skepta’s ‘Konnichiwa’ (which is certified Gold in the UK) did dismally on the US Billboard 200, peaking only at 160 .
Perhaps it’s natural that American audiences would be less interested in UK rappers than their own exports, considering their rich rap scene. Or maybe it’s down to the fact that they cannot follow our coded lingo (“Jakes”, “crud” and “wap”, anyone?). Still, it’s hard to argue that there’s a language barrier in place when Spanish-speaking Latin-trap is colossal. When I play parodies such as Big Shaq‘s ‘Man’s Not Hot’ to my American friends, they prefer it to serious UK drill and grime tracks; it seems they can only understand UK rap as a joke.
But no matter how frustrating it is to see our talent constantly scrutinised, in the UK we know we’ve got the goods. There is nothing greater than having the support of your country – look at Dave’s recent Mercury Prize win for ‘Psychodrama’. Although US success would be great, if you can’t break in your own country, how can you blow up everywhere else?