Words by: Fred Garratt-Stanley
The dingy cobbled alleys of 1920s Small Heath have transformed into the imposing high-rise council estates of 21st century Birmingham, but the grittiness captured by Peaky Blinders remains central to much of the music being made in England’s second city. Known as the spiritual home of metal, but now making its name as the birthplace of some of the nation’s most exciting rappers, here are some of the artists pioneering a resurgent Brum sound.
As demonstrated in the video for ‘Moscow’ by the donning of tweed suits and peaked hats reminiscent of John Shelby’s countryside attire, Jaykae’s sense of connection to his city’s history is clear. Raw, energetic, and emotionally hard-hitting, his sound epitomises the struggles inherent to the social environment that built him. 2017 EP ‘Where Have You Been?’ showcases the emotional depth of his lyricism on tracks like ‘Headache’, and Murkage Dave’s soothing tones shaped ‘Every Country’ into a subtle nod to Birmingham garage pioneer Mike Skinner. A smattering of successful Jaykae features have followed on tracks by Aitch, Slowthai and Tom Zanetti, and a full project is surely incoming.
After being catapulted to fame by the fourth edition of her ‘Queen’s Speech’ freestyle series in 2015, Lady Leshurr has established herself as one of the UK’s best-known female rapper. Her unapologetic deployment of the Brummie accent over beats that blend pop, dancehall and hip hop has created an environment in which MCs from the city can pursue honest vocal expression. However, it is her refusal to take herself too seriously that is most endearing. From the pun-packed Queen’s Speech freestyles, to the ‘Mona Leshurr’ album title, the comically-self-dubbed Queen Of UK Rap possesses an unbridled ability to inject energy and fun into everything she does.
A recent set with Novelist and DJ Oblig on Rinse FM highlighted Brum grime MC C4’s ability to transform his classic “everyone knows my bars in the rave” lyric to apply to any location (a highlight: “everyone knows my bars in the church”). The influence of older brother, producer Preditah, seeps into June EP ‘C4ramel’, a collection of tuneful garage tracks. C4 jumped in the studio with Conducta and Sheffield MC Coco for latest release ‘Crowd Reaction’, a track that aims to harness the commercial success of the garage producer’s recent collaboration with AJ Tracey on ‘Ladbroke Grove’.
Mist’s rise has been the most empowering of all those involved in pioneering a new wave of Brum music, and his use of British Asian slang and Punjabi has spoken to a community who, at times, have felt on the margins of UK rap culture. Driven to national prominence by single ‘Game Changer’ and features on tracks by the likes of Chipmunk and Fredo, his influence on the rap scene grows daily, and has helped him develop him a strong fanbase outside of his city.
No-nonsense grime MC Sox is one of Birmingham’s most iconic underground voices, after a decade of shelling down sets and freestyles both solo and with crew Invasion Alert, who retain unwavering loyalty to Birmingham’s grime sound. His fast-paced multi-syllabic schemes and skippy flows have made him one of the most respected figures the city has produced, and latest single ‘Bikes and Planes’ pokes fun at his refusal to conform to commercial expectations or move out of the city: “My mum said John you need to fix up / You was living in Spain but that’s in the past / Stop riding your bike and chilling in the flats”. As long as he keeps producing tracks of the same level, Sox fans are more than happy for him to pedal around his housing estate for the foreseeable future.
Blue Room Mafia
Recent releases from the collective have come predominantly from Ninioh, the cheeky, dynamic MC who could be described as the group’s frontman. Producer Lauren Ralph drives the crew’s sound, which infuses chilled-out, catchy rap/hip hop beats with bassy trap influences. The inventiveness of his production is evident in his sampling of the theme music from Zelda’s lost woods on up-and-coming rapper Samwise’s single ‘Nemo’. Blue Room Mafia recently teamed up with Brooklyn musician Erick The Architect to produce Senorita, a funky, playful track with a rhythmic Latin-influenced beat that’s almost impossible not to bop your head to.