How SoundCloud Cultivated The UK’s Alternative Rap Movement

Words: Yemi Abiade

If grime’s resurgence in the mid-2010s taught the UK anything, it’s that we were about to make waves on our own terms. Artists redefining their course has done wonders for this country musically, in ways that are still being felt today, with a wave of talent old and new controlling their own narrative and expressing themselves as freely as their music allows. Though the visibility of grime and the genres that would follow (drill, Afroswing) would be the more apparent benefit of its comeback, it also sent ripples through to the underground, a budding milieu packed with rappers who weren’t grime MCs but artists making the kind of music the UK had seldom seen.

Unknowingly, the arrival of SoundCloud in 2007 would provide a base for a new class of UK rap artists to come into their own, with the freedom to lay down and upload their music with complete autonomy. Before graduating to the big leagues of mainstream buzz, major label backing and playlisting, these artists would hone themselves in this space, sharpening the backbone of their creativity. SoundCloud’s prominence, concurrent with grime’s comeback, helped fuel what is remembered by some as a golden age for the underground from 2012 to 2016, where the likes of Piff Gang, Hawk House, Kojey Radical, Little Simz, Lancey Foux, GAIKA and more would introduce and implement a new brand of UK hip-hop: alternative, experimental and free of restrictions.

North London rapper Lex Amor began uploading music onto SoundCloud in 2017 and has fond memories of discovering the platform as a fan. “During that period of SoundCloud, there were no barriers to your creativity and sharing your creativity,” she tells me. “I think that is one of the most important things; the fact that you could make something in your room, upload it without barriers and now it's available to the world like that. The ease of that creativity and sharing is what’s really exploded that scene, because there’s autonomy now. There’s no need to be waiting in an office to get somebody to play your music. You could take it into your own hands.”

On SoundCloud, free reign was absolute, the equivalent of a series of practice sessions not too dissimilar to the way grime utilised pirate radio to season MCs. Young men and women could now record from the comfort of their own surroundings and touch an audience on the other side of the world, something pirate radio didn’t allow for, and directly communicate with their audience. Not to mention artist to artist communication that cultivated collaboration, further moulding the alt-rap scene of the time. The list of projects to drop in this era is a vast tapestry of musical richness and variety. Kojey Radical’s debut project, Dear Daisy: Opium, Little Simz’s E.D.G.E. EP, Hawk House’s A Little More Elbow Room, Piff Gang’s Pizzy tape, Lord Apex’s sprawling catalogue since 2014, OthaSoul’s The Remedy, Rejjie Snow’s Rejovich and countless others would garner hundreds of thousands of plays, ushering in their slow evolution to becoming staples of a scene in the present day where alt-rap is more acceptable. “I liken [SoundCloud] to old-school Channel U days where if you get a video up, you know that people are watching, even if they’re not looking for you,” says Lex Amor. “You’ve got eyes there, and you’ve got a chance to grab some listenership from it.”

It was now through SoundCloud that rap fans who couldn’t identify with grime or road rap could get lost in a rabbit hole of alternative sounds, abstract bars and conceptual projects with a UK twist. Discovering this world myself in 2015, I dove headfirst into the music that was influenced by alternative rap Stateside and other non-rap genres. Music that spoke to the ‘weirdo’ in me that craved a different musical outlook, independent of what was prevalent in the mainstream at the time. As the landscape of streaming continued to develop, more of these artists began distributing their music to the likes of Spotify and Apple Music which, while expanding their respective audiences, also dealt a blow to the community SounCloud had honed. The giants of streaming would share the spoils, and the platform was no longer the only place to consume these artists’ music. Consequently, its relevance faced a downturn. “Once streaming became more normalised, I think SoundCloud became less of a space that you could be directed to,” Lex explains. “It wasn't the only place you could hear a project anymore.”

Despite this, SoundCloud can still hold claim to being a platform dedicated to growth and its impact on the UK’s alt-rap scene is undeniable. Where UK rap as a whole is thriving in the present day, its foundation, slowly but surely encompassing many from this golden era of alt rap, remains and is getting louder by the day. They may not have emerged from the SoundCloud age as the finished article, but the streaming platform gave a load of music weirdos a significant head start towards greater achievements.

Posted on April 07, 2021