Alternative British Rap, Please Step Forward 🎯

Words: Yemi Abiade

A few years ago, this writer got on his soapbox to wax lyrical about alternative British rap, music on the outskirts of the chart-toppers and viral earworms of mainstream culture—music that has been ingested online and crafted by a host of kids with multifaceted worldviews that lend themselves to exploration in their identities. For years, this corner of the scene has been quietly blossoming in tandem with Black British music’s post-2015 renaissance era, and while plaudits have been lacking, it stands as a fun and expansive aspect of our music on a wider scale.

These days, however, it feels like there’s a concerted effort from tastemakers and platforms alike to bring this scene into the collective consciousness, and it’s not hard to reason why. Though Black British music continues to thrive in the mainstream space, a recent hunger for different perspectives and sounds has slowly crept into online circles, a longing for a challenge to the hegemony that movements like road rap, drill and Afroswing have enjoyed. At least if you believe Twitter, fatigue has potentially set in on these rhythms, as the natural cycles of popular music find their way zoning in on the underground. While breath shouldn’t be held that it will take over in the commercial milieu, alt-rap’s current visibility is something that seemed unlikely a few years ago.

At least from my observant vantage point, a gap has existed between these two worlds, with very little to no artistic interaction between the two. But so-called alt artists have slowly simmered to the surface of undeniable acclaim, carving out a flicker of light for the scene and almost shedding the term entirely. Artists like Little Simz, Loyle Carner, Kojey Radical and Knucks, who have built loyal followings in the last near-decade, now sit at the table of elite artists in the current UK scene, owing to their uncompromising dedication to artistic maturation. These are rappers who were uploading their first songs on platforms like SoundCloud in the early-to-mid 2010s—an era that can be looked back on as crucial to this scene’s development—now recognised as important fixtures in UK Black music.

It’s now not difficult to envision artists deemed ‘underground’ being pulled up to the surface, which is why when one of the UK’s biggest stars, Dave, takes the time to big up Len—a trap savant and one of the alt scene’s prominent names—and Jim Legxacy (later working with Santan on the song of the summer, “Sprinter”), it feels like barriers are being broken. Now, more casual eyes are getting clued-up to what’s already been growing on its own time, helped greatly by the vast range of artists emerging from the space.

What makes this scene so exciting is its adaptiveness and spin on existent genres; where a sound like drill is prominent in mainstream corners, alt artists strip the sound down to its bare bones, implementing more laid-back instrumentation for a chilled execution. We see this ‘chill drill’ in the music of the likes of SamRecks, BXKS, Zino Vinci and Rushy who, while not tied to the sound, are exciting exponents of it. Or in the haze of UK trap, a space Lancey Foux has held down for years, players like Len, Fimiguerrero, YT, bib sama. and PIERRE are blending their electronic foundations with daring elements such as Jersey Club and UK garage, their music serving as a melting pot for their influences. Then there are artists who refuse to be defined, such as Louis Culture, ayrtn, Bawo, Namani, KAM-BU and Oscar #Worldpeace, artists who will surprise you with new flavours at every drop. Producers like El Londo, dxvl and Pullen are pushing these varying sounds to their limits, giving the artists the space to thrive while taking the plunge as artists themselves. Steel clearly sharpens steel in the alt realm.

In this midst of this alchemy, a true sense of community endures in this scene—a mutual respect and friendship among many musicians that, along with the music, drives its every move. The proof is in the pudding when you observe the platforms pushing the alt scene forward. More recently, Victory Lap Radio has become the standard bearer. The radio show, beaming out Balamii Radio in Peckham since 2020, recruits the brightest names in the underground for hours of freestyle cypher sessions, energy inspired by the grime generations that came before them. Any given month, a myriad of bar-throwers—including London’s Ashbeck, Birmingham’s Sainte and Kent’s Escape Plan collective—drop heat over mellow production, hyping up each other’s every bar in a communal act of kudos.

Every once in a while, transcendent UK stars such as Dave and Central Cee will drop in for a session, elevating Victory Lap’s prestige as a breeding ground for all things innovative. Meanwhile, Paradoujin has been putting on for the alt scene in spades. The blog and YouTube channel houses music videos and podcasts from a range of colourful characters within the space, including Kish!, Virgil Hawkins, Cloutgod Duggie and Finn Foxell, placing the talent and music at the forefront of their mission.

When they’re not spitting, alt rappers are releasing quality bodies of work. In 2023 alone, Jim Legxacy’s homeless n*gga pop music, Len’s LEHGOLAND, El Londo’s THANKSLONDO, Bawo’s Legitimate Cause, Tay Jordan’s Have A Nice Trip and Joe James’ 3, 6 and 9 EPs (to name just a few) are some of the year’s most enthralling UK releases, wide in sonic scope and artistic delivery. The freedom attached to the ‘alt’ label allows these hitters to follow where music takes them, surrounding the stories they tell with undefined, constantly evolving vibrations. This attitude is serving them, and the wider scene, greatly.

With these various strands of the scene alive and well, alternative British rap is slowly becoming an integral element of wider UK music, perhaps with the scope of influencing its future direction. Its ceiling is as high as these multidimensional artists want to take it because they own the keys to their futures. They determine where their music goes and, resultingly, the route of their journeys. Playlist placements, bigger and better shows and critical acclaim will soon surely follow, as well as a wider appreciation for what they bring to UK music. Thanks to the past year, alt-rap’s moment in the sun is shining and more of us, thankfully, will be watching that space closely. 25-year-old me is shedding thug tears.

Posted on October 17, 2023