During Grime’s Rise, Sway’s ‘This Is My Demo’ Kept UK Hip-Hop In The Frame

Words: Yemi Abiade

By the time of the release of his debut album, This Is My Demo, in 2006, the UK was already at Derek “Sway” Safo’s feet, yet they hadn’t even scratched the surface to his enduring talent. The first unsigned rapper to win a MOBO Award for Best Hip-Hop Artist in 2005—a feat not even the greats of the scene managed—Sway had breathed life into the country’s hip-hop milieu while grime was king. Mixtapes This Is My Promo I and II were all the promo (pun intended) he needed, and he was suddenly one of the hottest UK acts not making grime at the time. The mainstream had little reason to keep an eye on hip-hop when grime surged into the public consciousness, but disciples like Sway kept it alive and recognisable.

Safo was like no other rapper in the UK; clever, charismatic, and repping his roots by proudly brandishing a Union Jack bandana on This Is My Demo’s cover, his lyrics painted a picture of himself as a debonair, thoughtful and entertaining emcee, who could engage multiple music communities. Exhibiting the frenetic energy of drum and bass—the embattled lyrical style only hip-hop could teach—and the vibrations of his Ghanaian roots, the North Londoner captured the versatility of UK music, becoming an important fixture in the early-to-mid 2000s. Choosing not to shop his upcoming opus to the sea of hungry, clout-chasing record labels salivating for the next big ‘urban’ thing in a post-Boy In Da Corner world, This Is My Demo, aptly-titled, was exactly that: a mission statement of intent and independence, not confined by genre or vibe but characteristic in the variety of sounds, flows and stories throughout the project’s 12 tracks. There are no gangsterisms or chest-beating bravado, only a true-to-life reflection of Sway’s worldview—an open advert of his style. And while overtly more commercial and accessible than what the grime scene was offering, This Is My Demo kept it gully.

The grimy, anthemic title track opening the album takes us to Sway’s world before the fame, moulding the environment in which he was able to find his voice, drawing a line of comparison with a generation of London-born African kids who tended to be ignored by society. That drive is the DNA of the entire project, in its comedic skits of Africans reaching the promised land of England, and in its deeper moments of clarity, where Sway takes stock of his calling. Safo has flows for days, switching up at ease throughout “Products” and “Hype”. He is brazen but assured of his own powers, as he confidently spits on “Hype Boys”: “And I can sense the bull/ That’s why these rappers couldn’t see me coming if they were vaginas with spectacles.” His dexterity is such that the album’s themes don’t take away from the fact that he’s dropping exceptional bars, his pen as sharp as it had ever been up to that point.

Album standout “Little Derek” still stands as one of UK hip-hop’s most endearing stories, told with a simplicity that communicates its poignancy to the fullest. Laying down a path that doesn’t pander to the States, a shadow that shrouded UK hip-hop for years, Sway keeps his style unequivocally British and representative of home—an attitude carried into today’s UK music renaissance. I had to be about 13 when I watched the song’s video for the first time (hold tight Channel U), not fully aware of the context around it or Sway’s intermittent messages, but it grabbed me very early on, a feeling still unexplainable to this day.

Sway paints a picture of modern life; that first (and unsuccessful) time having sex with a girl, domestic violence (“Pretty Ugly Husband”), promiscuity (“Loose Woose”) and the importance of fashion and keeping trends (“Flo Fashion”), injecting the appropriate level of humour and seriousness to the album’s respective topics. Very much an everyman making sense of the life he projects, his is a relatable voice. Channel U favourites “Flo Fashion” and “Up Your Speed” display Sway’s hitmaking chops, and though a bit dated now, we all bopped to the guitar sequences and revved up engine riffs throughout the latter—you’re lying if you say you didn’t. “Download” serves as a comment on the then-booming illegal MP3 download network and how it affects musicians, before he acknowledges his role in the problem by embracing the phenomenon. It demonstrates that for all of his frustrations at his work being shotted on the internets for free, he is very much a product of that same environment in his venting. It is this honesty that strengthens the album’s myriad themes and Sway’s wisdom—a trait that made him such a cultural commodity, albeit for a brief period.

While his peers were zeroing in on the harshness of life in the inner cities and the situations they breed, Sway softened the tone slightly without diluting his messages, doing justice to his story and the presentation of the landscape he’s part of. Shifting the scene almost with ease at a time when it was taking new form, This Is My Demo became only the second British rap album to be nominated for the UK’s most prestigious music prize, the Mercury Music Prize—back then a major statement. A short-lived, arguably regrettable spell on Akon’s Konvict Music label followed, and a stop-start motion to a career that probably should have reached bigger heights, but a number of mixtapes and work as a producer have kept his name significant. Despite this, Sway’s impact remains.

Criminally underrated in every way, This Is My Demo holds up as one of UK hip-hop music’s stronger offerings. Not only did it formally introduce an unsung hero, it also offered diverse, colourful messages rooted in black British and African culture. With one album, Sway successfully made UK hip-hop cool again.

Posted on July 16, 2019