Words: James Keith
Photography: Charlotte Patmore

At the 1994 Source Awards, as the East Coast/West Coast tensions reached fever pitch, André 3000 boldly declared “the South got something to say.” It was a revolutionary moment that drew a line in the sand. Everything up to that moment had revolved around New York and LA, but after that night voices in Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, Florida and beyond began to make themselves heard, and audiences embraced them. It was the beginning of possibly the biggest evolution in the history of hip-hop.

Now, we’re not sure we could pinpoint a similar moment in England’s history, but something significant has changed recently. 20-30 years ago, MCing with a London accent got you nowhere and everyone had to adopt fake American accents just to get heard. Before London Posse kicked the door in and forced everyone to respect the London flow, acts like Demon Boyz, Outlaw Posse and She Rockers had to adopt the foreign accent just to find a platform for their music. But Smiley Culture, London Posse and a handful of others changed all of that when they erupted on the scene with their mix of cockney and patois. They didn’t adapt their Britishness to fit hip-hop, they moulded hip-hop into the UK’s image, and the door was now open for Klashnekoff, Skinnyman and others to put their stamp on the genre.

Then, however, that evolution slowed—at least in terms of local identities—until grime happened in a huge explosion of undeniable Britishness. When that happened, every single rulebook was ripped up and the new generation set about writing their own. Though the sound was born in London, it was so new and revolutionary that open-mindedness was just ingrained in it. Soon, MCs from Birmingham—Devilman, Lady Leshurr, Jaykae, the late Depzman and a whole raft of others—made the trip down to the capital to plant their flag in grime.

That space grime created for different voices from around the country remained wide open, and soon waves after waves of MCs from Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Northampton, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond started to get some big nods of appreciation. Then, when UK rap found a new lease of life (it never died by any stretch, but there’s no denying it’s enjoyed a recent surge in popularity), the lessons learned in grime had now transferred over. Of course, Leshurr had always been as much a rapper as a grime MC, but now IAMDDB and the expansive LEVELZ crew were adding their laid-back, bouncy Manny accents to UK rap; Scottish MCs in Edingburgh and Glasgow were chiming in; Kamakaze, Mez, Snowy and their East Midlands accents brought a free-flowing, almost jazzy wildness to their flows that, at its best, is reminiscent of how completely alien Outkast sounded when you first heard Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. All this is to say, it’s not simply good when artists are able to be themselves—it just plain sounds better.

Take Devilman and Lady Leshurr, for example; the unique rhythm and cadence of the Brummie accent has given them both flows that couldn’t have come from anywhere else in the country. But let’s not forget, even the underground took a minute to warm up to their more fluid, melodic flows. It took Mike Skinner a little while to have the confidence to let his Midlands accent creep into his music; however, would the record-buying public of the early 2000s have been as open to his street-influenced poetry-meets-UKG if he rapped in a thick Brummie accent? We’re not so sure.

Equally, the Manchester accent has a bounce to it that can’t be found anywhere else. Just listen to Sparkz on “Rowdy Badd” or Skittles on “Drug Dealer” (both by LEVELZ) when the latter rhymes “confuse ya” with “drug dealer”, using his Manny accent to draw on rhyme schemes others couldn’t. Or take a look at newcomer Aitch when he bases a whole verse around his Manny accent where “test me” becomes “test meh”, “leftie” to “lefteh” and so on, drawing new rhyme schemes out of the flattened vowels. Those flattened vowels slow the accent down slightly, making it slightly less choppy and percussive than, say, a London accent, but LEVELZ more than most are still able to go absolutely ham over a breakneck riddim from one of their many, many production legends.

You can take that even further back to Virus Syndicate, a crew you could argue were even more pivotal in putting Manchester on the rap and grime map, and you’ll hear flows and cadences that were truly revolutionary at the time—all thanks to the unique rhythms of the Manchester accent.

If we nip across to the eastern half of the Midlands to Nottingham, Northampton, Leicester, you’ll find a much more mercurial flow to them. We’ve already talked a lot about the influence of the Notts accent on music in this country, but it’s worth briefly mentioning again the free-flowing quality to the accent. Could Mez’s jazz-based freestyles work if he was from anywhere else in the country? Perhaps, but probably not as well.

In short: musically, both UK rap and grime have been improved immeasurably for their openness to different voices, accents and dialects. Did anyone truly envision a world in which Blackpool would be put on the map (however controversially)?

The point here is twofold. Firstly, different accents have different dialects, different cadences and different pronunciations even—all of which inform a rapper or emcee’s flow. Some accents in the North and the Midlands are a little slower than the counterparts down South, suiting slower beats, while others are more choppy, fitting with a faster tempo. The second point is that once rhymers are able to tell their stories in their own voices, it becomes even more personal to them and they’re able to share openly, staying true to their own unique identities. And, to be honest, we’re all the better for it.

Posted on July 02, 2018