Why Nerds Like Me Live For Alternative British Rap

Words: Yemi Abiade

I’m going to kick this piece off with a confession, one that may surprise a few: I haven’t always been the biggest fan of grime. It wasn’t that I hated the sounds, artists, or the culture, but at a time in my life where I was a young, lanky nerd going through secondary school and sixth form—where my white friends were my main guides for what to listen to—grime subconsciously fell to the bottom of the pile. I haven’t heard Wiley’s Tunnel Vision series from front to back, nor have I seen or heard every clash on Lord Of The Mics. I hadn’t heard a track from Shystie or Nolay until recently, and Boy Better Know’s mixtape discography has yet to be cracked. I’m now at a point where I’m playing catch up to everything, and finding parity with my peers is easier said than done (I say all this as I’m bumping Roll Deep’s classic “Morgue”).

While everyone around me was taking in all that grime had to offer in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was immersed in the smoother, laid-back sounds of alternative rap across the pond. I found a threefold comfort in ‘90s acts like A Tribe Called Quest (my favourite group of all time), The Pharcyde, Souls of Mischief, De La Soul and others that would subvert the messages of their more hardcore peers (Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Onyx, et al). They were an extension of the type of things I grew up listening to, tapping into influences that—at the age of 16—I had already begun to explore, such as the jazz-tinged sounds of Tribe’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, or the Beatles-sampling of De La Soul’s classic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. And perhaps, most importantly, my white friends considered it to be cool.

At that age, 16, you’re deeply impressionable, but that imprint is one of the best I could have hoped for because I started to appreciate how far artists could take rap without being or sounding intimidating. On the East Coast, Tribe and De La—both members of the Native Tongues Posse—preached love, positivity and the Afrocentric mantras of the Zulu Nation, while on the West Coast, acts such as The Pharcyde and Souls of Mischief were normal guys chilling from ‘93 til Infinity, smoking blunts and kicking back, refusing to take life too seriously. Fast forward to the 2000s and Madvillain (MF DOOM and Madlib) would do the exact same on tracks like “America’s Most Blunted”.

I pined to find similar artists in the UK. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough but there was a serious lack of rappers who were not only mainly influenced by those sounds and messages, but went on to craft their own music in such a manner. Sure, artists like Roots Manuva, Ghostpoet, Jehst and the various weird and wonderful characters in grime were cool, but not quite what I was looking for.

That was until I discovered SoundCloud in the summer of 2015 and the various chambers of alternative rap that were waiting to be heard—artists who preached a different side to life than grime, which, by this point, was now well into its second coming. Multifaceted artists like the Neverland Clan would merge boom-bap, grime and elements of punk together to produce laid-back, colourful beats and speak to the rebellious, fashion-forward youth about chasing that bread, but then quell that with damning political rhetoric. Jesse James Solomon would rep for the streets, but on tracks like “City Lights” sound like an outcast within his own narrative. Rejjie Snow, the black Irishman with an American twang, would speak to being an outsider while vibing out to J Dilla beats in “USSR”.

I can’t forget about Loyle Carner either, whose introspective lyrics really get across his situation as a young man without his father, who has been jettisoned to the role of man of his household, all while growing into life himself. These are all things I could relate to more than the fantasies grime sold me. Alternative rappers took their influences and life experiences from similar spaces as me, using it to craft their own artistry and birth music for a generation of awkward kids.

As time rolls by, there is now a real space for alternative rappers to thrive as they’ve reached a point where they care more about telling their stories rather than being dragged to do things that are not for them. Artists such as 808INK, Lancey Foux, Denzel Himself, Louis Culture and the Elevation Meditation collective are gaining recognition for being the alternative to what is popular while also making the alternative more popular in the process. There’s no gang talk, no skeng talk or hyper-masculine road reports, but diverse accounts of being different and normal in equal measure—whether that be Louis Culture bemoaning the “End Of Summer”, or Lancey Foux professing the life of a socialite on “Come To Life”.

It’s about time this scene emerged as well, because there are so many similar stories and sounds to be explored. All of these artists are still in the prime of their youth, meaning that in five years’ time, the alternative rap scene in the UK will have fully bloomed in a manner akin to the US in the 1990s and 2000s. As a young British man, I’m much more invested in seeing the UK win, and with the level of talent that’s on show right now, I have no doubt that alternative rap will reach the same levels grime has managed to reach in the last three years. It may well take a while, but for nerds like me, these stories need to be told.

Posted on October 26, 2017