Why The ‘Who Runs London?’ Rap Debate Doesn’t Really Matter

Words: Yemi Abiade

One of the best and most exhausting aspects of being a music fan is that age-old battle ground of opinions: the debate. In rap, as much as any genre, discussions about which artist is better than whom or which album is the best of all time take on lives of their own, becoming perpetual and never-ending points of contention and good-natured fun among supporters. The UK is no different; in fact, debates take on more localised forms based on territory and location. Most recently, popular online personality and host of The Block Report Flashy Sillah stoked a flame by claiming that North London dominates the UK capital, based on giving the scene the king of drill in Headie One, the UK’s greatest lyricist in Wretch 32, our greatest female emcee, Little Simz, and our greatest export and king of grime, Skepta.

The ‘Who Runs London?’ debate is nothing new; it’s an endearing element of the game that has dominated UK Black music for decades, to such an extent that it’s produced classic Channel U-era cuts such as UGC’s “Rep Ya Endz”, Southside Allstars’ “Southside Riddim” and BMD’s “North Weezee”. This writer has even been guilty of taking part, because whichever side of the UK capital you’re from, you want to represent and back its corner. It’s only natural. And while Flashy Sillah makes a compelling case for North London, the overarching debate doesn’t tell the entire story of the scene; it must be put in a wider, more considerate context.

Now that our music and culture is thriving on all cylinders, each side of London has combined to catapult the UK to the world. Take any side out of the equation and the course of history changes beyond recognition. Without the conveyor belt coming out of North, from Skepta, Jme and Chip to Headie, Simz and Tion Wayne, the possibilities of lyricism and hitmaking in this country may not have soared as high as it does in the present day. Up in North West, where the likes of Nines, Skrapz and Akala preside, second generation road rap doesn’t have its most consistent storytellers in the Church Road legends, nor a certified intellectual in Akala, representing the scene on platforms such as BBC’s Question Time or the Oxford Union.

In East, grime blossomed and became the foundation for the scene’s current visibility, thanks to Wiley, Dizzee, Kano, D Double E, Ghetts, Tinchy, Lethal Bizzle, Ruff Sqwad and countless others. None of this happens without them. Meanwhile, modern UK rap and drill owes much to West London. Quietly doing its own thing for years, the efforts of AJ Tracey, Fredo, Digga D and Central Cee have produced chart-busting tracks and the respect of fans and critics alike. Then, in South, where Giggs kickstarted road rap, 67 put UK drill on the map and London Posse discarded the America-tinged rap of their time, many of the musical shifts of the scene would be lost if it wasn’t for this side of LDN. Not to mention some of our biggest names in Stormzy, Dave, Krept & Konan, K-Trap, Youngs Teflon and Blade Brown. In isolation, each side boasts expansive and impressive rosters, but combined, we have a living and breathing ecosystem of innovators and pioneers.

There is perhaps a tendency to overlook the contributions from other sides of London because of where you’re from, especially in online forums where chest-puffing and excessive rhetoric tends to rule the day. As much as you try, you’re not going to convince someone from South that their bits aren’t the best out. But Black British music has thrived off cultures and subcultures permeating in all areas and finding their way to others. That movement, whether through Bluetooth and LimeWire in grime’s heyday or Twitter and TikTok today, is what has made the scene what it is.

West London drillers have adopted a South London creation, while many MCs have tested their skills on grime. It only shows just how intimately each side works with each other. Though any given artist will rep where they’re from, they are carrying an assortment of influence wherever they go—from every part of town. It is this element of perspective that is key when having this debate, because it informs how the scene was built and how it continues to develop. Contrary to our belief, regional lines haven’t been drawn around Black music from the UK; artists collaborate with artists from all parts. It informs the democracy that allows for No. 1 tracks, ground-breaking albums and iconic moments—not just in London, but in other parts of the country.

Despite local rivalries and debate, we’ve wanted the best for any and all artists striving to represent not just their ends, but the UK in general. We collectively supported Stormzy as his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, become the first UK No. 1 grime/rap album. We all big up Skepta whenever he collaborates with respected international artists. We all vibe to J Hus in the dance and yearn new music. Outside of arguing, it’s not as simple as to place one part of the city or country over the other. Each have played their part.

Is it then redundant to have the ‘Who Runs London’ debate? Probably. But that’s a daily battle with our natural instincts that we may not always win. We must, however, remember to take stock of just how far our music and culture has come—regardless of geography, regardless of agenda.

Posted on November 23, 2022