Grab That Mic: Why We Need More Communal Rhyming In UK Music

Words: Son Raw
Photography: Will Robson-Scott

British MCing has always been unique on the world stage, the result of the UK’s specific mix of cultures and artistic influences. From the riddims, flow and showmanship carried over from Jamaican dancehall, to the manic intensity of rave music’s rapid tempos and electronic textures, to UK rhyming’s close dialogue with American hip-hop, the sonic elements of Black British music are constantly reconfiguring themselves into unexpected new shapes. Yet, in recent years, live sets on radio—a key component of UK MCing—has fallen by the wayside, a victim of changing music distribution channels and a more standardised, label-mandated approach to artist development.

That’s a shame, given that live performances on radio—particularly in a group setting—have long been one of UK music’s secret weapons, a valuable training ground that forged young, inexperienced talent into capable, competent artists able to translate their craft on record and on stage. That’s why, today, even as artists focus more on videos and streaming, there’s a golden opportunity to bring communal rhyming back to the forefront of the culture. Live freestyles on air aren’t unique to UK music in and of themselves. In the U.S., DJs like Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito, Sway & King Tech and Funkmaster Flex used their platforms for truly legendary sessions, helping artists and labels as varied as Nas, Wu-Tang, Hieroglyphics and Roc-A-Fella attract industry attention and street cred. Simultaneously, pirate radio in Miami sought to develop local talent, often with an ear towards dancehall, given the city’s large Jamaican population. Nevertheless, it’s paradoxically the heavy regulation of the UK radio spectrum—which strongly limited the range of licensed stations available to listeners—that provided opportunities for Britain’s unique radio culture to develop.

As illegal pirate stations catering to underserved communities grew in popularity and the music they played evolved, freestyling on radio became the quickest path to local notoriety for young, up-and-coming MCs. By the late ‘90s, New York rappers may have had more mixtapes, but London stations like Deja Vu, Kool FM and Rinse FM, with their abundance of community-led shows, became the perfect environment for UK rhyming to develop on its own path.

Initially, spitting on air mimicked MCing at live events. Combining dancehall’s high energy, patois-heavy bars to the carnival barker-like hosting concurrently finding a home at raves across England, the MCing heard in hardcore and early jungle sets served mostly as an accompaniment for the DJ’s selection. Even as jungle morphed into D&B and began influencing early garage, the DJ remained king, with MCs like Cleveland Watkiss perfecting a “less is more” approach to mic chat. By the turn of the millennium, however, a shift occurred as a new cohort of teenaged mic-men began using the music on radio as a platform for their own artistry. From So Solid Crew to Heartless Crew to Pay As U Go Cartel and beyond, dozens upon dozens of teenagers began performing live on air, soon becoming the main attraction for pirate radio listeners. By the time garage had further mutated into grime, radio sessions had become a rite of passage and the principal incubator of UK talent.

In recent years, MCing on radio—or in any live setting where other like-minded talents gather in the name of practice hours—has seen a marked decline. Despite making for thrilling shows, the grime era’s approach of stuffing pirate studios full of young, competitive lyricists often led to conflict, including legendary scuffles that saw them temporarily banned from stations such as Rinse FM. Simultaneously, the influence of U.S. rap, which had mostly abandoned live freestyling, led to the rise of genres like road rap and UK drill, which favoured abundant songwriting over practice hours on air. By the time streaming services became the de-facto method for young listeners to discover new music, pirate radio and its live sets became a niche concern, rather than the easiest way to access new tunes.

Stations like Mode FM and Pyro Radio still attract plenty of listeners, thanks to specialty programming, and what Travs Presents and KINDRED are doing in store fronts is pretty impressive. But we need more of that, and for drill artists—as much as cloud rappers and grime MCs—to tap in too, as it’ll only benefit them when it comes to their stage presence when performing at shows and festivals, something that many have said isn’t as tight as it could be for a lot of artists.

Communal barring sessions and the confidence they provide artists are an incredible resource, one that can provide UK spitters with a leg up over the competition. Most obviously, in an era where music recordings are sweetened, Auto-Tuned, and punched in half to death, a radio session’s live approach helps artists develop the flow and breath control needed for a live show, in a more intimate setting. As anyone who’s heard a grime artist follow up an average rap act knows, the energy and breath control developed through extended radio sets translates extremely well live, making for more dynamic performances. A return of this could also foster a new generation of crews, mirroring the group energy heard during the grime era. Just as importantly, group performances over live DJs feature the same kinetic energy of other improvisational genres like jazz. The artistic potential of multiple DJs going back-to-back on the decks, all as a group of MCs spit their best bars over the results, has barely been explored of late and has huge untapped potential.

Looking ahead, it’s easy to imagine these sessions operating as a prestige platform for developing MCs, one depending on fan enthusiasm and tastemaker curation rather than the anonymous algorithms of streaming services. Snippets on IG may have replaced weekly radio and regular communal rhyming sessions as the goal of choice for up-and-coming artists, but those practice hours are time well spent, and the memories they leave fans may be just as important as the more refined, final products MCs and rappers aim for today.

Posted on April 18, 2023