5 British Rap albums that changed the scene for ever...
It’s no secret that we’re pretty big fans of UK rap music at S&C - you never would’ve guessed it, but we love a mic, MC, beats and bars combo more than most. And it’s such an exciting time for that scene, with so much fresh talent coming through, boundaries being broken and genres being stretched all the time.
In true #CelebrateHeritage #ChampionFuture style, we thought it was time for us to look back at some of the very best British rap and grime albums - those cornerstones of the scene which changed the landscape for ever. There have been some stonking efforts over the years, but here are our five favourites - see if you agree!
Wiley - ‘Godfather’
Our first entry to this list is more of a tour de force, a celebration, of all that grime music achieved in the previous 20 years - with the Godfather himself, Wiley, returning to his throne to remind everyone why he’s the greatest ever. It features some of the genre’s finest figures in an album of pure fire from start to finish.
The record serves as more of a consolidation of power than attempt to break new boundaries, but it stands true that this work is an important return to form for the Roll Deep originator that inspired a new generation of MCs - and a timely reminder to the young guns breaking through to keep their game on top.
To the casual listener, grime might seem like a once-dormant genre in the midst of a revival. But truth be told, the hybrid of hip-hop and UK garage never really went anywhere—the only thing that changed was the genre’s visibility. Ever since grime’s emergence on British pirate radio at the turn of the millennium, the UK mainstream (not to mention American listeners) has tended to pay attention to the genre only when it produces a charismatic star.
Wiley knows this better than most. He was a chief architect of grime’s early sound (his tracks were among the first to be labeled “grime”), assembled the seminal Roll Deep crew, helped his protégé Dizzee Rascal become grime’s first breakout artist and later, pushed the genre even deeper into the mainstream with a string of successful club-pop singles.
He’s somehow managed to weather the wavering interests of a fickle public for two full decades, though he has plenty of scars to show for it. In response to allegations of selling out, he’s spent a good deal of his career apologising for and actively disowning any attempts he’s made to court a wider, more commercial audience, though his frequent course-corrections have sometimes felt more like self-sabotage. He’s a survivor, if not a particularly triumphant one. But he’s also the enigmatic genius which started it all, and for that we salute him.
Dizzee Rascal - ‘Boy In Da Corner’
18 year old Dylan Mills’ debut album was released in 2003 by XL records. Coming up through the ranks of Roll Deep, Dizzee stood out from a wave of MCs that were on the up through the rise in popularity of garage and grime - he was the scene’s boy wonder.
Boy in the Corner sounded like nothing that had ever come before, or arguably after - both sonically and lyrically. He addresses real issues that a teenager growing up on a council estate in East London has to deal with - mentioning guns, knives and underage pregnancy.
However, unlike other rappers he doesn’t glorify this lifestyle, with this album being more of a political statement in highlighting how bleak his situation growing up in London had been. Just to put it into context, this album has been named alongside Oasis’s ‘Definitely Maybe’ and Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ in Zane Lowe’s masterpiece series. It also beat Coldplay to the Mercury Prize in 2003 - a huge feat for a rapper at the time, when this award was dominated by Indie and Rock bands.
While he embodies grime music to its fullest in this album, he also put the genre on the map commercially too - paving the way for some of the scene’s most successful exports including Tinie Tempah, Tinchy Stryder, Wretch and Chip. Dizzee’s former mentor, Wiley, will often take deserved credit for being the ‘founder’ of the genre - however this album has a very special place in its development, and is often considered its best work.
Skepta - ‘Konnichiwa’
Skepta’s Mercury Award-winning album is widely regarded as one of the main reasons for the resurgence of grime and UK rap music. He broke into the the UK top 40 singles charts with the three of the biggest tunes from the album - “That’s Not Me”, “Shutdown” and “Man” - without diluting his sound whatsoever. The album at one point was at number one in the UK Official Charts, above Beyoncé’s Lemonade! Now that’s a mean feat.
But why was it so important for the culture, with such an impact on shaping the scene we have today? Firstly, it was released independently and didn’t conform to commercial pop formulas - showing other artists within the industry that this could be done, that they didn’t have to ‘sell out’ to break through. It inspired a revival.
It also helped to build a transatlantic bridge with the US, through his close bond with both Kanye and Drake. Skepta put the UK on the map in the States, opening up the doors for other artists within the scene to come through. This album didn’t just do this for grime MCs, but British artists across rap/urban music - such as Giggs and Octavian.
Despite this album being the definitive peak of grime music’s resurgence, it has since paved the way for Drill, UK Tap and Afroswing among other related sounds - which arguably wouldn’t be where they are today if it weren’t for this masterpiece by the King of Grime.
Kano - ‘Made In The Manor’
This album was nominated for a Mercury Award the same year as Skepta’a Konichiwa, and many regarded this as a deeper and more complete body of work. This timeless classic from Kano was six years in the making, and is a real piece of art from start to finish. At a time where grime was on the assent, it showed Kano’s versatility as an artist - it isn’t a grime album, but far more diverse and varied than that - which also spoke volumes for the genre as a whole and the calibre of artists it has produced.
In terms of consistency, the album delivers banger after banger, tune after tune - with potentially more recognisable hits on one record than the other fur albums mentioned here. It’s got tracks for the club, the car and a few that you can just chill to on your own at home; it’s got fist pumpers, head bobbers and tear jerkers.
Compare its leading 4-minutes-of-hype single ‘3 Wheel-ups’ (it’s name is an accurate reflection of the atmosphere and excitement it creates) with the profound and reflective ‘A Roadman’s Hymn’ to get the picture. Made in the Manor set the bar for UK artists to follow, and boy did KA set it high.
J Hus - ‘Common Sense’
Mr Ugly’s debut album Common Sense dropped in May 2017, just a month before S&C Festival that year - making him arguably the hottest festival booking of the summer #justsaying. This genre-bending album provided Hus with legendary status, and paved the way for a new wave of UK artists to break into commercial territory with music which had traditionally been confined to the streets.
The record combines hard-hitting, distinctly-British flows with influences from Bashment and Afrobeats in a diverse range of tracks - at the time in a groundbreaking fashion, but now (largely thanks to Hus) a popular sound of British music known as Afroswing. Try turning on the radio now and not hearing these influences.
The majority of the album is made up of successful solo tracks, which is always a sign of a strong body of work - but he has dropped in some well-placed features too, with some of the biggest artists in the scene at the time (including MIST, Mostack and Burna Boy). This all makes for an exhilarating musical journey from start to finish, and a complete album to enjoy in full.
Two years on, and the music from this trend-setting record is still relevant and still bangs whenever it gets played - showing how ahead of his time J Hus was. He was working on the second album before his 4 month stretch in prison, from which he has since been released. There are now incredibly high expectations for what this young tastemaker has in store for us next. Watch this space…