For all its worth, the British hip hop scene has always remained somewhat of a mystery. If you didn’t actually live in the United Kingdom or you didn’t consider yourself an underground muso, you’d have no idea that a world beyond America’s reigning hip hop industry ever existed. Sure, the occasional hits from the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah and Drake’s few dabbles helped land British hip hop a spot on the charts; but for the most part the genre has never weaved its way into the mainstream. Of course, until now.
Enter the new generation of UK hip hop; slowthai, Aitch and Loyle Carner, three twenty-somethings who are changing the way we see grime and UK rap. Taking a page out of their predecessors’ books (Stormzy, Skepta etc), the three rappers are bringing their own elements to the traditional sound and riding the charts as they do so. With the release of his highly anticipated sophomore album TYRON (that’s already received excellent reviews from critics), we take a look at how slowthai and his peers are reinventing the UK hip hop sound.
slowthai: Bringing Punk to Grime
Wrapped up in a grimy, unruly kind of energy, Northampton-born slowthai first officially made a name for himself back in 2017 with his debut EP I WISH I KNEW. Showcasing a venomous spit, scribbled tattoos all over his chest and a schoolboy attitude, the rapper stepped onto the hip hop scene and instantly turned heads. But slowthai’s sound was not a familiar one. Despite harking back to the roots of the genre, slowthai brought in spooky and punkish elements to shift the narrative of grime and make it more experimental.
The rapper’s debut album Nothing Great About Britain was met with great success in the mainstream world. Praised for his political and social commentary of everyday life in Britain, slowthai quickly became a household name in the UK hip hop world and beyond. Lead single ‘Doorman’, with Mura Masa, is a massive electronic smash that pays homage to the head bangers Dizzee Rascal made while still retaining an original sound; and it perfectly reflects the kind of musician slowthai aims to be. A punk in the grime field, slowthai is absolutely changing the game. He’s controversial, witty, politically charged, and he isn’t afraid to cross the boundaries in not only life but music as well.
Aitch: Bringing Pop to UK Hip Hop
The youngest of the three, the now 21-year-old Manchester native Aitch was busy making his rounds in the underground UK hip hop world when his 2019 hit ‘Taste (Make It Shake)’ blew up and landed him a spot at number 2 on the UK Singles Chart. From there, he’s propelled into the mainstream. How mainstream? He’s jumped on an Ed Sheeran remix.
With suave quips and a perfectly British aesthetic, Aitch not only embodies the UK hip hop sound but the American as well. Nailing the essence of a club banger, the rapper is helping to bring pop elements into UK hip hop and circle the genre on the charts. With three EP’s under his belt (the latest one Polaris dropped last May), a hefty collection of collaborations, and over 100 million streams on Spotify, it’s not hard to see why the rapper has been hailed as ‘Britain’s It-Boy.’ And he’s sure to be the rest of the world’s soon enough.
Loyle Carner: Bringing Sensitivity to UK Hip Hop
For South London’s Loyle Carner, it was his struggle with ADHD as a kid that made the rapper intricately entwine emotion and soul into hip hop. That, he believes, and being raised entirely by women. With a soft touch that acts more like spoken word poetry, Carner brings a whole new layer of honesty to UK hip hop and isn’t afraid to get too vulnerable. He lets his mum recite a poem on both his 2017 debut Yesterday’s Gone and his 2019 follow-up Not Waving, but Drowning (and publicly call him ‘my scribble boy’), features instrumentals from his late stepfather and opens up about isolation, adolescence, family and racism.
The sensitivity Carner brings to such a braggadocious field is truly a breath of fresh air; and rather than shy away from such honest and raw topics, the rapper looks them right in the eye and embraces them. While he takes inspiration from grime MC’s, Carner also looks to American jazz musicians to really complete his sound. He’s been lauded by critics alike for his writing abilities and is already deemed as one of the best modern artists to come out of the alternative UK hip hop scene.
In their own ways, these three artists are redefining UK hip hop. A world that traditionally pairs the struggles of British street and gang life with Jamaican-influenced dub, now is seeing elements of punk, rock, pop, jazz and trap filtered through topics around politics, vulnerability and mental illness. And, it seems, we all really love it. Back in 2019, UK hip hop reached the highest levels of audience consumption the genre had ever seen, with UK rappers hot on the tails of the success of US ones. And it only continues to grow. As UK pop stars continue to rise, so too do the stars of the hip hop scene.
Featuring a kaleidoscope of new and traditional sounds, the aesthetics slowthai, Aitch and Carner create are changing the way we think about genres. No longer is anything confined to just one label; instead, modern artists are dipping their toes into any pool they can find and letting the genre fit around them. They’re brave, they’re equipped with a crazy amount of raw talent, and they’ve got ambitions to make it all the way to the top. And we believe they just might make it happen.