European Hip-Hop Travelogue Vol. 4 – London
This piece is writer Andrew Bridge’s fourth instalment in World Hip Hop Market’s European hip-hop travelogue. This time Andrew makes his first pilgrimage to London, a city renowned for its storied hip-hop past and a city that is in the midst of one of the most powerful out-growths of socially-conscious lyrical artistry in the entire world hip-hop cultural pantheon!
With names like Iraqi-English MC Lowkey- perhaps the number one underground sensation in the UK – Logic, Mic Righteous, English Frank, Native Sun and Foreign Beggars, along with DJ antics of cats like The Last Skeptik, there is little wonder that the like-minded efforts of the UK’s “conscious” (for lack of a better term) hip-hop heads are combining to help create positive and lasting change within their own communities and within the fabric of the British music industry.
By Andrew Bridge (for World Hip Hop Market)
Thursday September 20th
I’d arrived in London the day before and bedded down at a family friend’s pad – a three-story townhouse with a backyard and a queen sized bed all to myself. It was an auspicious beginning to what I hoped would be a furtive education into the UK/London hip-hop scene. London was indeed a cultural mecca – and one of the musical centers of the universe, but my hip-hop education had kept the musical references closer to home. I knew very little about the UK hip-hop scene.
Early on day two, I decided to do a bit of exploring to get my bearings for future meet ups, and for events I would be checking out during my stay. Specifically, I wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t get lost that night en route to seeing one of my favorite rising stars of the UK hip-hop scene – the powerful duo known as Native Sun. The release party for their debut LP Indigenous Soundwaves was one of the pretexts for my arrival in London – that and the DMC World DJ Championships (see Andrew Bridges write up of the event for World Hip Hop Market at this link).
Native Sun had become friends of mine in 2012, and were the first international hip-hop act I’d come to know personally this past Spring at the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival. Mohammed Yahya -the Rapper-griot component of the group – I’d come to know for his powerful, Native Tongues-like lyricism that often switches from an obviously British-accented English delivery to Portuguese-language verses derived from his Mozambican ancestry.
Sarina Leah-Wildsuga – the group’s vocalist – had a sneakingly powerful tone that effortlessly moves up and down the vocal registers. Her unique vocal renditions are like a cross between Della Reese and Erykah Badu and her uplifting lyrics instantly captivate listeners.
Combined – Native Sun delivers messages of empowerment, soaked in equal parts peace, love, and light and in my short time getting to know them I’d seen them make a crowd bounce with the rabid enthusiasm you’d expect from a super group converting audiences to the Native Sun sound one concert at a time. They are the real deal, in more ways than one.
So I was predictably excited as I made my way to the album release that was hosted by the Focus Organization – a group of “dynamic London-based music promoters” whose aim was to “bring together international musicians – afrobeat, soukous, kwaito, kurduro, ska, reggae artists – to create a series of culturally enriching events, putting the spotlight on music from the African diaspora and edutainment through the arts.”
The event included opening acts the likes of acoustic jazz-soul-folk singer Bumi Thomas, internationally recognized spoken word artist Amen Noir, natural born dancer Sir Louie, with Master of Ceremonies duties being handled by comedian/poet/actress Kat Francois (who directly singled me out for having too loud of a voice during the party, awkward).
Being that Native Sun come from strong activist backgrounds in their own right, they chose to have a charity sponsor for the night – Restless Beings, “A humanitarian group that works with marginalized communities around the world.”
What was the verdict on the night? With a packed audience of local supporters – Native Sun family – the vibe of the event was unlike anything you’re likely to see at other events they perform at. It was a massive success to say the least, and selfishly speaking, I was finally able to see Native Sun perform in full and made sure to plan a time to properly kick it with the homies later on in the week.
Native Sun’s Music Video ‘Legacy’
Sunday September 23rd
DJ/producer and friend The Last Skeptik was the centerpiece fixture for a lazy Sunday-evening event entitled ‘Sandwiches’ at the Lock Tavern in Camden. I remember thinking – what better way to unwind after a weekend of London clubbing and touristic exploration then a chilled out lounge party featuring some of the city’s hottest DJs!
Throughout the night, the DJ booth was a rotating turnstile of four selectas that included Skeptik, chart-topping female singer/DJ Yasmin, DJ Rags reppin’ the promotional party planning company Livin’ Proof, and finally the wunderkind Raf Riley coming off a fresh signing on massive producer Diplo’s label Mad Decent.
Raf Riley’s soundcloud:
Report back on the night: Good, no, great food, chill vibes, and fun people made for the lazy Sunday I have always dreamt of.
Check the pictures from the night here: http://hurricanekarina.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/raf-riley-lockside-tavern.html
7:00 P.M. Tuesday September 25th
On Tuesday, I reunited with The Last Skeptik at his studio. I was lucky to have had the chance to kick it with Skeptik at the Trinity International Hip Hop Festival where he DJ’d a quick set on top of backing Native Sun’s performance during the main event last March. He had been doing his thing on the production side for years, with massive amounts of soulful mix tape releases, instrumental albums, and a multitude of collaborations with UK and US-based artists. Most recently, he and British MC Rewd Adams had put out an album entitled How Not to Make a Living that has received some great feedback from music magazines across the UK and beyond.
Music Video ‘Everything’s OK’:
During our session, Skeptik explained to me his philosophy on the home studio. When it came to recording with other MCs and artists, in his mind, a home studio helped artists relax, leading to more productive recording sessions. It’s a philosophy that was to be put to the test later in the week when the London-based hip-hop crew Piff Gang was scheduled to record.
As for Skeptik’s future projects, he said he plans on releasing an instrumental album with BBE records this coming spring, which would be paired with a mockumentary focused on the life and times of the mysterious being that has come to be known as The Last Skeptik. And doing something “normal” – well that’s not in the cards for this album. It’s simply not Skeptik’s style to go along with the herd as evinced by his beat production which has won unilateral praise throughout the UK hip-hop scene.
Beyond his current projects, he told me he was planning a trip to Thailand in December – a trip he said would be the first without his laptop – uncharted territory within a DJ culture that has become so reliant on digital DJ controllers like Serato and Tractor. Anyone in
At the end of our Tuesday night session, we made plans to catch up with each other later on in the week. (Skeptik had helped me obtain a photo pass for the DMC World DJ Championships where he would be DJing in between competition sets.)
And as I made moves to another meeting with the front-running grime artists – Foreign Beggars – Skeptik was on his way to a nice steak dinner courtesy of BBE (bastard).
(As a side note: Skeptik – who’s also gained quite a reputation for his wry sense of humor – said when he goes to Thailand this December he wants to go with a backpack so he can be one of those “traveling backpacker wankers!”
Follow Skeptik on Twitter to keep up on his music, events, and hilarity: https://twitter.com/thelastskeptik)
9:00 P.M. Tuesday September 25th
I made my way to MC Orifice Vulgatron’s crib – a founding member of the Foreign Beggars crew – having been introduced to him by my Icelandic hip-hop connection from an earlier leg of my European Travelogue in September. (Check out the Icelandic write-up at this link.)
As a collective, Foreign Beggars are MC Metropolis, DJ Nonames and producer Dag Nabbit. According to the groups “unofficial” history, the Beggars got their start while studying together at the same university – a time marked by their reputation for throwing some bangin’ parties, which as Orifice explained, put them on the map with what has become a fiercely loyal local following.
At the beginning of the groups formation they put out some classic hip-hop tracks, something most fans of Foreign Beggars may overlook given their transition into the grime, dub step, and drum-n-bass side of the genre.
“Hip-hop does not have to be exclusive to just the boom/bap and rapping elements,” Orifice told me.
Indeed, its a progressive musical philosophy that Foreign Beggars lives up to as seen by their regular collaborations with gargantuan electronic dance music (EDM) producers such as Skrillex and Noisia. And the Beggars’ popularity has been fuelled by the their choice of record label – Mau5Trap – founded by the legendary Canadian electro-house music producer Deadmau5. It’s a label associated with the electronic and dub-step communities that has managed to make some significant cross-over with the hip-hop community since its founding in 2007.
Music Video ‘Contact’:
According to MC Orifice, what was of upmost importance to the Beggars was their continuous release of fresh material. With a barrage of singles, mix tapes, and music videos, Foreign Beggars are prolific and have consistently outpaced the whimsical and rapidly changing music industry that has shown an increasing propensity for casting aside artists that don’t perform numbers wise.
Foreign Beggars was preparing for their newest release Uprising, which was set to drop in early November and that according to MC Orifice was going to continue to defy genres – imagine a drum-n-bass track with drummer Tommy Lee from the glam metal group Mötley Crüe, for example. A European tour was planned after the release.
Follow Foreign Beggars on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ForeignBeggars
‘Uprising’ on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/be/album/id561674399?affId=2145537
3:00 P.M. Thursday September 27th
I had the entire day to kill prior to the DMC World DJ World Championships and luckily I was put in contact with Marie-Agnès ‘mab’ Beau, a French national living in London who has distinguished herself in the international hip-hop community – “promoting global urban cultures worldwide, as a psychologist and social activist with 27 years of experience in the international music industry.”
I was connected with Mab through WHHM founder Greg Schick who had invited her to speak about hip-hop and politics at the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival in 2010. We agreed to meet mid-day at Tate Modern – “Britain’s national gallery of international modern art” housed in the former Bankside Power Station on the banks of the river Thames.
Mab had been working as an artist’s consultant for decades, giving advice to artists about not sacrificing the integrity of their music while sustaining themselves financially. She is also a contributing writer for the popular blog/website This is Africa -covering various French speaking African hip-hop movements and the intersections of the political contexts that they exist within.
Talking with Mab about her career in the music industry was a eye-opening. She provided a sense of wisdom and knowledge that could only come from a seasoned veteran – information I will value for years to come.
Of course her knowledge of the French hip-hop scene was voluminous – my introductory lesson on the subject-matter and a great primer for my next destination in the WHHM European Travelogue. Among some of the old and new school acts she urged me to check out before my arrival to Paris included the likes of ‘Le Sages Poetes de la Rue’ and ‘MC Solaar’ – both legends in their own right for the French scene.
As we got to talk about the UK hip-hop scene, Mab’s thoughts were nuanced and comparative. In her mind, there was a real contrast between French hip-hop and the hip-hop coming from the UK – which she said suffered from a ‘political correctness’ syndrome in which more politically charged acts were ignored by the mainstream in and at times banned by the police. While this phenomenon may be changing in the UK with the rise of new grime artists entering the ring and with the popularity of artists like the politically-charged Iraqi-British MC Lowkey, it still indicates a scene that is hampered by trappings of the corporate media market.
In the early 2000s Mab was closely involved with the passing of a bill in Britain centered on the promotion of hip-hop culture, and urban music across the UK, driven by the defunct label Grankru records. At that time, France had gone through a hip-hop revolution that gained traction with the support of mainstream radio stations, something Mab said UK rappers -especially in the underground hardcore scene- envied heavily.
After several hours of Mab hip-hop 101, it was time to headout, but not before she provided me with some more advice about who and what to look up within the UK hip-hop scene including the Big Dada label – a sub label of Ninja Tune and home of Roots Manuva and TY, both pioneers of UK Hip-hop. I hoped to find a way to meet them before my time in London expired, even if my schedule was full with the DMC Worlds and others events I planned on attending
8:30 P.M. Thursday September 27th
Thursday night was the premier night of the DMC World DJ Championships, and after a quick chill out session at my host (Martha)’s place, I made my way over to Kentish Town to hook up with the Copenhagen homies Tia Korpe, KCL, and Danish DMC champ DJ Graded.
Tia was in full ‘DJ Mom’ mode and was stoked with her Danish Ambassador ID Pass, while I was content with my ‘Photo Pit’ access for the opening night of the DMC.
Following our classic English pub dinner the Danes and I – the lone American -trekked over to the massive HMV Forum anticipating the first night of the DMC in which 100 DJs from around the world were scheduled to battle for the status of “greatness” that faring well at the DMC’s gives you.
First up was the World Team Battle, featuring a collective of DJs ranging from a simple duo to groups of four all dropping their best sets to be crowned top dogs of the DJ world. The MixFitz, representing the proud nation of Belgium, proved to outlast the competition with enough technical skills and crowd-pleasing theatrics to earn the title of the 2012 World Team Battle Champions.
Consisting of three members, singularly known as DJ Cross, DJ Damented, and DJ Jack, The MixFitz won in unanimous style from the judges, outlasting teams from France, Portugal, the US, Czech Republic and Brazil. The trio proved to make a huge splash at the DMC’s and will be going home as the first – and only – Belgian DMC champions in the competition’s history.
Following The MixFitz’ celebratory photo-op came the World Battle for Supremacy, something Tia was hyping hard during dinner beforehand. Considering I had only attended two DMCs so far in my life, both of which were just national competitions, I was unaware of what to expect.
I learned quickly what the hype was about.
The Battle for Supremacy pairs two turntablists together, head-to-head, for a one-on-one battle for whose scratching skills are superior. Each DJ gets two 90-second sets to showcase their talents, and in most cases, try to embarrass their opponent with their skills.
Round after round, the competition thinned out, leaving UK champion Ritchie Rufton and DJ Vekked reppin’ Canada to duke it out in the final rounds. Ultimately, Vekked’s improvisation and swag proved to be too much for Scotland’s Ritchie Rufton – despite the local fans showing their support. (Follow DJ Vekked on Twitter: https://twitter.com/vekked)
After it was all said and done, the first of two nights of the DMC Worlds was concluded with a set from the UK based group The Four Owls, whose name is understood in a literal sense on stage with their ridiculous headgear.
Friday September 28th
The night everybody had been waiting for was upon us – and everybody in our little crew could feel it. Champions for across the globe would had their 6 minutes to prove why it was they should be named the World DMC Champion of 2012.
Returning from the previous night’s Battle for World Supremacy was runner up Ritchie Rufton, and Champion DJ Vekked. But the main event also featured Danish champ DJ Graded, DJ Precision reppin’ NYC, and DJ Izoh from the far east of Japan – all singled out from the worldwide DJ massive!
After hours of sets highlighting why these DJs were worthy of competing, a champion had to be named. But not before former champion DJ Fly of France, alongside his drummer-in-crime 2M2X performed a party rocking set of hip-hop, electro, funk and soul that kept the over 2,000 person crowd bouncing as the decision for 2012 champion was being made by the judges.
As the general consensus of the crowd, and backstage crew seemed to indicate -Japan’s DJ IZOH was named the 2012 World DMC DJ Champion. With his technically flawless skillset, paired with a set full of hip-hop, electro, dub step and a final toast to the crowd it seemed to be a no brainer for everyone. As a former runner-up in the competition, IZOH could not have been a more grateful, a worthy ambassador into the next generation of turntablism.
IZOH’s championship winning set:
2:00 P.M. Saturday September 29th
On Saturday, I caught back up with the homies Native Sun at the Festival of Light, where they had a quick performance in front of the crowd of hippies swaying a la Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at Woodstock.
Despite the sound engineers state of, let’s say euphoria, causing for a sub par sound quality, the duo were still greatly received by the audience -a testament to the duo’s infectious energy on stage. Had you gone to the merch table after the show, you would have been one of dozens clamouring for their limited number of CD’s for sale – of which all were sold!
Kicking back after their set, I got to know more about Native Sun while we all got to enjoy a rare spot of London sunshine.
Mohammed and Serina had been friends for about a decade before getting together in 2010 with the concept of Native Sun – a concept they both said had so much room for growth stressing their loyalty to the concept of Native Sun’s message. It’s a vision that influenced a very selective choice of producers for Indigenous Soundwaves, an equal challenge to those that were brought on board to produce Native Sun’s debut LP.
‘Lightness of Happiness’ music video:
Now six months after the release of their debut album, I asked them if a second album was in the works, and while they did not deny that there would be another album in the future they both stressed the importance of letting Indigenous Soundwaves evolve.
As Serina said, “An album is like a (vegan) cake, you must let it bake.” While it may have been a quirky way to describe such a milestone, there was great truth in it.
On that fine sunny Saturday, we went on to discuss the idea of regular song releases to stay fresh and in the limelight in an industry that churns out pop hits almost on a daily basis. Native Sun reiterated that they didn’t care about these trends and were adamant about letting their premier album evolve on its own right before releasing new material.
I felt after listening to Sarina and Mohammed that they had hit the nail on the head with what they are trying to capture, and with more and more shows being booked, including a tour around Portugal in the beginning of November, the message and music I felt would continue to spread. Seriously, check this duo out; they are easily among World Hip Hop Markets top new artists to watch for in the future with their “J-dilla meets Fela Kuti sound.”
I couldn’t think of a better way to close out my time here in London than chilling with the duo – who I now considered to be close friends of mine. On the whole, I learned London to be a powerful brew of culture, music, and artistic expression. From a hip-hop perspective, its roads are now wide open to experimentation and growth thanks to the explosion of grime (i.e. Foreign Beggars). But with more classic hip-hop talent such as Native Sun, and top-notch producers such as The Last Skeptik, it’s safe to say the UK hip-hop underground is still in its growth phase and far from the peak of its evolution.
Next up in my European hip-hop travelogue: Paris – a place many argue to be the mecca for hip-hop on the continent.