The UK Rap scene has never been so popular with artists like Dave and Stormzy spending multiple weeks at the top of the charts and going on huge arena tours. Whilst in the late noughties and early 2010s reaching the top 10 was only accessible for a limited few, UK artists are now regularly getting top 10s on both the singles and albums chart.
The most popular sound coming out of the UK scene currently is Drill, which started in the mid-2010s with artists like 67 and Harlem Spartans and reached a new audience thanks to the success of ‘Body’ by Russ Millions and Tion Wayne, which spent 3 weeks at number 1 last year.
Seeing this sound reach a commercial peak, artists have tried to take a new approach to this genre. The use of samples has been highlighted in particular with A1 and J1’s ‘Night Away (Dance)’ and Lillz’s ‘Glad U Came,’ which use the melodies from Jennifer Lopez’s ‘On The Floor’ and The Wanted’s ‘Glad You Came’ respectively. With Tion Wayne releasing a new track that samples La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill,’ and even Dave and Aitch having success with more melodic tracks, is UK Rap entering its second pop phase?
Now we must address that the quality of these tracks has been picked up on, with many discussions on Twitter and podcasts such as the HC Podcast, questioning the longevity of this new more commercial Drill sound. The music is focusing on the instrumental and the catchy melodies they are sampling, rather than the lyricism that some MCs such as Ghetts and Skepta would use to captivate an audience.
Now A1 and J1 are known more for their catchier tunes, so to see them go down this route will not be surprising, but Aitch and Dave can apply themselves when it comes to rapping and Dave in particular is known for his commentary on society in his lyrics. Sampling also is no stranger to the UK Rap scene and people have pointed to Headie One’s ‘Both’ which samples the 90s House anthem ‘Free’ by Ultra Nate as an example of where this trend started.
While Dave and Aitch have found success in making more melodic music, we know these guys can rap and they will continue to make music that is more on the lyrical side, but this crutch of sampling Pop music from the late 00s and early 2010s is becoming more popular in UK Drill and bringing artists like Lillz some mainstream attention. But to see if we are heading for a new era of Pop-Rap in the UK scene, just like the artists who are sampling, we need to go back to that same era.
The late noughties and early 2010s saw a lot of different music reaching the mainstream whether that be Deep-House or Far East Movement, but one genre that was reaching its commercial peak was a poppier version of UK Rap. While Grime and Garage had some commercial success in the 00s, artists struggled to maintain the mainstream appeal and many artists began to make the transition from what they were known for, to a more mainstream sound.
This move towards a poppier sound began with the club anthems ‘Wearing My Rolex‘ by Wiley and ‘Dance Wiv Me‘ by Dizzee Rascal, which saw them move away from the Grime sound they were known for in favour of music that would suit the clubs and get people on the dancefloor. There’s no doubt these songs have still stood the test of time and were great tracks, but this move towards a more commercial sound had a knock-on effect from 2008 onwards.
Artists who had made their name in Grime like Chip, Tinchy Stryder, and of course Tinie Tempah also moved towards this new sound which saw them achieve 10 number ones between them on the U.K. singles chart. It brought huge success for these artists and even Tinie Tempah charted over in the United States which is still a rarity even today.
But, just like now, there was criticism of selling out for fame and money, while artists like JME carried on the Grime sound and people like Giggs popularised a new wave of British Hip-Hop during that period. The music made has in retrospect been discredited by some of those artists, with Skepta and Wiley unhappy with the music they were being asked to make and they moved away from the mainstream sound.
This phase of UK Rap had its downfall in 2014 following a resurgence in Grime thanks to the popularity of Meridian Dan’s ‘German Whip‘ and Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me.’ While Tinie Tempah still had some success, the first era of U.K. Pop-Rap was over, and he has since like those around him moved back to Grime or other less commercial sounds.
Back to the present and it appears certain artists are trying to garner more popularity with a more mainstream sound, but what has changed between now and then? Well to start, the way music is accessed has changed. Before you had less choice over what became a hit, as labels and radio decided what was popular and what they liked. It’s the reason why artists like JME and Giggs didn’t garner much success on the charts until post-2014, as the label and radio didn’t want to hear their sound at the time.
With the age of streaming and social media at its cultural peak, artists can put out their music independently and promote it on their own more successfully with apps like TikTok and Spotify now the tastemakers rather than Radio and the label. It means now they don’t have to make music that the label will like, and radio now follows the trends of streaming and TikTok in what they play.
As a result, artists can make whatever brand of UK Rap they like and have success and sell out tours as shown by the success of newer artists like Knucks who has a more authentic Hip-Hop sound and reached the top 3 on the album charts without a top 40 hit. slowthai is another example with his punk-rap sound garnering a dedicated fanbase and resulting in a no 1 album, despite making a sound that is more unique to him.
While artists are gaining popularity for this more commercial UK Drill sound, it’s not the only root to success as J Hus who is mainly known for AfroSwing, is still one of the most popular names in the scene. Stormzy and Dave have made their names through making many different types of UK Rap from Grime to having Gospel influences. Also, there is plenty of people making authentic UK Drill and doing well such as Central Cee, who even experimented with some sampling of his own on ‘Obsessed With You,’ which sampled the Garage sound of PinkPantheress, a genre that has seen a resurgence in the charts thanks to tracks like AJ Tracey’s ‘Ladbroke Grove.’
We live in a new age of music, where artists have more creative freedom and control over their sound. No longer pigeonholed by the gatekeeping of label politics. Rappers and Producers can make many types of UK Rap and still achieve chart success. While this more commercial Drill appears to be the in thing now, it is not the only sound doing well at the moment and when its time in the spotlight comes to an end, a lot of artists who make that music or are making their own path will still do well with other sounds. For me, this isn’t the beginning of the second era of UK Rap’s pop phase, but the continuation of the most diverse and successful period of UK Rap period.