Brit Hop 2009
Jesal 'Jay Soul' Padania - Twitter: @JaySoul
The second half of this decade has been a somewhat special time for British music. Something had been stirring in the air and, for some; the tipping point (thanks, Mr Gladwell) came around the time that Amy Winehouse dropped her sophomore LP "Back to Black." Whilst it wasn't what you would call a true "critical darling," it nonetheless contained five mega-hit singles (well, six if you count "Valerie") and the album has continued to be in the Top 100 UK Album Chart for THREE YEARS now. The UK press has a hyperbolic history of heaping praise on undeserving souls, but Amy Winehouse smashed it. These are classic singles that will be played until you and I are old and grey. In fact, and please bear in mind that I say this in all seriousness, that no matter what happens now, Amy Winehouse has cemented her legendary status as "Back to Black" was her "Illmatic" and "Thriller" combined in one. She poured her heart into every note or lyric, and the key is that you actually BELIEVE her – combine that with stunning melodies, accessible music and a wonderfully individual voice, and it isn't a trick that will be repeated anytime soon by ANYONE.
Try telling that to the UK labels, though. As soon as Amy's success went stratospheric, the A&R's got busy in the lab, trying to clone her. Since 2006, it is fair to say that the twenty-something girls have completely ruled the UK charts. Regardless of genre, and counting the non-clones, you have Duffy, Adele, Estelle, the Ting Tings, La Roux, Florence & The Machine, the Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Lily Allen, Leona Lewis, M.I.A., Kate Walsh, Natasha Bedingfield, VV Brown, Kate Nash, Corinne Bailey Rae, Alesha Dixon, Lady Sovereign, KT Tunstall, Bat For Lashes, Pixie Lott, recent Mercury Prize winning rapper Speech Debelle... The list seriously goes on and on. Add the Stateside girls like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Jordin Sparks, Fergie and all the other countless female soloists and you start to struggle for room to breathe (in a nice way). This truly is a golden age for the girls.
However, if you only knew one thing about the music game, it would be that things change. Trends come and go. How many out of that exhaustive list will be here in 10 years time? Only a few. They will forever be cemented in the "Now" compilations, and on "Remember the 2000's" type of throwback CD's, sure. But some will be dropped; others will quit the game; only those with iron strong determination to survive will make it through to 2020. There have been trends that pushed through with little warning, ruled the charts, then sank without a trace within three years. The Garage scene circa 1999 was incredible, with genuine talent selling units from literally nothing. The Britpop era from 1995 to 1997 was huge, and will forever be remembered – especially that classic summer of 1996. Those were the days...
Except that those WEREN'T the days. The Britpop era of music was TERRIBLE!! Seriously. I was one of the young morons responsible for buying into chunks of it, but frankly the Spice Girls created better music than 90% of the Britpop acts – I'm not even joking. Only Blur, Oasis and especially Pulp (plus a tiny handful of other acts) genuinely deserved credit. The SCENE was classic, but the music was certainly not.
Which brings us onto the Brit Hop in 2009. This year, more than any other in the history of the UK music scene, has given birth to a genuine combined assault from the hip hop world. In the past twelve months alone, there have been big selling albums from exotically named rappers such as Dizzee Rascal, N-Dubz, Taio Cruz (technically a producer/singer that sometimes raps), Chipmunk, Speech Debelle, Wiley and Tinchy Stryder, with albums to come from Sway, Kano and a few others. Aside from Dizzee, most of the big sellers have been debut artists – think Tinchy, N-Dubz and Chipmunk. They have captured the hearts of the youth, and the youth, for once, are actually putting their money where their mouth is. The results are on view for all to see, and it is a truly wonderful moment – this generation of rappers lie on the cusp of something really big.
Of course, this has taken years of preparation. N-Dubz are, to all intents and purposes, a manufactured band in the mould of the Black Eyed Peas. Tinchy Stryder's back story is so bizarre, it beggars belief (essentially a couple of super rich public school boys wanted to have some fun and moulded him into a marketable product – or so the story goes). Dizzee is, strangely enough, only 24 years old. Yet, "Tongue N'Cheek" (which, I will warn you in advance, will feature highly on my year end list), is his FOURTH album, with his first LP winning the Mercury prize when he was only 18. Sway signed Stateside with Akon, whilst Jay Sean (more of him in a minute) signed with Lil Wayne and co. These last three are in their mid-20's, yet have their own labels in the UK. It is fantastic to see.
Look at the Billboard Top 100 singles at ANY point in the last SIX MONTHS and all you would have seen was either "Boom Boom Pow" or "I Gotta Feeling" – both by the Black Eyed Peas. Ok, but go and look NOW. It says "Down" by Jay Sean, featuring Lil Wayne. Yes, the urban singer is from the UK, and not since Craig David has anyone British actually done something massive on the US charts, especially not a UK Asian. Except the whole of Britain seems to have collective amnesia – didn't M.I.A. do pretty bloody well with "Paper Planes" last year? Plus she is a UK Asian? I mean, her and Jay Sean were BOTH brought up in the very same place, Hounslow!
I recently had a debate with someone about this very issue – why has M.I.A. been almost completely ignored by the Asian community in the UK? He kept banging on about how Jay Sean is selling loads more records than M.I.A. in the States. However, that really isn't the case. Yes, "Down" is now Number One, and selling major numbers (over 1m in two months is an incredible achievement). Yet "Paper Planes" sold well over three million with a crap video and M.I.A. basically refusing to do any promotion for it. It also spawned T.I.'s "Swagga Like Us" which in turn led to a legendary Grammy night performance – and, incidentally, that was the heavily pregnant M.I.A.'s due date for giving birth. It featured on the "Pineapple Express" trailer, and, more importantly, on the soundtrack to the 8-times Oscar winning "Slumdog Millionaire" – as well as within the actual film, in a stunning scene that genuinely made me cry tears of pride and joy. The song has gone down in history, and another famous review site recently placed it within the Top 3 singles of ANY this decade (I concur).
Of course, Jay Sean has absolutely nothing to do with this side issue, and his chart-topping achievement is stunning, the culmination of 7 years hard work. If anything, he has provided this new generation of British urban stars in the making with a blueprint of how to crack America, if they wish to try. And when he releases his album back in his homeland, it is a pretty safe bet that he will be right near the top of the charts, alongside Dizzee, Tinchy, Taio, Chipmunk and N-Dubz. This really is an exciting time, but labels – and, more crucially, artists – would do well to learn from the previous super-fantabulous "scenes" in the UK that crash and burned after a couple of years. In fact, if I'm totally honest, they should look to their American forefathers of rap and study the best – the best rappers, singers, producers and, perhaps most crucially, labels. Not copy, but study and adapt. That is the best way to achieve sustained success, so the most vital foundation is a bedrock of GREAT music. If you can't find those producers who can help you step up to the next level, go and search them out, anywhere you can.
Britpop collapsed because the music was actually pretty shit, save for a few great bands. People wise up after a while, they move on if the scene doesn't move with the times. Brit Hop is at an exciting point, but it needs to create truly great music – and that doesn't mean that A&R's should clamber to sign the "next big thing" just for the sake of it. They should attempt to build a real and successful industry, not just a scene. Let's hope that it improves – at the moment, it is, essentially, a kind of dancey/Timbalandy/urbany with really soft rapping to girls over it. That is a clever place to start, but they won't be able to repeat that trick for the next five years – the music is fun, but not approaching greatness at a rate of knots. So enjoy the success, but progress and evolve. All of the rappers enjoying success in the USA owe everything to the previous generations, the ones that laid the really hard groundwork with classic ALBUMS as well as chart-topping singles. Let's hope that exciting times can translate into a continually enthralling era.
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