Hip-hop came across the pond to the UK in 1979 when The Sugarhill Gang went to number three with ‘Rappers Delight’. Hip-hop also seeped into the country through national and pirate radio stations as well as vinyl imports from independent record labels. Initially, British hip-hop was just an attempt to replicate what the Americans were doing with early artists even putting on American accents. However, over time the UK developed a distinct style and these were some of the most influential artists that made this happen.
He’s not a household name and compared to the rest of the artists on this list he is fairly unrecognisable, especially to the modern generation, but Rodney P was hugely influential in the development on the genre. MTV call him a ‘legendary figure within the UK hip hop scene who has helped lay the foundations of urban music in this country.’ His debut and only album ‘Gangsta Chronicle’ was voted the most important UK hip-hop album of all time in a 2007 poll because of how he was the first to reject fake American accents and make hip-hop British, mixing Jamaican and London street slang . Rodney P’s discography boasts collaborative work with UK hip-hop heavyweights such as Blak Twang, Skinnyman and Roots Manuva who were all pioneers in the early UK hip-hop scene before grime came to the forefront and took over. Without Rodney P’s early work during the Thatcher era, who knows where UK hip-hop would be now.
Grime is now a vital part of the infrastructure of British music and it has a lot to thank Wiley for as one of the main pioneers, the Godfather of grime. The east London MC was part of the Pay As U Go garage crew but went solo in the early 2000’s with his unique ‘eskibeat’ sound which quickly became an underground scene. Wiley’s protégé Dizee Rascal joined the scene and released his debut album ‘Boy in da Corner’ that won a mercury prize and drew attention to the genre. Wiley then crossed over to pop with the group Roll Deep before returning to his grime roots along with a new vast audience.
The rapper from Tottenham joined Wiley’s group Roll Deep. This was short lived as Skepta set up his own group Boy Better Know in 2006 with his brother JME. With BBK he released the hits ‘That’s Not Me’ and ‘Shutdown’ which exploded in popularity and gained national awareness to grime. The attention wasn’t only in Britain, Drake caught wind of BBK and joined as an honorary member, coming out as a surprise guest at one of their London shows which went viral online. Skepta was involved in what is regarded as the biggest clash in grime history with MC Devilman for the video release of ‘Lord of the Mic 2’ and has since released his fourth studio album ‘Konnichiwa’ in 2016 to critical acclaim and a Mercury Prize. The rapper has also collaborated with the likes of ASAP Rocky in ‘Praise The Lord’ to gain grime more of an international audience and international credibility.
Stormzy gained recognition through the iconic video of him rapping in the park in his bright red Adidas jacket with his crew in the background. The track he was singing, ‘Shut Up’ went viral because of its simplicity and sing-ability and put Stormzy in the limelight. Stormzy won best grime act at the MOBO awards in 2014 and 2015, was BBC’s most influential sound of 2015, and produced the first number one grime album in the charts, ‘Gang Signs and Prayer’ in 2017. What has been so remarkable about his career is the fact he has managed to balance respect from the grime industry and respect from the media. He’s a role model that has become the face of grime in the mainstream media and is praised by the likes of Skepta and JME.
The unmistakable husky voice of Giggs has become his trademark. He signed to XL records in 2010 and released his debut album ‘Walk in da park’ which gained critical acclaim. His later single ‘Look What the Cat Dragged in’ got in the top 60 singles chart and became his first real commercial success. Since then his prominence in UK music has risen and risen. His fourth studio album ‘Landlord’ peaked at number two on the UK album charts as well as his latest mixtape ‘Wamp 2 Dem’. His unmistakable voice has become commonplace as a feature on tracks with artists such as AJ Tracey, Lily Allen and Mr Eazi. He has also become a social media titan with his amusing Instagram posts and being snapped with famous artists such as Drake.
Credited as being one of the artists that broke jungle in the UK, London’s General Levy still to this day has arguably the biggest jungle track of all time, 1994’s Incredible – “wicked, wicked. Jungle is massive!” Levy became associated with his hyper-speed wild flow and signature shrill hiccups. His explosive bashment style paved the way for artists such as Ms Dynamite, Stylo G and Riko Dan who all use General Levy’s style. He is now a regular feature on drum and bass tracks and continues to wave the flag for UK jungle.
What is so extraordinary about Little Simz is how she rose to become one of the most prominent British female hip-hop voices independently. Her label AGE: 101 Music has produced her albums throughout her career and landed Little Sim’s album ‘A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons’ at number 20 on the UK R&B Albums chart and number 43 on the UK Independent Albums chart, proving that anyone can do it by themselves. Alongside her successful solo music she has worked with giants of the industry such as Gorillaz, Kano, Estelle and received praise from Kendrick Lamar.
J Hus is best known for his 2017 track ‘Did You See’ that landed in the top 10 on the UK charts. His career kickstarted in 2015 when he posted freestyles online. Shortly after gaining an audience, the rapper was stabbed five times. This didn’t stop him and he carried on making music with his biggest break being a feature on Stormzy’s album ‘Gang Signs and Prayer’ in 2017. J Hus’ influence on British hip-hop stems from him using his Gambian accent and single-handedly pioneering the current UK/Afrobeat hybrid which so many artists are trying to replicate now. His YouTube freestyles also demonstrate his commitment to lyricism.
Skinner is the embodiment of self-made success. He was born in Croydon but moved to Birmingham at the age of three and in his early teens began writing hip-hop and garage, eventually building a sound booth in his own room. Whilst balancing fast-food jobs he set up his own independent label, he eventually set up The Streets in 1994. The alternative hip-hop group came to represent suburban working class culture but also the UK garage scene as a whole. He was the first major voice on the radios outside of London, managing it all with a thick brummie accent – which is an impressive achievement in itself! Skinner became acclaimed for framing a snapshot of everyday life and helping to start the careers of artists such as Kano, Ghetts and Murkage Dave whilst also being a huge influence on artists like Professor Green, J Hus and Slowthai who all credit Skinner.
This is another name that not many people will have heard of, however he is one of the most influential MCs in the history of UK music. King was part of the group Saxon Sound, the legendary 80’s London reggae group that kicked off the careers of MCs such as Smiley Culture Tippa Irie. Although when you listen to him now it does not sound too dissimilar to something you would have heard before, at the time it was revolutionary. A completely new concept. King would spit syllables out at double the speed of the dancehall drums, creating a machine gun of constantans. Every single MC that has spat at double speed, from Skibadee to Stormzy, is following in the footsteps of this underrated 80’s legend.