Hip-Hop Across the Pond: A Black British Invasion?

The rise of rap-influenced “grime” music proves that these days Brits prefer their hip-hop home-grown.

Dizzee Rascal, Getty Images
Dizzee Rascal, Getty Images

They sold records, but they were never hailed as spokespeople for the young and disaffected, nor did they claim to be. That all changed at the beginning of this decade, when marginalized and impoverished black teenagers started taking on the blinged-out swagger of U.S. mainstream hip-hop. The result was a new, uniquely British mutation of rap: grime.

Grime also embraced American commercial rap’s preoccupation with fame and acquisition. “Youth culture in Britain used to condemn its successes for selling out,” Ekow Eshun, director of the highly influential Institute of Contemporary Arts, told the public broadcaster BBC online:

“Right now the whole trajectory is about how quickly you can attain fame, status and the rewards that come with status.”

Much like the 1970s Bronx, grime originated in the economically deprived concrete surroundings of East London. The music genre created an industry that offered economic opportunities where few existed. When the music style first emerged, it could be heard only on pirate radio, seen at impromptu raves and sold on mixtape cassettes.

The hip-hop derived style is recognizable by its 140-beats-per-minute rapping, staccato lyrics delivered in break-neck speed, ringtone-influenced electronic riffs, and drum ‘n bass rhythms. Grime’s surreal imagery and white noise expressed the rage among the young and disenfranchised. It also developed a bad reputation for its links to gang crime.