Can't find the new punk? You're not looking hard enough—grime, hip hop and the UK riots
In the days since the UK riots, there's been a strand of commentary lamenting the lack of a musical backdrop equivalent to punk in the 1980s. Last week, Krissi Murison of the NME wrote in the Guardian:
"They [punks] talk of the boredom of living in the council high-rise blocks, of living at home with parents, of dole queues, of the mind-destroying jobs offered to unemployed school-leavers. They talk of how there is nothing to do."...
If that was punk's manifesto in 1976, then here's the closest thing music has to one in 2011: Kill People. Burn Shit. Fuck School. It's a song by Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, whose apathetic anarchy is perhaps a more fitting, if unwitting, soundtrack to the riots of last week than the Clash's...This, though, is apparently what rebellion sounds like in 2011: dead-eyed, mob-like and opportunistic. There's certainly no one else currently trying to articulate anything more meaningful in pop culture.
It's a strange choice of example. Odd Future's nihilistic art-rap is a million miles from the buzzing UK hip hop and grime scenes. While it is easy to underestimate the importance of music outside one's own scene or era (and while Murison has a point about the state of much mainstream music) you really don't have to look far to see that there is a wealth of political expression happening in UK music.
Hip hop and grime occupies much the same space today as punk did in the eighties. As with punk, some appears pretty much apolitical, some expresses a purely emotional response to a contemporary situation, and some provides as biting a political analysis as one would hope to find anywhere.
Back in February, Dan Hancox wrote of how Lethal Bizzle's Pow - a track whose 'riotous energy' was considered so incendiary even the instrumental was banned from clubs - had become the unofficial anthem of the student movement.
Last week, mere days after the riots, Hancox wrote in the Guardian about the UK rap/grime scene's response to the riots:
Two decades ago Chuck D famously described rap music as "the black CNN" - a means of describing the kind of daily lives which the real news network would never care to investigate; by this token, grime and UK rap is the BBC News 24 of the British urban working-class - not necessarily black, not necessarily young, but mostly so....
Grime describes the world politicians of all parties have ignored - its misery (eg Dizzee Rascal's Sitting Here), its volatile energy (Lethal Bizzle's Pow), its gleeful rowdiness (Mr Wong's Orchestra Boroughs), its self-knowledge (Wiley's Oxford Street), its local pride (Southside Allstars' Southside Run Tings).
But grime not only describes the realities of young people today, it has also been vocal in the responses and explanations of the riots. As Hancox writes, grime artists have been involved in political debates for some time Remember Lethal Bizzle calling Cameron a 'donut'? He also said "if you don't pay attention to the youth, it's going to get silly". And it did.
If it seems a little premature for journalists to be asking why UK rap hasn't responded to the riots, it is also unfounded. Writing only two days after the heaviest night of rioting across London, Dan Hancox summarised the musical responses so far:
In only two days we have had Genesis Elijah's raw, captivating a cappella UK Riots...Bashy and Ed Sheeran's Angels Can't Fly seems a bit rushed, but then it presumably was...Reveal's I Predict a Riot, with crushing inevitability, samples Kaiser Chiefs, but is otherwise powerful...Meanwhile dancehall artist Fresharda's response, Tottenham Riot, calls for "more ghetto yout' [who] stand firm and stay strong/ planning dem future in education".
The most extraordinary of the bunch is also the most full-on. They Will Not Control Us, a snarling litany of dispossesion and rage against politicians, police and the media...Talking about firing RPGs at parliament is not what you could call a constructive political response, but it would be ridiculous to say the song is not explicitly political - in its broad-ranging, nihilistic anger against all authority.
These responses are hardly indicative of an apathetic, unengaged youth culture. At the time they are happening, such music scenes rarely appear as cohesive cultural responses to the particular social and political context in which they appear. This is as true of punk then as it is of grime now. But the energy is unmistakable, and to dismiss hip hop and grime as means of political expression because it has no coherent voice is a category mistake.
All over the world, wherever there is social deprivation and large numbers of young people, a unique local rap scene is almost certain to be found. From the banlieues of Paris to the refugee camps of Palestine, from the streets of London to the projects of Los Angeles, from the barrios of Caracas to the townships of South Africa, hip hop has been the soundtrack to social unrest.
Some of these scenes are chronicled in Sujatha Fernandes Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. She writes:
Rage was a defining feature of our times, and hip hop was a tool for expressing, catalyzing and creatively transforming that rage into social criticism and musical innovation."
Fernandes is writing about 90s LA, but it could just as easily be London, 2011.
Sujatha Fernandes' Close to the Edge will be published on 3rd October.
White Riot: Punk and the Politics of Race, edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, is out on 5th September.