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Ty and the history of UK rap

A brief history of UK hip hop, rap and MC culture told by a linchpin of the scene, Shortee Blitz

  • Shortee Blitz (with some additional work by Patrick Hinton)
  • 26 October 2020

When I was first asked to write this column, it was to write about my recently departed brother, Benedict ‘Ty’ Chijioke, who we lost in May of this year to COVID-19 related health complications.

Mr Chijioke is a vital figure in the history of hip hop from the UK, and it makes sense to talk about him alongside the context of the style’s ever-evolving sound and rising global awareness. Outlining this lineage is not a quick or easy thing to achieve: it’s a multi layer cake, with plot twists and many nuances. In short, a fully blown mind-fuck. Where to start? May as well be the beginning, right? I promise, I’ll try and keep this as brief as possible…

Since Jamaican born DJ Kool Herc hosted the first documented hip hop party at 1520 Sedgwick Ave in The Bronx in August 1973, there was a steady emergence of pioneers working in the newly formed musical movement named hip hop. DJs included Disco King Mario, DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba, DJ Tony Tone, Grandmaster Flowers, Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Grandmaster Flash, Charlie Chase, Mean Gene and his younger brother Grand Wizzard Theodore, alongside MCs such as The Fantastic Five, Furious Five, Busy Bee, and Cold Crush Brothers.

When The Sugarhill Gang released ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in 1979, this rapping thing caught fire in the inner cities around the world. The UK was no different. As elements of the culture unfolded during the new decade, young people wholeheartedly embraced the magical elements of the music with open arms and still do to this day, myself included. Crews, DJs, B Boys, B Girls, MCs, graffiti writers and beatboxers were a common sight among the young from the early to late 80s in the UK, as subcultures arose from within. Hip hop was exciting, awe-inspiring even, and something totally new for the kids and young adults that participated.

Morgan Khan was early in the game with his label Street Sounds, which he launched in 1982 as an offshoot of his Streetwave imprint. Its opening compilations featured cuts like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five ‘The Message’ and Whodini 'Magic's Wand', and many dedicated hip hop editions followed. They became important and prolific documentations spreading Black music through the country, with many achieving Platinum, Gold and Silver plaques.

Novelty records aside - like Allen & Blewitt’s parody track ‘‘Chip Shop Wrapping’ on Pye in 1980 - Dizzi Heights was the first authentic MC from the early UK hip hop scene to be signed to a major label. Three years on from Kurtis Blow becoming the first US rapper to sign to a major with ‘Christmas Rappin’’ coming out via Mercury in 1979, London’s Dizzi Heights released the near-identically titled ‘Christmas Rapping’ in 1982 on Polydor. Newtrament’s ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ swiftly followed on Jive/Zomba a year later in 1983.

From there we were off to the races with crews and jamming sessions, plus regular cultural link ups via Covent Garden, Nottingham’s Rock City, and their equivalents all over the country. To name just a few groups from the mid to late 80s on the scene: you had Cookie Crew, Outlaw Posse, MCs Logik, Broken Glass, Rock City Crew, The Assassinators, Cash Crew, Mighty Ethnikz, Sindecut, and more.

In 1986, Simon Harris started the Music Of Life record label that housed some of the brightest stars from these shores. Namely, Demon Boyz (with the very influential Mike J aka Million Dan), M.C Duke, Hijack (whose whole crew were airtight, with flows, beats and the incredible DJ Supreme, who changed the game at the time with his insane cuts and scratches on wax). Not forgetting MC Kamanchi Sly, who later became Unknown MC as part of his brother DJ Pied Piper’s Masters Of Ceremony outfit, that saw chart topping success, and a Gold selling single at the height of the UK Garage’s mainstream success in the early 2000s. The original Asher D linked up with The World Record Breaking MC Daddy Freddy to release arguably the first hip hop/dancehall combination album in 1988: ‘Raggamuffin Hip-Hop’. It was also home to She Rockers, Overlord X, and hardcore hip hop group Hardnoise, who along with groups such as Hijack, Gunshot, and others, took Germany and parts of Europe by storm back then, building a cult following of similar groups under the affectionately named Britcore.

But the artist that had the most success from that label was the actual A&R guy! Derek B ended up being the first UK MC to chart nationally in 1987. When that happened, MAJOR ground was broken and all hell broke loose. Russell Simmons (whose legacy has been tarnished by multiple rape allegations) signed Derek B to Rush Management, which was monumental at the time. They managed the biggest in the game: RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, Eric B & Rakim, LL Cool J & Public Enemy. Hip hop from the UK was officially on the map!

And from there, it grew and grew. Major label Island Records launched the Mango Street sublabel, that signed London Posse, Demon Boyz and Overlord X to name a few. Kold Sweat was an independent label founded as a solo venture by MCA Records’ UK Managing Director Tony Powell that signed acts such as Katch 22, Prime Rhyme Masters, Son of Noise (with members from Hardnoise and Curoc from Gunshot), among others.

While Music Of Life was adding to their prolific output, a few kids from Battersea were honing their skills and getting ready to do damage. MCs Bionic, Rodie Rok, DJ Biznizz and Beatbox Sipho (R.I.P) went on a US tour alongside Big Audio Dynamite. The Clash's Mick Jones had seen Beatbox Sipho (R.I.P) beatbox onstage on the Electro Rock documentary in ‘85 and requested him to join their tour; Sipho asked if his boys could come along. They weren’t even a group at the time, but the other American artists on the tour referred to them as ‘That London Posse’, and they decided to make it official upon their return home.

London Posse were also part of a collective of legendary, deadly MCs (MC Mell ‘O’, Monie Love, who was signed by the Cooltempo label before joining Native Tongues) and DJs (WORLD DMC DJ Champ Cutmaster Swift, UK DMC Champ DJ Pogo) and a producer (Sparkii Ski). It was called D.E.T.T. Inc (Determination Endeavour Total Triumph Incorporated). Most of them, if not all, were from the Covent Garden hip hop scene.

The thing about London Posse that changed the game was deciding to rhyme how they spoke, which was not the done thing back then. Imagine that! The previous closest thing to regionally accented rhyme was Smiley Culture’s 1984 track ‘Cockney Translation’. More about him later.

Most people continued to rhyme how they learned to rhyme: in homage to the New York way of doing things. These kings loved and respected the Mecca of hip hop, but realising hip hop was about being yourself, thought how can you be real when you use a different accent to spit your bars? How could you be taken seriously in the grand scheme of things?

It was noticeably different to my ears hearing them for the first time as a kid. Instantly memorable. They called it Cockney rhyming; at the time you had to be born within hearing distance of the Bow bells of East London to be qualified as a bonafide cockney. I was born and raised in Nottingham so I didn’t have a clue what that meant, but I knew it was and sounded very British.

I think the point they were trying to convey was that they were fiercely proud to be Black British yoots that came up on soundsystem culture and strived to make music that spoke of their experiences.,both good and bad, that a British Yoot that’s never been to New York or Compton could fully relate to.

They kick started a slow chain reaction of events that made rhyming in your own accent the norm and respected. I remember when it wasn’t.

Their talent was crucial. They were skilled in the way they did their thing, and they garnered maximum respect from both sides of the Atlantic, In my humble opinion, they are firmly in the DNA of all MCs that came after them (whether they knew the origins or not, and whether they liked it or not!).

Other labels threw their hats in the ring and started to snap up future legendary artists, including The Cookie Crew, Silver Bullet, Caveman, plus many more. When a lot of the artists failed to chart, labels dropped them, and some even folded as other labels sought out other genres. This pushed it all back underground.

As we approached and moved through the 90s, the hip hop scene and the amount of groups, crews and collectives was growing. Look all around the UK and there are greats in every corner.

Chorley brothers Krispy (Microphone D.O.N. and Mr. Wiz, who also formed Krispy 3 with Sonic G) were pioneers in Lancashire with a serious hot streak of releases through the 90s. In Bristol MC Kelz, Krissy Kriss and DJ Lynx formed 3PM (3 Man Posse Move), helping to instil South West identity into hip hop culture through their authentic raps (deejay.de quotes the descriptor 'countryfied bumpkin patois' in the release notes of their 2018 retrospective album) and as early collaborators of trip hop group Smith & Mighty. West Midlands outfit Credit To The Nation, led by MC Fusion with T-Swing and Mista-G, made a mark with their anarchist intentions and conscientious lyricism, signing to One Little Indian off the back of airplay from John Peel.

Wales was popping off, with Jive Records signees DJ Jaffa and MC Eric aka Just The Duce the early pioneers. MC Eric later joined Technotronic (of ‘Pump Up The Jam’ fame) and signed to Island Records under the new name of Me One, while DJ Jaffa has stayed holding it down as linchpin of Welsh hip hop for more than three decades. In Cardiff he would work with seminal MCs such as 4Dee, jointly setting up the rap culture rooted youth organisation The Underdogs, and Johnny B, who also performed live with beatmaker and World Technics World DMC Championships competing turntablist DJ Keltech. Junior Disprol (aka Da EHF aka Fog Scratch Leg) has been an MC mainstay, performing in Fleapit and linking up with Chud Jackson as a founding member of the Circus 75 and Dead Residents groups in the late 80s and early 00s respectively.

Higher Learning, run by the Potato Skinz collective, became an important night showcasing hip hop in the capital. Artists from Cardiff and the Valleys combined forces to form the Best Shot Posse, who signed to Warner sublabel EastWest and flew like Icarus to mainstream pop heights and then imploded as a result of dodgy marketing. Swansea acts Shonky and Headcase Ladz were in their own lanes with an eccentric and ingenious sound. Linguistic trailblazers Llwybr Llaethog were the first to rap in the Welsh language, inspiring the politically-charged Welsh language hip hop-punk crew Tystion.

In Scotland, Glasgow’s II Tone Committee (Mistah Bohze, Mista Defy, Sace and DJ Krash Slaughta) emerged in the late 80s and made an impact with their no-punches-pulled energy. They performed around Europe as part of the aforementioned Britcore scene, and put out their first commercial release ‘Beings from a Word Struck Surface’ in 1991 as the second outing on Glasgow’s iconic 23rd Precinct label. Krash Slaughta was also a member of Krack Free Media alongside DJ Science, Kryptic and Swift. Sace later left to link up with DJ Easi (aka Pro Vinylist Dean) and Andy Docherty to form NT, who first signed to Stereo MCs’ Natural Response imprint and then went major by signing to Sony sublabel Epic, but a completed album ‘To The Surface’ never came out due to some unrevealed music industry fuckery. Another important Glaswegian group from that time is Power Move, counting Steg G, The Freestyle Master, Shoey, Jimmy P and Jay Large (who went on to do production work for Wales’ Junior Disprol in the mid 90s) among its membership. Other important 90s names from Glasgow and the wider West Coast area include Big Div and Psycho D’s Major Threat, STS, Thoughtz of Mortalz, DJ Anton, Elias, Business As Usual, Eastborn, Course of Procedure and Final Product.

Up in Edinburgh you had groups such as Knightstick (DJ A1/DJ Eh? Wun and Babes), who joined the larger Sugar Bullet crew who went on to sign for Virgin. There was also Under The Influence, Cufic Poets, Reachout and Zulu Syndicate. The Zulu’s member Yush 2K aka AJ Nuttal regularly collaborated with Joseph Malik, initially as M.F. Outa 'National with a track on Mo Wax, and then forming the Blacka’nized duo, becoming strong anti-racism voices with releases on Stereo MCs’ Response Records before forming Yush Records. Across in Cumbernauld there was Back of Beyond, and further north in Aberdeen Dope Incorporated were seminal, releasing the first ever Scottish hip hop 12” in 1991 with ‘The Frontal Attack / Born With A Dope Affliction’.

Northern Ireland’s scene was small but active and committed. The first live hip hop event was hosted at Belfast’s Errigle Inn in 1990 with DJ Troubledsoul, Hidden Identity and the Fresh Beatz Incorporated crew, featuring Lisburn’s DJ Triple Cee aka Chris Caul and two MCs from the Seymour Hill area of Dunmurry: MC Kay La Supreme and Master G (Blu Dru and Stevie T were also members). Other acts included Belfast City Breakers, who are still active, and Zonic Rock Crew. “It was a small but very important group of individuals... being that this was at the heart of 'The Troubles' I can honestly say that the culture saved my life,” said DJ Troubledsoul, who produced the first full-length Northern Irish hip hop LPs with Hidden Identity across ‘90 to ‘91, the first of which can be he heard on Bandcamp.

The mid 90s is kinda where Ty’s story starts. He loved seeing and hearing upcoming Black artists show what they’re about, their differences in vibes, and in the way they flow or even perform. He wasn’t really with people just copying what has already been done before. He was always about standing out. If you didn’t get it, it’s fine, you will in due time, but he’s gonna keep creating.

I met him in college. What I didn’t find out until leaving two years later was that he wasn’t even a student there, he was just making sure dudes weren’t getting too close to his baby sister. As I type this, it now makes sense why he was always in the canteen. We became friends, helped by our mutual love of hip hop. We’d go to concerts together, certain hangouts with our extended fam. He had no classes, so he was always free to play Blackjack, have a dance battle, or freestyle with one of us banging on the table while he spit.

Long story, less long: he asked me to be his DJ as he was working on music with some producers (including Soliheen, FKA Def G from Lords Of Rap, among a few others). I didn’t know how to produce, but we learned by watching the producers do their thing in the studio.

The great thing about Ty is that he’s an empowerer. He’ll see the greatness in you before you probably would see it in yourself. For me personally, he gave me the confidence to use the mic and host while I DJ’d (I was the head down, shy type of DJ when I started out).

Throughout his work with the Ghetto Grammar workshops, he co-founded in the 90s (alongside Kosher, Michael Lord and UK DMC Champ DJ Kofi), it was all about giving the young artists something to aspire to. Be creative, be fearless, tell YOUR story, in YOUR way. He was about this on every radio show he hosted, every event he hosted, every song he worked on, or project he featured on. Even if he had no music out at the time, he was always looking out for fellow artists, because he knows the power of a helping hand and real advice without expecting anything in return.

This is why he was always my big brother, whether we were talking at the time, or not. He also had approximately 12 godchildren, because he loved to nurture those that needed it.

He was prolific with his output of quality projects, always working, always digging for gems to sample, always slapping a drum machine, or looking for sounds on one of the many keywords he owned. Identity was a priority for him. He had to rep himself correctly, he was an active artist, immensely proud of being a British-born Nigerian. He loved being the Awkward Boy, there was nothing he could do about that but embrace it. I guess he’d rather fail being him, than win being a copy of someone else.

This attitude eventually paid off, as he was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Award for his sophomore solo project ‘Upwards’ in 2004. He lost out to Franz Ferdinand, but after working so hard and being largely ignored by figures in the industry because he didn’t fit into any box they were tryna put him in, people seemed to finally start recognising his talent.

Here we have to mention Ms. Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal, two game-changing rappers who each won the Mercury Prize across the two years prior, and also Speech Debelle for her equal success in 2009 for her affecting debut ‘Speech Therapy’.

Even though Ty didn’t win the Mercury, he really won overall. He gained loving fans and supporters, he could turn a crowd that didn’t know him or his music into lifelong fans by the time he finished his stint onstage. He travelled the globe, collaborated with many artists and built a family network that could lean on each other. He had massive respect from his artist peers and left behind an impressive body of work, with five solo albums and 3 EPs. Legacy.

Rest In Peace, my brother.

To shout out a few more crucial figures from across the years, Sway DaSafo is someone who I always saw as Ty’s musical relative, in a sense. Ty was fearless in showing his Nigerian roots (when it wasn’t so cool to do so) and showcasing real everyman stories. This is different to the majority of artists who only show you their best, superhuman side, like an Instagram account. Sway was similar in this fact. Did what he felt, had some monumental moments in his career, repped Ghana and stood the fuck out!

Roots Manuva is another vital figure in British hip hop whose situation is similar to Ty’s. He values his artistic freedom and simply makes what he feels; they are both champions at this. Fun fact: the first time Ty was ever in a studio to record, Roots Manuva was his engineer.

Tony Rotton - FKA TaiPanic and AKA Blak Twang - must be mentioned. He has more than a few classics, albums, awards and tours under his belt, an impressive work rate, insane wordplay and unbelievable breath control while onstage (dude would rhyme every bar, every hook of every song he was performing at a festival in 35 degree heat, and be crystal clear!). He lived with Roots Manuva in the early 90s. When Blak Twang was on the grind, working on his early recordings, Roots featured on the underground classic ‘Queens Head’.

Fallacy was on the underground scene fresh out of his school uniform, soaking in creative juices and energies while honing his craft. Tony Rotton took him under his wing and took him on tour while he was working on his 1996 debut album, ‘Dettwork Southeast’. Fallacy earned a guest spot on ‘Paralytic Monkey’, but label nightmares led to the label crashing and the album being shelved for 18 years! Which was disastrous for Twang and the whole scene as this release was about to be one of the strongest at that time, further cementing the rise of the UK hip hop scene.

Along with his work with MJ Cole, Fallacy teamed up with Skeme and Big P from the Sterling Collat family, before eventually going solo. Fredo, who is a relatively new star, reminds me of the Sterling stuff in that they are quite similar style wise to me; I do wonder if he’s fan.

Klashnekoff from Stoke Newington, was a force to be reckoned with at the height of his run, equipped with a mix of reggae and hip hop influences, ILL bars, delivery and real situations in his music. Fans used to call him ‘The UK 2pac’. With Kyza Smirnoff and Skribblah also part of the team, the Terra Firma fam made real noise.

Nottingham’s own Out Da Ville (Scorzayzee, Lee Ramsey, Tempa, DJ Fever, C-Mone, Karizma and superstar DJ Mistajam to name a few) who, under the expert guidance of veteran Big Trev and his CRS hub, actually did a full 180 degree turn of spitting with a US accent, to representing themselves expertly with vicious bars using their own Nottingham accents. This in turn had a knock on effect from the Midlands to further up North, with Shotty Horroh, Strategy, Children Of Zeus, and that is just scratching the surface.

Smiley Culture (R.I.P.) had the 80s on lock with his releases and appearances on Top Of The Pops, with his humorous tales of police harassment via Police Officer & Cockney Translation. Which in real life, they were anything BUT humorous, especially with the sketchy details around how he actually lost his life in 2011 (allegedly stabbing himself during a police raid at his home).

Rebel MC teamed up with Double Trouble (Karl ‘Tuff Enuff’ Brown, Michael Menson (R.I.P.) and Leigh Guest... I wonder why they weren’t called Triple Trouble), and released Top 5 dance smash ‘Street Tuff’, a follow-up to their Top 20 hit ‘Just Keep Rockin’. By the time he released his sophomore solo project, ‘Black Meaning Good’, there was an audible shift in his musical direction, with a much deeper reggae influence, coming through hardcore drums, Jamaican dancehall vocal samples and sound effects, complete with legendary artists Dennis Brown (R.I.P.), Barrington Levy and Tenor Fly (R.I.P.) featuring throughout the project. The songs ‘Tribal Bass’ and ‘Wickedest Sound’ were widely considered as the important catalysts that jumped started the junglist/jungle movement, as Rebel MC sampled the phrase ‘All the Junglists’ from sound tapes from Jamaica, so the people from the scene started calling it jungle, which spread like wildfire!

Certified legend General Levy, who started his journey as a Dancehall MC, is highly respected and had some classic moments. The most significant coming when he linked up with producer M Beat and released ‘Incredible’ — that turned the club scene upside down. Leeds-born Skinnyman (who still has bars for days) and his collective MUD FAM has an intricate family tree including Task Force and Ramson Badbonez among others. Estelle has been out here doing her thing, making a mark Stateside and notching up many classic songs. Doing a lot of TV and movie work too! Two artists who have collaborated with Estelle, Baby Blue and Shystie, have won deserved acclaim through their careers with many impressive releases.

So Solid Crew were the stars of UK garage, and the crew’s only female member Lisa Maffia had strong solo success, including a debut platinum selling single ‘All Over’. UK Garage MCs such as Creed, Heartless Crew, PSG, CKP, Kie, Sharky P, Sparks (R.I.P.), Rankin, DT, Viper, to name only a few, weren’t on as many releases as the So Solid MCs, but they were definitely part of the same ecosystem I referred to earlier. These were soundsystem DJs (MCs), and these are the MCs you’d see in Ayia Napa and Ibiza, Zante and Corfu, hosting the biggest dances. They always had rave bars in the tuck to nice up your dance, that was as the tide was turning as the Grime MCs were building up their catalogues and followings.

In addition to the sets on pirate radio stations, the grime MCs put on their own raves and built loyal fans from there. Some of them weren’t as dressy as their garage colleagues: no silk shirts and sharp shoes for the time being, it was tracksuits, and trainers, as it was about the forwards on pirate radio and in the raves. Who had memorable bars, who stood out, who had vibes, who had the reloads?

The MCs that had the jungle/drum ‘n’ bass side locked were direct influences on the Wileys, the D Doubles, and even the one and only, super lyrical Mysdiggi (FKA Mystro): Stevie Hyper D (R.I.P.), Skibbadee, Det, Shabbadee, Dynamite, Moose, GQ, Five-O, B Live (Evil B) etc inspired a whole new generation of MC’s from these shores. It’s important to note that when London Posse disbanded in 1996, individual members went on to work with Daddy Skitz and the legendary Stevie Hyper D — there was definitely a lot of cross pollination going on.

The evolution of the MC in each setting, whether it be dancehall, hip hop, garage, d’n’b, grime, road rap, drill etc. It’s all sound system culture, spitting over riddims. Whether you’re as lyrically intricate as Nas or you have pure vibes and can turn over dances with a single ad-lib like D Double E, this is sound system culture at it’s finest!

With each genre denying they have nothing to do with each other, we actually need to understand that we’re more alike than we are different. The only major difference, to me, is what you’re actually spitting ON. As long as you’re resonating with the audience, that is the main thing, no?

But what still needs to be understood, is whether they knew it or not, the DNA of London Posse is coursing through them. London Posse crawled so the 90’s MCs could walk, the 2000s MCs could run, and the 2010 and beyond MCs could soar.

With international fanbases, international airplay and world tours (pre lockdown) and A LOTTA MONEY being made, whether the rest of the world liked it or not, they can’t deny they’ve heard of Wiley, Giggs, Nadia Rose, Swiss, Ms Banks, Lioness, Chip, Skepta, JME, Dizzee Rascal, Little Simz, Stormzy, Lady Leshurr, Nines, Stefflon Don, Katy B, J Hus, Roots Manuva, Ty (R.I.P.) Bugzy Malone, Wretch 32, Ms Dynamite, Foreign Beggars, Kano, D Double E, Young T & Bugsey. The list goes on, and on...

Shortee Blitz is a multi-award winning hip hop DJ and TV and radio host, follow him on Twitter

Thank you to Kaptin Barrett; Southside Deluxe co-head NC Epik; and DJ TroubledSoul/Bethaniens Dust and DJ Chris Caul for their respective guidance on Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish hip hop

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