The biggest story of the last three years in British pop has unquestionably been the gatecrashing of the mainstream by the U.K. urban underground. British rappers scored five number one hits in the U.K. in 2009, a situation that would have been unthinkable even half a decade ago. The momentum has shown no sign of slipping: once the major labels clocked that a fruitful source of income was dormant on its doorstep, the floodgates opened, and an impressive number of the artists pouring through have gone on to genuinely sustained popularity, from Wretch 32 to Plan B to Giggs to Professor Green. It’s a wave that hasn’t exactly been how the critics would have liked it: most crossovers took the form of MCs abandoning the harsh, aggressive innovation of critically beloved grime beats for pop hooks and Eurotrance synths. But the mere fact that these voices of urban, working-class youth now had a place in the mainstream was an exciting development in itself. Two years ago, in what seemed to be the final rubberstamp of legitimacy on the scene, Rinse FM — one of London’s most important pirate radio stations, and a driver of underground music for 15 years — was awarded an official FM broadcast license. It followed that by ushering into the charts Katy B, a singer who represents a genuinely new strain of British pop star: the raver next door taking the funky house and dubstep beats of the underground and turning them into a pop blueprint.
Concurrently, down the road in Westminster — a few miles away from both the council estates from which Britain’s new pop establishment hailed and from the gleaming major label offices that were suddenly a conduit to success for them — the country’s new political establishment have been setting in motion another sea change. The coalition government of the right-wing Conservative Party and the centrist Liberal Democrats, formed from the ashes of a hung parliament in which the electorate didn’t so much choose a party as reject the political class across the board, have opted to govern on a platform of no-holds-barred austerity. Ostensibly in order to reduce the national debt, the enthusiasm and extent to which it has gone about slashing public sector budgets seems rather to indicate that the Tory party has seen the economic crisis as an opportunity to roll back the state as far as possible. The U.K.’s disenfranchised youth has, over the last few months, found ways to fight back and protest.
What do these cultural shifts have to do with each other? Consider the backgrounds of the new British urban royalty. Plan B, Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk all honed their skills in state-funded youth clubs, as did prior legends of the scene, from ’90s drum’n'bass producers Roni Size and Goldie to Dizzee Rascal, the man who started his career by lobbing grime into the mainstream like a molotov cocktail (and who went on to become arguably the UK’s biggest male pop star). These projects have not been specifically targeted by the government, but, with the local councils who control their funding seeing already-squeezed budgets slashed even further, and with even more basic services such as libraries under threat, they are often the first to be cut; splashing out thousands of pounds on staff and expensive musical equipment for no guaranteed return is simply no longer a priority.
“‘I’ll be straight up with you, I’d have been drug dealing,’ he states flatly. ‘We’re given three options where I’m from. You’re either a road man, going around stabbing people and gaining a reputation; you’re a drug dealer; or you’re just that idiot who sits on your arse in the estate getting drunk ’til you’re 45, 20 kids by 20 different women, going for Jobseekers’ Allowance every week.’”
Sarah Akwisombe, a.k.a. producer and DJ Goldielocks, has first hand experience of these consequences. As well as her own musical career, she has been involved in the running of North London youth centre project Rithmik Studio for three years, where she teaches and mentors up to 60 young people each week. Akwisombe worries about how the cuts will have a fundamental impact on who gets to make a living out of music in the future. “The music industry is already a middle class people’s thing in terms of having connections and so on,” she says. Despite the current urban trend, she explains, “It’s rare that people get signed without having made some strides towards putting their own music out and getting a fanbase — and to put your music out obviously costs quite a lot of money.”
Despite some touch-and-go moments, Rithmik has survived the cuts, for now. But many like it haven’t. What specifically is it that they offer young people? For those unable to afford expensive studio time, access to free studios in order to record demos is key. Even before that, for some, is the opportunity to learn basic studio skills or to garner professional advice from the likes of Akwisombe on everything from lyrics to beats. Akwisombe also points out that youth centres are where budding artists begin to build an initial fanbase — so crucial if they want to break into the industry. “They’ll be recording, and other kids come down and say, oh, you’re really good, can I have your tune on my phone — it might just be a rap over a beat, but they start spreading it around beyond their little circle.”