If someone comes to visit London, it’s only ever a matter of minutes before they mention the price of two things: houses and alcoholic beverages. Even if they’re a successful rapper with sell-out tours and Top 20 hits under their belt, they will still be horrified. “Look at the house prices – it’s way cheaper in Cov,” notes Coventry’s Jay1. “London is expensive, man.” He gestures at his passionfruit daiquiri. “It probably cost £10 for this!” Yep, not far off.
The oppressive price of cocktails is one of many reasons why the UK’s rap scene is currently flourishing beyond London. Core styles such as grime and drill emerged from the capital, as have the vast majority of the most significant British rappers of the past 20 years: Dizzee Rascal, J Hus, Wiley and Kano from the east; AJ Tracey and Fredo from the west; Skepta, JME and Wretch 32 from the north; Stormzy, Dave and Giggs from the south. The Streets’ Mike Skinner may have kept his Brummie accent, but he had already left Birmingham by the time his debut was out.
But some of the most successful British rap tracks are now coming from artists around the UK. This summer Birmingham’s Mist scored his first Top 10 track with So High, following a Top 5 album last year; Northampton rapper Slowthai was nominated for this year’s Mercury prize and is rated as one of the UK’s most exciting live acts; Nottingham’s Young T & Bugsey were inescapable as autumn began with Strike a Pose, which spent six weeks in the Top 10. “Rap music in the UK is at the absolute top of its game,” explains Tiffany Calver, host of the 1Xtra Rap Show. “People want to hear people that sound like them. But we live in a world where songs are posted every second, so having someone who’s got something different about them, whether that’s how they sound or their rhyming pattern, you’re naturally going to be really interested in it, too.”
Guesting on Strike a Pose was 19-year-old Mancunian Aitch, who has become the biggest success story of all, reaching No 2 in September with his endearingly lecherous Taste (Make It Shake), and scoring another Top 10 single, Buss Down, a month later. Ed Sheeran was quick to notice the trend – he employed Aitch and Birmingham rapper Jaykae for a knowingly regional remix of Sheeran and Stormzy’s chart-topping ode to the capital, Take Me Back to London. Aitch scoffs at the city that once ruled British rap. “Everyone from London just supported everyone from London,” he says. “You think they’re untouchable, but they’re not.”
He, Jay1 and Leicester rapper Trillary Banks have come down to London for some overpriced drinks and ruminations on why, in 2019, a regional accent is as essential a rap accessory as a designer man-purse. The first thing to note is that this isn’t a sudden, random occurrence: Jaykae and Mist’s first official releases came in 2016, and before that, Birmingham propped up the grime scene after it had waned in London, as did Leicester. “Leicester has always had sick grime MCs,” Aitch says. “There always used to be that odd guy going: ‘Yo, Leicester!’” Trillary Banks was one of them. “In 2009, 2010, I used to spit out ‘Leicester City!’ before the track started,” she says.
Aitch says a rap scene was coming together in Manchester, too – but shakily. “Shifty did a Tim Westwood freestyle in 2009 which got over 600,000 views on YouTube, which is sick for then. A situation happened with him, something which I’m in no position to speak about” – Shifty was badly injured in a car accident – “and he stopped doing music. After that there was a big gap – no one knew what was going on. Everyone was trying their best to blow, but no one was blowing.”
One of the only successes was Bugzy Malone, a pugnacious ambassador for grime with four Top 10 albums dating back to 2015. Aitch also picks out IAMDDB. “She’s got a Manchester wave” – or energy. “If you listen to other Manchester music, you’d get it. It’s just a fact that it’s been a musical city, with Oasis, Stone Roses and that, and house. What was that club called, the Haçienda?”
Other regional rappers became popular with genre fans and started to cross into the mainstream: Liverpool’s Aystar, Nottingham’s Splinta and, of course, Birmingham’s Lady Leshurr and her ferociously funny Queen’s Speech freestyles. As Aitch acknowledges, it’s often the exoticism of their accents that helps them cut through. “I don’t think people from out of London realise how weird we actually sound to Londoners’ ears,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve got a funny accent, but everyone else does. That just draws bare attention. A lot of things in London were repetitive – people were looking for something else.”
No other regional artist has achieved the chart successes of the most recent crop, though. Aitch won’t tell me his secret sauce – “If I say it now Jay1 might steal it,” he deadpans – but it’s safe to say it’s a combination of factors: the network effects of streaming and YouTube, the growing dominance of rap in pop culture more generally, a desire from national radio to represent the whole of the UK – and, of course, raw talent and charisma. The casually dextrous Aitch is like a guy whose shameless chat-up lines you can’t help but grin at. Does the fact that he’s white make a difference too? “You hear it, people saying that I only blew because I’m white. That’s just air. There are white MCs about, but they ain’t as big as me. So if I only blew because I’m white, where’s all the others? I’m stood here on my own.”
As regional rap scenes matured, Coventry remained a wilderness. “What can you lot honestly say about Cov?” Jay1 asks the others. “Jay1,” Aitch replies. “Jay1 officially put Cov on the map: mad official.”
“Yeah, literally,” says Trillary. “There was a crew called COV, time ago, but they’re older, they’re probably in their mid-30s now. I never really knew a lot about Coventry – even the carnival, I went there and was like, where are all the people?”
Jay1 has released two of the best British rap tracks this year: Mocking It, a magnificently stripped-back showcase of pinpoint lyrical skill, and the uproarious infidelity taunt of Your Mrs – a phrase that is only ever uttered from the Midlands northwards. “Your missus!” Trillary claps with delight. “‘I’m goin’t town with the missus.’ In London, it would be: ‘I’m out with my gyal.’”
“That’s something I’ve picked up from living there,” says Jay1, who moved to Coventry from north London with his parents seven years ago – thanks, he says, to those cheap house prices. “When I started doing music, I thought: there’s no point me trying to rep London any more. I’m just here now, and so I might as well rep Cov. It’s a leap of faith: I rep these ends with my chest, and I’m not embarrassed at all.”
Without the network of record labels and rap video platforms such as GRM Daily and LinkUpTV in London, he was forced to go it alone, and released his first freestyle on his YouTube channel. Word of mouth in rap-starved Coventry was swift, “and it went off, it had 50k [views] in a month. That was all locals, banging it out. There’s a lot of [Coventry] youts out there that also want to start doing it now. In Leicester, too, there must be bare female artists thinking: ‘Yeah, I see Trillary doing her ting, so I’m going to start.’”
Trillary is a versatile rapper whose east Midlands accent is lightly flecked with Caribbean patois, and whose 2019 debut album Vote 4 Trillary snaps elastically from trap to dancehall and R&B. She puts her breadth partly down to Leicester’s multiculturalism – “we used to learn Gujarati even as black kids” – and says she is proud of where she’s from, even if she has to visit London to access decent studios and videographers. “I always wanted to put my city on,” she says. “I feel like you should help – when I see something hard, I support it. I used to do a showcase called Leicester’s Got Raw Talent. I ran that for years, and then I had to stop trying to put other people on and do my own thing. People were like: ‘Yo, the game needs you, trust me Trill, you’re mad!’ I was like: ‘OK, let me see how it goes.’”
She hasn’t broken the Top 40 yet, but has amassed millions of streams and fans get in touch from China and Puerto Rico – the sheer accessibility of streaming means these rappers have broken out of their home areas and their youth demographic to a wide global audience in a way that was impossible 10 years ago. Aitch was asked by a 53-year-old man for a picture on the train down and has done a Taste remix with Australian MCs, while Jay1 recently got stopped for pictures in Belgium. “What is going on? I’m in Belgium right now. It’s mad, in a shocking way – I’m always humbled by that.”
The hometown fame, meanwhile, is on another level. “Aitch can’t walk in Manchester,” Trillary laughs, but he disagrees. “I was in the Trafford Centre, and I actually done really well,” he says. “I just put my hood up, kept my head down and walked round, it was bless. But if someone says: ‘Seen Aitch in Arndale, seen Aitch in Foot Locker on Market Street’, it just makes you local, so you’re always in people’s heads. That’s why I’ve got bare followers on Instagram” – 1.3 million – “cos I’m always accessible.”
He bristles, though, when conversation turns to what Jay1 calls “people hanging off your line” – other local rappers asking for favours such as sharing their videos on social media. “I’m not a promo page,” Aitch says firmly. “People drop the video at 7 o’clock, and then message me at five past seven saying: ‘Yo, can you share this?’ I love sharing people’s stuff and I love bigging Manchester up, but it just gets under my skin a bit. Anyone from Manchester knows I will share their music – just give me time.”
The danger is that the biggest person in a local scene can quickly become a target for sniping and jealousy. “A lot of people like to get on Bugzy Malone’s back,” Aitch says of his fellow Mancunian, “for not bringing anyone through. But just because your first song buss [became successful], that hasn’t put your mum in a house. So why do you need to look after these people who you’ve known for a year? You’ve got to look after yourself before anyone else.”
He’s not about to leave though – “If I came down here I wouldn’t get that Manchester vibe, I’d lose what makes me me” – and there is a real camaraderie between the artists, united outside the capital. There’s a line from Jay1’s Your Mrs about a Mancunian girl called Becky, and he slips into a Manc accent when delivering it: “Bad B from Manny brought Beckeh / spent one week in the 0161 …” Trillary finishes the line: “Now I call Cov girls sexeh!” “I pronounce it Beckeh, not Beckee, because of Aitch,” Jay1 says. “You give that swag to that name!” Aitch says he in turn gets influenced by the Midlands accent. “I go check Jaykae, I come back and I start chatting like I’m from Brum. Everyone influences everyone. We’re a little gang, everyone not from London. I rate it.
“None of us would be in a position we are if it wasn’t for our individual cities,” he continues. “We make such a statement, a footprint. If there wasn’t people like us from these different cities, it would be just London music. And no disrespect to anyone, but people from London are trying to sound like they’re from America, and they’re saying UK music this, UK music that. People from outside of London represent UK music sometimes a bit better than people from London.” Indeed, they are bringing a vibrancy and variety to the charts that wasn’t there even a couple of years ago – and still getting change from a tenner for a round of drinks.
Aitch is playing at SWG3, Glasgow on 3 December, then touring
Other non-capital assets
After underlining his Brummie credentials with a Peaky Blinders-themed video, Jaykae recently branched from grime-y rap to UK garage with the infectious Chat.
In just over a year, Meekz has become one of the most popular rappers in Manchester, wearing drill-like masks, but deploying a deep, bleak, trap-influenced meter.
Luton might be London to budget airlines, but it’s still a long way from the bustling epicentre of British rap. Nafe Smallz has nevertheless transcended his smalltown background with a sing-song, US-indebted flow.
This Brummie duo have an almost boyband vibe with their Haribo-sweet choruses, and recently played to a rapturous arena of thousands in their hometown for BBC 1Xtra Live.
A brilliant club MC who can tackle grime, speed garage and more, Coco’s Sheffield accent is stronger than a shot of Henderson’s Relish.
Getting notice for a kitchen-sink freestyle over Rose Royce’s Wishing On a Star, Chorlton’s Tunde is another rapper bringing stark tales from the 0161 area code.
A&Rs on the lookout for the next Aitch will have had their ears pricked up by Zeph, a heavily accented Manny rapper rolling boastful freestyles out over minimal, sensual trap.
First getting notice back in 2012 for a blockbusting flow over the Adele-sampling Hometown riddim, this deep-voiced Sheffield MC embraced a seriously blinged-out aesthetic for 2019 mini-hit Quavo.