It’s taken me a long time to admit this, but I have a confession to make: I’m bored with Rap music.
I’ve been fighting against this feeling for a while, but it overwhelmed me as I listened to the new albums by the current gods of Hip-Hop, Jay Z (apparently now minus the hyphen) and Kanye West – or should that be Yeezus? My review of each album can be summed up in a word – ‘Meh’.
I know I’m not alone in concluding that both of these Hip-Hop megastars fell short of the mark with their latest offerings. My disappointment came from the fact that neither artist really pushed things forward lyrically, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Innovation rarely comes from the establishment – which is what both artists now represent – it comes from the fringe.
This is what Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker called the ‘Deviants Advantage’. In their book of the same title published over a decade ago, they describe how ‘deviance proceeds along a traceable trajectory from the Fringe, where it originates but has zero commercial potential; to the Edge, where word of mouth creates a limited audience; to the Realm of the Cool, where the buzz and market momentum really start to build; to the Next Big Thing, where demand is honed and intensifies; finally landing at Social Convention, the heart of the mass market.’
This reflects the story of Rap music and most other subcultures that have crossed over and become mainstream. Today the process has accelerated exponentially as new trends are shared via social networks. An entire industry of cool hunters, brands and agencies endlessly monitor the fringes of youth culture in order to discover the Next Big Thing. Once it hits the front page of Reddit, it’s more or less over.
Looking for the Perfect Beat
If Jay Z and Kanye now reflect mass-market Social Conventions, where can we find the artists that are innovating at the Edge? The answer surprised me: Poetry.
There is nothing new about poetry, it’s as old as language itself, and a rap is a poem by another name. However a new wave of urban spoken-word artists are rapidly moving into the Realm of the Cool.
The current poster child for this movement is Dean Atta. Described as “the Gil Scott Heron of his generation”, he is a young man of mixed heritage who also happens to be gay. His poem to commemorate Stephen Lawrence, ‘I am Nobody’s Nigger’, propelled him into the spotlight and secured his first book deal.
Another leading light is George The Poet, a young man raised on the Stonebridge Park estate in Harlesden who is completing his third-year at King’s College, Cambridge. His recent ‘Malik’ performance held in St Pancras Church was dedicated to Malcolm X and carefully choreographed to echo the rituals of a religious service, with George as the charismatic preacher. This is appropriate, as George displays the missionary zeal of Public Enemy’s Chuck D. But instead of turntables and driving beats, smooth melodic instruments allow George’s voice to hold sway.
Musa Okwonga is another notable talent with an interesting backstory. A scholarship student at Eton College, Musa studied law at Oxford University and then trained as a solicitor in the City before leaving the legal profession to pursue his love of poetry. He is now a poet, writer, broadcaster and sports journalist with a good grasp of digital technology. This enables him to experiment with innovative ways of bringing his poetry to life online. For example, his poem ‘Heavyweight’ was filmed with a 360-degree camera, allowing each viewer to engage with the narrative in an individual way.
Although a well respected figure in his own right, Musa points to David J The Vocal Pugilist, as one of the pioneers of the spoken-word scene in London. David J intertwines provocative verses with vocal sound effects, using his body as part of his performance.
Follow The Leaders
Although distinct from each other, these artists demonstrate their determination to break with the current urban artist orthodoxy. They have managed to escape Rap music’s obsession with self-aggrandizement, Gangstas, Bitches and Niggas.
With book deals, sold out gigs, and appearances on TV shows like Jools Holland, these artists have arguably already become the Next Big Thing. This is no doubt due to the fact that they appeal to a broad demographic that includes Rap fans, Hipsters and Radio 4 listeners.
Is one of them likely to become the next Jay Z or Kanye? Unlikely. But they are breathing life into an old medium and pushing things forward. They prove that there’s no need to ‘Watch the Throne’ when there is so much going on in the streets.