Black History Month - Album Retrospective: 2000s+2010s Hip-Hop+Grime
As #blackhistorymonth continues, our fourth week of exploration dives into the world of British hip-hop and grime, featuring the Black artists that pushed the genre even further into the mainstream in the 2000s and 2010s.
Dizzee Rascal ‘Boy in da Corner’ 2003
Since the genre’s inception in the early 2000’s, Grime has ridden a roller coaster of highs and lows. Though through mainstream music bursts and at times waning popularity, there is much respect given to what is known as one of the first and most important grime albums of all time – Boy In Da Corner. Dylan Mills aka Dizzee Rascal had spent his formative years getting kicked out of various schools, earning him the ‘rascal’ half of his stage name. From here Dizzee spent time as a drum and bass DJ whilst rapping over music in the sound system scene and a member of the Roll Deep Crew. However, it’s his debut album that made the most impact and has stood the test of time, with messages that are just as relevant now as they were over 15 years ago. That album is 2003’s Boy In Da Corner.
The album provides the image of growing up on council estate in East London, something that had not been portrayed by the squeaky-clean pop of the time. In the album opener ‘Sitting Here’ screeching sirens and gunshots can be heard, with sounds of yelling and arguing in ‘Stop Dat’ helping punctuate the sounds of the city. These were simply the observations made by Dizzee with no filter for glamorising or condoning what goes on in the grimey London streets, this was just what a young man on the estate saw. ‘I ain’t garage so get used to it’ exclaims Dizzee in the first single ‘I Luv U’. This intention of removal from the genre was key to the storytelling of the album, as there are more elements of jungle and drum and bass for their low base frequencies. Dizzee has often described Boy In Da Corner as ‘…like mosh music… It’s turn-up music.’, which is fuelled for his love of Nirvana and grunge scene. This sound is successfully replicated to fit in with the current UK rap scene, providing a youthful and visceral sound that would become a staple of grime music for years to come.
Although only peaking at 23 in the UK album charts, Boy In Da Corner was critically acclaimed at the time and picked up the Mercury Prize Award in 2003, marking this the second time a rapper had won the prestigious award. In 2016, Dizzee Rascal performed the album in full for the first time ever in New York and East London at the Copper Box Arena. This relevancy years after the album's first release goes to show how influential and intrinsically rooted in the DNA of grime Dizzee Rascal’s debut album truly is.
Stormzy ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ 2017
Fast-forward to 2014 and London’s Stormzy starts gaining attention on the UK underground music scene, releasing a series of freestyles over classic grime beats under the title ‘Wicked Skengman’. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that the upcoming rapper, singer and songwriter released his debut album, ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’. Born from grime’s commercial resurgence, Gang Sings & Prayer became the first grime album in history to hit Number 1 on the UK Albums Chart. The title is derived from, and juxtaposes, the gang signs of his younger years with the prayers from his and his mother’s Christianity. Thus, the album flows between punchy self-righteousness grime hits and personal R&B declarations of vulnerability. Stormzy has cited grime artists Lethal Bizzle and Bruza, and R&B singers Frank Ocean and Lauryn Hill, as influences for Gang Signs & Prayer, with the album featuring multiple MCs including J Hus, Ghetts and Wretch 32. Gang Signs & Prayer also features gospel, with faith being a central part of Stormzy’s character, presenting the album as a musically diverse body of work with a refreshing sense of contrast.
‘Shut Up’ was never released as an official single, but the importance of this track in Stormzy’s career cannot be overlooked. Originally released as a freestyle on YouTube, Shut Up features the already popular 2004 ‘Functions on the Low’ instrumental by Ruff Sqwad producer XTC. The song humorously looks down on pretenders within the UK underground music scene, and eventually peaked at Number 8 on the UK Singles chart, after gaining popularity over the course of a year. As such, Shut Up was included as the penultimate song on Gang Signs & Prayer, and has now sold over one million copies worldwide. Staying true to grime’s garage and jungle roots, whilst delivering a more mainstream feeling, the album’s lead single ‘Big For Your Boots’, features lyrics aimed at Stormzy’s competition – ‘you’re never too big for the boot’. Big For Your Boots is a classic old-school grime track, playing up the nostalgia of Shut Up. The track peaked at Number 6, becoming Stormzy’s highest-charting single at the time of its release.
For years, grime has been marginalised as ‘gang related’; Stormzy has continually encouraged action around the proportion of black and minority ethnic people in the British criminal justice system and the rise in knife crime in London, through his lyrics and live performances. Linking music and activism through political messages, Stormzy has shown himself to be a multi-dimensional artist. Gang Signs & Prayer is a confidently delivered debut, with every song from the album appearing concurrently in the UK Singles Chart – seven within the Top 40. Now certified Platinum, Stormzy won British Album of the Year at the 2018 BRIT Awards for Gang Sings & Prayer – a feat achieved completely independently of any support from a major label.