From the north west to the Midlands and Wales, here’s a guide to the eclectic and fast-evolving rap scenes around the UK
Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here.
For a country 40 times smaller than the US, the sheer variety and talent within the UK rap scene is staggering. Despite our islands spanning only a few hundred miles, there’s a range of different accents, vocal inflections, slang and sampling. That’s the beauty of the UK rap scene: it’s so eclectic that few places around the world can match it.
Since the popularisation of hip-hop music in the UK around the mid-to-late 1980s, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say a large chunk of the scene’s global attention is directed at London. But exit the M25 and you’ll find some of the most important voices in contemporary British music – whether that’s Midlands talent like Mist, Millionz and Pa Salieu, or the north west weirdo alt-rap roster of Blah Records.
Don’t know where to begin? Below is a guide to get you started – and to pull your ears out of London!
With the sheer amount of amazing music that has left the towns and cities of the north west, the region definitely makes a good case for itself as the second home of UK rap. It’s hard to talk about it without mentioning Lee Scott: hailing from the industrial town of Runcorn, he and his label Blah Records have solidified themselves as Britain’s de-facto boom-bap heroes. Featuring acts like the Manchester-born Black Josh, Blackburn’s Bill Shakes, as well as the supergroup Cult Of The Damned, the label has become known for its psychedelic, East Coast-tinged beats and its outrageous, skunked-out bars.
The north west has also been fertile ground for some of the most cutting-edge hip-hop music coming out of the UK in recent years. Emerging from Manchester’s underground hotspot The White Hotel, Blackhaine is a central figure, alongside fellow northern experimentalists like Rainy Miller and Space Afrika, who are creating a powerful, chaotic and raw amalgamation of sounds that surround them – sitting somewhere between dark ambient, drill, electronica and spoken word.
The region also has heavy hitters floating around the mainstream, like Nemzzz and Meekz, whose collective features list boasts names like Central Cee, Dave and Knucks. Nemzzz first arrived on the scene with the infectious single “Elevate”, showcasing his recognisable Manchester twang and laid-back flow set to the now uber-popular chill drill sound that is currently flooding the sounds of TikTok and beyond. His debut EP NEMZZZ TYPE BEAT flexes his signature playful and introspective sound, as well as his talent for writing a seriously catchy hook. In recent years, masked rapper Meekz has earned himself a seat at the table with global superstars like Cench and Dave, through his gritty, descriptive tales of street life and deep, gruff delivery. His newest album Respect The Come Up showcases his cinematic beat selection, where songs ring like short stories. Not to mention his captivating visuals – in particular, this excellent video for the banger that is “Like Me”.
With its melting pot of cultures, the Midlands is home to a wide range of sounds and styles. The first name that comes to mind is the late grime prodigy Depzman, who was tragically murdered back in 2013, but his influence still lives on across the scene – best highlighted in his SB.TV Warm up Session, which, nearly 11 years later, still stands as a highlight from the series.
In recent years, however, the Midlands has been producing stars in abundance, with some of the most popular and acclaimed UK rappers born and raised in the region. When Pa Salieu of Coventry burst onto the scene with his breakthrough single “Frontline”, he arrived as a singular artist and a breath of fresh air. Often compared to fellow UK innovator J Hus, the former Dazed cover star’s delivery is less melodically-minded, and sonically his instrumental choices are darker, with many tracks owing more to the cold soundscapes of eskibeat. His track “My Family”, a collaboration with Backroad Gee, has cemented its position as a modern classic of UK hip hop, with both artists channelling the energy of ten men into their performances alongside their captivatingly unique deliveries (the video is amazing, too).
But Pa Salieu isn’t the only Midlands rapper with bags of energy and charisma. Trillary Banks, who hails from the city of Leicester, emerged at the end of the 2010s as one of the most exciting artists out there. Her sound floats freely between dancehall, drill and R&B, with her lyrics switching between English and Jamaican patois. Banks’ newest track, “Bruce Lee” is a perfect example of her playful experimentation with these genres – the bouncy percussion-heavy dancehall drum pattern alongside the 808 slides that have become synonymous with drill.
THE SOUTH EAST
It’s not London, OK! Before you all come for me, there are still some amazing artists and labels that exist in the south east of England, outside of London. Essex has been home to one of the most influential and acclaimed rappers to come out of the UK, Potter Payper, who recently released his major label debut Real Back In Style on 0207 Def Jam. Few rappers from the UK have matched Payper’s ability to paint such a vivid picture with their words – from 2013’s “Long Time” to 2020’s “Purpose”, his lyrical flair has kept him at the forefront of the British rap scene for a decade.
Further down the south coast is Brighton, a city not immediately associated with hip hop, but which has been vital to the UK’s boom-bap scene. One of the key engines has been High-Focus Records, one of the most prominent out-and-out hip hop labels in the UK. Having kept output regular and consistent since 2010, the label has built up a cult following of head-bopping hip hop purists and gifted the rest of the world with understated classics like Coop’s “That Jazz”.
For the past few years, Wales has been home to a burgeoning wave of rappers that are commanding the attention of the rest of the UK. Cardiff, in particular, has been a rap hotbed, producing a plethora of artists such as Juice Menace, who hails from the capital, and has emerged as one of the talents spearheading the blossoming scene with tracks like “Pink Notes” and “FUPTHECLUB”. What always shines through is her ability to flow comfortably over whichever beat she chooses, as well as her razor-sharp pen game.