Read:Response: (to) Omar Shahid on Lowkey, Logic, Immortal Technique, English Frank, Mic Righteous
By Ringo P
OK, it’s prejudice, but at least I’m being honest here. It’s difficult for me to read any article on British hip-hop in The Guardian without hiding my face in my hands, peeking out through the gaps in my fingers trying desperately to minimise the cringe factor. I guess that’s what a few people must feel like visiting Ringometry [Ringo P’s blog – Ed], making huge assumptions about both the critic and the nature of the music. Rappers are working class. Critics are middle class. They don’t understand each other. They can’t understand each other. Any attempt at understanding must be fraught with embarrassment. And so face meets palm, words are absorbed through a gauze of mistrust, and before ya know it there’s a heap of crap to wade through before you even get to hearing what I think of Lowkey and The Guardian’s take on a new wave of political British hip-hop MCs.
Pause. Deep breath. Look the other way? Nah, where’s the point in that. If you’re going to ignore something at least work out why first. Make some notes.
The Guardian’s piece is by Omar Shahid. He’s the political editor of Live Magazine. It bills itself as “The Voice Of Youth”, perhaps explaining why a crotchety old fool like me hasn’t heard of it ’till now. There are three other articles by him on The Guardian’s website, one on whether Grime is poetry, one on Islamic singer Maher Zain and one as part of a panel on Ed Milliband’s approach to youth unemployment. I’m not massively interested in the latter two, but a quick skim through the Grime piece suggests Devlin, Wretch 32, JME, Ghetts are in his frame of reference. OK, we’ve got some common ground.
On to the article. The first line I have a problem with comes early, in the first paragraph. He’s talking about Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne album, one of my favourites from the last year. He says it “epitomised the glut and profligacy in modern-day hip-hop” and quotes a couple of lyrics to back up his argument. I’ve seen similar arguments made about that album before, and they bother me. Watch The Throne has many layers to it. Jay-Z and Kanye are very different emcees, coming from different places geographically and financially. Take one of the songs Shahid quotes, ‘Niggas In Paris’. He picks up on the line “What’s 50 grand to a muthafucker like me” but conveniently ignores what for me is the key moment, when Jay challenges the listener to express disapproval by reminding us where he’s come from, “If you escaped what I escaped you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too”. There’s a lot more to that album than big balling, any reading that tries to reduce it to that is lazy and discredits the writer making it.
The next seven paragraphs offer up a potted history of political rap from Public Enemy to Immortal Technique, embarrassingly referring to Immortal Technique as a “young act”. Yeah, right. In the same way I’m a juvenile writer. Still, a few good points are made, including the crucial qualifier, “It is hard to pin down exactly what many of these hip-hop artists are calling for”. Life is confusing. Amen.
Finally we get to the headline material with nine paragraphs on this alleged “rise in conscious hip-hop” that’s been sweeping the UK. As evidence for this, first Shahid cites another Guardian piece, Dan Hancox’s article from last year on how Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow’ had been adopted as an unofficial anthem for the student protests. Then he says something else that bothers me. He introduces Lowkey by saying he’s “arguably the biggest name on the UK hip-hop underground scene” and I’m staggered. Really? I’m sceptical. I can’t say for certain Shahid is wrong here, except in the implication there is a single UK hip-hop underground scene. As an outsider who flits between scenes as the mood takes me it feels like UK hip-hop is fragmented, tribal. If you could find some foolproof way of measuring bigness in such fluid territory maybe Lowkey qualifies as the biggest fish. But the evidence cited, four million combined YouTube views over two videos and a Number One album in the iTunes specialist chart seems flimsy when ‘Niggas In Paris’ has 13 million views, Professor Green’s ‘Jungle’ gets over 10 million and Jessie J managed nearly 200 million for the anti-capitalist anthem ‘Price Tag’.
There’s a brief interview with Lowkey where he explains how the mainstream media is scared to tackle him cos they’re too matey with the ‘war industry’. He may have a point here. I wouldn’t put anything past the type of ambitious breadheads that tend to succeed in our capitalist paradise. On the other hand, the mainstream may be reluctant to cover him because, like me, they tend to find his music sanctimonious and boring. I’m an old school Public Enemy fan, I’m well up for some hardcore socialist rap. But it has to work musically, it has to rouse me when I’m in a funk, propel me through the day.
The final stretch of Shahid’s piece attempts to lump in a bunch of other rappers with Lowkey to make a scene. English Frank gets a namedrop, Mic Righteous asserts, “People are moving on from all this junk that other rappers are talking” and Logic gets the last word saying, “It’s the conscious era. We are the voice for society. People are changing.” I’m not convinced. All three of those names are more of an unknown quantity for me. I’m not sure I’ve even heard this guy Logic, although I guess I probably have on some posse cuts at some point over the years. Mic Righteous and English Frank are way more interesting, both emcees I’ve listened to a bit and would like to read more about. It seems a shame he had to struggle through a bunch of half-arsed context to offer up a meager portion of something potentially more substantial. Cringeworthy? Certainly the attempt to pass off Immortal Technique and Lowkey as hip young things seems misguided. It doesn’t necessarily mean Shahid’s main argument is entirely without merit. It’s just, on this evidence, it’s not proven either.