My conversation with Jehst developed not into a discussion with a rapper about his art, but an analogy of a cultural movement with a battle-scarred participant. The Guardian-described ‘analogue’ rapper’s latest offering, Billy Green Is Dead, testifies the boundless creative realms of a genre within which the UK has a whole lot to offer.
Independent labels Low Life Records and YNR were amongst the earliest to bring an individual, more representative sound and new avenues for Hip Hop artists in the UK. A glass ceiling might appeared to have descended on the scene’s commercial progress, but mainstream impact was never a part of the agenda. This is a culture that idly strolls in camaraderie away from velvet ropes and all those who inhabit its superficial confines. Besides, the back alley is a much better space to spark one with your mates, anyway.
So when Jehst told me in the one behind The Deaf Institute earlier this year that UK Hip Hop is ‘the same as it’s ever been’, I left with the notion that that was probably – in a comfortingly concrete sense – the very best thing about it. Read on for his epic summary below.
With the way the industry is evolving, is rap looking more attractive as a pursuable career than before?
Definitely, because there’s viable lanes through the internet. As clichéd as it is, it’s just very true- it’s allowed an immediate response. You can start building straight away. You’re not having to go to a record shop and leave like ten copies, but at the same time there’s upsides and downsides because I also think for newer artists there’s a lot more pressure to just constantly churn out content rather than focus on making their Illmatic. If Nas came out today, he would have done like 30 fucking mixtapes before he got to make Illmatic, and Illmatic might not have had the same impact and really meant as much- or certain bars might have not made it that was already on that mixtape or this mixtape.
So it’s best to channel their hunger into one masterpiece?
Yeah, but that’s not a UK thing. That’s just music in general, and Hip Hop in general. I feel we’re at a time where there’s a lot of dope music and some of the best shit that’s ever been made, but not necessarily classic albums because the format has moved towards more disposable formats like the video, the free download single, the free mixtape, the Bandcamp release.
…Stuff they can just put out there for the time being.
Yeah, it doesn’t take nothing away from the actual releases themselves but what it does is create more of a pressure because if an artist is trying to get signed now, rather than tryna get signed so they can make an album, labels are looking at them like ‘Well, you need to go and make five albums and sell ‘em independently so we can judge you and then we might wanna put [you on]’. Say like The Weeknd- he had 2-3 albums before he was signed. And in rap it’s just people doing countless mixtapes- Chance, Curren$y, he’s had crazy mixtapes before he got a label deal. So the model is different. Giggs, if we’re talking the UK, moved however many units on the street.
Is UK Hip Hop – in both a cultural and musical sense – still waiting to claim the spotlight of mainstream attention?
D’you know I honestly think? I think it’s the same as it’s ever been. And I don’t even mean that in a negative way. When I was a kid, it was UK rap that was in the charts, and UK rap that was underground, and people were selling records out of a record bag. It was a big fashion statement item at one point cause people wanted to look like they were carrying records even when they weren’t. Literally people would approach you on the street with a record bag over the shoulder with 20 copies of their EP in it and [approach you] based on how you look. The same way the CD kids do it now. Y’know you got the CD hustlers out on the roads now still. People were doing that with vinyl in the 80s and 90s and it’d be like ‘Yo, peep this shit’.
Even at that time, you had Rebel MC in the Top 10, or Derek B. Later on you even had Manchester’s Ruthless Rap Assassins who were borderline chart level. Stereo MCs. People forget about these guys. Let’s keep it a hundred, Ant and Dec had a rap tune and were in the charts. That was UK rap. That was UK rap. You might not like it, you might not think it’s good. It’s still UK rap. So nowadays it’s the same shit. You got certain people with major label deals where the perception of what UK Hip Hop or UK rap is, is based on those people. And then you’ve got everything else that’s just organically happening and it’s always been happening and it’s always gonna continue to happen. That’s what High Focus comes out of, that’s what Blah Records come out of, that’s what we came out of. That’s what Loyle Carner came out of and has now infiltrated that upper echelon of the industry, where there is a mass market demand for this kind of sound and content.
I don’t think it’s any different than it’s ever been and it could go any way at any time but that won’t necessarily last forever. It’s the same if you look at America. Hip Hop was born out of the U.S. but you could argue that in this day and age the bias is very much towards a certain sound or a certain vibe. So that’s what money’s being pumped into. It doesn’t mean other shit isn’t happening. And then you get people that break through and challenge the stereotype. So you go ‘All the new shit is whack, it’s just about this and about that’ and then someone goes ‘Did you hear the Kendrick album?’, and shut you down, because it’s the highest level of bars. It’s been made to a historical standard. And that’s why the door will always be open, ‘cause someone like a 18-19 year old kid, maybe even younger, can always study that shit and write their own shit to compete with that. Especially now, you’re probably watching battle raps and you can find the high level of lyrical content in different formats.
As much as people complain about mumble rap or whatever, nah, there’s high level shit out there. You can do that, put your own spin on it and all the younger heads say ‘Ah, I relate to that, none of the other guys are saying it like that’. The older heads go ‘Ah, shit, did you hear what that kid said? He’s crazy’. Y’know because you challenge the rules, you break the rules. The younger heads are always gonna break the rules. But the ones that are smart enough the learn from the predecessors are gonna have the higher skillset, the higher the level of musicianship. People say Rakim, Rakim will say Grandmaster Caz or Cold Crush or whatever. It’s a lineage man, trying to deny that has any impact is kinda whack to me. It doesn’t mean that the shit isn’t valid if it doesn’t come from a lineage of being academic or historical about it but you might have been influenced by shit without even knowing because it’s been going on like this.
Rag ’N’ Bone Man, right now, had the fastest selling debut of any male artist for the decade. No. 1 in 30 countries. Regardless of how you categorise the music on that album, that is a guy who is from UK Hip Hop. He’s from our movement. So it’s all a matter of perception. If you look back people don’t class Tricky or Massive Attack or Portishead or any of that shit as Hip Hop but really there’s a big Hip Hop element to what the basis of what that music is. Gorillaz is UK Hip Hop, really. It depends how we define the boundaries of that category.