Not to say that Drake has moved to rarified level of fame, but the streaming numbers for “One Dance” alone look more like the GDP of a small country. With scale comes power – his co-signs are already partially responsible for breaking the Weeknd, Migos and PartyNextDoor, among others – and he’s certainly utilising it in 2017. His recent project, More Life, is not an album or a mixtape, but a 22-track “playlist” optimised for the streaming service generation. He debuted it on his Beats 1 OVO Sound show and overnight made massive new fan bases for the U.K. acts who guest on the project: Skepta, Giggs, Jorja Smith and Sampha. Drake’s love of U.K. underground music is long-standing, and every time he spreads the love it’s huge for the MCs he namechecks. But will America finally sit up and take grime – arguably Britain’s most vital and experimental form of black music – to its heart.
As his fame has continued to snowball, Drake has consistently helped, featured, referenced, Instagram’d, Tweeted, playlisted, performed with and generally gave props to a litany of U.K. grime & underground hip-hop acts, including Skepta, Wiley, Giggs, Sneakbo and Section Boyz. And with every “@” mention, tattoo or Spotify link, the impact on the artists thrown into the mainstream spotlight is vast. As but one example, in March, thanks to More Life, south London’s Giggs saw a nearly 150 percent increase in U.S. listeners.
On the surface, this isn’t really the most seismic shift: Big act references smaller acts in age of unprecedented instant, on-demand access; smaller act feels the effect. However, there’s more context than meets the Instagram filter.
For decades, black British musicians have been in a fertile, triangular musical dialogue with Jamaica and America. You can follow many threads, but just to pick a few: ska developed in 1960s Jamaica as a response in part to American rhythm & blues. Reggae and Jamaican dancehall, with its hyped lyrical intensity, was part of the cultural upbringing of early grime pioneers. Garage, the soulful cousin of American house music, was adopted in the mid Nineties in London and then was mutated by black Londoners to form a rougher, ruder U.K. variant. Hip-hop too, left its New York roots and left a mark on London as early as the Eighties. Combine all three scenes – Jamaican dancehall, U.K. garage, American hip hop – in the early ’00s, and you have the foundations for the grime Drake is celebrating today.
But the important detail is that the music always moves to the United Kingdom, never from the United Kingdom. It’s not that the U.K.’s black music can’t impact America: see the chilly R&B in the wake of Sade or the dance explosion on the pop charts after Soul II Soul. But within a lyrical hip-hop and grime frame, it has been nearly impossible for U.K. acts to make any kind of dent in the U.S. market. In 2002, U.K. garage vocalist Craig David experienced unexpected racial frictions, as The Guardian reported: “Black executives at urban radio networks in America have advised him that the presence of a white guitarist will hamper his potential for a bigger fanbase. David says he was told an all-black support band would maximise sales among an African-American audience.”
It was symptomatic of a wider issue: The American market had established ideas of identity and U.K. garage/grime MCs with funny accents and white guitarist didn’t fit into it. Thusly, the U.K. major labels had very little ability to sell their local acts. Dizzee Rascal won the U.K.’s prominent Mercury Music Prize in 2003 and had multiple singles crack the U.K. Top 20, but when first went to perform in the U.S. he played hipster/industry shows, like SXSW. Skepta first played NYC in 2006 with Jammer and Plastician to a niche, experimental music crowd, quite different from either U.S. hip-hop’s urban heartland and or the edgy raves like the U.K.’s Sidewinder that had incubated the grime sound. Lady Sovereign ended up going the traditional route of signing to Def Jam, but mainstream success did not emerge there either.
Many of grime’s acts figured the only route to sustained domestic commercial success was watering down their sound with familiar festival- and radio-friendly hooks, spawning pop-leaning singles by Dizzee Rascal (“Bonkers”), Wiley (“Wearing My Rolex”), Tinchy Stryder (“Something About Your Smile”), Lethal Bizzle (“Keys to the Bentley”) and more. Still, save a one-hit fluke for Tinie Tempah (“Written in the Stars”), for the most part, the U.S. still wasn’t interested.
Wiley – arguably grime’s godfather and most influential innovator – told Time Out last year, “I’ll be honest with you – I don’t think Americans like grime. Azealia Banks said what she really thought the other day. I’m not talking about the racist stuff, I mean her saying that ‘grime is garbage’: That’s how they all think. They like grime as a form of entertainment like boxing or the Olympics. But when they hear an English accent MCing, they can’t accept it on the same level they can accept hip-hop.
“[Drake] seems to understand,” he continued. “But every other North American, they appreciate it, but they can’t put our accent before their own. It’s sad and it’s brutal and no one wants to hear me say it, but after all the years I’ve been doing it I’ve finally realised it.”
So on one hand, a seemingly insurmountable hill to climb for Wiley and the rest of grime. On the other, at the pinnacle of said peak, is Drake, surprisingly well-informed about emerging U.K. underground acts and more than happy to share his enthusiasm with his vast, mainstream fanbase. Perhaps, sometime soon, they will meet in the middle; perhaps even Middle America.