London’s new cool: how UK Afrobeats could take over the world
Over the decades, the sound of young London has long had a reach far beyond its narrow demographics. Take the punk scene of the late 1970s to dance styles uniquely associated with the British capital such as UK garage, and more recently, the once-niche grime scene that has produced international stars like Dizzee Rascal and Skepta.
It’s long been said of the evolving styles of British dance and rap music that there is a thrilling moment of white-hot fluid creativity, when a new genre is still being forged, before its formal tropes and habits have cooled and hardened, and it remains unnamed. Observers have called this “the wot do u call it? moment”, named after the 2004 Wiley song of the same name, in which the legendary MC broke down the emerging genre that would become grime: “What do you call it, ‘garage’? ... Listen to this, it don’t sound like garage”.
In the past year, we seem to have entered another moment like this, as the international pathways of pop and rap converge on the ears of a new generation of young Londoners.
The music combines elements of thriving Ghanaian and Nigerian “Afrobeats”, Jamaican dancehall and different United States rap styles, including southern “trap” and the newer, nihilistic (and onomatopoeic) Chicago “drill” sound. What do they call it? Well, no one can quite agree: Austin Daboh, hired from the BBC black music station 1Xtra to develop Spotify’s playlists calls it “Afro-bashment” – a bashment being a type of Jamaican reggae-dancehall. Others go with “Afro-trap”, or simply “UK Afrobeats”.
The African influence marks a significant shift in the black British diaspora: for decades, black British music was dominated by the sounds imported by post-war migrants from the Caribbean, who came to the UK for work; heavily influenced by Jamaican ska and calypso, and various iterations of reggae – and leading to British-born styles like lovers rock in the 1970s, and later jungle, garage and grime.
Over the decades, changes in migration patterns gradually came to create an African majority in Britain’s black diaspora, and now, second or third-generation migrants in big cities like London and Manchester are emphasising their roots, just like those with a Caribbean background did.
The first big star from this as-yet-unnamed scene, 21-year-old J Hus, released his debut album Common Sense last month, to considerable acclaim. It entered the British charts in the top 10. Appearing on the cover of US rap magazine The Fader recently, he talked about a childhood full of “African parties – all African music, all night long” with his Gambia-born mother. It’s certainly something you can hear on the album, thanks to bits of slang and occasional inflections in J Hus’s otherwise very London-sounding accent, but most of all in the production, courtesy of increasingly influential young producer Jae5.
Like J Hus, Jae5 was born in London, but his African roots resulted in a move to Ghana between the age of 10 and 13, and with little else to do but play football, he started playing around with PC music software Fruity Loops – channelling the UK garage he had heard as a child in London, the US rap music his brother loved and the Ghanaian “hiplife” his mum listened to.
As if to complete this network of 21st century black diasporan influences, Jae5 described his formative musical moment. This was when he saw Jamaican dancehall legend Shaggy in a stadium in Ghana at the age of 12: “I think that might have confirmed for me that I wanted to do music. It was huge.”
The partnership of J Hus and Jae5 has created an hour or so of some of the most gloriously fun, frequently danceable new music to come out of the UK in years – which somehow manages to draw on all of those influences without rendering them an incoherent mess. The effervescent contemporary style of Jae5’s beats, in particular, draws on some of the most exciting music coming out of West Africa in recent years but develops it in new directions.
Lead single Did You See is irresistibly cool, thanks to both Hus’s smirking charisma and Jae5’s artificially-enhanced finger-clicks. The funky Bouff Daddy and pure G-funk swagger of title track Common Sense are other standouts. But the whole album is impressive – this is an artist who can rhyme “tilapia” with “mafia” and still sound effortlessly cool.
While the thriving platforms of Web 2.0, smartphones and faster broadband have encouraged the collision of the cross-continental sounds that feed into Common Sense, they are also helping a new generation of artists cultivate substantial fanbases without needing support or approval from the established music industry and their gatekeepers.
Prior to his debut album, J Hus’s 2015 mixtape, The 15th Day, wasn’t played on commercial radio, or distributed via iTunes, Spotify or other official download and streaming services.
His breakthrough underground hit from that mixtape, Dem Boy Paigon, has more than 7.5 million views on YouTube but no music video, just a static image. It could be heard playing from mobile phones, cars and house parties throughout 2015 in London; passed around for free as an mp3, creating a huge buzz but no income for the rapper (something he is likely to have made up for now).
Indeed the young artists set to soon follow in J Hus’s wake are making music which is hosted and consumed almost entirely via YouTube, fascinatingly – much like the Chicago drill rap which influences some of them. And using this direct artist-to-fan platform, crews like Belly Squad, Harlem Spartans and 67, and solo artists like MoStack, Abra Cadabra and Mist are mostly still unsigned, without PR teams or record label backing, but are regularly getting two million views or more for each of their new tracks.
It seems safe to assume this fanbase is comprised largely of teenagers who don’t buy music and don’t sign up for subscription streaming sites like Spotify. The industry can only follow their success and try to lure them into more traditional deals for album releases. Whatever this hybrid genre might end up being called, it seems to be thriving precisely because it’s being allowed the space to breathe and do things on its own terms.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review who also writes for The Guardian, London Review of Books, Vice and The New York Times.
Updated: June 6, 2017 04:00 AM