Music has always been a great way to bring people together. This Black History Month, I wanted to take a whistle-stop tour through 20 years of black British music.
The dance scene of the 90s morphed from acid house to the Ministry of Sound-inspired house genre (with the inimitable sound of MC Creed), which reached its perfect form in the garage movement of the late 90s. Pioneer DJs like DJ EZ and Karl “Tuff Enough” Brown, combined with groups like Dreem Team, 187 Lockdown and Heartless Crew, to elevate the scene into the national consciousness. A month before the new millennium came in, Southampton became the centre of the music world. “Rewind” by garage group Artful Dodger, featuring a fresh-faced Craig David, dominated the radio waves. It reached number two in the charts, signalling the commercial crossover appeal of the genre.
Over the following year, iconic tracks ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’ by Shanks and Bigfoot, ‘Boo’ by Ms Dynamite, ‘Do You Really Like It’ by DJ Luck and MC Neat and ‘Battle’ by Wookie cemented this exciting new British sound. Its commercial peak arguably arrived on 6 August 2001, when the group So Solid Crew released ‘21 Seconds’. The song was a global smash hit. It was as quintessentially British as strawberries and cream or Indian food. This peak was followed by a crash. The violence in their lyrics began to be reenacted at club nights and live events, which forced venues to stop booking these artists and record companies stopped signing them.
It was at this low ebb that Richard Kylea Cowie Jr, AKA Wiley, was crafting and perfecting his style. First coming to prominence with ‘Pay As You Go’, the underground legend from East London was working on a new sound. His underground smash ‘Eskimo 2 (Devils Mix)’ was the precursor for 2004’s hit, ‘Wot U Call It’. As he said on the track, “Garage? I don’t care about garage.” Eventually, we would call this new sound grime. Wiley was bestowed with an MBE and, more importantly, the title of “Godfather of Grime”.
Alongside Wiley, Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy in da Corner’ gained critical acclaim, won the Mercury Prize Award and challenged musical norms. There had never been a single that sounded like ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’. Unlike the So Solid Crew MCs, who cited American hip-hop as inspiration, Dizzee’s sound was unapologetically East London. In this way, artists like him and Mike Skinner of The Streets (‘Original Pirate Material’ will forever be close to my heart) were pioneers of a sound that was unique, distinctly and proudly black and British.
The success of these artists can be seen at any show by Stormzy, Wretch 32 and many other artists that emerged out of the scene. Fans of every race pack out their concerts and show that music is a great way of bringing people together.
Image: Александр Неплохов