self released, 2012, DD album, 39m 43s
B.C. Birmingham City. Britain’s second city, and crucible of the world’s first industrial revolution; ask most people in Britain about it though, and they’ll probably think it’s just some Midlands city, and they certainly won’t think of music at the first mention of the name. Unlike Liverpool, Manchester or London, Brum is not associated in the public imagination with any particular act or scene, and it is generally a byword for mediocrity rather than a paragon of cultural excellence. This is a total misconception, and in the field of music Birmingham has particular historical significance, with formal music institutions that possess an international reputation; Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Napalm Death have all re-written metal from this West Midlands base, while some of the brightest stars of the British reggae firmament (most notably Steel Pulse, UB40 and Pato Banton,as well as seminal 2-tone act The Beat) also hail from there. It’s pretty much inevitable that any given style of music will coalesce into a scene in a city of this size, and I’m sure it would be possible to curate a series of compilations to describe the whole gamut of contemporary music from a Brummie perspective, but this one in particular concerns itself with hip-hop.
There are exciting things happening in the hip-hop underground these days… to be honest, the underground is the only part of hip-hop I pay much attention to, having been a fairly casual fan of the music before a series of random connections and happy accidents started a steady stream of high quality independent recordings landing in my inbox for review. Even the underground is only familiar to me in a very partial way, as I’m a committed advocate and practitioner of personal and word-of-mouth cultural discovery, but if pushed to generalise I would say that there is a great deal of creatively and commercially independent work of a very high standard emerging from regional scenes, in often surprising sites of activity, all over the country. There is a diversity of approaches to production, vocal technique and lyrical focus, with some forward-looking, experimental work jostling in friendly competition with solid old-skool values, fans and artists from all backgrounds rubbing shoulders in scenes that are inclusive and supportive, despite the impression their up-front, combative bars might give to outsiders.
One recurring theme is the centrality of geographic identity. You are very rarely in any doubt as to what a given emcee’s hometown might be by the time you’ve heard one of their lyrics in its entirety. I’ve heard proud declarations of allegiance to (taking a random sampling) South Shields, Bristol, various bits of London (unsurprisingly), even Cleethorpes, Lowestoft (Lo-town!) and my own hometown, Cambridge. While there’s obviously a danger of tribalism and cultural essentialism in too closely guarded a notion of locality (and there is a real tension between creative liberty and the demands of hip-hop culture’s emphasis on ‘keeping it real’), the sense of place I pick up on is very rarely anything other than open and hospitable. There are relatively few explicit Birmingham references in any of the tracks on this mixtape, and the tunes are not all of a piece by any means, but there is an identifiable attitude, a specific regional character equivalent to the skittering, scalpel-blade humour of the Tyneside hip-hop with which I’m personally more familiar.
The tunes run a number of gamuts here; the album was mixed by DJ Khan Fu and El Sun Elahi (an alias of rapper Elai Immortal of the extraordinary H.L.I.), and they’ve done a superb job of making a diversity of styles and approaches run together in a single coherent flow. The selection of artists takes in both the underground and the relatively well known, such as RoxXxan and Soweto Kinch (who has a good deal of crossover notoriety as a jazz saxophonist). Some of the production is pretty traditional, clearly hip-hop rather than anything else, and some of it tends more towards grime, or ploughs its own furrow. One element that rings out clearly throughout is the influence of the city’s reggae heritage, which brings a righteous, earthy depth to production and vocals both.
Diversity is definitely a key word here. Most musical genres show a certain bias in their demographic constituencies, be it ethnic, gender based or age related; in hip-hop the tendency is towards people of my age or younger, and a broad ethnic mix, generally reflecting the geographic variations of the areas in which it is made, but one major, gaping absence from the music that gets sent my way (except as backing vocalists), is that of women. It’s good to hear several women’s voices on this album, all spitting with as much swagger and confidence as their male counterparts. I’m not sure why the hip-hop underground seems so male dominated (although other scenes I follow are the same, stoner metal for example boasting very few female players, although plenty of women are fans); maybe I’m just not hearing the women, but I wish someone would send me their sounds to review if that’s the case!
This is compilation of some seriously high quality music. If any proof were needed of Birmingham’s thriving scene (and I don’t see why Birmingham should have to prove itself to anywhere else…), the breadth and depth of skills on display here nails it to the floor. Here are productions that evince an awareness of their own totality as soundworlds, rather than just putting funky rhythms into a well balanced mix, and vocal performances that never retreat to cliché or generic tropes, even when their purpose is no more elevated than a bit of sassy, sexy entertainment. Of course the purpose of this album is not to prove anything to anybody, but to celebrate the power and the glory of the city’s hip-hop culture, which it does with aplomb, and with just the right variety of geographic pride. This is not a record to refer to, a place to learn about a scene or a style, but one to enjoy, preferably at high volume. If it leads you on to investigate some artists that are new to you, then all the better, but it’s a superb, coherent listen in its own right.