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HomeGrown: the story of UK hip-hop

Lynda Moyo goes back to the roots to uncover the rise of UK hip-hop at Urbis

Written by . Published on November 4th 2009.

HomeGrown: the story of UK hip-hop

If you happened to catch the MOBO Awards this year, like me, you may have thought 'is this all we've got to offer?'

Much more than just music, there are rare flyers, old magazines and more personal memorabilia from some of the hundreds of contributors to the exhibition. It's like walking into the ultimate UK hip-hop fan's bedroom.

Chipmunk, N-Dubz and Tinchy Stryder were among the representatives for UK hip-hop thanks to astonishing record sales and top chart positions. Much to my own personal horror, this is what a new generation of fans actually enjoy.

As N-Dubz quite accurately state on their website: 'Remember that boy driving you mad every morning on the No.42? The one playing music on his mobile at full volume? He's listening to our music.'

They represent on some level what many kids talk about, think about, get angry about and – worryingly for some parents – aspire to be.

But whilst it may not be my preference, fundamentally the domination of such acts is in-keeping with the same principles that hip-hop music has always followed. It's a voice and what I take from it is just how much the UK hip-hop industry has achieved.

Urbis's HomeGrown exhibition tells the story of the cool underground movement, the music, the culture, the lifestyle; the DJs, MCs, graffiti artists and b-boys who created today's successes. The UK hip-hop timeline starts in the late Seventies when a lack of representation amongst the black youth in the clubs and charts led to the growth of house parties and sound system culture, fresh from Jamaica. As the disco era of the Seventies faded and pop culture was revolutionised by the likes of punk, the exhibition notes 'the scene was set for hip-hop to land.'

And land it did – with a thud which shook the streets. The exhibition pays homage to underground innovators during this time such as Kings Rule Everywhere (KREW), but notes that it wasn't until former Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren's song 'Buffalo Gals' made it into the top ten, that UK hip-hop was brought to a wider audience in the early Eighties.

It's also important to remember that this was a time when music videos were few and far between. Notably MTV had already decided that black music was 'not rock enough' before eating their words in 1982 with Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'. It was one of the first videos by a black artist to be played regularly on the station and one which would pave the way for future artists.

Back to the UK and what would a UK hip-hop exhibition be without the son of a vicar from Suffolk, known as Mr Tim Westwood. Forget the way he looks, dresses and speaks – the exhibition shows just how influential he has been to UK hip-hop since he arrived on the pirate radio scene, record bag in hand, in 1982.

'He secured a column in Blues & Soul magazine, which became a diary for events up and down the country,' the display tells us. Featured within this events guide was a night called Broken Glass in Manchester. The exhibition, quite rightly, features its host city heavily and many of the exhibits pay homage to pivotal figures such as Broken Glass Street Crew and crew member Benji Reid who continues to represent the culture of hip-hop in Manchester today via hip-hop theatre and his company Breaking Cycles.

There are also copies of the Blues & Soul magazines which promoted such acts, as well as footage of Westwood's early years along with other notable DJs and stations plus a section dedicated solely to Radio 1Xtra. The station was created in light of 'rap taking up a sizable chunk' of the BBC's radio schedule and launched with some of the most influential artists in the UK hip-hop industry including Rodney P and Blak Twang. Hip-hop DJ for the station, DJ Semtex recently commented on the Urbis exhibition, saying: “Ever been to a museum and felt like they don’t represent you or your heritage? This is the total opposite. This is my childhood.”

A lot of people will agree with him and this is down to the vast scope of the exhibition. It covers every area of the country, the development of the music both underground and mainstream, the fashions that coat it, as well as the perceptions and controversy which have surrounded it over the years. Notable features include imagery by photographer Will Scott Robson whose raw, thought-provoking photographs of illegal graffiti artists show a side of hip-hop culture which is normally depicted negatively, if at all.

Another North West acknowledgment goes to Chorley-based crew Krispy made up of well-known Manchester DJ Mickey D.O.N and Mr Wiz. Krispy are described in the exhibition as 'arguably one of the best, and least acknowledged British rap groups of all time.'

There's also a cinema suite which screens a specially commissioned 30 minute documentary on modern urban music and the UK hip-hop roots it grew from, by film-makers Teddy Nygh and James McNally. Whether it's grime or dubstep, UK hip-hop is the common denominator.

To say this exhibition is thorough is an understatement. You could easily spend an hour in there or split your visit over several days – you'll always find something new. Much more than just music, there are rare flyers, old magazines and more personal memorabilia from some of the hundreds of contributors to the exhibition. It's like walking into the ultimate UK hip-hop fan's bedroom.

Follow the musical maze and learn about UK hip-hop's origins: from the early years of b-boy culture and the sound system legacy; the boom years of new talent and major record labels; the club culture which spawned the spin-offs of breakbeat culture such as trip-hop; the renaissance of the new British sound of acts such as Blak Twang, Roots Manuva and Lewis Parker. Last but not least, it showcases the homegrown, emerging stars of today – the Dizzee Rascals, the Wileys, the Sways, the Mercury Award winning Speech Debelles...

The HomeGrown exhibition is an opportunity for old-school hip-hop lovers to reminisce, for no-school Urbis visitors to learn about this all-encompassing culture, and most importantly, for new-school kids to look beyond N-Dubz, who without the aforementioned UK hip-hop pioneers, wouldn't exist.

On my visit, I saw everyone from a group of 15-year-old lads to a well-to-do family of four to a pensioner. They were embracing a culture that came from enclosed beginnings but has now become an open book of diversity. Urbis is giving you the chance to read and be a part of that book.

HomeGrown: the story of UK hip-hop is a free exhibition at Urbis, running until March 2010.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

sproutNovember 4th 2009.

Looking forward to seeing this. Back in about '87 when Derek B sampled the Jacksons' I Want You Back, I thought the UK could finally hold a torch to East Coast America. And things have certainly moved on since then. I sincerely hope Stu Allen's influence isn't brushed over again...

Norman AndersonMarch 2nd 2010.

Hey Lynda read your article and i see you managed to miss crediting all photographers bar one "(Notable features include imagery by photographer Will Scott Robson whose raw, thought-provoking photographs of illegal graffiti artists show a side of hip-hop culture which is normally depicted negatively, if at all.)" that contributed to the 75% photographic exhibition!

Are you still a Journolist???

AgricolaMarch 4th 2010.

Lighten up would you this is an article about the show and hip hop not about photographers. I wonder after this comment whether you're still a reader?

Big WillyMarch 4th 2010.

Maybe she thought the rest of you were pants, Normski

mMarch 9th 2010.

I learnt a lot about Normski from that exhibition. I had no idea he was such an important figure in capturing the Hip Hop culture in photos, both here and in the States. The exhibition in general started a bit slowly. Some of the earlier artists and dancers didn't really seem to have that great of a impact on the scene, but it really came together in the middle sections. The video of the guy rapping in the car and the other fella mixing in his bedroom was great and really charted early talent. The Ruthless Rap Assassins video was also good for local interest and I enjoyed charting my following of the scene against a row of consecutive publications of Hip Hop Connection magazine. I never new that hip hop really started from the dance element and it wasn't until the breakdancing went out of fashion that the MCs could start to move away from constraints of a rythym that was made for moving to. Top stuff. Urbis will be missed.

AnonymousMarch 11th 2010.

Don't be hating on N Dubz yeah

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