By Richard Wink
September 16, 2013
I was at work chatting to the CCTV operator about music one dull Sunday shift a couple of months ago. The operator’s tastes tended to be more on the metallic and thrashy side, and we mused about the merits of Dio-era Black Sabbath. Our conversation was interrupted by a startling sight as, when flicking through the cameras, he came across a gaggle of lads huddled in a dishevelled Sports branded half circle. This was in the underground car park of Chapelfield Shopping Centre, near the collect-by-car spaces. One of the fresh faced youths, clad in low hanging jeans and a triple XL t-shirt which looked like a tent over his slight frame, was recording whatever was happening on his iPhone. When the operator zoomed in closer these lads were recording what appeared to be a music video. Even in silence you could sense the rhymes emanating from the lips of an aspiring MC, as his fingers moved to a beat we could not hear. It was oddly hypnotic.
This is Norwich, not New York. Can we believe that an MC from Bowthorpe can emerge like Grime did from Bow?
As the spectre of Partridge continues to loom over our fine city, culturally we are unfairly considered to be a laughing stock — the butt of a long running series of incest jokes. Hip hop crosses borders and boundaries, it doesn’t discriminate; it creates opportunities from nowhere. Norwich for most aspiring MCs is most certainly nowhere.
The magnifying glass focussed briefly on Norwich a few years ago when the lesser known Tinchy Stryder signed up with a pair of ambitious young city based college drop outs called Archie Lamb and Jack Foster, who were running their own label. Tinchy’s career trajectory took off with number one singles like ‘Never Leave You’ and the appropriately named N-Dubz featuring ‘Number 1’. The trio then got signed under Jay Z’s Roc Nation banner in 2010 on the back of Stryder’s chart success and the ‘Star in the Hood’ clothing range. Since then things have slowed down a little. Career-wise, one hopes Stryder doesn’t go the same way as Lady Sovereign did when she sold her soul to Jigga and the Illuminati, but judging by Stryder’s inactivity over the last twelve months the signs aren’t all that encouraging. The one problem was that the limelight which shone over Norwich quickly faded. There was no particular reason to be excited, other than that the Evening News and EDP tend to cover any Norwich-based success story with the kind of desperate glee that suggests that there won’t be many more good times and we must therefore savour each and every one when they sporadically occur. Aside from Lamb and Foster there wasn’t local talent involved creatively, and so nobody else got the golden rub through association.
Let’s cycle back to the mid-noughties: most kids in small cities around the country were sat on their sofas watching Channel U (now known as Channel AKA). They saw young kids up and down the country making videos, and they thought “Man, I could do that”. Technology improved in the following years, becoming cheaper and more accessible; videos were recorded on phones, sounds recorded on laptops. Then YouTube became a viable option in terms of getting your music out into the big wide world. A few drags and clicks and the world becomes your oyster. You make your music accessible, take it to the audience. Stick it on a plate, and carve it up for the thousands. Sometimes you get lucky and the right people with the right contacts will notice you. Careers can happen, if you dream big and hustle hard.
But there are social media perils for the aspiring MC. It is worth remembering that Krept and Konan somehow got five million hits for their freestyle over Jay Z and Kanye’s ‘Otis’ that they uploaded to YouTube, only for the video to be shut down and the views they accumulated evaporated. Almost everything was lost. In theory, you’ve got to keep the people coming back and give em’ more content, make the virus contagious: the numbers for their latest tracks on their ‘Play Dirty’ channel have fluctuated dramatically.
For University of East Anglia student Context, a sudden YouTube hit explosion and association with puffy faced troubadour Ed Sheeran led to exposure on MTV back in 2011, and more recently he’s worked with the genius that is Mike Skinner. His matter-of-fact, bleak everyman tales of mundane modern existence on a bed of spruced up garage beats are easy on the ear and have caught the attention of BBC Radio 1xtra. Context made a conscious effort to reflect his vision of the city in his breakthrough video for ‘Small Town Lad Sentiments’, with Norwich Cathedral looming resplendently in the distance.
Representing is difficult. It’s become a trope in hip hop over the years that your social background has to be tough to make you legit. Your rhymes have to reminisce about local stabbings, petty crime and moral decay. Norwich, by and large, is a nice place. The crime rate isn’t high. Sure, there’s an underbelly — a troublesome heroin problem and Friday nights on the Prince of Wales Road are a little wild — but it shouldn’t lead an MC to exaggerate. Write about what you see, be honest. We are not expecting country rappers from Aylsham to make videos resembling that Yeo Valley advert, but we are expecting a certain kind of truth from the tales spat.
It’s a struggle to get heard, especially at the beginning, and Norwich MC Opposite went out in Norfolk’s green and pleasant lands to shoot his video ‘Until The End’, the hint of a Norfolk twang coming across nicely when he’s in full flow. The track underlines the desire of the hungry MC, attempting to forge his own path in the rap game. If you want a contemporary comparison then you might throw up the name of Professor Green. Opposite’s sensitivity perhaps puts him in the vanilla envelope, but it makes a pleasant change to see a thoughtful MC not conforming to typical lyrical themes, particularly in tracks like ‘Until The End‘.
Wilstar has got this strained Wretch 32 thing going on, smartly turned out and rocking the Beats headphones. He talks quite a bit about the haters on his tracks, and I suppse that’s the thing an MC from Norwich has to deal with: they’re just not taken seriously, as a lot of flak tends to come your way when you say that you’re from Norwich. Therefore one must be bulletproof, and ready for the struggle. Wilstar is hitting out already (perhaps a tad prematurely), and his videos are smoothly put together, taking place in Norwich’s grimmest areas, like the tower blocks near Vauxhall Steet and the Ballardian mess that is Anglia Square’s car park. If a hip hop scene is to germinate from his self-created Star Studio Productions then it strikes me that he might become more of a Diddy type, who’ll orchestrate more potent MC’s, and give them the leg up with his smart business sense and slick production value.
The emergence of a scene really starts when YouTube channels like Wattz’s ‘Make It Happen TV’ attempt to help out fellow MCs. Producing crudely made videos, rapid rhymes over tinny background beats emanating from a second hand handset, the approach is DIY in the extreme, but these cats are utilizing the tools at their disposal. Opportunities are scant, and they could be working a dead end office job in Aviva or wasting their days hanging around outside The Forum with the freaks and skaters, watching the world go by; instead they’re trying to make something happen out of nothing, trying to escape from nowhere. There are encouraging signs from ElSkin, one of the artists featured on ‘Make It Happen TV’. Elskin’s track ‘HomeTown’ (the hook is taken from Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’) talks about growing up in Norwich, and the video features night time city shots interspersed with footage from his trip to Gambia. Cleverly edited by the King’s Lynn-based video and photography company Tembo Studios, a young MC is given a platform on which to flourish by social media.
There’s genuine hope in the air. Hope that Norwich, so long suffocated by the twang of art school indie bands, might be the place where new voices can emerge. Though there are cracks in the concrete and the voices are disjointed, something is finally happening in nowhere.