The UK rap scene is poorly documented. While the XXL’s and Complex’s of the world invest efforts into covering their grassroots, the history of the UK scene is left to be discovered through the convoluted wormhole of YouTube. For a scene still in its infancy, such essential history should not be fading to dust.
Before the newfound era of number one albums and drill ascendancy came a period that laid the foundation of UK rap; names that are remembered by the knowledgeable few, but are not given their flowers on a mass scale. This is an era that went through the troubles of attempting a career during an underdeveloped scene, missing out on the commercial success its rappers see today but still rapped for the love of the art.
During the 90s and early 2000s, hip hop was finding its way to Britain, adopting the boom bap sound that was growing at the same time in the States. What came next was gangsta rap, the subgenre that was to revolutionise UK rap forever. From approximately 2006–12, London street crews gravitated to this music due to relatability to their environments. These six years were the bridge between underground boom bap and the commercially thriving scene we have today.
Though far from a full picture of its pioneers, these are the key figures that contributed heavily to this iconic yet forgotten era for UK rap.
At the helm of the 2000s class is Joe Black, one of the many pioneers highlighted here that hail from North London. Fondly titled the King of Islington, Joe Black put in the groundwork to colonise the underground road rap scene before the likes of Giggs and Blade Brown hit the streets. Blacks began his career as a local figure, eventually spreading his music around London during the early 2010s.
Joe Black made his debut in 2004 with the mixtape Pedal Bike Diaries, rapping over famous American beats by Jadakiss, Nas and Jay Z. His name continued to grow through 2007’s classic mixtape, Business As Usual, Certified and King of the Underground, before making his biggest statement with the 2011 mixtape Realionaire. The emergence of MySpace considerably contributed to the growth of Joe Black’s fanbase during prison stints. Soon, Joe Black teamed up with local producer Westy, who went on to consistently produce classics of the Islington rapper.
Projects like these defined the UK mixtape era; street individuals attempting to change their lives by turning to rap. Joe Black was unaware of the impact he was making, particularly during a time when the UK hip hop scene was significantly undeveloped. Rap was not profitable during Joe Black’s reign, yet the passion and love for the art is what put his name in the history books.
The rapper’s discography is a scattered one, and is difficult to piece together to gain a complete picture – indicative of the disorganisation of this era. Songs like “Usual Suspects”, “Next Up”, and his iconic Behind Barz collection are just a drop of the moments that led to North London becoming a cultural powerhouse. More than everything, Joe Black was a man of the people, championing fellow rappers around him and going on to create branching legacies with them.
Joe Black may not be a name mentioned within commercial rap. But his catalogue of pure, unfiltered road rap runs deep, and is adored by those familiar.
Across town is another underground veteran, Benny Banks. Emerging around 2010, Benny Banks could not be coming up at a better time. His Fire in the Booth and SB.TV Warm Up Session quickly gained him a following, with UK listeners relating to the transparency in his personal bars. Banks capitalised with the release of his 2011 mixtape, Patiently Waiting, Vol. 1, followed by Vol. 2 in 2012.
Just like Joe Black, Benny Banks found a way to articulate the reality of the roads, pioneering what is commonly (though poorly) known as ‘pain rap’ or ‘real rap’. Together, the duo found natural chemistry and went on to collaborate regularly, releasing a collaborative mixtape in 2017 titled BNB to bring their journey full circle.
Benny Banks released his debut commercial single, “Bada Bing”, in 2012. It went on to land a placement on the Fast & Furious 6 movie soundtrack, despite being a song Banks would go on to denounce. Regardless, “Bada Bing” showed the rapper’s crossover appeal and natural ability to rap on whatever beat thrown at him. Banks also was one of the earliest rappers to collaborate with an American rapper, featuring on the remix to Mac Miller’s “Loud” the same year. It is small forgotten details like these that bury Banks’ legacy as a pioneer in the UK rap scene.
It was the laidback flow and clean bar structure that attracted rap fans. Benny Banks did not complicate his art, he kept the focus on the raps and made sure his words were heard.
Banks’ output slowed down towards the latter end of the decade, which is why the younger generation of UK rap listeners are not familiar with him. It also doesn’t help that his mixtapes are not available on streaming. However, Benny Banks’ presence still remains and represents yet another diamond in the rough of the UK rap scene.
Perhaps the most forgotten icon of this era is Squeeks, a true underground veteran. Squeeks helped build the bricks for UK trap music, beginning his career just when the trap scene was beginning to boom over in Atlanta. Squeeks impressed listeners with his unique flow, likeable charisma and infectious ad-libs (“Squeeeeeks”). The discography runs deep, including mixtapes such as Welcome to the Neighbourhood, Call Me Squeeko, Totally Presidential, Presidental Musiq and The White House.
Squeeks was also a third of the unofficial Islington trio alongside Joe Black and Benny Banks. The three put together were the UK equivalent of Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch, proving the authenticity of their grit track by track. This was at a time when crews were at an all-time high, beginning with the likes of PDC and Mashtown. Fast forward to present day and groups such as 67 and OFB are thriving in their lanes.
Squeeks broke through with “Big Squeeko”, a remix of Nipsey Hussle’s “Rose Clique” that is now a cult classic. What Squeeks showed on the remix is exactly how to flip a song and make it your own. The hook, the flow, the low-budget music video, all contribute to its legacy, showing Squeeks was able to be more than just a rapper with no hooks.
What the best aspect of this era was the way how produced flipped unexpected samples. Squeeks honed this trait, sampling the likes of Ellie Goulding and The Weeknd on songs such as “Lights” and “Going Crazy”. Samples have evolved since then, but nothing quite matches the raw production of this generation.
At the time of writing this article, Squeeks is serving a prison sentence since 2015. If not for this, Squeeks would still be thriving in the UK rap scene.
“Check my lifestyle, this little white child” is an opening line every Fire in the Booth lover is familiar with. It comes courtesy of Stonebridge’s K Koke, whose 18 million views speaks for itself. K Koke emerged at the frontier of the 2010s, carrying the torch for gangsta rap that defined the 2000s. Koke’s grit was rarely heard before in the scene, defined by his strict enunciation and slow but aggressive flow, stressing every other word in his bars.
The 2009 diss track “Are You Alone” was his breakthrough moment, putting K Koke and Stonebridge on the map. This was a rapper displaying a new level of ruthlessness, confident in his ability as well as his street credibility. Koke kept the momentum going with his 2010 debut mixtape, Pure Koke, Vol. 1, followed by Vol. 2 in 2011. The tapes have gone on to become cult classics and etch K Koke’s name in the street rap bricks and mortar.
Just like Benny Banks, K Koke was one of the chosen few rappers of this era to tease with the idea of a commercial career. In 2011, Koke was signed by Jay Z’s Roc Nation and RCA Records – a monumental moment for UK hip hop bridging the gap with American connections. This period spawned the singles “Turn Back” and “Lay Down Your Weapons”, the latter which peaked at number 18 on the UK Singles Chart. However, legal issues would go on to affect Koke’s ascension, subsequently being dropped from the label.
This is a prime example of how record labels were looking to experiment with promising UK rappers, but could not extract them from the troubles of the streets. It was demotivating for Koke, who’s output lessened in the latter half of the decade. A return was made in 2017 with Pure Koke, Vol. 4, though the debut album I Ain’t Perfect was ultimately shelved.
Throughout the ups and downs of his career, K Koke can still brag two classic mixtapes, one of the best Fire in the Booths and a cult following that will always remember his striking tales of London life.
Unlike anyone mentioned so far, there is no rapper that has disappeared quite like English Frank. Known for his madman personality, the rapper was likened to DMX and became a cult figure that spawned the earliest form of UK rap memes. In a matter of a couple years, English Frank stormed the scene with dizzying dexterity in his rhymes and the most aggressive flow and delivery the nation had ever seen.
What grabs ears was his iconic SB.TV Warm Up Session. Sitting at 5 million views, the bars were nonsensically brilliant, teetering on the edge of downright psychotic (“Bad-a-man get battered up and battered with my hand / Body parts buried in the belly of my lamb / Boy better know I’ll bury anybody in your clan”).
But this outlandish character was balanced with a conscious analysis of the streets. Songs like “100 Bars of Truth”, “Dance with the Devil”, “In a Minute”, “Music’s My Sister” and “Pain” brought emotion to the street rap genre, analysing the situation rather than glamourising it. His only two projects, Frankenstein and Listen to Frank, were released in 2014, yet their underground classic status speaks for the MC’s quality over quantity attitude.
Since 2015, English Frank has disappeared from the internet music scene. All social media accounts are deactivated, and he has not released a song on his channel since 2014’s “Goodbye” (a calculated move by the looks of it). It appears he has put the pen down for good to live a regular life. However, his exit has left a massive void in the scene for rappers with powerful personalities.
An anomaly of the era is Lowkey, who has always moved as a lone wolf. Lowkey takes a sociopolitical approach to his music, becoming fondly known as the ‘UK Lupe Fiasco’. Lowkey’s career dates back to 2003, releasing the first volume in his Key to the Game series at the age of 17. Throughout his lengthy career, Lowkey has established himself as an elite wordsmith with a message. Complex rhyme schemes are matched with resilient flows and mature production, a formula that has amassed his cult following.
His political subject matter has meant his music has not been invited into mainstream conversations. It has also turned off the casual listener, or UK listeners that limit themselves to the aforementioned street rap. But to the hip hop purist, Lowkey is remembered. His 2008 debut album, Dear Listener, was a taster of what the lyricist was capable of. It led the path for 2011’s Soundtrack to the Struggle, an overlooked classic that showcases the highest form of artistry out the UK rap scene.
Songs such as “Alphabet Assassin”, “Who Said I Can’t Do Grime” and his iconic Fire in the Booth testify to Lowkey’s pen, setting the bar of lyricism to a level only Wretch 32, Devlin and Akala can match. “Obama Nation” and “Long Live Palestine” are the greatest examples of Lowkey fighting against the oppressive forces of a corrupt world. “Dreamers” and “Haunted” exhibit the moments where Lowkey can switch up his subject matter and create songs in a vain never heard by another UK rapper. It all sums to a versatile artist who is more than a so-called preacher.
From 2012 to 2016, Lowkey took a hiatus from music to focus on his personal life, completing a masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as qualifying as an English teacher and personal trainer. The sequel to his classic Soundtrack to the Struggle was released in 2019, continuing to build on his overlooked legacy.
He may not be mentioned within commercial realms, but in the hands of the UK purist Lowkey will never be forgotten.
Rappers like these are just the tip of the iceberg. The history of UK rap runs deep, and with meditated documentation these artists and their legacies will live on for generations.
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