A few days ago I was talking to a friend of mine who asked me why Rodney P is considered the first British rapper. This got me thinking. While chronologically that is definitely not the case (with rappers such as Derek B, Family Quest and Richie Rich to name but a few preceding him), there is some merit to that point of view when you consider London Posse.
For those who don’t know London Posse were a group out of South London in the mid 1980’s originally consisting of rappers Rodney P and Bionic, DJ Biznizz and Sipho the Human Beatbox. They were initially thrown together as a support act for former Clash member Mick Jones’ band Big Audio Dynamite for their tour across the US. It was during this tour that they found a captive audience for their sound, a fusion of reggae and hip-hop that paid homage to the reggae sound systems that the members had grown up around in South London. This tour aside, however, their significance to UK hip-hop comes predominantly from the few singles and sole album Gangster Chronicle they released during their brief period together.
By the time they release their seminal album Gangster Chronicle in 1990, the quartet was down to a duo with only Rodney P and Bionic remaining. Nevertheless, it was this album that would set the legacy for London Posse to still be considered legends within UK hip-hop and a highly influential group. This importance, however, stems as much from the lyrics and particularly how they were delivered as it does from the music itself. Alongside Demon Boyz they were one of the first groups to make it cool to spit cockney by rapping in their London accents rather than imitating American rappers. When you think about it now that doesn’t sound like such a big thing, when every British rapper performs in their natural accent and would be derided if they even attempted to put on a fake American accent on record. Back in the 1980’s, however, things were much different. Million Dan, a member of Demon Boyz, looks back at the time, recalling “the scene was full of British rappers who were all trying to sound American, we switched it up and started using our British accents”. This was a time where to imitate was the norm in British hip-hop, where if the music (and accent) didn’t sound like it was from New York it wasn’t authentic and therefore wasn’t hip-hop. Young people were doing their best to make London “look and sound just like the South Bronx” and anything that tried to do something different was not taken seriously, so for London Posse and Demon Boyz to do what they did was rare. By choosing to use a London vernacular and an accent fusing a lyrical combination of patois and cockney, this grounded the music locally and helped reduce the degree of American influence. It also attracted an audience who saw it as their music because it used the same language they spoke at school or on the street and was light-years away from the novelty raps they had previously heard by the likes of Wham! and Adam Ant. This movement from “adoption to adaption”, from imitating what is considered the original form of a style to adapting it to the contexts of the artist and audience being represented, is vital to the development of a music scene in helping those involved find their own voice. It is through this that the audience can relate to what is being said on record. By choosing to speak “their lingo”, rappers acknowledge their history and draw hip-hop towards their own identity and sense of place. By fusing the language of patois and cockney the rappers in London Posse and Demon Boyz negotiate their dual identity while respecting the cultural difference of their background. This inspired a number of rappers to follow suit and helped change the dynamic of the UK hip-hop scene from an imitative art form stuck in the shadow of its American cousin into something with a genuinely different sound. That is some legacy to leave and it’s for that reason that I can see why some people would consider Rodney P to be the first British rapper, he was at least one of the first to rap in a British accent.
Unfortunately London Posse were not able to take advantage of their growing popularity. A series of label issues would lead to their second album being permanently shelved, although many of the tracks were released as singles. This was a common occurrence during the early 1990’s as record labels began to lose interest in hip-hop having initially jumped on the bandwagon after the increasing successes of American rappers. An inability to effectively market British rappers and a continual attitude amongst labels that rap was a fad that would die out meant that many chose to cut their losses and drop acts, moving on to other more profitable styles. This would eventually lead to the demise and break up of many performers in the mid 1990’s including London Posse. As UK hip-hop entered a period known as the doldrums, many rappers chose to go in different directions. For those in London Posse, Bionic would move into jungle and drum and bass, a cardinal sin for many hip-hop heads, taking his rap-reggae hybrid vocals to a new stage where it was more accepted and collaborating with the likes of Stevie Hyper D. Rodney P would choose to stick with hip-hop, appearing on a series of cameos and guest features before finally releasing a much anticipated and highly acclaimed solo debut with The Future in 2004. He is still highly regarded in the UK hip-hop scene and is often even now one of the few British rappers people can name. This shows just how much of a legacy London Posse left and also explains why some people, like my friend, think of him as the first British rapper.
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Desai, J (2008) “Where Does British Hip-Hop Rank on the Global Scale?” The New Black Magazine, 21st March
Gilroy, P (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso
Hutnyk, J (2006) “The Nation Question: Fun-Da-Mental and the Deathening Silence” in D. Basu & S. Lemelle (eds) The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip-Hop and the Globalisation of Black Popular Culture. London: Pluto, p119-136
Stig (2008) “Survival of the Hardest Working: The UK’s King of the Road Breaks Down the Daily Grind”, Hip Hop Connection, issue 226, September, p50