Posted by: pascoesabido | September 20, 2008

Birmingham Beats – A Healthy Hip-Hop Scene

Published in Volume Magazine (Birmingham Edition Summer ’08) Words: Pascoe Sabido [Online Version Available]

Wild Child Bambino

Birmingham’s hip-hop scene is only now emerging from its underground obscurity. Previously confined to people’s bedrooms and little-known clandestine locations, the past year has witnessed it flourish, supported and encouraged by dedicated venues and talented artists such as Bambino, an emcee who has pushed the scene both at home and abroad. Prevailing attitudes amongst those involved have changed, and the individualism of the underground years has been replaced by a desire to succeed as a collective. The new style associated with Birmingham’s brand of hip-hop also denotes a change in direction; whilst other popular music converges on electronica, the West Midlands’ hip-hop maestros are instead returning to the roots of the art-form: classic beats and intelligent relevant lyrics rather than the violence and provocation rife in the grime scene and the US. Bambino, or Bamz as he is more commonly known, is not complacent; he realises how far Birmingham has to go if it is to become truly established on a national and even international stage. There are still elements damaging it from the inside, but if the good progress achieved so far is used as a platform, Bambino’s dream could come true: “Listening to the radio I would love to hear one Brum artist followed by another, not because it’s a specialist show but because people are taking notice”.

Moorish Delta 7 open the flood-gates for the West Midlands ten years ago, but since Malik, Cipher, and Jawar gained critical acclaim for their EP ‘Taking Four Wicked Heads’, their focus has shifted to nurturing new talent. “You can’t even mention Birmingham hip-hop without talking about Moorish Delta 7” exclaims Bamz. Now only Malik is still going with a solo career, but 7 Entertainment, along with labels such as Playaz Cliq Recordings, have allowed Brummy artists to stop looking to London for a record deal.

Whilst record labels play an important role, it is the live performance that establishes the physical scene whilst provoking the accompanying emotion. In Britain’s second city, live performances are doing just that: Birmingham’s up and coming artists are being given a stage at nights such as the Scratch Club, the Jump Off Birmingham (new this July), and Secret Wars. DJs Sammy B-side, Malicious, and DJ Cro ensure the crowd keep moving as well as bringing new artists deserved exposure through white labels and dubplates. At the open mike competitions, emcees are allowed to “show their worth”, while beatboxers, b-boys and b-girls – as well as live art at Secret Wars – provide the substance behind the music: the four elements of hip-hop under one roof (DJing, emceeing, break dancing, and graffiti). Emcees such as the Inspektah, Solo Cypher, Sonny Jim, and Bambino regularly do battle, challenging for lyrical superiority to the delight of the crowds. Any newcomer with a bit of swagger is always welcome – but make sure you don’t choke. Events like Drop Beats not Bombs have also helped to raise hip-hop’s profile and bring it to a wider audience, while the emergence of new nights such as Jump Off Birmingham highlights a trend set to continue. People flock from all over the Midlands, from neighbouring Coventry to as far as Nottingham, and Bamz puts this down to Birmingham “gaining respect as the second [musical] city”. As the scene has changed, so have the crowds; the agro that jumps out from a Moorish Delta 7 video has been replaced by a less aggressive vibe, made obvious by the number of university students there for the good music and cheap beer.

Birmingham’s blossoming as a hip-hop hub is primarily the result of a shift in attitude. Whereas previously there were more artists (many have since abandoned ship in favour of grime, a more lucrative market), each placed themselves over the success of the scene: “there were a lot of heads but no one was pushing it [the scene] to become noticeable; it lacked any force behind it” laments Bamz. When the limelight did shine on an individual, they pursued it selfishly and abandoned those around them – Moorish Delta 7 being the notable exception, proving there was another way. The current crop are aware of this, and also the extent to which their success is dependent on the health of the Birmingham hip-hop as a whole. This has had a positive knock-on effect, as knowing artists are going to support them, promoters have been able to host sustainable nights that keep both themselves and the Birmingham hip-hop scene in business.

As a genre of music, Brummy hip-hop has also tried to find its own identity. Rejecting the recent trend towards electrofied tracks and hollow lyrics – rife in so much popular music – it has looked back: back to a time when hip-hop carried a message people could relate to and prided itself on original and inspiring beats. Much of recent American and British hip-hop has lost its way with cheap gimmicks and unrealistic content: “who can relate to platinum guns and diamond bullets?” asks Bamz. “50 Cent’s a Gangster Pop-Artist”. However, there are US emcees and producers who do still inspire, such as the late Jay Dilla, Mad Lib, and Talib Kweli; it is these artists that most of Birmingham’s hip-hopers aspire to, to make conscious hip-hop that captures a situation without glorifying its negative aspects. As the scene grows, so does the number of people it can influence; but although wanting to change attitudes through the power bestowed in all artists, Bambino is of being “a musical Jehovah’s Witness”.

Hip-hop has attempted to refine its image and leave the violent side to grime, but there is still a dark underbelly that Bamz believes is damaging the scene. Too many gangs and artists are not producing music with the scene in mind, and instead just making it for themselves. Hip-hop is being wielded as a weapon between gangs and gang members, using tracks to spit violent threats and unmentionable acts. As true or untrue as the lyrics may be, kids listen to them, and the ultimate repercussions on anybody involved in hip-hop are negative. Too many naysayers are already trying to ban hip-hop on the grounds of offensive lyrics and incitement of violence, so this minority of artists – “younger heads without a wider consciousness of the scene” – are only providing further ammunition and stopping hip-hop becoming ‘popular music’. The responsibility that accompanies power must be recognised, if only for financial reasons: hip-hop is people’s livelihood as well as their love, and selfish actions rob not only the individuals but all those around them.

For those with a desire to see the scene prosper, the road ahead is at least a little clearer: dependency between artists and the scene calls for a continued collective effort, but the other vital act to be collectively undertaken is to spread beyond Birmingham and establish national and international connections. “Too many people are repping their ends” laments Bamz, “people need to realise the world is bigger than the couple of streets they walk down every day to get to the shops”. Actions speak louder than words, and performing to a wider audience is the only way to wake the world up to the booming Brummy hip-hop scene. There is also a need to commercialise, to get with the 21st Century; but whilst such a phrase is often viewed negatively, in its simplest form it means getting the music out there to attract a larger audience. Radio stations need to lend greater support, and while pirate stations have always championed the underground, broadcasters such as 1Xtra should begin to give home-grown talent preference over US-imports. Obviously there is more to it than that – behind-the-scenes money-deals play an important role, whilst the suitability of British hip-hop for mainstream radio is key – but if Birmingham artists continue their collective action to keep the ball rolling, Bambino may yet hear the radio blaring one Brum artist after another.

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Responses

  1. I always notice whenever anybody talks about the Birmingham rap scene, they always forget to mention the true cats like Madman the Greatest, J?Raw, Urban Monk, Medieval, R.A.K, the mighty elements, Roc 1, Madflow and all the cats that built the hip hop bridge to what it is today. Listen if you keep sleeping, you’ll remain to sleep…….


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