Music has always been a great way to bring people together. This Black History Month, I wanted to take a whistle stop tour through 20 years of black British music. The dance scene of the 90’s had morphed from acid house, to the Ministry of Sound inspired house music (with the inimitable sound of MC Creed), which reached its perfect artistic form in the garage movement of the late 90’s. Pioneer DJs like DJ EZ, Karl “Tuff Enough” Brown, combined with groups like Dreem Team, 187 Lockdown and Heartless Crew, to elevate the scene into the national consciousness. A month before the new millennium came in, Southampton became the centre of the music world. “Rewind” by garage group Artful Dodger, featuring a fresh-faced Craig David, dominated the radio waves, back when radio was still the main way that people consumed their music. It reached number two in the charts, signalling the commercial cross over appeal of the genre.
Over the following year, iconic tracks “Sweet Like Chocolate” by Shanks and Bigfoot, “Boo” by Ms Dynamite, “Do You Really Like It” by DJ Luck and MC Neat and “Battle” by Wookie cemented this exciting new British sound. Its peak (commercially, not artistically) arguably arrived on 6 August 2001, when the group So Solid Crew released “21 Seconds”. The song was a global smash. This peak was followed by a crash, with the violence in their lyrics being played out at club nights and live events, forcing venues to stop booking and record companies to stop signing garage artists.
It was at this low ebb, that Richard Kylea Cowie Jr, AKA Wiley, was crafting and perfecting his style. First coming to prominence with “Pay As You Go”, the underground legends from East London, Wiley was working on a new sound. His underground smash “Eskimo 2 (Devil’s mix)” was the precursor for 2004’s hit, “Wot U Call It”. As he said on the track “Garage? I don’t care about garage.” Eventually we would call this new sound grime. Wiley was bestowed with an MBE and, more importantly, the title of “Godfather of Grime”.
Alongside Wiley, Dizzee Rascal’s “Boy in da Corner” gained critical acclaim, winning the Mercury Music Award and challenging musical norms. There had never been a single that sounded like “Fix Up, Look Sharp”. Unlike the “So Solid Crew” MCs, who cited American hip hop as inspirations, Dizzee’s sound was unapologetically East London. In this way, artists like him and Mike Skinner of “The Streets” (“Original Pirate Material” will forever be close to my heart) were pioneers of a sound that was uniquely, distinctly and proudly black and British.
I have to go back to Wiley because his great talent seems to be spotting and aligning himself with talent. From Skepta and JME with “Boy Better Know”, Tinchy Stryder with “Roll Deep” to doing tracks with then unknown artists Emeli Sande and Ed Sheeran, Wiley’s influence can be seen across the musical landscape in this country.
The success of these artists can be seen at any show by Stormzy, Wretch 32 and many other artists that came out of the scene. Fans of every shade pack out their concerts and show, as I said at the beginning, that music is a great way of bringing people together.
I’ll be honest, the motivation for writing this was twofold: firstly, I wanted to unleash the greatest nostalgic playlist of all time. I’m not even sure if I’m being hyperbolic. And secondly, to fight back against the American centric focus of Black History Month. Britain has a rich and beautiful black British history. I have nothing against America, but one of the goals of this month is to celebrate black British achievements. When it comes to music, there’s plenty to celebrate.