No matter how many Boy Better Know tattoos or Top Boy references Drake makes, UK rap—whether that’s Grime, “road rap” or more conscious varieties—will always have a hard time breaking America.
It took Skepta 10 years and a wardrobe change to see moderate success in the States, and even then, his Konnichiwa album sold less than Cyndi Lauper’s Detour. Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer was the first true Grime album in history to top the UK charts but failed to make a dent on the Billboard 200. And Giggs’ verses on Drake’s More Life have proven to be a turn-off for many American fans, not to mention a source of admittedly hilarious memes.
Whether UK rap even needs validation from America is another question (short answer: no), but clearly, something's still getting lost in translation by the time it crosses the Atlantic.
Producers, on the other hand, are able to avoid such problems. Often, beatmakers from Britain offer something new and different to the hip-hop gumbo rather than simply adding to the noise. Mark Ronson worked with legends like Ghostface Killah, Q-Tip and Mos Def while steering Wale’s early career in the ’00s; Jamie xx’s unlikely yet amazing Gil Scott-Heron remix album landed him on Drake’s Take Care; and Kanye West called on Hudson Mohawke and Evian Christ to help him shape Yeezus in his distorted image.
History has shown it’s easier for Americans to bond with their English cousins over beats rather than bars. Here are six British producers who are currently breaking hip-hop's geographical boundaries.
Beat Butcha (@BEATBUTCHA_SOI)
After honing his craft on home soil and working with local legends like Ghetts and Jehst, Beat Butcha has embedded himself in the New York hip-hop scene. Combining the gritty with the psychedelic, the London native has laced everyone from Mobb Deep and Lloyd Banks to Sean Price and Styles P with prime cuts. Danny Brown (“D!*k Suck”), Mac Miller (“Do It”) and Smoke DZA (“Personal Party”) also beef up his résumé. What Beat Butcha lacks in hit singles, though, he makes up for in stellar album cuts—a speciality he’s doubled down on in 2017 having produced Big Boi’s “Made Man” collaboration with Killer Mike and Kurupt, off Boomiverse, Rick Ross and Dej Loaf’s “Maybach Music V,” off Rather You Than Me, and Domo Genesis’ “Long Way Home,” off Red Corolla.
A keen crate digger and sampler who grew up on jazz and J Dilla, Budgie fits the mould of a classic underground hip-hop producer. What sets him apart—aside from the fact he’s from London, of course—is his deep knowledge of gospel music. Budgie’s The Gospel According to Budgie mixes convinced the legendary Alchemist to do a religious-sampling project with the Livin’ Proof DJ in 2014, thus The Good Book Vol. 1 was born. (Fun fact: the sample of Andraé Crouch and The Disciples’ “I Come That You Might Have Life” on Snoop Dogg’s “I Love to Give You Light,” which The Alchemist produced, sparked Budgie’s love for gospel music. The Lord works in mysterious ways.) Budgie has since relocated to L.A. and collaborated with local acts like Earl Sweatshirt, Samiyam and Buddy. This Friday, he’ll extend his resume with the release of The Good Book Vol. 2, which includes appearances from Mobb Deep, Action Bronson, Royce Da 5'9", Evidence, Chuck Inglish and more.
James Blake (@jamesblake)
Trump may be building a wall and Brexit could stifle international trade, but James Blake remains one of Britain’s best exports to the US. With a sound that’s as delicate, haunting and emotionally stirring as his voice, the lanky Londoner occupies his own lane entirely, even as some of hip-hop and R&B’s biggest stars have veered into it. As an artist, Blake has worked with JAY-Z ("MaNyfaCedGod"), Beyoncé ("Forward"), Drake ("The Catch Up"), RZA ("Take a Fall For Me"), Kanye West (we’re still waiting to hear those results) and Chance The Rapper, who once took out a lease on a mansion to share with his “Life Round Here” collaborator. Behind the boards, Blake has lent his soothing, synthetic production to Frank Ocean’s Endless and Blonde albums while cooking up dystopian bangers like “War Ready” and “Big Time” for Vince Staples. He even provided the “last second” piano loop for Kendrick Lamar’s “ELEMENT,” just as K. Dot and Sounwave were starting to lose confidence in the song. “I feel like he’s really influenced everybody a lot," Rick Rubin said of James Blake. "I know in the artist community everybody loves Blake. James Blake is spectacular, I love him all the time."
Mura Masa (@mura_masa_)
If English producers and American rappers feels like an inherently strange combination, Mura Masa is an even bigger outlier. Hailing from the small Channel Island of Guernsey, the 21-year-old grew up listening to more obvious genres like rock, punk, and pop before getting his first taste of hip-hop, which came in the form of Lil Jon’s “Get Low.” Since moving to London, though, Mura Masa has quickly become one of the UK’s most exciting new producers, blending a wide range of influences and instruments—steel drums and Irish flutes, booming 808s and bright synths, chipmunk-style vocal samples and whirring sirens—into a sound that feels very 2017. A$AP Rocky, who jumped on his viral hit “Love$ick,” put the first stamp on Mura’s hip-hop passport before Desiigner reached out and harmonized the hell out of “All Around the World” (both rappers joined him on stage at Coachella this year). While working over in L.A., Mura even got a visit from Kendrick Lamar, who gave the young Brit a quiet nod of approval and walked away with a batch of Mura Masa beats. With his self-titled debut album making noise, expect Mura Masa’s gravitational pull to get even bigger.
Paul White (@paulwhitemusic)
Having listed Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner and The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free as two of his favorite albums, it’s no surprise Danny Brown has found his musical soulmate in London. Lewisham native Paul White first started working with Danny on 2011’s XXX, producing heart-racing, head-spinning cuts like “Adderall Admiral,” “Fields” and “30.” That was only the beginning of the pair’s beautiful yet bizarre bromance as Paul went onto produce five songs on Old and twice that amount on last year’s Atrocity Exhibition, including the lead single “When It Rain.” “Danny Brown is probably the person I’ve worked with the most, and I feel like we’re very similar in ways, I definitely felt like I knew him way before I met him,” White toldPassion of the Weiss. Though Paul, forever the musical adventurer, has branched out with solo albums and writing music for TV, projects with Homeboy Sandman (White Sands EP), Open Mike Eagle (Hella Personal Film Festival) and Eric Biddiness (Golden Ticket, which featured a rare collaboration between Yasiin Bey and Freddie Gibbs) has kept his weird and wonderful production planted in hip-hop, even from the other side of the pond.
If Big Fish Theory is Vince Staples’ Yeezus, one lesson the Long Beach rapper took from Kanye West is the importance of assembling the right team. Gone were No I.D. and DJ Dahi and in were electronic producers who could decorate Vince’s goldfish bowl just how he envisioned. Enigmatic Glaswegian DJ SOPHIE (real name Samuel Long) only has two placements on Big Fish Theory—Los Angeleno Zack Sekoff produced the bulk of the album, though he cites his semester abroad in London as a big influence—but they’re arguably the hardest. Known for making beats with “the physical properties of materials” in mind, “Yeah Right” and “Samo” sound like steel rods being used as weapons in some sort of futuristic A.I. cage match in which neglected robots are made to fight to the death. Kendrick Lamar claimed a life, at least. SOPHIE’s track record suggests he’s not looking to conquer hip-hop (Le1f’s “Koi” is his only other foray), but if the right rapper comes calling, there could be serious damage.