It’s 2004, London Town; home of fictional detectives, Morley’s chicken, and unremitting wealth inequality. A rap rejuvenation was afoot.
On the heels of the furor occasioned by Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut Boy in Da Corner, there is a renewed enthusiasm in the fertile London scene. No one knows what to designate the uncompromising musical genus that thrust Rascal into the mainstream consciousness but there is little doubt a new sound, one that would come to be known as grime, has firmly been established.
While Boy in Da Corner fashioned new expectations for British MC-orientated music, rappers faithful to the more orthodox American stylings of rap were likewise thriving, on the back of the steadfast UK hip-hop scene’s amelioration from Roots Manuva, Blak Twang, Jehst, Task Force, Ty et al. The advent of Def Jam UK in the early noughties seemed destined to capitalize on the newfangled industry interest in British accent rap with their first UK hip-hop release in April 2004, Taz’s Analyse This.
Despite being an enjoyable entry in the expanding canon of UK hip-hop albums, Def Jam’s foray into the UK was unduly polished to follow in the footsteps of Dizzee Rascal’s uninhibited and aberrant debut. The shock and awe orchestration of Boy in Da Corner won Rascal plaudits far afield from his E3 estate, while simultaneously encouraging people to quench their domestic desire for more of this new, identifiably London sound. Analyse This failed to sufficiently deliver, however, ultimately rendering both the label and Taz a footnote in Brit-hop history.
Def Jam aside, UK hip-hop was a uniformly underground phenomenon in 2004. But while the audience was undeniably niche and sales sobering, fervor had sustained a culture that in the summer of ’04 fostered its defining recordings. Golden ages are an inherently impressionistic concept, but few UK heads will contest the debut albums of Klashnekoff, Skinnyman, and Rodney P when referring to the annals of British hip-hop.
As the cumbersomely monikered Ricochet Klashnekoff, Darren Kandler could have probably set the record for the most syllables in a rap name, in addition to having the most potent debut of 2004, when, that June, he dropped The Sagas Of. Forgoing the projectile and remaining a Roscoe, the simply rechristened Klashnekoff’s album seized on a groundswell that followed his standout vinyl releases “Daggo Mentality,” “Zero,” and the irresistibly bellicose “Murda.”
“K-lash-ya-rasclart-neck-off” is to London what “It was all a dream” is to NYC; the preamble to a quintessential hip-hop recording. A cascade of patois parables, deftly spun over a low-fi riddim harder than the soles of 110s from Wembley market, “It's Murda” is every bit Brit rap’s counterpart to Chris Wallace’s cult chronicle. K-lash's dexterous, steppin’ razor wordplay, salvoed over Harry Love’s analog warmth, turned the copious quotables on “Murda” into an instant hymn for UK heads.
The focal point of “The Sagas,” a brooding, esoteric excursion into his Hackney stomping grounds; Klashnekoff’s east as eels, yard as ackee inflection transcended the album’s phonographic imperfections to forge a bona fide UK hip-hop classic. Its ten tape hiss anthems, teeming with metaphysical metaphors and plaintive reflections on deprivation and its benefactors (“Fuck aimin’ to be famous, I’m aimin’ two flamers at Tony Blair’s face first / Worst comes to worst blud, I’ll kidnap his neighbors”), yielded an instant vintage collection that endures among the UK’s finest rap contributions. From the mournful “Black Rose” to the transcendental reverie “Son of Niya,” The Sagas’ synergy of ‘70s-sampled boom bap and West Indian word stock immediately established the Black Russian as a titan of the UK game.
Years prior to dropping UK hip-hop’s magnum opus in August 2004, Leeds-born Skinnyman had built a fierce reputation for shelling stanzas at battle adversaries. Listing the Juice Crew’s Craig G and a young Marshall Mathers among his unwitting victims, the North London transplant was a veteran of open mic cyphers and freestyles sessions throughout the ‘90s. Informed of his first label’s demise while serving time for distribution, and faced with the austerity of prison, Skinnyman wrote the rest of what would come to form his debut, with the belief he had missed his opportunity.
With the malnourished UK scene offering little more than underground notoriety and the opportunity to moonlight as an emcee, Skinny envisioned his debut as a mixtape, that like himself, would never make it off his estate (“So don't be coming chatting shit I'm not relating with / Nobody in this British rap game is making it”).
Signed to Low Life records after his release, Skinny served yet another term at Her Majesty's pleasure before introducing the world to Council Estate of Mind. A dispirited, uniquely British disquisition on perseverance through poverty, Council Estate of Mind’s kitchen-sink chronicles deconstructed a British way of life previously unexplored in such stark and spirited terms through hip-hop.
From the industry rebuking opener “Fuck the Hook” (“Is hip hop worth dying for, if your life's on the line and your only crime is being poor?”) to the esteemed title track (“I'm in the same slums, raisin' the funds / In the city where the yoot man are blazin' the guns”), Skinnyman weaved the tangible fears and realities of life on the breadline into a boom bap ballad of despondency and desolation.
Council Estate of Mind’s caustic collection of biographical elegies, relatable to many growing up in inner-city public housing, saw Skinny explore the noxious nature of poverty, the opportunism it necessitates, and the violence it ultimately begets. Interspersing the tracks with dialogue from Made in Britain, an ‘80s television play depicting the perilous possibilities of the adolescent British working class experience, Skinny waxed pessimistic about the youth’s uncertain future (see: “Little Man,” “No Big Ting”), his ruinous feuds with enemies on his estate (“I’ll Be Surprised”), the vanity of aspiration (“Love’s Gone From the Street”), and the need to remain positive in spite of lacking belief (“That’s What I’m Gonna Do”).
An ode to indigence, Skinnyman’s charismatic cockney cadence bestrode the soulful selection of beats with the self-assurity of an emcee in his prime, while confidently predicting his debut would be unprofitable (“You know where to get my shit, if you don’t, then you’re not involved, blud”).
Far exceeding his own humble expectations and that of his label, Council Estate of Mind sold out its first pressing and charted in the British Top 100, entering higher than Mobb Deep’s American Gangstaz and Shyne’s Godfather Buried Alive, two albums that were released on the same day. Regarded by many as the defining UK hip-hop recording, Skinnyman maintains he has “never seen a penny in his life” from the album and has never recorded another since.
The dust had barely settled on Skinny’s coming out party when Low Life launched another long-awaited masterwork in British rap. Rodney P is known under many guises; as an actor, radio broadcaster, presenter, and most influentially, one half of the London Posse, the pioneering 80’s rap group who boldly shunned rapping in an abject American accent, when it was still commonplace in Croydon. What most introductions of Rodney Panton neglect to mention, though, is that he dropped a legendary LP in 2004.
Before we were talking the hardest, there was one notorious voice in UK hip-hop—the Kingston-cum-Balham burr of the Riddim Killa. Over a decade removed from the London Posse’s solitary album Gangster Chronicle, the ordained godfather of UK hip-hop founded his Riddim Killa imprint in 2001 and set course for an unexpected solo comeback. Originally scheduled for release in 2002, sample clearances shelved the highly anticipated The Future for two years, while those who had been privy to its limited vinyl promo run accurately extolled the comeback of a pathfinder.
Finally released in October 2004, The Future’s frenetic fusion of sound system stylings and time-honored hip-hop was an amplified revision of the reggae-rap sound Rodney P had originated in the late 1980s, as originative as it is today slept on in the discussion of Brit rap’s finest.
Delivered in his signature Sauf London symbiosis of cockney-creole, the reverberating sonics of “The Nice Up,” the Bob Marley influenced “Trouble,” and the poignant title track, made for pulsating conduits for P’s sonorous reflections on the ghetto youth, societal greed, and police brutality.
Flexing his inimitable flow over the seething bass of “Da Hot Style,” Rodney introduced a new generation of UK heads to his Battersea brand of competitive braggery on “Big Tings Again” and the skanking closer “Riddim Killa.” Fusing the hip-hop tradition of self-praise and the rich reggae lore of social commentary, The Future irresistibly bent genres to produce an album so dynamic that it endures to this day as one of the most distinctive recordings in the legacy of black British music.
While one godfather was reminding the local scene of his well-earned reputation, another was entrenching his status and forging a genre of his own—one that would redefine the course of the British music. At the beginning of the year, “grime” was still an epithet for the nascent sound producer-emcee Wiley had concocted as part of the UK Garage outfit the Pay As U Go Cartel. Alongside a handful of other producers attempting to engineer the once popular UK Garage and two-step sounds in a more forbidding direction, Wiley’s low-frequency brand of echt-London electronica would go on to fashion the blueprint for the genre, with his April debut Treddin’ on Thin Ice.
Incorporating sounds unique to London, Wiley used his distinctive glacial peals to create what he called “eskibeat.” With its hallmark 140 BPM count—the preset tempo in FruityLoops—Wiley’s tubular riddims reverberated throughout raves and pirate radio stations throughout the early 2000s. Parlaying his white label instrumentals—which defined the genre up until that point—into the first true grime album, Wiley fashioned an inuit imprint that would function as the template for grime’s ascension.
The album’s lead single, the thundering hollow bass banger “Wot U Call It,” is a furious dismissal of the garage scene over his famed ‘Igloo’ riddim, and the pioneering instrumentals “Eskimo” and “Ice Rink” firmly positioned Wiley as the creator of a neoteric emcee orientated genre of music. Self-anointed, though unanimously regarded as the godfather of grime, Treddin’ On Thin Ice was Wiley’s introduction to the mainstream conscious, a prolific path that would eventually lead him to an MBE for services to music in 2018.
Though often mistakenly thought of as a debased offshoot of traditional hip-hop styles, grime’s roots lay in electronic music traditions far removed from the Boogie Down. But while grime and UK hip-hop have distinctive geneses, there are homologies to be found between the two; namely both being rooted in breakbeat and indelibly shaped by Jamaican sound system culture.
For a generation of young Londoners raised on jungle breakbeats and breakneck toasting, however, the sub bass party sounds of UK garage were merely a musical conduit to a new, darker sound. While UK hip-hop evolved sonically as a derivative of East Coast hip-hop, grime’s syncopated FruityLoop riddims were as London as a night bus mugging, marrying garage with cracked software sounds in an underproduced MIDI cacophony that could only have been born in Britain’s capital. Wiley and an emerging generation of producers and emcees firmly established the paradigm of an accidental D.I.Y. sound that would become the most consequential British musical development in decades.
By returning with a follow up to Boy in Da Corner that September, less than 10 months after issuing his debut, former Wiley protege Dizzee Rascal’s second album cemented his place as grime’s public face, while concurrently widening the periphery of its rendering. The self-produced Showtime saw Raskit augment his array of flows, channel his inner junglist and embellish his sub bass standards with jaunty chimes, turning reflective on “Get By” and woolgatherer on “Imagine.” Showtime officially marked Dizzee’s foray into the overground with his first top 10 single, “Stand Up Tall,” a chiptune version of grime’s year one riddim, “Pulse X,” also produced by Youngstar.
Drawing on Southern hip-hop to create his idiosyncratic brand of East London electronica, DJ Paul, N.O. Joe, and Beats by the Pound were alloyed with his minimally processed synths and abrupt kicks to create avant-garde audio unlike anything being produced on the other side of the pond. Coalescing Wiley’s trademark gelid stabs with a rumbling bass synth on album standout “Respect Me”—Dizzee’s indignant strafe of his critics, biters and those responsible for his stabbing the year prior—assisted Showtime in outliving Evisu and Lot 29 as an ageless slice of 2004 London.
Rising to prominence as part of the N.A.S.T.Y Crew, Kane 'Kano' Robinson had generated significant underground buzz with his pirate radio sets and a now legendary staircase clash with Wiley in '04. Debuting his single “Ps & Qs” in September, the 19-year-old broke new ground in grime, with a dexterous display of emceeing previously unseen in a scene noted for its beats more than its bars.
A slice of cultured grime, Kano’s manifold flows and deft delivery belied producer Davinche’s boisterous bassline, as the East Ham native effortlessly discharged piquant punchlines in an instant classic of the burgeoning genre. Grime’s “Eric B is President,” Kano’s game-changing flows on “Ps and Qs” witnessed the birth of the genre’s pre-eminent emcee and probably its finest recording.
A month later, Lethal Bizzle and friends’ raucous “Pow (Forward)” exploded onto the scene like a homemade IED. With its chaotic claps and death-dealing 8 bars, grime’s undisputed riot anthem created such havoc on dancefloors that it was banned in clubs across the country.
Similarly vetoed on the radio, club DJs bold enough to spin the insubordinate fusion of jagged synths and trigger-happy couplets were met with mosh crazed expectancy by club-goers, unsatisfied with only the two-wheel ups. “Pow,” however, resisted restriction and emerged from the underground to reach No. 11 on the UK singles chart during Christmas. A tumult of euphoric discontent, Lethal Bizzle’s showpiece was the homegrown shot of adrenaline a generation of disaffected British youth had latently desired and persists as grime’s most defiant experience.
Grime’s pioneers were still finding their footing in a musical tradition of their own manufacturing, but the legacy of 2004 was ubiquitous in its renewal and eventual commercialization a decade later. Wiley’s “Pies” from Treddin On Thin Ice would be sampled by Skepta on “That’s Not Me,” a pivotal element in grime’s rebirth in 2014, while “Igloo” served as the basis for Ghetts and Rude Kid’s “One Take” in 2015.
However, it was Ruff Sqwad affiliate producer XTC’s wintry “Functions on the Low” riddim which propelled the career of current grime celebutante Stormzy and would form the basis of grime’s first platinum-certified single “Shut Up” in 2015. The sublimely sanguine instrumental, assembled in a mere half an hour, epitomized grime’s deviceful, do-it-yourself attitude in 2004, a year that London took ownership of its musical destiny by the synth horns.
A recital of 2004 embodies the essence of two distinct emcee-oriented genres, disparate in their originations, but unified in their Britishness: a working-class, multicultural Britishness, unfamiliar to the outside world. The 12-month period saw the best of Britain’s rappers and producers push the boundaries of boom bap and blend genres to create new space for self-expression.
Like New York in ‘94, London in ‘04 was a year furnished with essential albums and genre defining recordings; where a succession of debut releases by hometown emcees would be forever enshrined in domestic legend. The apogee of UK hip-hop’s renaissance, 2004 synchronously bore witness to grime’s coming of age and the hallmarking of a sound that would go on to define a generation, shape popular vernacular and endure as the most influential British musical movement since punk.