A tour de force from 1989 to 2014: Charting the British music phenomenon: "Urban".

Wot u call it - Urban?

A 25-year time trial in beats.

A tour de force from 1989 to 2014: Charting the British music phenomenon: "Urban".

 
 

From the victorious and hypedrenched podium of this year’s Brit awards, to its pioneering climb from the concrete of the inner cities of Britain.

Rudimental’s recent victory lap at the Brit Awards saw them claim a scalp for Best British Single and an astonishing powerhouse performance of their number one hit “Waiting All Night”. It was thrilling to watch, for here was the culmination of a journey, which began some twenty-five years ago for British Urban music. The mountain had been climbed and Rudimental’s flag planted firmly at the top. The baffling thing about this feat, however, was how clearly this fresh, young group referenced the groundwork put in by the Urban artists who paved the way for their breakthrough.

So Wot do u call It then? The sound of Rudimental. Soulful Drum’n’Bass? Heartfelt Jungle? Uptempo R’n’B? No, you call it Urban – that elusive term for anything and everything electronic and modern in British music. 

But how did Urban music stake its claim on top of the world? And what preceded Rudimental’s parade on one the highest podiums the music industry has to offer?

Two minutes and twenty seconds into a performance by Bastille, the turbo kicks in, in the form of Rudimental’s anthemic chorus to Waiting All Night – the yelling bravado of the MC barking at every single person in the room to stand up – more a commanding order than a polite request to the powerful and influential members of the upper echelons of the world’s recording industry.

The next four minutes are a staggering piece of swaggering drum and bass bravado – sending tingles through spine and soul – the sheer audacity of confidence with which they belt out their banger, leaves even the most sceptical witness more than impressed. The contrast between Rudimental and their stage mates – Bastille – couldn’t be further apart – while
Bastille feel like a tired rehash (although a sympathetic and

heartfelt one) of British noughties pop-whining a la Keane, Coldplay and others – Rudimental blast off on a funked up rocketship; into the stratosphere with an energy, determination and invincibility which conveys the feel that their expression is freshly made and comes straight out of the underground’s musical street kitchen. But of course it isn’t. No way near in fact.

Moreover, this cementing of Rudimental’s success can be seen as the culmination and victory of a movement. A pinnacle of a musical infiltration of the mainstream, which started over 20 years ago, when the first canons were fired towards the general public’s attention and top of the charts.

Roni Size and LTJ Bukem sets the standards

Those canons were loaded with that strangely infectious and immensely potent dynamite, which has been unsatisfactory labelled “urban”. Poignantly, little over a month after Rudimental’s success at the Brits, two true blue standard bearers of urban – ones who Rudimental and many other “nubies” owe a debt to played a victorious joint gig half an hour away from the glamour of Greenwich’s O2 arena in East London’s Shoreditch.

Roni Size and LTJ Bukem are the men in question, and they are good places to start in charting the rise of British“Urban” music. Both were instrumental in channelling the underground towards a mainstream sensibility and acceptance with influential releases, such as Roni Size’s seminal Mercury prize winning Reprazent from 1997, while LTJ Bukem, for his part, found his soulful stride and made a poetic imprint through the many “Progression Sessions” albums released from 1998 onwards on his own “Good Looking Records”.

GOLDIE ENTERS THE FREY
 

When mentioning these two godfathers of Urban, one must also – in the same breath look north, towards Wolverhampton and the breakdancing graffiti artist – turned DJ slash musician – Goldie. His 1995 release, epically and (for this article) aptly titled, Timeless is an Urban music milestone. With its standout 21-minute title track (often referred to as: “Inner City Life”) bleakly chronicling the experiences of the inner city youths from which so much musical output and talent was to come from over the following 20 years of British music.

Goldie’s beats are raw, rippling and overlapping tides of grimy testaments of what was to come. Indeed his album’s emergence onto the scene could be argued to herald the beginning of the “Urban” musical experience.

Did everything start with Soul II Soul?

But in my opinion, the beginning of the “Urban” onslaught onto the world emerges six years earlier than Timeless – with the classic mid-tempo floor filler from Jazzy B & Caron Wheeler – Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life”. A slick, distinctly modern and soulful portrayal of love and devotion from the vistas of a city centre’s tower block, the number one single was cute and catchy enough to cling on to the consensus of the general public – whilst still being cool and cold enough to keep the first movers heads’ bopping and their Reebok classics ducking and diving all over the dance floors of the time.

Beats International breaks through

The real clincher however, came a year later in 1990 from a former Housemartin and his “Guns of Brixton” sampling masterpiece: “Dub be Good to Me”. Under the moniker “Beats International”, Norman Cook, soon to be worldwide electronica music megastar numero uno Fatboy Slim had arrived. “Dub be good to me” is a music exec’s wet dream: with a great hook, an amazing chorus, street smarts and above all immense dancefloor appeal. Slower than “Back to Life” and moving at a snails pace compared to Goldie, Roni Size, LTJ Bukem and Rudimental – the genius of “Dub be good to me” is that it “feels” like something you’ve heard before yet is completely its own and manages a modern take on something already done – exactly like Rudimental and precisely what the “Urban” genre is all about.

Fatboy Slim takes it to another level

In many ways Cook is responsible for being the man breaking down the floodgates that would let the Urban genre seep through and begin its tide-like ascension towards the top. His 1998 album under the Fatboy Slim moniker “You’ve come a long way baby” not only became a worldwide smash on every level of popular culture (used in movies, adverts, computer games etc), it also still stands as a testament to the many different umbrellas under which the term Urban can be applied: from hefty drum’n’bass, big beat, soulful electronica to Ibiza club anthems and gritty street tunes (albeit the gritty through a very “polite” filter). They are all represented on that seminal release and are all applied to the term “Urban”.

That Fatboy Slim created a buzz and hunger for more with that one breakthrough album cannot be argued. And fans were then fed a number of releases by influential young artists which were to bring Urban music further to the forefront whilst keeping the flames of its hype alive.

With a series of red-hot singles firing off beat bearing missiles resulting in precise dance floor explosions – Basement Jaxx kept the pulse and quality of Urban music high – until the breakout artists began to emerge and take over. The Streets’ debut album from 2002 – Original Pirate Material – heralded the next steps to come – Mike Skinner’s songs blending witty and matter of fact insights from the life of a geezer with music cues from hip hop, drum’n’bass and rave culture. And a year later, in 2003, the first Urban superstar was “born” into the industry.

Gettin’ Dizzee


The Boy In The Corner was the gargantuanly gritty debut from east London Grime MC – the wunderkind that is Dizzee Rascal – receiving immense critical and cultural acclaim, as well as staying true to the concrete roots of his hood in East London. Dizzee would go on to become one of Urban music’s household names and mainstay of the charts. His former brother in beats – Wiley – came through a year later with his debut “Treddin on thin ice” – an album which spawned the gem of a single: “Wot u call it” – a song which discusses how the mainstream is trying to define what is going on and how to label a wide reaching musical phenomenon (the song ridicules these attempts – as we understand what is going on is elusive, unique and not easily pigeonholed).

From Wiley and Dizzee’s arrival, it was only really a matter of time before the charts and the mainstream audiences were ready to react.

British Dubstep artists started slowing down the beats and turning up the volume, pushing the envelope for how dark in content the dancefloor could really get. Dizzee went global with bassheavy anthems for Ibiza, boozy holidays and the centre stages of the very biggest worldwide music festivals. Dubstep then got swallowed up by America and the rest of the world, seeping its way into popular culture, until almost every single blockbuster movie’s trailer was dubstep packed.

Tinie makes it a worldwide thing

And then came a London MC called Tinie Tempah, and with him, British Urban had its first global superstar. Tinie Tempah and the “Urban’s” arrival at the top of the world’s podium was then cemented at the biggest global event of the past decade: The London Olympics in 2012. Here, both Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal and Rudimental collaborator Emeli Sandé performed during the Danny Boyle directed opening ceremony. They even found a comeback spot for Urban pioneer Fatboy Slim, performing his brand of Urban madness at the ceremony shutting the whole thing down again.

Which brings us back to Rudimental. A new band with fresh faces, infectious energy and soulful bass heavy grooves – commanding our attention and demanding our respect – with a twenty-year old sound – masking as the next big thing. The latest incarnation of a musical journey which has been under way for 25 years.

Nothing new about Rudimental then, no, but that doesn’t make them any less impossible to ignore or less than brilliant. And that is the whole point of the Urban phenomenon.

 
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