Photo by Kevin Kane

The unusual, the unsigned, the uncategorisable

Hip-hop has its place, but not necessarily on an alternative daytime radio station

Artillery Row

Fifty years ago, the singer and activist Gil Scott-Heron recorded a simple three-minute piece of music. He recited, in plain spoken word to a repetitive jazz soul groove, a poem he had just written called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Ignored commercially at the time, his words nevertheless spoke of the frustrations he must have felt about living as a black man in early 1970s America: the racism, the media and corporate control, advertising, white Hollywood and the soon-to-be disgraced Nixon administration. The song may not have been a hit, but the statement was cool, clever and articulate, homing in on some unpalatable truths about the state of the nation.

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised

Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t credited as the inventor of what we now call hip-hop, but since The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, the musical style in which pure words hover over a danceable beat has travelled from South Bronx block parties to the West Coast and beyond. Today, hip-hop is a global multi-billion entertainment sector encompassing the popular drill and grime hybrids that developed here in the UK.

Like many of the 2.69m listeners to the BBC’s Radio 6 Music, rap music has made me question my unswerving loyalty to the alternative digital station following a controversial shake up this autumn. Out went long-standing DJ’s Liz Kershaw, Tom Robinson and Shaun Keaveny to be replaced by Radio 1Xtra’s Jamz Supernova, The Blessed Madonna and Radio 2 stalwart Craig Charles with the schedules now reflecting a “greater variety of musical genres and communities” according to new head of station Samantha Moy.

Cut the rap and give airtime to marginalised forms of black music

Fans of the indie station seemed particularly upset with the removal of Keaveny, who held the weekday 1-4pm afternoon slot, and made their feelings known to BBC bosses in their droves. “Some people have commented on the general direction of the network,” came a formal statement from the Corporation, “we’ll continue to offer the best music beyond the mainstream, championing artists and genres from around the UK and the world.”

Change is all very well, but in pure listening terms, this means that the daytime schedules on this once proudly alternative station, which celebrates its 20th birthday in 2022, is now increasingly dominated by rap, R&B and grime artists, all of whom you can already hear ad nauseam on Radio 1Xtra, Kiss, Capital and dozens of other popular channels. None of these, as far as I know, share 6 Music’s ethos of airing the unusual, the unsigned or the uncategorisable, as the late John Peel did so brilliantly in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Of course, taste in music is entirely subjective, and 6 Music can hardly continue an “indie guitar bands only” policy, but does Moy’s reshuffle sit well with their long-term devotees? If a lack of diversity is the issue, why not cut the rap and give airtime to more marginalised forms of black music: blues, jazz, gospel, Afrobeat etc?

Personally, I found the station to be a revelation when I first tuned in back in 2016. It was obvious straight away that here was a refreshing and vital safe space away from too cosy, nostalgia-obsessed Radio 2 or the tiresome “rock ‘n’ bantz” formula of the ad-laden XFM and Absolute Radio. Thanks to 6 Music I discovered a brave new world where electronica and alt folk rubbed shoulders with edgy indie rock, dub reggae and the occasional Northern Soul stomper. Thanks to the very obvious passion of DJs like Lauren Laverne, Cerys Matthews, Don Letts and Radcliffe and Maconie, I was soon downloading albums by Alabama Shakes, Jane Weaver, Michael Kiwanuka, Sharon Van Etten and This Is The Kit — all artists who rarely get airplay anywhere else.

But now, listening to 6 Music is an unsettling, almost schizophrenic experience in which the daytime DJ’s will play some standard indie fare such as Foals or Metronomy then attempt to prove their somewhat belated hip-hop credentials with a blast of Biggie Smalls or NWA. I mean, do we really want to hear Hit ‘Em Up by 2 Pac while wating for a Zoom conference? Is Missy Elliot’s Work It an appropriate soundtrack for checking to see if there’s any Cathedral City in the fridge?

As Keith Richards once said, “Rap: so many words, so little said.” Continuing on the theme he told Rolling Stone magazine in 2007: “Hip-hop leaves me cold… I don’t wanna be yelled at; I wanna be sung to. I never really understood why somebody would want to have some gangster from LA poking his fingers in your face. As I say, it don’t grab me.”

What the veteran Rolling Stones guitarist fails to elaborate on are the other accusations usually levelled at the genre: the offensive swearing, the misogyny, the homophobia and the endorsement of violence and criminal activity through rap’s lyrical and video content.

Whatever your moral panic of choice, the reality is that in 2021 it’s not rock stars like “Keef” who climb the Forbes rich lists anymore, but billion-dollar entrepreneurs like Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Kanye West and others who first made their name in the rap game.

The R&B and grime scene here is far from the marginalised art form it once was

Sales of hip-hop albums in the US have now overtaken those of pop and rock, commanding almost 22 per cent of total downloads. In the UK, meanwhile, rap and hip-hop songs accounted for over a fifth of all singles consumed in 2020. Surely this is no longer an outsider’s or resistance culture anymore, but the very mainstream embodied by Jay Z and his wife in the new $30m ad campaign for Tiffany, in which Beyoncé wears a 128.54-carat gem while stepping off a private jet to sing the classic Moon River in a stunning $42m Bel-Air pad. Jay-Z’s net worth is estimated to be £1.4 billion according to Forbes. He embraces investment interests as wide as Armand de Brignac champagne, D’Ussé VSOP Cognac and a fine art collection including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Rappers in the UK can only dream of such fame and fortune, yet the R&B and grime scene here is far from the marginalised art form it once was. Both Dizzee Rascal and Stormzy are already Glastonbury veterans (the latter as headliner) while new and emerging artists feature on the BBC’s specialist urban music station Radio 1Xtra and regularly receive gongs at the biggest annual awards ceremonies: the MOBO’s, the Mercury Prize, MTV Video Music Awards and GRM’s Rated Awards.

While the highly corporate hip-hop scenes here and in the US are thriving both critically and commercially, there appear to be increasingly less avenues available to, let’s say, an earnest guitar-strumming singer/songwriter or an eccentric but brilliant electronic young dance producer the would-be Bob Dylan’s, PJ Harvey’s or Giorgio Moroder’s are the ones now banished to the lonely edge of popular culture.

Meanwhile, back at the coal face of “cutting-edge music”, the remaining 6 Music DJs get the memo and stick on what, we listeners can only assume, are their favourite bangin’ choons. But the revolution will not be brought to you by Pepsi, Nike, Louis Vuitton or MTV.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover