10 years ago, if you asked anyone outside of the UK who the biggest names on the British underground music were, you’d probably hear the usual suspects – Dizzee or Wiley. If you asked that same question a year ago you were likely to hear names like Skepta or Stormzy. The correlations between the two responses may not be obvious but after 13 years of grind, the Grime scene has taken over many peoples perceptions of what the UK music scene is about. But with the continued rise and rise of UK Rap, those perceptions are starting to broaden out and you’re also likely to be hearing other names like Dave or Giggs. Take an even deeper look and you’ll soon realize this scene hasn’t come from nowhere but was pioneered over 5 years ago by a certain figure previously known as Hollowman who stood at the forefront of the UK Rap movement leading the way for artists like Krept & Konan, 67 and Youngs Teflon to name a few.
It’s no coincidence that we’re witnessing the increasing power of the Grime and UK Rap scene, with Skepta, Giggs, Kano and Wiley all celebrating top 10 albums recently, fans are now showing their purchasing power. After securing certified sales status for albums like Skepta’s ‘Konichiwa’ certified gold and JME’s ‘Integrity’ certified silver, its clear UK music fans are putting their money where their mouth is. What’s more it’s fuelling the confidence of a new generation of artists to rise to the surface.
In London, a number of new scenes are cultivating this next generation of artists, and these scenes have been birthed from non-compliance and with artists who don’t fall into the trap-rap or 44-in-the-4-door box. The first time I experienced one of these emerging scenes myself was at a show called ‘New Gen Live’ at Birthdays in London. With a line up that featured cross-genre artists like Renz, TE dness, Avelino and A2, the hype online and a sold out night, it began looking like something different was starting to bubble over. ‘New Gen Live’ became the catalyst that led to the creation of a ‘New Gen’ album and also led to me heading over to meet up with the ‘New Gen’ collective at their studio, to talk about the ‘New Gen’ story.
In late 2015, Caroline Simionescu-Marin was snapped up by XL Records as an A&R, the 22 year old GRM Daily editor and New Gen Radio show host had been given the opportunity to bring in the next generation of artists to XL records. XL had already previously released records from Giggs, Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, and unsurprisingly with this move it was evident they were now looking to bring in the new generation. Caroline tells me where it all started, “The name ‘New Gen’ stemmed from being a new generation that was kinda left field to what was actually happening at that time which was more Grime centric. That industry was quite established and the music that everyone around us felt they was making was new and sounded different and everyone’s attitude was different. I guess it kinda just ended up being a thing. It started as ‘New Gen’ because we wanted to separate ourselves a little and it eventually caught on.”
People clocked on to the vibe and were talking about that ‘New Gen’ music – Renz
Renz, the executive producer on the ‘New Gen’ album, joins the conversation and tells me why, “The New Gen, the tag on it, we didn’t know what to call it so we were just saying, yeah, that’s ‘New Gen’. That’s what we were calling ourselves at the time. The mandem would go around saying new generation. At first we didn’t have no idea, but it just clicked. People clocked on to the vibe and were talking about that ‘New Gen’ music. It just made sense.”
After their first ‘New Gen Live’ event, social media was alight with great feedback and when Bonkaz made ‘We Run The Block’ the song captivated young people and became a mantra. There was no Soundcloud or Spotify link or a music video at the time, Bonkaz would just randomly pull up on stages and turn venues upside-down with performances.
In fact, the only way you would hear the song outside of the shows was through somebody sharing a clip on Twitter or if you were lucky enough to catch it when it was played on radio. Caroline gives me some insight into the thinking behind their strategy, “regarding the campaign, no one can say that it was done on purpose, we just didn’t want it to go to radio yet because we weren’t ready for it to go there… ‘We Run The Block’ was always trending because every time he performed it, all you saw was people tweeting it with #WeRunTheBlock and it just became such a huge thing. Out of control. No one realized that the song just went crazy. That was purely because we kept it away from the mainstream by only having it at shows and then it slowly started going to radio and I guess it really was the start of something.”
Bonkaz went on to sign to DJ Target and Danny Weed’s Sony imprint Pitched Up in the summer of 2015, but that was just one part of what was now becoming a bigger ‘New Gen’ movement. Caroline continues – “When it came to the ‘New Gen’ album, it started as a project idea with Renz and me. Then J Warner sent us a record and we were like, this song is too dope. It was supposed to be a demo for Bonkaz but it was so dope that it couldn’t go on a mixtape. It had to go on an album. But it couldn’t go on Bonkaz project because it was a J Warner song. He even rapped on it. J Warner is not a rapper, he’s a singer but he did it to give an idea for the song with the intention for Bonkaz to hear it and go create his own verses. But we heard it, we were like, nope! Because Bonkaz would’ve just laid his verses and put it out there because he’s an artist and he wants to get his music to his fans. But we liked the song so much, we decided to make it a part of something bigger. That’s when it became a ‘New Gen’ project. We spoke about value and this is a way to add value to what we were doing. Spend more time making it. The production needs to take longer and at the end of it all, people need to buy it.”
Having decided to work on what would later become the official ‘New Gen’ album, their separate studio sessions transformed into bigger collaborative power meetings that enabled multiple musicians and artists to have an input into what was about to be created. I was fortunate to be at the first album studio session and what I witnessed there was enlightening.
Soul one of the ‘New Gen’ production collective explains, “It was a collective effort. Initially, Jevon took the lead but after that period we started working together more, everyone was throwing their ideas in the sessions.” Nyge another one of the production collective jumps in and agrees, “100%. During the process, we all learned from each other as producers and as musicians. I would point out that it was a very musical process. It wasn’t like, hey, let’s make something that sounds like this. It was more like, we’ll get together for a session, jam together and then whatever came from it, we’ll build on. We fed on each other’s energy.”
Chris, A&R Consultant & Artist management for New Gen/ XL Records adds “It’s quite rare that you would have 3 or 4 producers working on all of the tracks. People would be right to call ‘New Gen’ a compilation but it feels that it’s an artist within itself. You can have a situation where someone could come in and work with New Gen producers exclusively and they would get a certain sound out of it.” Caroline explains further how working with a variety of musicians came together to produce their unique combination, “The sound is never going to be super specific. The producers are so capable of making everything. When you listen to the album and realise that only 3 or 4 producers have touched it, the sounds are so different. You’ll go from ‘Jacket’ with 67 to a song with Ray Blk and then get to Kojey Radical who’ll say the deepest shit in the world on a track.”
It goes to show that sometimes, the majority might have a better idea than any one individual- Renz
It’s feels like a natural progression to take it from the stage to the studio, and Renz confirms that perception, “From the first New Gen show that we did, if you look at the line-up, TE dness, Avelino, Bonkaz, A2 and myself – and when you look at the album, they are all on there. When they do come into the studio, it’s never like, ok, here’s the beat, write your bars and you’re done. The artists have an input in the production process. The whole song creation from the start. “ I was fortunate to have witnessed the synergy that this collective had in the making and it definitely made it’s way into the album. Artists like Kanye West are known to have many people in the studio making one song, on ‘All Day’ there were 21 people who collaborated to make the song. “That’s why ‘My Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is my favourite Kanye album. I can just imagine all of the artists being in the studio collaborating with each other, vibing off each other’s energy to create what is recognized as a masterpiece,” says Nyge.
Its pretty much inevitable when you’re working in big groups that egos are likely to get in the way but spending time with the collective inside and outside of studios sessions you can feel the bond they have is real. When it comes to making music, everybody is not going to agree 100% of the time, but I’m curious how do they manage to take in many ideas and opinions. Anthony the executive producer, explains “We made sure that we had many listening sessions to make sure our feelings on the music were all positive and it was an open place to suggest any changes. We would then work until we got it right.” How that worked as the creative process into actually making a track collectively is probably best explained by Renz “Here’s a story from the album. My song, ‘Flexing’, when I recorded it, it was an idea I had and I was like, yeah, it’s cool. This lot were like yo! This is hard. I was like, hmmm, yeah, it’s cool. I didn’t want to put it on the album. I went away. These lot got the tune and worked on it in secret. I came back and the version that they created had me like yo! Let’s get it cracking. It goes to show that sometimes, the majority might have a better idea than any one individual.”
Released on January 27th 2016, featuring 17 artists, the ‘New Gen’ album is a 17 track compilation made available both digitally and as a physical CD. With fans making purchases minutes after midnight, despite the rising trend for streaming, the fervor for this release has even had people rushing to buy CD’s, with HMV selling out of stock at one point.
In the world of Grime and UK Rap, the attitude of doing it yourself is still strong. Putting this compilation out through XL was about a mutual understanding where everyone could create their music freely and maintain that ‘New Gen’ feeling. Anthony explains why that relationship with XL worked, “People started approaching Caroline about the ‘New Gen’ album. When we started talking with XL, due to their cultural relevance and their attitude and approach to music, it made sense and it aligned with the whole new generational mentality. That’s how Caroline, Bonkaz and Renz started with ‘New Gen’. Doing things their way, going against the grain, not having any rules or definition to what they were doing. This matched very well with XL. Now they have the support behind the album which helps everyone involved.” Caroline adds “There’s no better place basically. No better place for me, for the gang and for this album. The label is so culturally on point; they know what to do and how to do it. The exclusivity of releasing an album on XL, made a lot of people pay attention. They provided a great platform and a lot of support to allow us to do what we wanted to do”
The album acts as a yearbook. If you want to know who is making super dope music, this is your starter guide – Caroline
Anthony tells me why Caroline’s move into A&R made sense, “I said to her about a year before it happened that she was going to become an A&R. The industry is based on finding talent, work and developing with artists to create great songs. Caroline was working with artists, had a respect and understanding of the culture and this started her in the world to becoming an A&R.” Their teamwork really made the dream work and wearing that mentality literally became personified in their ‘New Gen’ jackets and visual imagery. At this point it’s probably pertinent to mention that I was drafted in alongside Culture X to capture portraits of each featured artist on the album cover and billboards. Chris gives that creative overview, “If you look at what was happening, you look at the visuals; everyone is rolling in the New Gen jackets, the additional marketing. Everyone is taking care on how it’s rolled out. It’s not like we just made songs and uploaded them. Nah. There are physicals too. We wanted to make sure the branding was right”. Polaroid’s were used in studio sessions and later posted on social media to build anticipation and document the creative process.
One thing that has risen to the surface has been the dedication of the UK creatives who’ve been instrumental in pushing the scene even further, as Caroline explains, “We didn’t go into XL and then try to use all of their resources. We worked with a team of people that have been supporting us from early for nothing. We chose Furks to design the album cover. He was designing the ‘New Gen’ radio show artwork for a year so it was only right. With you, we didn’t ask you to shoot the first ‘New Gen’ show. You did it because you wanted to support us. Who knew that we would be now using that picture for an album on XL? We took the people who were previously doing cool shit with us and brought them into the album process. They’re ‘New Gen’ too.”
The album is now out, including tracks featuring some 2017 ones to watch like AJ Tracey, Stefflon Don and Ray BLK. With fans championing the music, I wanted to know what is next for this non-compliant gang. Caroline already has a direction in mind “More music. We have our New Gen studio now so everyone is here all the time working super hard. The last track we made with Abra and Steff was in this studio and we’ve been making music ever since. Jevon is working on the new Nines album coming out through XL. Nyge is working with artists like AJ Tracey; Soul is working with Renz on his new project.” Soul adds “We’ve had Kojey Radical in here, J Hus, AJ, Bonkaz basically lives here.”
With forthcoming releases already in the works, the New Gen touch will be lent to Nines, who was signed to XL last year. As for the ‘New Gen’ album, it will serve as a longstanding time capsule of the 2016 UK underground best expressed by this new generation at its helm. “The New Gen album is a great way to show the rest of the world what we can do in the UK.” says Renz