"People sounding like Sneakbo lately, and I've never been praised, are you crazy?", asked rap star Sneakbo on last year's "Preach"—and he does have a point. This artist is (along with a handful of others) arguably responsible, and largely uncredited, for sewing the seeds of some of the most exciting music to come out of the UK in years. Over the past 12 to 18 months, the sound that's variously been termed Afroswing, Afro-bashment and Afro-rap—among plenty of other awkward portmanteaus—has gradually broken into the mainstream.
Whether in the form of Mercury Prize and MOBO nominations, playlist slots on prominent radio stations, or the unending tick of YouTube view counters, it had blown from a London-centric curiosity to something of a nationwide phenomenon. With J Hus as the unofficial figurehead, the scene's ranks swelled. A whole host of young, bright upstarts—including the likes of Belly Squad, NSG, Kojo Funds, Young T & Bugsey, and Not3s—turned clubs upside down with anthems blending elements of Afrobeats, rap, grime and dancehall. Everything seems set for 2018 to be the year in which the music, and artists responsible, will truly make its mark in the charts, in the clubs, and on the streets. But even in today's internet-accelerated age, it's rare for a sound to germinate and blossom so quickly. Where, then, are those responsible for the sound’s earliest manifestations?
Around the end of the noughties, when road rap was tussling for its own identity against a grime scene in the doldrums and an increasingly-derided UK hip-hop scene, a group of artists hailing predominantly from South London were taking the first strides on their own path. While rappers like Giggs, K Koke, and Young Spray were graduating from riding US hip-hop beats to mould the UK's nascent rap scene into something distinct from their American counterparts, a handful of the capital's other rhymers moved in a different direction.
"If you want to talk about the artists in the UK merging bashment or dancehall with an Afro influence, Sneakbo is a legend," says DJ Kenny Allstar, a man at the forefront of the sound's emergence. "He's the godfather."
For Sneakbo, born Agassi Odusina, a Brixton upbringing that had featured as much exposure to Nigerian afrobeat and Caribbean dancehall as American rap stars like 2Pac and 50 Cent, meant he had a broad pool of influences to draw from. In 2010, his Vybz Kartel-sampling "Touch Ah Button" was a bonafide street anthem—an early show of the potential to intertwine dancehall rhythms with Afrobeats flows and a road rap edge.
"Let's be honest," says Allstar, "'Touch Ah Button' is like the second national anthem after Giggs' "Talkin' Da Hardest'." Around the same time, the STP crew (STP standing for Struggle To Proceed or Stack That Paper) were channeling a more melodic approach to road rap through a series of eponymous mixtapes. Helmed by core STP members Timbo, Mitch, Cass and Rugez, the tapes still featured the usual helping of big US hip-hop and R&B beats (Cass' flip of TLC's "No Scrubs" being a standout), but also included early examples of more heavily Afrobeats-influenced UK rap.
Kenny Allstar served as host for those early mixtapes, and says that while everyone else was following Giggs' lead or jumping on trap, STP "saw the vision in that different sound that we now know as Afroswing or Afro-bashment." Timbo was arguably the crew's strongest proponent of the Afrobeats-led sound, and his ay-leh-leh-lay ad-lib was, in the early 2010s, a calling card akin to J Hus' ahh man or hustl-a baby.
Other Brixton artists such as Sho Shallow, Ard Adz and Juju Anti would soon jump on the Jetskiwave too, bending rap flows around bouncy Afrobeats-licked rhythms as featured artists on the mixtapes. In Peckham too, Naira Marley was building a buzz his hook-heavy, thick-accented drawl applied to tunes like "Marry Juana". A lot of the tunes being produced around this time, Allstar notes, were also differentiated from road rap by their subject matter, namely that the MCs were "talking about girls", rather than the rap staples of street violence and hustling.
Similarly, the music videos would be built around club scenes, holidays, house parties and dancing, as opposed to tower-blocks and crew shots. This was a trend neatly encapsulated by a Sneakbo-led SB.TV cypher video shot on the white sands of Bora Bora in Ibiza, and one that continues today with artists like Not3s, Hardy Caprio, J Hus and others heading to sun-kissed climes to shoot their visuals. (The cypher also saw the late Depzman, from Birmingham, jumping on the beat—an important development for the sound in helping it find an audience outside of London.)
Sneakbo was also working to cement the connection between the UK rap scene and Afrobeats, collaborating directly with African star D'Banj on the club-ready remix of "Oliver Twist", as well as later recording with contemporaries like Davido. Ultimately, however, few of these artists have seen their work receive the recognition it deserves, even if they were receiving co-signs from Drake before it seemingly became a career milestone for any UK rapper worth their salt.
Kenny adds, "These guys were the only ones coming out of South London, holding it down, bringing something different to the culture. Timbo enhanced it differently when he collaborated with Mover, a rapper from East London, on the track "Ringtone", and that's what I personally think opened the door to the bridge of Afro-rap and the evolution of Afroswing, which was essentially someone laying a hook over a rap record."
Sneakbo agrees. "I think I made it cool in the UK to jump on these types of beats in 2010 and I've definitely been overlooked," says the rapper, noting that others like Timbo, Sona, Moelogo and Afro B have perhaps not received the plaudits due to them for helping to build the sound in the UK. There's hope yet, though. The reception for Sneakbo's recent, historic link-up with Giggs on "Active" and anticipation for his forthcoming, aptly-titled album Brixton suggest a healthy twelve months are ahead.
Similarly to the way that grime's founding fathers have reaped their just rewards over the past few years, if there's any justice there'll be plaudits for Sneakbo and those others who were so instrumental in the Afro-rap scene's early development. As Kenny Allstar puts it: "The only way people are going to appreciate the sound to its full potential is if they go out and do their research, and look to see what this Afroswing sound was like before acts like J Hus and Kojo took it to a whole new level."