For almost as long as hip-hop has existed as a concept, the UK’s had its own iteration. For a while, that meant imitating what we saw on MTV, putting on American accents and mimicking the style and swagger. Gradually, though, especially in the wake of London Posse, rappers started to reject that—artists began to look inwards and draw from the diaspora right here in Britain. Elements of U.S. rap were still present, but now the beats and flows were starting to reflect the culture more—especially in the forgotten corners of the country with crews like Birmingham’s Moorish Delta 7.
By the early 2000s, in parallel to grime’s ascent, a load of crews and individuals were sprouting up, mostly in Brixton and Peckham (although East London outfit Choong Family bucked that trend). Of the South Londoners, Brixton’s P.D.C, aka Poverty Driven Children, were early trailblazers and their darker, no-frills approach completely changed the game. This is when the flows got slower, the subject matter got darker, and the signifiers really took hold. Interestingly, although a lot of these elements are now undeniably UK, they still have their roots in the States. The slow flow, for example, isn’t a million miles from early Gucci Mane and Jeezy, and let’s not forget the beat from “Talkin Da Hardest” was a Dr. Dre beat made exclusively for Shady/Aftermath’s Stat Quo. So while the influence of America will always be there to some extent, this era transformed UK rap forever, taking those influences, stripping them down and chopping them up into something completely our own.
It was also this mid-2000s era that grime exploded in popularity. That scene had made stars of Dizzee, Wiley, Tinchy and more in the years that followed, but when that happened, many felt grime was no longer the voice of the streets. In place of that, rap’s raw, often rough-and-around-the-edges presentation felt much more honest and relatable. It’s that era that we’ve selected as our start point because, in 2007, it felt like UK hip-hop had not only found its voice under the “road rap” banner, but it was really starting to crank out some hits. It’s also a time when we saw a lot of today’s stars really come into their own. Giggs was in full swing now, heading up his empire and getting ready to drop the national anthem, Blade Brown had just returned to the game after a brief hiatus, Youngs Teflon had ditched grime and was kicking off a prodigious run of tapes, and a young fresh-faced duo called Krept & Konan were getting ready to shake some rooms.
Most of the legends that we’ve listed below are going stronger than ever and have even started to influence things Stateside. The legacy of road rap is also felt in modern stars like Potter Payper and Nines who are still brutally raw, but now come armed with high production values and, in the case of the latter, the backing of the UK arm of a hip-hop institution: 0207 Def Jam. You can also hear it in today’s drill stars, whose dark and brutal roots echo the scuffed-knuckle toughness of 2000s rap. The call of the mainstream and the current (and concerning) sampling controversy may have given us some watered down iterations, but the towering influence of Giggs, Youngs Teflon, Fekky, Young Spray, K Koke et al., will still be standing tall long after the last bait UK garage sample has been bludgeoned to death.
Giving flowers to a pioneering age and the artists behind it, here are the 20 best mixtapes from road rap’s early reign.