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V/A - An England Story: The Culture of the MC in the UK 1984-2008

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Artist: V/A

Album: An England Story: The Culture of the MC in the UK 1984-2008

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: May. 30, 2008

When it comes to any form of pop that involves an MC, it’s hard not to think in terms of geography. Pit bosses, rappers and party-movers love to shout out to their neighborhoods and cities because their represented denizens usually have their backs. But aside from touting area codes and flashing hand signs, MC’ing is, in itself, a geographic-specific art form. We make finely grained distinctions between styles – for instance, we distinguish Southern from Northern hip hop and then, within the former category, distinguish the styles of Texas, Louisiana and Georgia from each other. But the overarching assumption, at least in this country, tends to be that MC’ing is a singularly American form. Namely, it is rhyming to a beat, just as it used to be in the South Bronx more than three decades ago.

Soul Jazz’s An England Story, which impressively chronicles the last 25 years of the MC in the U.K., puts this American-centric view to the test. And, in the catalogue’s double-disc thoroughness, Stateside hubris suffers a serious blow. Indeed, the most striking part of An England Story is its revelation that America, where rap was coined and given currency, has had such minimal influence on U.K. MCs. In the States’ absence is an enormous indebtedness to that other former British colony across the Atlantic: Jamaica.

The entirety of An England Story is tinged, if not dyed in the wool, by Caribbean hues. This is true of even the segments of grime featured here. Grime, to many East Coast listeners, had always seemed to be the U.K. take on American hip-hop, a British subgenre that expatriated itself from Jamaica, Queens rather than from Kingston proper. But An England Story suggests otherwise. Gervase de Wilde and Gabriel Myddelton, who perform as the DJ outfit Heatwave and compiled this collection as well as wrote the informative liner notes, do a fine job situating grime, U.K. hip hop, and other variants as descendents of dub’s aqueous bass and dancehall’s scatted patois.

The arrangement of the material on this compilation helps expose the commonality between U.K. MCs. De Wilde and Myddelton choose not to segregate the songs by chronology or genre, but instead let them all abut each other from track to track. If the underlying order of the songs is not obvious, the cumulative effect is clear: England’s rappers do not need their American counterparts; their Caribbean heritage is enough. This is felt most strongly towards the end of An England Story’s first disc, in the trio of Riko’s “Ice Rink Vocal,” Jakes & TC’s “Deep” and Jah and Screechy’s “Walk and Skank.” The tracks evidence a multiplicity of British approaches to MC’ing – grime, garage and reggae, respectively – each of which, though borrowing from the Caribbean, are distinctly British. (“Deep” may be the most firmly British of the three; MC Jakes’ voice bears a striking resemblance to actor Alan Rickman.) As if to drive the point of British sufficiency home, de Wilde and Myddelton include London Posse’s “Money Mad,” which improves the Boogie Down Production kick drum formula, a hallmark of American hip hop. Navigator and Freestylers’ “Ruffneck” achieves a similar result with their take on Marley Marl and Pete Rock’s James Brown lifting. Neither song falls in the trap of Brits aping American originals.

An England Story is ultimately a worthy contribution for the simple reason that it exposes the Caribbean roots permeating contemporary Black English music – even in those styles that appear to hail clearly from African-American sources. More powerfully, it is proof that MC’ing need not be understood narrowly as an exclusively or dominantly American phenomemon. But enough theory. Whatever critical or historical position An England Story takes, it will remain a sweet mix of galvanizing British music that is often hard to find and navigate in the United States. There are few, if any, duds on the two discs; most of the material delivers convincingly. And as the weather warms here, finally, on the East Coast, An England Story’s reggae-themed material arrives right on time.

By Ben Yaster

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