Black British music has long been a vital part of our cultural life, not to mention national economy, but it feels like this year has been some sort of moment. Whether it’s Kano playing at the Royal Albert Hall - joined on stage by D Double E and Ghetts, flanked by a full orchestra - Stormzy on the cover of TIME magazine and triumphantly headlining Glastonbury, or Dave winning the Mercury Prize, 2019 has seen black British artists break through barriers by the sheer force of their excellence.
They’re forcing the establishment to acknowledge and celebrate them - they’re simply too good to be ignored.
But despite this, it could be said that black artists have long been underappreciated in the UK. Bob Marley, for example, was only just honoured with a blue plaque this week, despite living and writing at the Chelsea address in the 1970s. And in fact, only 4% of the 900+ blue plaques across London are dedicated to black and Asian figures from history.
Seen by many as discriminating against grime, rap and other underground black genres, the controversial Form 696 was only scrapped two years ago. This was the Met’s ‘risk-assessment’ document that, from 2005, required clubs to give details of planned events, including descriptions of music that would be played and the target audience, including their ethnicity. More recently, YouTube and the Met have been censoring drill music, deleting videos in a dedicated operation against the genre.
So in the spirit of giving great music its props, this National Album Day - and in Black History Month - Clash writers celebrate their favourite, often underappreciated. black British albums.
Soul II Soul - ‘Club Classics Vol. One’ (1989)
There’s a reason singles from this album can still be heard on radio to this day, it’s a timeless classic. In 1989 this soul collective managed to invade the mainstream with an album packed with radio friendly good vibes. The songs created in basements across North London for their friends to dance to soon became a pivotal part of pop culture history. Fusing chunky hip-hop beats with an uplifting soul twist, it managed to meld a message of positive vibes with a post-club soundtrack perfectly.
It’s an album that would be wisely revisited today, giving a message of positivity, community and love. And there’s not a lot more can you give.
Massive Attack - Blue Lines (1991)
The peak of Bristol music’s heritage, this stone cold classic emerged fusing everything in its wake. Few records come along as fully formed, drenched in danceability (mainly thanks to one of the greatest singles of the ‘90s in ‘Unfinished Sympathy’). It also spawned new genres and confused music fans and journalists alike, as all classics should. It took people a while to catch up, but eventually ‘Blue Lines’ prevailed as the soundtrack to a generation.
Not merely a soundtrack to talent, but also geography. Mashing everything from rap, drum and bass, soul and dub, the Bristol sound as we know it now owes everything to this beautiful creation. Inner city unease during ecstasy’s heyday has never sounded so good.
London Posse - ‘Gangster Chronicle’ (1990)
Drawing on reggae, ragga and dancehall, using their own South London Caribbean-tinged accents (rather than mimicking the style of US MCs), and spitting UK-centric lyrics straight from the streets their city, London Posse changed UK hip-hop forever and paved the way for grime.
There’s something exciting and still fresh about the Posse’s style - not to mention a lot of fun - especially Rodney P aka Da Riddim Killa, who was influenced by the reggae he heard growing up and Bionic MC who spearheaded the movement for UK rappers to use their own accents. This album is the sound of youth and confidence, and the musical melting pot that is London.
Estelle - ‘Shine’ (2008)
Estelle might be known for her ground-breaking global hit ‘American Boy’ but the singles housing album ‘Shine’ is vulnerable, holistic and diverse. Tinged in vintage samples such as Slave’s ‘Just a Touch Of Love’ and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ Estelle pays tribute to older iterations of soul, jazz, R&B, and reggae.
The project was both worldly and personal, and lyrically sees Estelle come into her own and grapple with the highs and lows of love. Toying with concepts which now dominate the mainstream - such as self-love - the singer/rapper truly broke the sophomore slump curse in more ways than one and helped improve the visibility of darker-skinned artists in the UK music market.
Craig David - ‘Born To Do It’ (2001)
Craig David set about the new millennium with one goal in mind: to impress the masses. Proving to be quite the pioneer, the crooner unveiled his debut album ‘Born To Do It’ which launched his ascent to international fame. The true beauty of this album lies in its instantly homegrown feel. Garage and UK R&B powered the project, as David sang (in a familiar accent) about relatable, relationship-based scenarios.
Part of the reason the album lives on is that it existed in a time where the UK wasn’t as geared towards creating projects to crack the American market - artists were allowed more space to breath and create organic bodies of work. Still, ‘Born To Do It’ went on to sell eight million copies worldwide and remains the fastest-selling debut album ever by a British male solo act. David has since returned with dance-led influences, but his strong and cohesive beginnings can’t be overlooked, the act helped in setting the trend for the likes of Jay Sean who came after.
Swindle - ‘No More Normal’ (2019)
The UK hip-hop landscape is as diverse as it can possibly be in 2019. An Avelino can exist in one pocket of the expansive genre, while Kadiata dominates another sector of it simultaneously. Swindle without a doubt is part of the diversity that has manifested over the last few years. Releasing his long-awaited album ‘No More Normal’ earlier this year, he instantly delivers. Engulfed in a wide array of flow-shifts, the tracks' lyrics are brutally honest yet humorous, as Swindle's sound projects his universe to the masses.
‘No More Normal’ really proves itself on a sonic level, the production from start to finish is polished, experimental and onomatopoetic. ‘Drill Work’ for example features a cinematic-led backing, keeping the listener both engaged to the lyricism but left on edge too. The album as a whole feels at home with offerings such as ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ as it’s bathed in genres of the past also (‘80s hip-hop, jazz, funk) as well as spoken word performance. Swindle stands tall as one of Britain’s best acts to date.
Skunk Anansie - 'Paranoid & Sunburnt' (1995)
Queer political alt-metal fronted by the unstoppable Skin. This album was a shot in the arm for a ‘boys-only’ scene and showed the world that the UK could deliver blistering social-political rock as well as the US.
Additionally, Cass Lewis' bass lines were bringing in dub influences/are another level.
Dizzee Rascal - ‘Boy in Da Corner’ (2003)
Championing what we now know as grime, Boy In Da Corner, was in hindsight our first glimpse of the scene. Artists like Dizzee were creating their own movement, blend and definition of grime before it even became a thing. ‘Boy in Da Corner’ - an album that meshed UK garage with speed-lyrics, prudent sound effects and basic hints of drum and bass was an album set out for brilliance. Later winning the Mercury Prize for best UK and Ireland album, even the cover of Dizzee gesturing devil horns screamed “goat”.
This record came with the intention to leave us stuttering, and 16 years on it still does. Stand outs include, ‘Stop Dat,’ ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp,’ and ‘I Luv U’, not to forget ‘Jezebel.’ Fearless, boisterous and simply ahead of its era, ‘Stop Dat’s menacing synth work and droning ad libs are still striking today.
Wiley - ‘Treddin’ On Thin Ice’ (2004)
Wiley’s courageous and inventive debut album can’t be ignored. Opener, ‘The Game,’ is what we call a straight-to-the-point introduction. Strident, and a clear insight that the setlist is going to bang from start to finish. Following the year of ‘Boy in Da Corner’, So Solid Crew’s ‘2nd Verse’ and two years after The Streets’ ‘Original Pirate Material’, ‘Treddin’ on Ice’ was the in-between of a thriving moment in the 2000s.
Produced by himself and a few others this record exposed Wiley’s love life, the music industry and self-improvement. The distinctive ‘Wot Do U Call It’ protrudes from the setlist; the interrogation of the title, the inoffensive, yet forceful repetition of, ‘wot do you call it, garage?’ Just when you think it can’t get any better, the following ‘Eskimo Interlude,’ signifies every inch of greatness in this album. Even if you haven’t heard the album in full you know ‘Eskimo Interlude’ because it’s one of the most popular interludes ever, sampled by thousands of MCs.
Innovators Wiley and Dizzee were pretty much the first to drop albums unexplainable to label executives - what they didn’t realise is this would later be a critical success and something we look back on to reference the emergence of grime.
Dean Blunt - ‘Black Metal’ (2014)
‘Black Metal’ saw Dean Blunt reach intense new heights, drawing on hip-hop, indie-pop, dub and much else to create a strikingly intimate, fuggy work of art. ‘Black Metal 2’ has been teased but he’s been plenty busy since, with ‘ZUSHI’ and ‘King of R&B’ coming out of his label World Music’s recent NTS Residency.
A.R. Kane - ‘69’ (1988)
On 1988’s ‘69’, dream-pop pioneers A.R. Kane crafted a sound that was both languid and tense, where harsh noise and crystalline melodies came together.
Skindred - ‘Babylon’ (2002)
Benje Webb and his Welsh crew were responsible for taking the alternative metal boom that was sweeping America at the time and somehow successfully combining it with the reggae influences he'd grown up with in his West Indian household to create one of the most electirfying and distinctly British genre-fusions of the century.
Labi Siffre - ‘Remember My Song’ (1975)
This record will always be most famous for the much-sampled breakdown for its stunning opening track 'I Got The...' (the basis for Eminiem's 'My Name Is' and Jay Z's 'Streets Is Watching'), but the whole record is a masterclass in heart on sleeve songwriting from the poet-cum-musician. He is the British Bill Whithers and this was his masterpiece.
X-Ray Spex - ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ (1978)
I guess this all depends on what you define as a 'Black British album', but the half-Somalian Poly Styrene was one of the brashest, loudest and uncompromising figures in the brash, loud, uncompromising British punk scene. Her band X-Ray Spex imploded after one album, but not before leaving a real mark on the scene with this frantic album, as well as setting the foundations for riot grrrl with her avowedly feminist lyrics.
Roots Manuva - 'Run Come Save Me' (2001)
Roots Manuva has guested on loads of tracks for the likes of Gorillaz, Cinematic Orchestra, Unkle / Dj Shadow. His album 'Run Come Save Me' is regarded by many as a British hip-hop classic (also featuring J5's Chali 2na on 'Join the Dots'). He has an instantly identifiable voice, that adds sense of gravitas to whatever he does, and avoids the whole ‘gangsta’ / bling approach of US artists, for a more thoughtful, contemplative style.
Tricky - 'Maxinequaye'
Tricky is a triphop legend, coming out of the same Bristol scene as Massive Attack. The album that got me into him was 'Blowback', but his debut 'Maxinequaye' is really his seminal work, artfully fusing elements, like punk, goth, electronica into his music.
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