In this survey, our contributor Sabo Kpade examines the UK’s rap and grime scene for some of the best MCs on its isles.
Pioneers include Moni Love and later leaders like Ms Dynamite and Estelle, but now more than ever, a variety of rappers with distinct personalities and output are flourishing at the same time.
Notable mentions include Systie, Lady Lykez, RoXanne, Lioness, Alakie and Laughta. A few others have not made this list either because they haven’t been active recently, have meager output, or are still finding their feet.
A feature about the best UK MCs, who happen to be women, written by a male writer has a potential handicap: the male writer. To put this in check we ran this article by Charmaine Hayden, a host on Not For The Radio and director of Face4Music modeling agency.
Hayden is against the term “female MC,” as are the MCs themselves. Comparisons to male counterparts may well highlight their gifts, but this also admits the male MC as the ideal standard, subordinating others.
So in no particular order, here are some of the best MCs currently active in UK today.
“I can bar better than half the man dem,” said Ms Banks in a recent interview responding to limiting comparisons to male MCs. Once Upon A Grind and last year’s New Chapter are her two full projects.
The singles she’s released so far this year have been “Get Loose” and the tough-talk and nimble delivery of “OMG,” before notching down on the slow boil that is “Vibez,” her latest track.
London-bred and of Nigerian and Congolese heritage, Ms Banks is a confluence of rich cultures and, as if to underscore this for the naysayers, points it out in a radio freestyle “where the fuck have you been? / we add a lot to the country, let alone to the scene.”
Where to start. Her delivery is liquid. Her bars are steel—as impressive in English as they are in the Lingala of her Congolese heritage. She plays the piano and guitar, reportedly self-taught, and she’s also a good singer.
These skills individually, or any two combined, would stand any artist in good stead. But put all of these attributes in the possession of one artist and you have a very exciting new act.
Two videos illustrate C Cane’s impressive talents: the first is her ‘Fire in the Booth’ freestyle, in which she switches from one hard flow to another with bars to spare in Lingala. The other’s a live acoustic set of her 2017 single, “Only You,” a song about unrequited love.
The eight songs on Nadia Rose’s debut Highly Flammable are like a pack of firecrackers, each of varying strength and spark-points, but all brimming with boisterous belligerence.
Case in point is “U Know What” which is packed with double entendres like “I get brain, I get advice.” While not too impressive in isolation, when the lines are tightly packed along with others and feverishly rapped over a jittery London-meets-Caribbean-garage beat, the result is stunning.
On big single “Skwod” the superstructure of bright costumes, hyperactive dancing, exuberant beats might have been drawn from the Missy Elliot-sphere, but the motoring mechanisms of clever wordplay, versatile delivery and charm are all Rose’s. In an interview after her set at Afropunk in July, Rose mooted the release of a follow-up EP in October, possibly. We’re looking forward to it.
“Liking the Brits to Americans—Ms Dynamite to Lauryn Hill, Stefflon Don to Nicki Minaj—may appear to be on even grounds, but this also elevates those stateside,” mentions Charmaine Hayden, “especially when many are forebears and have had better chances at flourishing. Much better to simply see each MC based on their skill set and no more—and not even in comparison to each other.”
“I’m getting a bigger belly but it don’t faze me” says Paigey Cakey on “Hot Tings,” a simple fact that dispels any notions of body issues that could be visited on a 24 year old woman in a very male and sexualised industry.
The song is one of eight that make-up The Red Velvet, the follow-up to Cakey’s Red, both released in 2016.
Cakey’s many similes would suggest she’s a traditionalist, when most rap nowadays is preoccupied with the anti-flow. A bar about making “my first mil[meal] like breakfast” gives life to the ordinary, and it’s a surprise not many have riffed on it by now.
Most recently, she became the first woman to headline Basingstoke festival in London.
Her statement videos press home her preoccupations in the way lyrics alone never could. With “Chill Out” the audio has a potent enough message about a woman who’s “on a late night, with some high grade,” but the video, shot in Jamaica, protests the abuse and killing of members of it’s gay and transgender community. And on the titular “Durt” she will not let herself be a woman scorned “you doing you, I’m doing dirt too.”
Released in June, her latest single “Doing Me” is about self-affirmation “my appearance doesn’t represent my pocket” and even more importantly “so why you worrying about being an outcast? Don’t you know to be yourself and never ask for permission?”
The Little Simz from seen in this video, which was reportedly shot next to Roundhouse in 2009 when she must have been 15 years old, already showed her hunger and skill-levels. She was the only young woman in a close group of young men.
Eight years later—after grinding out mixtapes, EPS and shows – she headlined her first big London show inside the Roundhouse this time.
She made the best of her big outing employing live art and a full band, also bringing out Kano, Ghetts and Stormzy to a rapturous crowd. Simz is building on years of grind, but also the release of her sophomore album Stillness In Wonderland, which is by turns wistful, soothing, conceptual and zen. To cap it all off she’s now joined Gorillaz on their UK an European tour all through till December.
“Call my side niggas just to do the dishes” scoffs Stefflon Don on “Real Ting” the title track of her latest mixtape.
She deftly switches from the drill on the aforementioned “Real Ting,” to its Southern trap variant on “Narcos,” each one hard as hell, with a grit more convincing than many UK incorporations of trap.
She morphs into a dancehall queen on “16 Shots,” taking revenge on her mother’s assailant in a video she co-directed. A similar flow is used on the afrobashment track, “Envy Us,” in which she combines well with Abra Cadabra. She cleverly adapts trap to garage on closer “Forever,” also taking shots at YouTube notification gangs “I’m already better than a lot of these views.”
Stefflon Don appears to have arrived fully-formed and finished, though only 25 and at the very start of her recording career. Real Ting is only a mixtape by name. It would make for a very confident debut album.
Rappers are often scantily clad as the models in their videos thereby blurring the line between the lead and extras. Some pull off a fine balance which Hayden says “is about owning your space and holding your space. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a lingerie or a hijab, it’s about your confidence which is more sexy than your outfit. You don’t have to be naked to make it.”
She also adds that “some demand respect when they step in a room. You do look at them and think ‘wow the sauce is dripping, but they are bossy.’”
“I woke up one morning and saw one million views” said Lady Leshurr of her “Queen’s Speech,” a 5-episode freestyle series which has so far being viewed 44 million times on Youtube.
A separate series, called “Unleashed,” sees her impressively retooling the beats the for Desiigner’s “Panda” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.”
Leshurr is very articulate and her bars are full of biting humor which might make her out as a battle rapper—one with a knack for making street anthems.
Her flows are nimble and often rattled off with supreme breath-control, as seen on “Mode,” the opener to her latest EP of the same title.
“My pussy, my choice, my body, my voice” reels off the ever-forward NoLay on “Pussy,” off her latest LP, This Woman.
NoLay made a big entry in 2004 on “No help No Handouts.” Her body of work would have been more substantial had she not taken time away from music to acquire two degrees in fashion marketing and business advertisement.
She tackles domestic abuse head-on in “Dancing With The Devil,” and on “Thirsty” takes potted aim at men who “beg for sex, fellas that beg for head, fellas that beg for nudes, acting like I’m in debt, I beg you for bread, I don’t beg you for dick, I don’t beg you for shit.”
Where it’s lazy to ascribe the term “feminist” to a woman who simply wouldn’t make compromises based on gender expectations, NoLay is staunchly feminist in a nakedly political and personal way that challenges one’s own thinking, however unbiased.
Her 13 years in the industry guarantee her OG status. Her delivery, full of real bite and precision, added to her laudable and needed feminist lyrics makes her an even more important MC.
Her claim of being a “rap god” is as true as the fact that she’s in the top 5 of UK rappers, dead or alive.