September 9, 2004

Through the Ether

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Every two years or so, music critics weary of the creative impotence of American Hip-Hop posit an emcee from across the pond as the Next Big Thing. Throughout the last ten years, we”ve seen numerous chic candidates such as Tricky, Massive Attack, New Flesh, and The Streets paraded by American publications as a sure-fire bet to finally break into popular American rap, but each systematically disintegrated in their attempt. Last year, the choice was unanimous in Dizzee Rascal, perhaps the single biggest revelation in music in 2003.

Dizzee, the 19-year-old East London prodigy, dropped rhetorical napalm all over the American Hip-Hop landscape with his debut album, Boy in da Corner, laying waste to the dense jungles of crunk, the Roc-a-Fella outposts, and underground passages that spanned the transcoastal expanse. His staccato-shot rhymes, delivered in a mercury-thick accent, became perhaps the most unique and distinguishable voice in all of Hip-Hop. That, coupled with his vivid verbal portraits of urban wastelands littered with teen pregnancy, police sirens, and scraps of gun fire, made Boy in da Corner a masterpiece for post “90s Hip-Hop. But naturally, Dizzee”s preternatural brilliance failed to make much of a mark on the charts. Despite mass campaigns by music scribes to burn his name onto the cortex of Hip-Hop consciousness, Dizzee never achieved more prominent exposure than post 2 a.m. video rotation on MTV2 and small shows in front of small crowds in bars — far from the lights of stadiums.

And the truth is, unless Dizzee”s musical approach undergoes a massive revision, he will never be popular in America. At least not until Americans start jamming to atonal beeps, concussive throbs of bass, and dissonant drones. Dizzee is more experimental on his most listenable tracks than any American underground act outside of cLOUDDEAD, and his beats compose the most unsettling and dystopic production this side of El-P and Dalek. The reports of his success have been greatly exaggerated.

And sure, it”s true that anything radical now can eventually be repackaged and made marketable — just look at Sonic Youth and The Clash. But if any British rapper is to break into the American mainstream, it certainly won”t be Dizzee.

However, there is still one that I contend has a chance, and that”s Roots Manuva. Manuva is nothing new — in fact he”s been something of a sensation in England since 1999, and has been much-hyped by the indie-press since his debut, Brand New Second Hand. And, he hasn”t released anything since 2002s stunning Run Come Save Me. But if any British emcee has the production and lyrical skills to land himself on American charts, it”s Mr. Manuva. Unlike Dizzee, whose delivery is at times indecipherable, or the Streets, whose laconic colloquialism (girls are birds, guys are geezers) would seem alien to most Americans, Manuva is easily the most listenable act in England. That is not to say that his sound is mainstream. His production work, especially on the earlier Brand New Second Hand, seems to be dropped from interstellar orbit, a spaced-out, propulsive barrage whose closest point of reference would be Dan the Automator”s work on Dr. Octagonecologist. But with it”s inflections of ragga, jungle, house, and Timbaland-style thumps, Manuva”s beats are surprisingly danceable. ‘Witness (One Hope),’ the lead single off of Run Come Save Me, was one of the most raucous compulsively listenable efforts to emerge from any Hip-Hop artist — ever. And then there is the liquid rhythm of ‘Movements,’ the disjointed grind of ‘Artical,’ the hazy flow of ‘Soul Decay,’ and adictively club-friendly offerings like ‘Inna,’ ‘Oh Yeah,’ and ‘Bashment Boogie.’

The crux, of course, is finding a distributor. Dizzee was able to remove himself from the import racks when Boy in da Corner was picked up by indie label Matador. The Streets, by some act of divine providence, was able to land himself on Atlantic subsidiary Vice, receiving an even larger release than Dizzee. But Manuva has, for whatever reason, remained untouched by American companies, instead remaining bound to small time British distributors Big Dada and Ninja Tunes. You may (and I stress may) find his albums at your local independent record store or a veritable supermarket like a Virgin Megastore, but never at regular music retailers.

Why artists such as Ludacris or Nelly continue to sell, but acts like Manuva or Dizzee fail to, is beyond me. We cling like drowning rats to the carcass of Hip-Hop, claiming it”s ours. But the truth is that some people are doing it better right now, and they happen to be British.

Archived article by Zach Jones