wed 29/05/2024

Tinie Tempah and the rise and rise of black British pop | reviews, news & interviews

Tinie Tempah and the rise and rise of black British pop

Tinie Tempah and the rise and rise of black British pop

Another UK rapper makes it to number one, but is it just a fad?

Tinie Tempah, the latest British rapper to confound preconceptions and top the chartsParlophone

A little revolution is taking place at the top of the pop charts. UK artist Tinie Tempah's rap track “Pass Out” has had two weeks at number one, and at the time of writing looks very much like it may successfully fight off Lady Gaga & Beyonce's spectacularly-hyped “Telephone Thing” to make it a third week on top.

Now this might not seem revolutionary in itself: over the last year or two it has become commonplace to see black British rappers from the formerly underground grime scene in the “proper” charts. However up until now, with the exception of Dizzee Rascal – who has always been a one-off talent – this has been achieved by severely capitulating to the demands of pop audiences.

Big hits by Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk, while by no means awful, have tended towards the lowest common denominator sounds of pop R&B and high-street nightclub beats a million miles from the rappers' pirate radio roots. Even unpredictable grime scene leader Wiley (who, as this spectacular video with over a million views shows, is still keyed directly into the hardcore sound and vernacular of underground music) has only cracked the top 10 by adopting highly accessible repetitive dance beats, as on his 2008 number one “Wearing My Rolex”, or “Never be Your Woman” which reached number six last week.

“Pass Out” is different. OK, it is certainly not nitty-gritty street level grime – it's got Parlophone/EMI money behind it, is all catchy hooks and high-gloss production, and it runs at a relaxed hip hop tempo. But not only does it have the clear imprint of grime in its sounds and the vocal phrasing, it exhibits the soundsystem-based sonic signature of dubstep, the bleeps of old-school rave, and most thrillingly, an impeccably-executed shift into a double-tempo drum & bass coda that proves beyond doubt what a credible, elegantly constructed club tune it is.

Accessible though it might be, it's not just a rapper going pop-dance, but a defiantly celebratory record made from key elements of British underground music. Even if Tinie Tempah (born Patrick Okogwu) were to follow it up with a naff watered-down album, the success of this track alone is proof that the recent rise of British multicultural music can continue without pandering to the cheesy sounds that are perceived to be the key to Radio 1 playlists. And with similarly mature, assured tracks like “Bad Boy” by grime veteran Skepta waiting in the wings, and work to follow by collectives like BBK (Boy Better Know) and Wiley's A-List, there is every chance that it will continue.

It's been a long time coming; for so long the most exciting and riotous creative hubs of British music have been stymied by the conservative tastes of a music industry that is (according to a 2006 survey of the music business commissioned by industry body the Association of Independent music) 96% white, 67% male and overwhelmingly middle-class to boot – as well as by infighting, disorganisation and self-destructiveness within whatever specialist “urban” industry did exist.

Incidentally, when this week's number one is announced on Sunday evening, Tinie Tempah will have been spending the day at Tate Britain. His involvement with the all-day Bring The Noise session organised by poet and musician Charlie Dark as a part of the ongoing Chris Ofili exhibition, could so easily have been another excruciating example of rap music and high culture trying to gain credibility off each other. We've certainly seen that before.

But the diversity of young participants and activities happening over two weekends of Bring the Noise are clear proof not just of the confidence of black British artists across the board but of increasingly clear lines of communication that mean the art world no longer is able to interact with the grassroots without looking patronising or vampiric. Tinie Tempah's presence in Tate Britain and at the top of the charts might not in itself be a revolution, but it certainly feels like part of one.
Buy "Pass Out" on Amazon

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