FROM THE MAGAZINE

God Save the Beat

Rap’s new vanguard is defined by a gritty mélange of sounds coming out of the United Kingdom. Meet the mix masters bringing the new wave of British rap music to the world.

Photographed by Tim Walker
Styled by Gerry O’Kane

Slowthai wears a Givenchy hood; his own necklace (throughout).
Slowthai wears a Givenchy hood; his own necklace (throughout).

The English rapper Slowthai grew up listening to American musicians. “Rappers coming from Memphis, SpaceGhostPurrp, Raider Klan, even Elliott Smith,” says the 26-year-old, born Tyron Frampton, ticking off his major influences on both hands. He notes that many of his British contemporaries were also raised on the music, movies, and pop culture that came from the other side of the Atlantic, because “Americans just generally have a cheat code, where they sound good,” he says, his cheeky grin widening. “They could say anything on a song, and it sits well.”

Slowthai

“We all have a hood; we all have the boss man telling us what to do. We all have the same struggles, trials, and tribulations. As long as music comes from an honest place, it doesn’t matter where it’s from. I can listen to a musician who is speaking in another language, even, and I’m like, I know what he’s saying. I can feel where he’s coming from.”

Louis Vuitton Men’s jacket, skirt, and pants; vintage hat from the Costume Studio, London; Church’s shoes.

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Today, the current of influence is flowing in the other direction. Rap artists from the U.K.—including Headie One, Digga D, Ivorian Doll, and Central Cee, along with producers like AXL Beats, M1 on the Beat, and MK the Plug—have carved out their own style of music: one that combines England’s hometown signature grime with drill, a bass-heavy rap subgenre that blew up in Chicago in the early 2010s. The London rap scene’s newest artists, like Unknown T and Shaybo, are injecting African and West Indian rhythms and melodies, Jamaican dancehall, and even jazz into their songs, creating club-ready bangers that are becoming as popular in Atlanta as they are in Camden Town. In July 2020, Drake teamed up with Headie One on the track “Only You Freestyle,” the video for which currently has over 28 million views on YouTube. And before his untimely death, in February 2020, Pop Smoke, a pioneering Brooklyn artist whom many hailed as the second coming of Tupac, worked almost exclusively with British producers, including AXL Beats.

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Louis Vuitton Men’s coat.

The growing interest in English rap is best exemplified by Slowthai’s career trajectory. He released his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, amid the turmoil of Brexit, sharing his caustic take on the country’s health, economic, and political crises, wealth disparities, and class hostilities. Nothing Great About Britain made such waves internationally that Slowthai canceled his plans to open for English singer-songwriter Liam Gallagher and instead toured with American hip-hop boy band Brockhampton, who then invited him to feature on their song “Heaven Belongs to You.” Slowthai’s entry into the mainstream can be traced to February 2021, when he dropped his second album, Tyron. It shot to No. 1 in the U.K., and A$AP Rocky took note—releasing it via his AWGE imprint in the United States and jumping on the song “MAZZA.”

Slowthai’s style is influenced by the same sounds that inspire U.K. drill artists, (although Slowthai does not identify himself as a drill rapper), coupled with the experimental, alternative elements of Radiohead and Elliott Smith’s thoughtful, at times dark lyrics. He also name-checks Juicy J and DJ Paul, DIY artists like Daniel Johnston, and punk music as influences. This grab bag of inspiration is apparent in his music, but when he was coming up, in 2017, that eclecticism wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “Radio, they was being funny at that point, because they was like, ‘We don’t know where to place you. We can’t put you on the rap show and play your punk stuff.’ In my head, music’s music,” he says. “And we’ve found our sound in the U.K. Now we’ve got a sense of identity, and it’s not about what’s cool anywhere else, because we’ve got it here. This is our home.”

AXL Beats wears a Burberry shirt.

AXL Beats

“I started making beats when I was 15 years old. I didn’t really use a laptop— I was making music on my phone using the FL Studio Mobile app. I posted those beats on my YouTube channel, and soon enough, rappers like Fivio Foreign and 22Gz used them for their songs.”

Burberry coat, top, and pants.

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The new wave of British rap is indeed markedly British. “I like my crumble with some custard,” Unknown T sings on NSG’s single “Kate Winslet”; others reference the culture and struggles of London’s Southeast Asian, African, and Caribbean diasporas, and the neighborhoods in which they live. According to Ciaran Thapar, a writer and youth worker whose upcoming book, Cut Short: Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City, explores the British government’s demonization of drill music and young Black men, teenagers in South London were fixated on drill as early as 2017. “They were able to decipher every single detail about what street or what block or what incident or what school were in these songs,” Thapar says. “It was a war report of what was going on in these communities.”

Police and government officials in the U.K. began using drill artists’ songs and music videos against them in legal cases, blaming the explicit lyrics for a rise in murder, knife crime, and gang activity. The moral panic, combined with the incarceration or death of many of the genre’s first stars, pushed a more palatable version of the sound to the forefront. “Rappers got smarter with their lyrics,” Thapar says. “That is a subtle reason for why there’s this commercialized, sheened version of drill that’s now popped up. The artists that are succeeding are those that have learnt how to do that and navigate that really well.”

Miss LaFamilia

“My mixtape, called Elements, will come out this year. I’ve always wanted to call my first project Elements because I think that’s the best way to describe what I can offer: different vibes and feelings, versatility. And I want to capture it all in one tape.”

Miss LaFamilia wears a Versace men’s coat; Emma Brewin beret; Christian Louboutin platform sandals; her own watch.

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Atsuko Kudo dress. Manicure by Jewel Trinh.

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Unknown T, the 21-year-old musician born Daniel Lena, is having french fries at his home in the Homerton district of London when we meet over Zoom. He’s currently working on an upcoming mixtape called Adolescence, which embraces this new iteration of melodic rap music. “I talk all my shit in my music, but I talk my shit to represent the pain,” Unknown T, who was wrongly accused of fatally stabbing a student at a New Year’s Eve party in 2018, says in between bites. “So there’s a filter that I, as an artist, need to know how to balance. I want people to understand the picture and learn. That’s why people feel my music.” Unknown T burst onto the rap scene in 2018 with his song “Homerton B,” a track heavy on melodies, with an upbeat rhythm that people could dance to. It blew up instantly, partly because he knew the success of his music depended on whether he could open up his audience to include women (both drill and grime are historically male-dominated genres).

Not only are women now listening, they’re creating some of the most exciting music coming out of the U.K. Artists like Lavida Loca and TeeZandos are master storytellers, amping up the genre with silver-tongued detail. Miss LaFamilia, a Birmingham native who prefers not to reveal her given name, is quickly ascending the ranks: The musician describes herself as an assertive “boss lady,” having started the modeling agency Lafamilias Dolls four years ago. Her switch to rap was based on an inkling she could not shake. “One day, I just thought to myself, I need to fulfill a deeper passion of mine,” she says over Zoom (camera off, to hide the aftermath of a night of drinking). “Something that I actually enjoy doing, not just a career. I need it to feel right, like I’m at home.” She garnered a million views in a month when she posted her first song, “Addictive Remix,” on GRM Daily in 2019.

Unknown T wears Salvatore Ferragamo pants; Zimmerli of Switzerland underwear; Ruslan Baginskiy balaclava; Places+Faces x Gentle Monster sunglasses (throughout); vintage gloves from the Costume Studio, London.

Unknown T

“I’ve really been trying to test the waters, musically speaking. Everybody knows me for that drill, thuggish vibe. So I combusted that with the African, jazzy type of sound. I like to treat it like chemicals: Put two together, see the reaction, and then boom.”

Gucci blazer, shirt, pants, and shoes.

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“The women are giving more energy than the men right now; that’s the reality,” Miss LaFamilia says. “Because we’ve been put on the shelf for so long, I think now it’s the hunger season.” She cites Ms Banks, Alicaì Harley, and the R&B singer Dolapo as just a few of her favorites. American artists are reaching out to “give us international love as well,” Miss LaFamilia says, adding that Meek Mill DMed her the other day to ask if she was signed (“He’s like, ‘Yo, you’re cold,’ ” she says). “We’re breaking crazy barriers right now. And I feel like my vibe is something that people all over the world can connect with, because the sound is so international.”

GMBH jacket, pants, and boots.

The 20-year-old producer Manalla Yusuf, known as AXL Beats, is partially responsible for the genre’s cross-border proliferation. The East London native got his start at 15 by making beats on his phone, using the FL Studio Mobile app from the Apple store. He would post the tracks on his YouTube channel, which managed to reach New York rappers like Fivio Foreign and Pop Smoke. They adopted his style, and since then, AXL has worked with Drake, Travis Scott, and Kanye West, who invited him to Los Angeles last year to collaborate. “Kanye has his eyes open about this whole drill thing,” AXL says. “We were in the studio messing around, and it led to some projects.”

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Maximilian jacket, pants, and hood; Nasir Mazhar for Maximilian goggles; Giorgio Armani boots.

Hair by Cyndia Harvey for Oribe at Art Partner; makeup by Sam Bryant at Bryant Artists.

Produced by Jeff Delich at Padbury Production; photo assistant: Tony Ivanov; retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; fashion assistant: Ella MacDonald; production assistant: Charlotte Garner; hair assistants: Emilie Bromley, Franklyn Nnamdi-Okwedy; makeup assistant: Famida Pathan; tailor: Lina Krukauskaite at Galedi Ltd.; special thanks to Madeleine Østlie.

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Even with this new level of international reach, the U.K. rap scene maintains a staunchly homegrown quality that makes it unique. Slowthai chatted with me from the basement of the home he shares with his fiancée and his mother in Northampton, which is where he recorded most of Tyron and where he has “done 51 songs” since its release. It feels like an apt metaphor: One of the most exciting musical talents of the moment made a chart-topping album in a dimly lit man cave in the East Midlands of England. Listeners connect with his work because it’s both highly specific and unexpectedly familiar. You might never have had an experience with the British National Health Service or with a constitutional monarchy—both things he raps about—but the energy in his songs is universal. It will make you want to turn the volume way up.