Skinnyman, Chester P & Jehst: A Glance at the UK Underground
The last few years have seen another spike in UK hip hop’s popularity not since Dizzee Rascal has the world seen Grime artists packing out large venues globally. This year has seen Grime heavyweights Skepta and Stormzy had Australian tours booked, but cancelled due to unforeseen personal circumstances and grime label ‘High Focus’ making several trips ‘down under’ with members from their large ensemble including Dirty Dike and the Four Owls. But lets roll back the clock, right back to when Stormzy went by Stiff Chocolate and Skinnyman, Chester P and Jehst were the soundtracks to Brit youth’s teenage years.
To understand UK hip-hop and Grime, you have to understand the context it is born from. Naturally, it has developed in many ways independently of the American scene, a diverse genre of mixed accents, ranging from the Jamaican influences of Klashnekoff and Blak Twang to the Cockney verses from Wiley. Furthermore, grime has a peculiar relationship with US rap, it’s a large source of inspiration and deprivation, many UK emcees have well documented their struggle in rhymes to get all important radio time in England over the dominant US artists. Despite the obvious exceptions of Dizzee Rascal and Slick Rick’s storytelling success in the States, American dominance in the British rap scene over homegrown talent is something resented by many grime artists and reflected in some of the UK’s most successful tracks (just take a listen to Skepta’s ‘Ace Hood Flow’ & Dubbledge’s ‘The Message’). For all their differences, they hold many similarities and like most hip-hop, grime is born from a struggle. The U.S. has the famous ghetto’s, Compton, Harlem, ‘139 - the Dangerzone’, the UK, has the council estates. Particularly in the Northern cities of England post-Depression and Thatcher, the council estate’s still are largely filled with working-class Britons. The council estates are the scene for one of UK hip hops most important albums, Skinnyman’s ‘Council Estate of Mind’.
A powerful and highly autobiographical album from the golden era of the now defunct record label of the early to mid 2000’s - Lowlife Records, which harboured the talents of the biggest names of the epoch - founder Braintax (who has made collaborations with the Hilltop Hoods), Verb T, Jehst, Task Force, Dubbledge, Micall Parknsun and of course, Skinnyman. The production is littered with samples from ‘Made in Britain’ used on the album as social commentary detailing English working class youths stuck in the system of the council estate being interrogated and lectured about discipline by social workers, falling on the wrong side of the law and fighting to survive; each sample linking the last track to the next. The whole album articulates young lads in the system turning to crime to survive ‘dealin’ the cards life’s dealt ‘em’, in a system where ‘the law has made sure that they’re grown to resent dem’. ‘Little Man Pt.1’ describes a chilling narrative of an English youth, product of a ‘system that failed him’ who turned to drugs. On ‘Hayden’ the lack of institutional regard to drug habits in the council estate is commented on, ‘He’s 19 an’ caught with half a kee, so now he ain’t coming home til he’s 33, what a waste of life, jus’ like a criss girl I knew who fucked man for a taste of pipe.’ But it’s on the albums title track ‘Council Estate of Mind’ where the tragedy of the council estate institution is most evident. The animal law that rules the streets and a tribute to Nas’ Illmatic makes Council Estate of Mind is perhaps just as important as an album from one of the UK’s most influential curators as it is a piece of social commentary on the institutionally ingrained struggle of ‘estate head’ youths - ‘Nothin’s equivalent to this council estate of mind’.
Widely regarded as one of the best albums in the UK scene, ‘Return of the Drifter’ is home to some of the most iconic British sounds. ‘High Plains Anthem’ is an instant classic, laced in rich lyrical wordplay and pop culture cross-references - ‘A space cowboy, I sip whisky with George Jetson 2001: The Space Western‘. Matched with a vintage old school keys beat and Jehst’s sharp tongue, it’s a tune that keeps finding its way back again, the way that only a true classic can. Although not as politically motivated as Skinnyman’s debut album, Jehst has a distinct style and flow, sharp, slightly arrogant and judicious, his lyrics incorporate pop culture elements and seem to leave you one step behind, making you work to keep up. ‘Alcoholic Author’, ‘City of Industry’ and ‘People Under the Weather’ are highlights, which have you hooked on the instant truth of his razor sharp lyrics and a flow that Dirty Dike seems to have encapsulated and has inspired later generations of UK artists.
Few artists have been as instrumental as Chester P. Shy and eloquent, Chester P’s witty gob has contributed several massive tracks to the scene. Founding member of M.U.D. Family and Task Force (who were also on Braintax’s Low Life Record label), Chester P was a large part of great releases ‘Voice of the Great Outdoors’ and ‘Music from the Corner’. But Figaro’s opinion his solo endeavour, ‘From the Ashes’ is where he puts down his best work. With a similar flow to Jehst, all tracks on the album have a distinctive punch, complex lyrics and very nice production, mostly from fellow comrade in the trenches - DJ Lous Slipperz. ‘That Shiiit!!!’ is a longtime Figaro favourite, which seems reminiscent of Big L lyricism; rude, nasty and really bloody good, only riddled with omnipresent British cultural references - the whole chorus seems to be a tribute to their mannerisms and native folk of England. ‘Oh No (He Loves a Ho)’ is a playfully adolescent Task Force classic that also appears on Chester P’s From the Ashes, but no matter the track, Chester P is well worth a listen and you’ll immediately know why he’s held in such high regard. *
But this is only the very tip of the iceberg, to suss out some of the very best classics from the UK, have a listen to ‘Figaro’s UK Classic Selections’ Spotify playlist:
*Chester P's work largely is unobtainable through Spotify.