On May 6, UK grime MC Skepta dropped Konnichiwa, his fourth full length LP. It’s hard, boisterous, and is currently battling Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool at the top of the British charts, despite having no major label distribution. But in the U.S., much of the news around Skepta and his crew/label, Boy Better Know, has been centered on its association with the Prince of Pout, Aubrey “Drake” Graham. Drake has perfected the cultural vampire tactics that keep him relevant from month to month; his co-sign can birth careers, or sometimes, just a hit single. UK rappers have historically not done well in the US, so if you haven’t been following the fortunes of the scene and crews that gave us Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, chances are you don’t know Skepta, or why Drake sweats him so hard. Let’s fix that.
First things first: Grime, the distinctly British take on hip-hop music, has its roots in the UK garage scene, a subgenre of electronic music that peaked in the ‘90s and early aughts. It’s defined by stutter-step 4/4 break beats and a talk-rap style on the mic — British accents ring loud, if not clear, as the lyrics are a swirl of slang and patois. Its roots are often traced to the producer and MC Wiley, who formed the Roll Deep crew in 2002 after the garage crew he rolled with, Pay As U Go, disbanded. Oddly enough, for much of its history, grime has been a subgenre beloved by both poor black Brits in housing projects, and the privileged white music nerds who worship them.
Skepta briefly joined the Roll Deep crew with his brother Jme, before they started their own collective Boy Better Know in 2006, which started releasing their records independently. The crew’s first single, “Too Many Man,” lamenting the lack of ladies at the club, appeared on Jme’s Famous?, Wiley’s Race Against Time, and Skepta’s debut, Microphone Champion. They’ve been steadily increasing their profile ever since.
Drake’s thirst for grime has been evident since at least 2012, when he was spotted hanging backstage with Wiley before a show. By 2015, he was cribbing lyrics, thanking Skepta in liner notes, and professing his admiration on Instagram. News broke that Drake had interest in funding the third season of the East London BBC4 crime drama Top Boy, which had been cancelled after two season, and Skepta confirmed on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 Radio show that he was also involved in the creative direction.
Drake even got a BBK tattoo, which, of course, he Instagram’d. But most curiously, in February of this year, he posted a photo to Instagram with a caption that claimed he had signed to Boy Better Know — despite the fact that he’s signed to Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Music Group as an artist, and his OVO label is signed to Warner Bros. As one writer helpfully pointed out, it’s highly unlikely that Drake’s contracts with two of the US’s Big Three major labels would let one of their marquee artists sign a record deal with another label. And Skepta himself admitted that “we haven’t talked about how it’ll work yet. It’ll be separate to his existing contracts.” Hmm.
Drake’s “signing” is likely as symbolic as the tattoo he got; it proves he’s “down” with one of the most important (and currently successful) grime crews, proving his bona fides if (OK, when) the current wave of grime popularity hits US shores. Skepta has already proven he can step a little outside his comfort zone; peep his fire verse on Blood Orange’s “High Street.” And if Konnichiwa is any indication, with the proper support, it might just make a big splash.
Konnichiwa catches Skepta at the crossroads. He’s been grinding for years, repping East London ghetto culture like a badge of honor, but now he’s getting a taste of success, selling out big clubs and competing with titans for the top spot on the charts. And he’s weary — at the end of the Wiley-featuring “Corn on the Cob,” he’s despondent, on the phone with fellow MC Chip, stressing about “Mad pressure from every angle.” The production sounds fresh (there’s a Queens of the Stone Age sample on “Man”) but rooted in grime’s past, and the guest spots stretch the length of the pond, with appearances from his brother Jme (“That’s Not Me”) and the BBK crew (“Detox”) , as well as America’s Pharrell and members of the A$AP Mob. He quotes Dizzee Rascal lyrics, and reminiscences about partying at raves.
Even if it doesn’t make an impact crater on U.S. shores, Konnichiwa is still important, for both Skepta and the grime community at large. Regardless of what you think of Drake, he’s a commercial force, and the right positioning from his camp could help take the current resurgence of popularity grime is experiencing at home and help it grow stateside. And Skepta himself has been improving steadily as an MC—each tape he releases has been stronger than the last. Let’s just hope BBK is left standing after that tattoo starts to fade, and Drake has moved on to the next flavor of the week.