This 17-track compilation on XL Recordings offers a snapshot of the new generation of London’s rappers, singers, and dancehall kings.
You can find the beating heart of the U.K. rap underground online, somewhere among the thousands of kids desperately spitting bars on YouTube in hopes of getting noticed. On channels like SBTV, Link Up TV, and GRM Daily, no-name rappers spit (mostly written) rhymes for “freestyle” competitions, battling for relevance in a digital Hunger Games for the chance to be anointed as the next Stormzy or Skepta.
It’s from this pool of hopefuls that New Gen was born; at first, as a showcase for promising talent stymied by London police’s aggressive targeting of rap shows, and later as an Sunday afternoon radio show on Radar Radio. The latest incarnation is a compilation of original songs on XL Recordings, a 17-track album meant to be a snapshot of the new generation of London’s rappers, singers, and dancehall kings. Grime is still the city’s most famous urban musical export, but the youngest members of the U.K. scene seem less concerned with subgenre—on New Gen, you’ll hear garage, dancehall, reggae, and R&B singers alongside the grime and hip-hop MCs, the lines bleeding between each without regard for the old guard’s gatekeeping.
New Gen is the brainchild of Caroline SM, a GRM Daily editor that had found success breaking rappers on the site’s YouTube channel. Barely in her 20s, she's worn many hats: editor (GRM Daily), host (NewGenRadio), A&R (XL Recordings), executive producer (the New Gen LP), and artist manager (Bonkaz and J Hus, who each signed to Sony in 2015 and 2016, respectively). As much as any of the New Gen rappers, she’s carving her own role in the industry, with each gig feeding exposure and opportunity to the other, vertically integrating A&R, production, management and publicity under one brand. Though her sole appearance on the comp is to intro Kojey Radical’s “Fuck Your Feelings,” in effect, New Gen is her debut album.
But it’s the producers that keep New Gen from simply being a collection of hard YouTube bars. Seeking to mimic the creative energy of production camps like Rick Rubin’s Malibu retreat or Kanye’s Hawaii sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Caroline SM and her fellow executive producer, the MC Renz, recruited Jevon, Nyge, and Soul to handle all the production duties, with artists popping in and out of different rooms at Red Bull’s studios in London. The three manage to weave a handful of styles from hungry artists with varying dialects into a cohesive statement, from the sinister synths on the opening track (Avelino & Bonkaz’s “Welcome to the New Gen”) to bouncy R&B (Ray BLK’s “Busy”), to a tasteful sample of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” (“Man of the Hour”), somber King Krule-ish guitar tones (“Life Support”), or a dancehall spin on the Atlanta strip club sound (“Money Haffi Mek”). It’s no small feat.
Like a lot of U.K. hip-hop, New Gen may require a bit of lyrical decoding for an American audience; even if you’re familiar with the various Caribbean patois and know that “Money Haffi Mek” means “money to be made,” there’s plenty of British slang that requires translation. Despite this, you might be able to deduce what AJ Tracey means when brags that he’s “still got these yatties up in my gaf,” or the “skengs in the rides” on 67’s “Jackets” are weapons meant for nefarious purposes. The dialect may be different, but the tried-and-true topics of sex, haters, and violence are apparently universal.
Among all the artists featured on the compilation, Avelino & Bonkaz stand out as the most polished talents. Avelino, a 23-year-old from Tottenham, has three mixtapes and the EP F.Y.O. under his belt, while Bonkaz, the latest MC out of the South London town of Croydon (Krept and Konan, Stormzy, A2, Section Boys), is in the second year of a deal with Sony Music. Their tag-team on the LP’s first track is an opening salvo, a two-minute barrage of lyrical punches that never quite gets topped: “A: Welcome to the New Gen/B: Funny how sometimes the new friends can be the real friends/A: You should mind your business, I know dragons in a few dens/B: It's like a whole family camping, them niggas too tense.”
New Gen feels like a proof of concept—that given the means and opportunity, these YouTube warriors can create work worthy of coming back to. For curious Americans who’ve only just heard of Skepta and Stormzy, it’s a preview of the artists in the London underground most likely to break through, cheesing at future MOBO Awards, taking down trophies (New Gen artists WSTRN & Abra Cadabra were already honored at the 2016 edition in November). And while a cynic might see New Gen as merely a reflection of Caroline SM and Renz’s taste and grassroots network; an optimist might say it’s an underground scene collectivizing for its mutual benefit. Nevertheless, it’s one of the more impressive collections of underground talent of late.