Straight outta Tang Hall: the rise of York Hip-Hop

Nan Flory explores the recent explosion in York’s hip-hop scene. Talking to York’s own Mad Science Project, and to London-based Fenna, provides an insight into this growing subculture

Traditionally, hip-hop belongs to New York, people who can spell their names with their fingers, poverty, graffiti, tracksuits: pretty much everything York is not famed for. With the Jorvik Centre and Betty’s as cultural landmarks, it’s easy to question if York has anything to offer your discerning b-boy or girl looking for a bass heavy fix. But hip-hop is a strange and multi-faceted animal. Originally, hip-hop was a term used to describe a social movement that sprung up in 1970s New York amongst the African American and Latino communities, based around rapping, DJing, break dancing and graffiti. A community developed, with their own fashions, slang and, of course, their own music.

These origins lead to complications when you start talking about hip-hop scenes. A scene implies hip-hop’s cultural structures, something that York just doesn’t have. It is a rich, middle class town, officially a city because of the Minster rather than its urban edge. York just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the type of hip-hop community you get in New York, Compton or London, and any attempt to start pretending it does just becomes farcical. What it does have, however, is people who love the musical side of hip-hop culture. Hip-hop music is one of the most widespread genres of popular music. Since its beginnings in 1970s New York with Kool Herc & the Herculoids, it has spread across the world, existing independently from the culture it began with, constantly reinterpreted and reinvented. As any quality practitioner will tell you, when it comes to hip-hop music, it’s the beats that matter, not the bling or the size of your trainers.

This is what Lady Sovereign, one of the UK’s most feted hip hoppers, scouted by the likes of Jay-Z and celebrated by Vice magazine, appears to have forgotten when she visited York last November. In what may well have been York’s first ever mention in dirty gossip mailer, Popbitch, the November issue reported: ‘Lady Sovereign turned up to do a gig at Fibbers in York Sunday night last week, took one look at the venue, and went straight back to her van.’ Perhaps not massively surprising; York is hardly the kind of town you associate with a grimy little bad ass like the ‘ess oh vee’ and you can understand her being a little put out by the gates and Vikings. If you were going to ban youth culture’s favourite item of clothing in this city, you’d probably have to go with the polo shirt over the hoodie. Still, you’d hope her credentials as a talented MC would entail an ability to overlook York’s cream tea factor and deliver to her fans.

If Lady Sov had been willing to delve beneath the surface, she might have discovered that York hides a thriving little musical hip-hop scene, if not a cultural one, as I found out when I spoke to Andy, aka Dave Junior, and Louis, or Bad Dallas. They are the two halves of York hip-hop outfit, The Mad Science Project, who picked up the pieces when Lady Sovereign skipped town, and gave all the grime fans who turned up the hit they were looking for. A high energy band, they proved York capable of putting on a pretty grubby night, even without its big name headliner.

Andy came to York from Burnley to study at York St. John’s ten years ago, while Louis is York, born and bred. The pair cagily admit to respective day jobs within ‘engineering’ and ‘retail’. It is easy to see that it is the project, not the daily grind, which they like to spend the majority of their energy on. The Mad Science Project, active since June last year, is a fluid collective, headed by Dave Junior and Bad Dallas, who describe themselves as the ‘directors of songs’. They are the creative forces, drawing on the talents of musicians in their circle to bring their tunes to life. They cite the likes of George Clinton, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, De La Soul and Dr. Dre as influences.

Dave Junior explained that, in York, hip-hop fans are less visible precisely because they are music, rather than scene-focused. Emotional, indie kids do have a scene in middle class England. Musical taste is one part of a currently dominant youth culture, which also incorporates other values, fashion for instance, and modes of socialising. The hip-hop scene is less rigid, Dave said ‘people that are into it exist, but are not as obsessive or scene-based’. Bad Dallas thinks York has potential for hip-hop heads and says it’s better than it used to be. Nights have sprung up locally and it’s also a good travel centre, close to Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield; cities that are on the tour map for every major act. York is a refreshingly less intense city to come back to when you need a breather.

The Mad Science boys’ favourite venue in York City Screen’s Basement Bar, which hosts what they say is probably the best hip-hop night in town, Vinyl Frontier. Run by local MCs, ABD and ID, the latest instalment on Wednesday 25th provided a varied showcase of what York has to offer. A mixed bag of acts, the highlight was York University student Fenna Rhodes’ band, The True Ingredients. A slick group, featuring two MCs, Haiduru and Jamal, two vocalists, Grace and Bex, trumpet by phil, guitar by dan, halb on the bass and steve on the drums. They were serious crowd pleasers. Despite their thesis about beats over image, enjoyment of their performance was not hampered by the fact one of their rappers, Hadiru, was probably the coolest looking guy in the room, sporting turned up, indigo levis, a paisley shirt (tucked in), round, Posdnuos-style glasses and loafers. Nice.

Fenna Rhodes, producer and writer, founded the group and has been performing live music for the past four years. Recently based in London, he has a big collective of musicians and vocalists. “London is the centre of hip-hop in the UK; about 80% of artists are based there”. The band that played in city screen were put together in the last few weeks, the entire eight piece band all live and study in York – testament to the fact that they are really dedicated to their art.

Fenna said the scene in York was more intimate than the one in London, and that there is a great deal of interest in the music amongst students, with Platinum Society organizing some of the most accessible campus events. Another impressive act that night was female MC Angel S. With a distinctive, fast paced style, she stood out amongst some mediocre, rapping-over-a-beat performers. York is only now beginning to develop some more innovative acts. That’s right, despite hip-hop’s increasingly vigorous presence in York, it has some way to go before it can compete seriously with scenes in other UK cities.

Some of the rhymes employed that evening were rather suspect. It made you realise that there really is no logic to words that rhyme in the English language. Just because two words rhyme, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should be squashed into the same sentence. Proof comes in the evening’s odd coupling of ‘pasty’ and ‘nasty’ (an inside joke, I hope) and in the fact that cool words like purple, with all its battle potential in its connotations of sexual frustration, doesn’t rhyme with anything at all.

In the same vein, the line “I coming straight from York City/ Up north it’s all gritty” rang false. Can “gritty” be used to rhyme with “city” when that city status comes purely as a result of the Minster, hardly a gritty building: it’s not too hardcore is it? The point is that the English language is full of words that rhyme out of pure coincidence, which can trick rappers into being a little lame: you can distinguish the good from the average when they choose their words a little more wisely. However, these debates are proof, more than anything, of the health of hip-hop in York. At least, there’s enough going on that some sort of hierarchy of talent is emerging.

Mad Dallas and Dave Junior, like Fenna Rhodes, were broadly positive about York hip-hop, but explained that local musicians sometimes limited themselves by containing themselves within the city. The Mad Science Project aims, like hip-hop itself, to expand beyond its origins and avoid becoming ‘Yorkcentric’.

Dave Junior explained about his experience of musicians who, successful in York, found it hard to move onto a bigger stage because they were used to dominating a smaller one, but stressed that the move is possible.

Bad Dallas and Dave Junior point out that there is an independent internet radio station broadcasting out of York; freakin.org. Admittedly not purely a hip-hop affair, the station promotes local DJs and artists, providing a platform for local acts. It’s a place to get some early exposure for the EP Mad Science Project are planning to record with their collaborators, including technician, engineer and DJ, Redeye, and vocalist, Stacy Pips.

As well as the vinyl frontier, there are plenty of other events and venues in and around York that the Mad Science Project rate. There is an upcoming night on February 10th at Certificate 18, where you can catch Bad Dallas and Dave Junior if you haven’t already. There is Fibbers, which, despite being marketed as more of a rock and indie venue, has a steady trickle of hip hop gigs in its program. Dave and Dallas spoke in glowing terms about the summer time Moors Festival in Ilkley, run by York locals.

The basement bar also hosts Superfi, run by another York resident, Duke Dylanger. The pair also said they enjoy playing on campus, although, interestingly, they likened it to playing in Leeds rather than playing in town. They premiered in Vanbrugh bar at the end of the summer term, last year, at an event that was unfortunately (but not unusually) cut short by a fire alarm, and hope to play on campus again. Dallas and Dave also revealed that they are hoping for Lady Sovereign when she returns to play an as yet unscheduled make-up set in Fibbers.

So, she’s coming crawling back, presumably unaware of the less than savoury freestyle performed at her expense when she abandoned the stage back in November. She’s doubtless unaware that York, as unlikely as it may seem, plays host to a range of hip-hop talent, from grime to funkier, jazz inspired sounds. In a genre where the ethos is all about “keeping it real”, perhaps the unlikely location is a demonstration of York’s commitment to the music over its trappings. If a town can convincingly entertain hip-hop fans even when it’s crippled by knitwear and a rowing team, then it must have its priorities in the right order. Anyway, if you can go out and be met with dudes the likes of Hadiru on stage, you really have nothing to complain about, even if you are the lady herself

One comment

  1. I´m coming to York for a few months and Hip-Hop music means a lot to me. I hope to find some people who do love it too.
    I´m from Munich Germany and the last few years it was not a good period for Hip-Hop Music etc. But since last year the Hip-Hop community starts to grow again or they where never gone but go out again and meet to hear some good music.
    There are also more and more Hip-Hop Crews and DJ´s in Munich and the partys are getting better and better. Which is really nice to see.
    I´m open to every kind of music.
    But Hip-Hop & Rap that´s where my hearts at.
    So York Hip-Hop headz, where are you?

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