In February 2016, halfway through a performance by the then little-known rap crew Section Boyz at an east London club, Canadian superstar Drake (glowing in an all-white tracksuit) leapt on to the crowded stage and reeled off his quadruple-platinum hit ‘Jumpman’. It wasn’t a move anyone, let alone the small local audience, had been expecting. Within seconds, a constellation of iPhones lit up, and gasps gave way to frenzied screams, drowning out all but the backing track. His hosts — six school friends from Croydon, all in their early twenties — stood beaming at one another.
“They got the publicity, and he looked cool,” explains Raye, the 19-year-old R&B newcomer stationed in a sunlit back room of a Clapton warehouse: Vogue‘s base for a shoot that will see a roll-call of the capital’s rising music stars over three searing days of summer. Raye — wrapped in a white bathrobe and flashing a wide smile as a manicurist retouches her frosted pink nails — now intersperses her packed recording and touring schedule with writing stints “for Rihanna‘s camp” in LA.
It’s not a coincidence that she, her close friends Section Boyz and prodigious rappers Loyle Carner and Nadia Rose (cousin of Stormzy), who appear on set over the next 72 hours, are all from Croydon. It’s there and on the east London/Essex border (home to Stefflon Don, J Hus and Ghetts) that you’ll find most of the underground acts with new-found worldwide visibility and idiosyncratic confidence. They’re part of a nationwide Brit-hop phenomenon that includes Birmingham’s 5ft firecracker Lady Leshurr and Manchester’s Aaron Davis, better known by his stage name Bugzy Malone. These are the innovators behind Britain’s grime, rap and afrobeat scenes that have gone global in 2017; the largest homegrown music phenomenon since Britpop.
It’s the renascent grime music swell, in particular, that has been mobilising a political and artistic movement defining a new kind of irrepressible British cool. Female stars sit top of the bill alongside male counterparts — “Amazingly talented females have always been part of UK culture, but in 2017 it’s great to see so many taking things to the next level,” says BBC Radio 1Xtra’s DJ Target — and this past year, distinctive British accents have been headlining festivals and ruling radio airtime here and in America, where artists and DJs have been paying dues to talent from further afield.
Section Boyz enter the Vogue shoot at the peak of the afternoon’s heat, and evidently no longer need a publicity leg-up from Drake. At 3.15pm they’re outside rolling cigarettes, when a nearby girls’ school turns out and a tide of fans rolls in. Teenage boys start to circle on bikes, filming everything for Snapchat. Three community police officers pause, smile and keep walking. It’s the day before Stormzy is to give a performance at Glastonbury that will confirm the real-time power of his number-one debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, and his political vigour.
This is the artist who became the face of the counterpoint to Theresa May’s snap election campaign — in the run-up to polling day, posters appeared with the words: “The Tories hold Croydon by 165 votes (that’s literally it). Even your dad’s got more Facebook friends. Stormzy says vote Labour.” (Labour won the majority.) At Worthy Farm it was the Grenfell Tower scandal that stirred his show, blasting out the community spirit native to London’s streets to an audience of 20,000. In grime circles, family matters — and to these musicians, family means friends, neighbours, fans. Back on the Vogue set, AJ Tracey, a Ladbroke Grove local, leans in. “Jeremy Corbyn DM’d me thanking me for my support in the general election,” he smiles, proudly showing me his Instagram inbox with one hand, flicking the scarlet lapel of his Adidas tracksuit with the other. “Red for Labour.”
The intelligence of artists such as AJ Tracey, Stormzy and Loyle Carner has pushed aside the presumed social and semantic limitations of the “urban” genre, a term that played to assumptions about class and race without nodding to the sophistication behind London’s sprawling youth scenes. While Carner talks the Vogue crew through his love of chef Francis Mallmann — an inspiration behind the cooking school he runs on the side for kids with ADHD — I remember the model Adwoa Aboah, backstage at the Versus autumn/winter 2017 show, imploring me to watch his YouTube videos. (Carner mentions that, by chance, he walked past the Gurls Talk founder on a New York street a few weeks before and paused to say hello, but lost his nerve.)
London is now the springboard for global success. Take Skepta, arguably Britain’s best-known MC, who in June transformed the basement of Selfridges into a souk for the launch of his clothing line, Mains. This was the latest project of an internationally recognised impresario; the “urban” tag just doesn’t stick now that record label start-ups, clothing lines and six-figure YouTube channel views are playing out a new kind of success for these Brit-hop stars.
“What’s the mood in London right now?” 22-year-old J Hus asks himself, before sneaking off set to get a KFC. “I dropped ‘Friendly’ in February last year and got about a thousand views a day. This year, with ‘Did You See’, I get about 400,000 views a day.” As I walk him to the door to see if the kids outside the studio are still there, I ask if there’s a downside to getting so much attention. “I can’t go to Westfield in Stratford any more,” he admits. “The girls go too crazy. That’s a year’s difference. People are listening to London. America is listening to us.”