Vocalizing: MC Culture in the UK

Nabeel Zuberi

University of Auckland (New Zealand)

DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2013.05.02.14

MCs are those “figures of speech” (Henriques, 2011: 175–206) that take up the microphone to soliloquize, spit and slur bars with idiosyncratic flows. They rhyme and narrate themselves and their stories over beats in a range of music genres, including hip-hop, grime, dubstep and what is often more loosely termed “bass music”. MCs riding or “getting on” a variety of beats complicate the fetishistic discourse of genre in dance music. More significantly, the MC’s established oral techniques are steeped in the “live” settings of the sound system and the improvised moments of battles, freestyles and cyphers. The voices of the MC are codified and organized in an evolving assemblage present across a range of digital audio and audiovisual media. Given the MC's tendency to discuss themselves and what they do, in many cases MC recordings are also commentaries on working in this changing media environment. More broadly, the MC’s social resonance also offers insights into the politics of voice in debates about the racialization of national identity in multicultural Britain.


As Gervase de Wilde and Gabriel Myddleton of The Heatwave sound system mention in the sleeve notes for the 2008 compilation An England Story: From Dancehall to Grime: 25 Years of the MC in the UK (Soul Jazz), the MC has operated across “different but connected genres” (Various Artists 2008). These include the more Jamaican influenced sounds of Dancehall, the cadences of US hip-hop, the spongy rhythms of UK Garage, the minimalist video game aesthetics of grime and the diversifying beats and textures of post-dubstep electronica. MCs offer their voices to a range of producers and styles. Their voices may rhyme in Patois, speak in other vernacular tongues—including local English creoles such as Cockney—and switch between these different codes as well as throw in the cosmopolitan vocabularies of (South) Asian London. They sometimes quote US hip-hop in their own accents and idiosyncratic flows. The African presence in verbal references and beat patterns is increasingly audible today in some of these recordings by Britons of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, for example. The MC is also not confined to Afrodiasporic and dance music genres or the hardcore continuum but can cross over into rock music, as for example, in 2007 when Lethal Bizzle released both Babylon’s Burning the Ghetto (a song that draws substantially on the post-punk single “Babylon’s Burning” by The Ruts) and Police on my Back, a 1968 recording by black-and-white English rock group The Equals, that was covered by The Clash on London Calling (1979). In 2013, Dizzee Rascal recorded Goin’ Crazy, a duet with pop idol and former boy band member Robbie Williams. There isn’t space here to discuss the formation and boundary making of genres and sub-genres in electronic dance music cultures, or to explore the pros and cons of Simon Reynolds’ “hardcore continuum” as a concept, but the particularity of MCs brings debates about subjectivity (and individuals) to qualify or temper the hegemony of habitus or scenius in dance culture discourse.

Live and Indirect

Writing about the Jamaican dance hall, Julian Henriques (2011: 182–203) breaks down the MC’s poetics into the following: “guidance” of the audience during the dance; the “championing” of the sound system to which he or she belongs, often in a staged competition or clash with another sound system; “instruction” of those assembled, both in the immediacy of the event and in a more pedagogical sense on the subjects of the day. The MC must both ride the rhythm with a proficient and pleasing flow for the audience and should be able to “conduct the choir” or move the crowd to respond vocally and in dance. He or she invokes and “toasts” musical and other cultural forebears and rivals and so “traces” a tradition or community in which the MC is embedded. The unique personality must loom large in the styles of writing and vocalization on the mic.

These techniques, honed in the sweat and saliva of the “live” event, have been transferred unevenly to media and the technologies of recording and playback. Studio set-ups and music production software have long treated the voice, which has found itself doubled and multiplied, cut up and sampled, its pitch shifted and retuned in the history of pop (Brophy 2010). Psychoanalytical approaches to the voice already stress its inherent detachment and otherness from the subject (Dolar 2006). Studies of ventriloquism have offered ways in which to consider the voice as something disembodied and rematerialized in other media (Connor). Ways of understanding the voice as “phonic substance” and not as the transparent repository and carrier of subjectivity have been important in demythologizing the racialized discourses of authenticity and soul often projected onto African and African diasporic musical forms and practices in particular (Moten 2003). A growing body of work on electronic and dance music has helped to make uncontroversial the proposition that music is inseparable from the technologies responsible for its articulation. For example, Susana Loza and Kay Dickinson’s (2001) analyses of female voices in disco and other dance music genres and Nick Prior’s account of such cyborg singers argue that these syntheses—which put quotation marks around “humanness” in many respects—remain attached to the social and cultural expectations of racialized and gendered voices. However, in approaching the treatment of the voice in mid-1970s Jamaican dub, 1980s digital dancehall and early UK dubstep in the 2000s, Ross Gibson argues that the interplay of carbon and silicon in recordings favours the latter as “the singer can ooze into the world and shift shape as the need or urge arises” (2010: 223).

Given the value placed on the singularity and central personality of the MC in most hip-hop and grime tracks, might we speculate that there has been a multiplication of the MC’s voices as artists experiment with the possibilities of mobilizing different social voices through new technologies and also seek to diversify their presence in music media? These voices enhance the profile of the MC but may also operate with a measure of autonomy from his or her agency. Matthew Fuller writes about UK pirate radio in the mid-1990s from a Deleuzian perspective, noting the many ways in which all kinds of voices from “television, film, radio and previous music recordings bounce off each other in hip-hop tracks” (2005: 29–30). As he also states, “but almost nowhere, even in beatboxing and for many reasons, does it [hip-hop] allow the voice to become primarily synthetic. The reckoning behind this? That it allows the voice to operate more vigorously in keeping it real” (2005: 29–30). However, “keeping it real” may have changed. The late DJ Screw of Houston made a career of slowing down MCs and singers’ vocals to a drawl. Producer Madlib heightened the pitch of his voice for his animalistic alter ego Quasimoto. Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West have deployed Autotune extensively, while Jay-Z has gone on record to criticize the technology in his song DOA–Death Of Autotune. This may not quite be a crisis of authenticity, but writing about the scandal of Milli Vanilli’s voices emanating from elsewhere, Philip Auslander (1999) pointed out that such anxieties about technological mediation often mark the passing of one regime of simulation to another and a moving of the goalposts of authenticity. We might be more cautious about these changes and suggest that some of the established skills and codes of the MC are still held in high regard while the range of vocal manipulations suggest the wider distribution of the MC’s voice across many sites.

Boosting Confidence?

In grime—which has dominated UK MC culture in the 21st century—the beats have been designed for MCs to spit their bars with their voices front and centre of minimal rhythms with sub-bass frequencies and sharp keyboard stabs to support these flows. However, in many versions and remixes, the MC chooses to give up his or her voice, to partially devolve vocal agency to the producer’s whims. One such notable example comes from Trim AKA Trimbal/Trimothy and his track Confidence Boost Preview. This is a short track from the mixtape (really a CD and digital download) Soulfood Vol. 2 (2007), with an acapella beginning in which Trim—with an East London accent—sends a message out to “the young who are 'Nike'd out' with 'hoodies low'”, citing examples of different positive and negative circumstances in which they might find themselves. For example, “Girl, if you look good in your clothes”, “If you have issues and you don’t care who knows”, “If you’ve had a dad or mum, but not both”. He follows each example with the words “strike a pose” for therapeutic self-affirmation, echoing Madonna’s chorus in Vogue (1989), but for working-class youth. The second half of the track features a drum pattern with keyboards muffled in the background of the mix and Trim’s voice up front in the mix.

Producer and singer-songwriter James Blake reworked Trim’s vocal under his remixing signature “Harmonimix” in 2010, which was eventually released on a 12” single by Belgian label R&S in 2012. According to journalist and producer Martin Clark’s recollection, Blake “was trying to manipulate Trim’s (spoken) voice so it sounds like he’s singing backing harmonies with himself” (Blackdown 2012). For the first minute of the track his voice sounds full and clear and at the centre of the mix. But then the pitch changes several times, and these distinctive frequencies separate into simultaneous voices that overlap like several chipmunks drowning in the waves of slow sub-bass pulse and industrial drone that replaces the drum pattern of the original. The official music video attaches these voices to shots of several young women in hoodies. At one point, one of them mouths Trim’s words. The images flicker between light and shadow, often in time to the glitches in the instrumental texture of the song. Blake appears in a few shots, a low-key silent figure that remains stationary in the background for the most part.

In many respects, Blake’s production style and treatment of Trim’s vocals is similar to his own first few EPs in which as Mark Fisher puts it, “The voice is a smattering of traces and tics, a spectral special effect scattered across the mix” (Fisher 2013). Fisher and Simon Reynolds situate Blake’s work as part of an introspective turn in dance music’s affect in the 2000s, where the utopian futurism of the rave/jungle/hardcore continuum has been replaced with retrospection and hauntology (Fisher 2010). While the chesty weight of Trim’s voice is still present in the first minute of the song, his voice dissipates but is not as broken up into wisps as Blake’s voice on his early recordings. Rather Blake brings out a more reflective emotionalism and discourse about love, romance and vulnerability that is already present in Trim’s evolving and growing corpus of mixtapes (such as Ghostwriter vs. Autotune: Volume 10 from 2011), alongside the more common boastfulness and battling rhetoric.

However, what Fisher and Reynolds suggest might be more accurate in assessing some of the largely instrumental grime that has been released in the last year, seen by many as a signal of the waning of the MC’s force and a shift in the balance of cultural power to the producer or beat maker. Instrumental music had a strong presence in the early 2000s when grime emerged from UK Garage or 2-Step, but became dominated by MCs. Dubstep took on the mantle of futuristic instrumental music until its commercialization around the turn of this decade. That mainstream success has meant that many producers and some labels (such as Night Slugs) have returned to the palette of instrumental grime. There is both a curatorial and hauntological dimension to some of instrumental grime’s use of MC voices. Grime is now a decade old since formative releases such as Wiley’s Eskimo (2002) and Igloo (2003) instrumentals, his genre-heralding vocal Wot Do U Call It? (2004) and grime’s number one album, Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner (2003). The cumulative weight of the genre has generated a measure of nostalgia and reassessment, evidenced on remixes of early tracks, websites and mixes documenting the genre’s development and key moments, the Big Dada label’s release of the Grime 2.0 compilation in 2013, as well as histories such as Dan Hancox’s Stand Up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime (2013). Hancox places Grime in the pantheon of Afrofuturism:

You can hear this Afrofuturism most of all in the sonics of Grime production—the stark, unfiltered minimalism of the kick drums, the interplanetary weight of the bass line, the sleek ray gun zaps and zips of a synth, the whole way the edifice shines like a spacesuit. It’s the sound of the future city kids always dreamed of, even while Grime’s lyrics describe with molecular detail the dirt of the MCs’ vividly quotidian lives; MCs who, with the best will in the world, were not universe-traversing spacemen, but teenagers growing up in the poorest parts of London, in the grounded world of New Labour Britain (Hancox 2013: 175).

In the cavernous tracks of instrumental Grime producers such as Visionist and Wen (see 2013), Grime has found its equivalent of Burial and Zomby’s rave mythologists. As Joe Moynihan notes, “Wen’s ability to snatch the most evocative (not to mention gully as all fuck) vocal snippets and suspend them like ghosts being shot at with a low-end proton pack has basically sent all other producers cutting old radio sets up straight to bed” (2013). In his ominous “Road”, Trim's “Confidence Boost” vocal is further chopped into traces of Grime's street mythology.

Volume and Productivity

On his album 2012 album Evolve or Be Extinct, the so-called Godfather of grime, Wiley, uses his treated voice to play multiple characters and juxtapose his London and Patois accents. In some sketches between songs, Wiley slows down his voice to characterize irritating immigration and customs for cartoon effect. In several other recordings he playfully denies that he is Alvin the Chipmunk. These are well worn but still resonant trickster gimmicks.

The range of sites for MC voices across media is a theme in many Grime tracks, which offer a vernacular commentary on the emergent media assemblages in which these recording artists work. Musicians’ own accounts of authorship and creativity provide rich research material. The self-reflexive aesthetics of MC culture generate hyperbolic interpretations of the means of production, distribution and consumption, as well as more everyday reports about musical work. Grime voices put lie to the notion that its arbiters are the work shy unemployed propagated by the Conservative government. In track after track over typically 140 beats per minute, grime artists manifest the work ethic of “grindin’” and brag about their productivity in terms of the longevity of their mixtape series and the growth of their reputations. In It’s Wiley from the Showa Eski EP (2011), Wiley spits “I’m giving out zip files like a virus”, referring to his insubordinate release of 200 tracks on 11 zip files over the internet in 2010, when he became frustrated with one of the recording companies to which he was signed to release a forthcoming album. Tracks on grime mixtapes and compilations increasingly make reference to the presence of MCs and the numbers of their followers on Twitter.

Mobile Music

The hip-hop track Studio Backpack Rap from the album Freedom of Speech (2012) by Speech Debelle (Corynne Elliot), whose stage name embodies the articulation of voice, is a more modest celebration of mobile music production. On her website, Debelle describes the song “as all about virtual instrumentation and an ode to her producer Kwes. She recalls that “he would take out his laptop and Midi-USB keyboard and that would be it. We’d start working and I couldn’t believe what he could do with so little equipment”. Debelle is actually known for playing with live musicians rather than programmed beats unlike many of her grime counterparts. The chorus claims “It’s all in his bag, studio backpack rap” and that he’s “rocking with the laptop, Macbook Pro”, using a “cracked version” of the software program Logic, though he will soon graduate to Pro Tools: “He still likes Cubase because it gives him the drum kicks that are old school. She uses the right plug ins, provides the lyrics, hits the quantize button and she’s a star”.

Such representations of mobile music in music recordings and videos build on the quotidian activities of musicking that have been essential for the development of MC culture, often for Londoners who hail from some of the harshest landscapes of urban reconstruction and poverty in neoliberal Britain. Richard Bramwell (2012) has written about teenage boys and girls clustered around the back seats of the top deck of London buses honing their MC skills over minimal beats shared from mobile phones. Simon Wheatley’s (2010) book of documentary photography Don’t Call me Urban: London in the Time of Grime captures images of young people from 1998–2010 in makeshift studios, short lived pirate radio stations, bedrooms and youth centres, writing and reciting bars, spitting and vibing off each other in ciphers, shooting video, gripped with Play Station 2 games and sounds. This is the ground on which the MC drives—competencies and skills have been honed—and that have generated some of the biggest names and successful livelihoods in UK MC culture. Several grime artists have crossed over and met with some commercial success, partly due to the sloughing off of grime’s associations with criminality, reinforced by years of negative press discourse, policing and policies curbing live performances; but also through a less edgier sound and lyrical content. These scant but crucial resources for hip-hop practitioners and their aspirations should be built upon in youth and educational institutions, when instead these institutions have been hit by financial cuts delivered by the current Conservative-Liberal government.

As Raymond Codrington has observed, “in spaces that bring together blacks of various backgrounds, hip-hop music and culture has become the bridge that has allowed young people to navigate complex understandings of blackness that are not dealt with in other segments of English society” (2006: 192). Black British popular culture is arguably dominated by communities of Caribbean descent, and in particular, Jamaican culture. Articulations of African identity are sometimes brought to the fore, other times relatively obscured in assertions of a subsuming music identity around genre (hip-hop, grime), around British national identity in the case of successful Dizzee Rascal (a.k.a. Dylan Kwabena Mills of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, born 1984), who recorded a song for another one of the England football team’s forlorn campaigns as well as performing at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Local identity can also be prominent, as in Dizzee’s promotion of E3, the eastern postcode of one of grime’s founding districts, Bow. Africanness may be asserted in both continental or national terms in the songs and brand identities of artists, such as Afrikan Boy and his Nigerian roots, Sway and Tinchy Stryder (a.k.a. Kwasi Danquah III’s) assertion of their Ghanaian “Black Star” identity. More broadly, the question of Blackness is a problematic in the music-industry marketing category of “urban music”, a term which has met with some scepticism. MC culture has contributed to changes in English voices and languages. We can re-interpret the racist and paranoid speech of historian David Starkey when he remarked after the urban riots of August 2011 that the “whites had become black”—in part due to “Jamaican Patois” and rap music. We can lay claim to the ways in which MC culture has contributed to creative and cultural life, to the convivial communication and wellbeing of postcolonial London, as well as to those of us further afield prepared to listen to these voices closely.

Author Biography

Nabeel Zuberi is Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at the University of Auckland. His publications include Sounds English: Transnational Popular Music (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Media Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand (co-edited with Luke Goode, 2004 and 2010), and the forthcoming Black Popular Music in Britain since 1945 (Ashgate), co-edited with Jon Stratton. He is also working on a monograph about contemporary western music genres and the Muslim to be published by Palgrave.


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