First Dizzee Rascal, now the British urban scene is getting crowded

Homegrown acts led by Tinchy Stryder and Taio Cruz are making sure British talent is recognised in the US

When Dizzee Rascal became the first rapper to win the Mercury Music prize in 2003, the east London MC was a relative unknown. "I come from the underground, pirate radio stations, I come from the ground, man," he told the crowd during his acceptance speech, adding: "Remember to support British talent – because it is there."

Seven years later, the grime artist turned pop star is a fixture in the charts and the talent he mentioned is not only taking over a greater share of the UK charts but is also storming the US.

According to figures from the BPI, the body that represents record labels, urban music now accounts for about 30% of the UK charts. But it is the rising number of UK acts in the field that is making record labels sit up and listen: while the total number of urban tracks in the top 1,000 increased by 25% between 2007 and 2009, the number of UK tracks in the genre rose by 84%.

Dizzee Rascal has scored four number one hits with his latest album, while N-Dubz have had six Top 20 hits and Chipmunk five Top 10 hits since April 2009.

While Dizzee may rule the school in the UK, other British urban artists, such as Taio Cruz and Jay Sean, have achieved the biggest prize of all – conquering America.

Cruz and Sean topped the Billboard Hot 100 last year and have had high-profile UK/US collaborations with artists including Sean Paul, Lil Jon and Kesha, paving the way for fellow British artists to try their luck over the pond.

"This is not just a UK thing, we are seeing UK artists like Taio Cruz and MIA getting a very high profile in the States," said Martin Talbot, the managing director of the Official Charts Company. "The British are coming and that's a great thing."

At the same time, urban artists from Britain, who for many years believed they had to copy commercially successful American artists, are finding their own voice – quite literally, according to Dan Greenpeace, a hip-hop artist manager.

"UK rappers 10 or 15 years ago often were imitating US accents, a whole raft of them were putting on these accents and Americans were just laughing at them," he said. "They didn't take them seriously because they wanted the real thing.

"Now UK artists are being themselves. There is more recognition of their talents, and they are being supported on the radio. Kids have grown up listening to UK urban acts on the radio, and there is more pride about it – they want to listen to Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk just as much as 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg."

According to Greenpeace, they also want music that speaks to their lives. "These artists are rapping about homegrown things, shopping at Sainsbury's or whatever, and people can relate to that," he said.

Singing with a British accent is not always helpful, said Sway, a UK hip-hop artist who has just signed to Akon's label in the US.

He said that singers such as Estelle and Leona Lewis – the first British solo artist to top the US charts with her debut album – did not proclaim their Britishness, leaving many US fans under the impression they are American.

"Sometimes when I'm playing over there, they're like, 'You're rapping like Harry Potter, man'. I feel so British, and it's a great selling point, the girls love it, but the market needs to accept that," Sway said.

For him, the big difference is not about accent or image, but a recognition by record labels that UK urban artists can be a lucrative investment.

"I love rock bands, but often they are making more down tempo, serious music, and in a time of recession that's the last thing people want to listen to – they want to have a good time," said Sway.

Shabs Jobanputra, the president of Virgin Records UK – who also founded Relentless records, which introduced So Solid into the mainstream consciousness – said a cultural shift in the UK had played a big part in popularising British urban music. "The cultural composition of Britain has changed; there has been a merging and mixing of cultures that has really transformed the playground, not just in London, but throughout the country, and that has been a big factor," Jobanputra said.

An absence of emerging American urban acts has opened up opportunities for UK talent, he added. "Urban culture needed to be fed and suddenly grime acts were in demand not on a sub-culture level, but on a mass scale," he said.

But has mainstream success come at a price? Some in the scene argue that the music dominating now the charts is disposable pop and not true urban.

Dizzee Rascal's previous album, Tongue N Cheek, is significantly more pop- and dance-influenced than his early recordings, while artists including Chipmunk and N-Dubz have no reservations about relying on popc.

Greenpeace welcomes the growing popularity of urban music, but says it must maintain its integrity. "Artists are going to have to come up with more edgy music to maintain its credibility because pop acts cannot last too long," he said.

He said he had been encouraged by the work of artists such as Professor Green, who has recently collaborated with Lily Allen, and Tinie Tempah, whose single Pass Out reached number one.

"The proof will be in the pudding," Greenpeace said. "Will stations like Radio 1 continue to support more edgy sounds? How will audiences react? I think they are open to it, but we will see."

For Jobanputra, though, UK urban is simply getting the recognition it deserves.

"For too many years urban has lived in the underground, scraping by and getting thin," he said. "Why shouldn't it be popular and vaunted? It is part of our culture that is flourishing and having a real moment."

The new wave

Tinie Tempah Pass Out was a No 1 and sold almost half a million copies. His second single, Frisky, hit No 2 in June, and his debut album, The Disc-Overy, is set to be released in September.

JLS The X-Factor-created boyband sold just under 1m of their self-titled debut. The Club is Alive, taken from their second album, went straight to the top of the charts this week.

Plan B The Defamation of Strickland Banks by Plan B, real name Ben Drew, went straight to No 1 in April and won plaudits for its soul-influenced sound. He will return to hip-hop with his next album, The Ballad of Belmarsh.

Professor Green The east London rapper, who has released Just be Good to Green with pop star Lily Allen this week, is hotly tipped to be one of the biggest urban stars of 2010.

Devlin Signed to Island, the grime artist Devlin was named as one of the BBC's Sound of 2010 finalists. His first album is due in the autumn. Samson Dada


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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