“Back then, accents were the issue. Nowadays, standard: talk Yank, we'll diss you” -Yungun
There was a video doing the rounds on Channel U about a year ago called '4 My City'. It was by a hip hop group called 'C.O.V.' ('City Ov Villainz') and it featured the trio – and dozens of affiliates – dipped head to toe in camouflage jackets and NY hats scowling at the camera, shooting dice in alleyways and getting chased around estates by policemen. On first glance, there was nothing remarkable about this video or this group at all; the lyrics were mediocre copy-cat gangsta rap off-cuts – the bone and gristle to Mobb Deep's breast meat – the references were sculpted from 2 parts cliché and 1 part Spike Lee films (“haters”, “fake cats frontin'”, “up in front of the liquor store”), and the accents were precisely the thick New York drawls you would expect. However, on closer examination, '4 My City' becomes more than just a horrifically unoriginal rap song; it becomes the audiovisual representation of everything that is wrong with UK Hip Hop today, for, despite their American terminology, their American style and even their American accents, C.O.V. are from Coventry.
So the question, I suppose, is why? It has been roughly 20 years now since London Posse took a sledge hammer to the chains around the English accent and allowed it to run free throughout hip hop so why, WHY can groups like City Ov Villainz (apparently Coventry is equally renowned for both its villainy and its poor spelling) still exist?
Of course, it is not all as bad as I – and C.O.V. - make it out to be. In fact, with the exception of the Villainz themselves (and only two of the three in their ranks actually use the US speech pattern), Moorish Delta 7 (who, on the Midlands anthem 'Where Ya From' – a love letter to Brum, Nottingham and Sheffield - respond to this very question in their best New York accent with a proud 'Birmingham!') and Big Brovaz (too terrible to really get into), very few rappers are guilty of the accent switch in 2006. Lewis Parker has long since Anglicised his watery American twang and Lee Ramsay of Out Da Ville realised years ago that his own Nottingham drawl is far superior to any East Coast mimicking he could muster. The thing that I am really opposed to, and of which many MCs are still guilty today, is – to use Yungun's phraseology above – this trend of “talking Yank”. By this, I don't mean just copying the American accent; I mean copying the slang, the style, the sound and even the catchphrases (while Sincere maintains on every track that “it's your boy!”, Jay Z was surely 'our boy' long before him) of our American counterparts.
The list is long and thoroughly depressing. The most obvious culprits are probably European Dipset marionettes S.A.S., who, despite ultra-English song titles like 'Cheerio', are fervent promoters of American rap institutions such as “twenty-inch chromes” and the practise of “getting cheddar from yay”. However, much more unlikely suspects emerge on deeper investigation; from underground UK hip hop stalwart Kashmere's Wu-Tang burglary on 'Shaolin Iron Claw' to Sway's 'London (Fuck New York)' on which Baby Blue claims, “we don't look to the U.S.” over a beat produced by an American on a song that deliberately apes an American track.
Yes, just a quick glance at Channel U will confirm that “talking Yank” is all the rage in the UK hip hop/grime scene today. However, still the question remains: why? In order to answer this query, it is necessary to examine the situation from the perspective of an act that is guilty of this crime and thus it seems only right that we should bring in Coventry's most villainous once again. My guess is that it was a simple case of association: C.O.V. were raised on U.S. hip hop and came to associate the genre not only with grittiness and 'realness' but, much more importantly, with fame, success and wealth. American rap is arguably the biggest and most lucrative musical genre in the world and the Villainz wanted a piece of the action. Acting, dressing and sounding the same way as 50 Cent, Mobb Deep, The Game etc appears to be the key to quick fame, fortune and respect; it has worked for countless other American rappers – why couldn't it work for C.O.V.?
What City Ov Villainz didn't factor into the equation is that they are, whether they like it or not, English and this is not the British hip hop route to stardom. The colossal irony here is that, in the field of commercially successful UK hip hop, it pays to be not only as original but also as English as possible.
Take a look at our most successful hip hop exports: The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Lady Sovereign and Roots Manuva. All these acts are incredibly innovative, unfalteringly British and look and sound like no-one else. Now take a look at America's most successful hip hop artists: 50 Cent, The Game and T.I. These three are - from the perspective of someone interested in lyrical content, production and style - fairly interchangeable. I am in no way having a go at any of these rappers – I am actually very partial to a bit of T.I. myself – but it cannot be denied that there is a much greater divide, aesthetically and sonically, between Roots Manuva and Mike Skinner than there is between Fiddy and The Game.
So, with this in my mind, surely the practise of “talking Yank” seems even more ridiculous? It has been proven that the artists who are original and, rather than shying away from their British roots, flaunt them uncompromisingly are the ones that will achieve the most record sales and recognition (both national and international) and yet so many UK groups are still happy to pull on their NY hats and talk about “cheddar” and “flossin' in clubs”.
Ultimately, I really don't know why this still happens. I am always bewildered to read in interviews and on forums that 'real hip hop heads' have no respect for people like Mike Skinner when he has injected more originality into the UK scene than any other British rapper ever. Anyone with any ideas on this subject, please get on the forum and share them! For now, I'm off to Coventry where I have two ho's and a large glock waiting for me outside the Oddbins liquor store.
Words By: Tom Ellen
.:Tha Fuz aka Verze Almighty:.
My Music - www.myspace.com/itsthafuz
My Instrumentals - www.soundclick.com/thafuz
My Crew - www.myspace.com/riskiebusiness