You won't find many people willing to dispute that 2016 was a great year for British urban music. From the mainstream to the underground and from the charts to the streets, there was creativity firing off every way you looked.
OG's like Skepta, Giggs, Kano, Flowdan, Trim and P Money delivered career-defining albums that more than delivered on the hype. “Grime revival” aside, Skepta’s Mercury Prize win was a sign that the establishment is starting to take the genre seriously – now he and Kano stand a chance of making an impact at the Brit Awards next month, having picked up a total of five nominations between them.
More importantly, 2016 saw a surge in the number of UK artists coming through, with a new cast of hungry MCs stepping up to the plate. Artists like AJ Tracey, Nadia Rose, Dave and Lady Leshurr all had great years, and Section Boyz headlined Brixton Academy while still keeping things independent. We were treated to some amazing MC-led records by labels such as Butterz, Coyote Records, Keysound and Local Action, while online video platforms such as SBTV, GRM Daily, Link Up TV and Pressplay delivered a dizzying array of freestyles and street singles.
Now we’re turning our attention to the next lot of artists who we’re tipping for big things. Some have been bubbling for a while and look ready to take that step to the next level, while others have burst into our consciousness with a handful of hits. Joining the dots between grime, rap, drill and afrobeats, consider this your cheat sheet to the MCs who are gonna clean up in 2017.
Words: Cosmo Godfree
First up is Tulse Hill crew 86, whose take on the dominant drill/road rap sound has already seen them amass quite a following. The six-strong outfit is comprised of Baby R, Gunna Grimes, Scrams, Stampface, T Mula and ZN. Other than grade-A banger ‘Formation’ which features the whole crew, 86 prefer to appear on their tracks in smaller groups, so as to showcase each member’s individual style. Their debut mixtape Fings On Things came out back in May last year – featuring key tracks ‘Hands On’ and ‘DPMO’, fans of Section Boyz and 67 need to listen out.
We weren't sure whether to include Abra Cadabra – after all, he’s already won a MOBO for Best Song when none of the other acts here have picked up a nomination yet. ‘Robbery’ was a force of nature last year, and remains a demolition tool in the rave. Picking up Krept & Konan for the remix was quite a feat, but the scary thing is, it feels as though Abz is only just getting started. While he’s blessed with an apocalyptic voice suited to the most savage of tracks, his collaborations with Belly Squad have shown he’s capable of switching things up when he wants to. This versatility, combined with an inability to drop anything except straight fire, is sure to serve him well over the coming year.
Belly Squad are one of a number of acts on the list operating at the fertile intersection of rap and afrobeats, a sound which seems likely to define the coming year. Their effortlessly melodic hooks will draw you in, but watch their freestyle sessions for Tim Westwood or Kenny Allstar and you’ll be in no doubt of their control over their mic. Teaming up with Abra Cadabra, their remix of ‘Pick Up The Phone’ was a masterclass in understated swagger, but their takes on ‘Panda’ and ‘Not That Deep’ show they can go hard when needed. Belly Squad’s original tracks are even better – they’ve already got two nailed-down anthems in ‘Banana’ and ‘Moves’, with their most recent track 'Papa' getting us excited for what they have in store for 2017.
Having turned 18 the other week, Berna is one of the newest artists on the list. He doesn’t yet have a single to his name, although that should change very soon. Instead he’s demonstrated his ability through a series of excellent freestyles. His BL@CKBOX session was one of the hardest things we’ve seen all year. Most recently, Berna’s SBTV Warm Up Session showed off some more reflective bars about his older brother Champion Ganda (aka Chrome), tragically murdered in 2013. Having picked up his brother’s burgeoning rap career, Berna is doing an outstanding job of carrying the torch.
The self-proclaimed “Black Andy Warhol”, this Brockley MC has been around for a few years now, with his debut mixtape released back in 2013. He’s sorely underrated though, and the handful of tracks he put out in 2016 have us convinced he’s capable of shifting things up another gear. Best of the bunch is ‘Zone Again’, built around a sample from Skepta’s legendary Westwood freestyle and demonstrating Koder’s lyrical gift for witty introspection and memorable imagery. He also recorded a track which demolished Katie Hopkins after her vile article blaming teenage stab victim Myron Yarde for his own death – a searing reminder that grime remains an explicitly political music by virtue of its very existence.
If rappers had form charts like football teams, then 21-year-old East Londoner Kojo Funds would undoubtedly be leading the pack, having dropped an unstoppable barrage of street anthems in 2016. ‘Say My Grace’ and ‘My 9ine’ would have been year highlights for most MCs, but Kojo also teamed up with fellow man of the moment Abra Cadabra for the smash hit ‘Dun Talkin’. So good that BBK stars Frisco and JME had to jump on the remix. Of all the young MCs combining sweet melodies and hard bars, Kojo is doing it with the most authority.
Kwam is hardly a new MC, but his releases over the last decade have been sporadic to say the least, due to his full-time career as a tennis coach which provided the theme for last year’s Rally EP. Recently though he’s been making moves – upping his radio presence (check out his Radar chat show Unpopular Opinions) and working with some interesting artists. We’re betting on this trend continuing into 2017. Kwam is incredibly versatile as an MC, jumping on anything from straight-up grime and garage/bassline to more contemplative fare. Watch out for ‘Ships’ – his haunting collaboration with Swamp81 producer Lamont – hopefully dropping soon, as well as tracks with Moleskin and Grandmixxer.
Born in Birmingham to Jamaican parents, before growing up in Rotterdam and then moving back to London at age 13, we’re predicting international success for Stefflon Don in 2017. She’s certainly got the talent to match her ambitions, and can boast co-signs from the likes of DJ Khaled and Jeremih, who featured her on his Late Nights: Europe mixtape. Following collaborations with Ms Banks, Lethal Bizzle and Dutch rapper Cho, Steff’s Real Ting mixtape became the exclamation point at the end of a hugely successful year. Her arresting vocal delivery and strong visual style have marked her out as a star in the making, and her gritty take on dancehall-infused rap should see her ascendance continue unchecked.
Monarchy 6 may be young, but the duo have skill on the mic that far surpasses their age. Exhibit A: their BL@CKBOX session (below), released just last week, which should be more than enough to have you keeping a close eye on their movements from now on. Panfa’s combustible flow contrasts perfectly with Lavish’s more low-key delivery, and it’s a joy to watch them murking the beat and providing each other’s adlibs. Just 16 and 17 respectively, their potential is obvious, and we can’t wait to hear what they have in store. Stay tuned for the ‘None Ah Dem’ video dropping next month.
Ms Banks rise has been slow and organic, but with two very solid projects now under her belt, as well as a series of impressive guest verses for the likes of Fekky and Tinie Tempah, she’s perfectly placed to make some serious waves next year. The Camberwell MC's determination to have the hardest verse on any track is always clear – listen how she steals the limelight on the ‘Mad Ting Sad Ting’ remix – yet she’s also got a fine line in softer R&B-tinged tracks such as ‘Roll’. Go grab the New Chapter EP to hear what you’ve been missing out on.
Codename Lin aka Nico Lindsay has his roots in grime, but he’s been known to spit on everything from garage to gqom. The Finsbury Park MC’s abstract flows are the perfect fit for the adventurous, left-of-centre beats he often finds himself on, having hooked up with producers such as Lamont, Wallwork and TSVI. Nico’s lyrics always demand close attention, and whenever he appears on a group cut he has a habit of dropping that sly verse which slowly creeps up and becomes your favourite. His latest effort ‘Sky’ sees him teaming up with two-thirds of YGG for a claustrophobic grime track that should leave your head spinning.
The only MC who’s seen his name become a taxi firm promo code (yes, really), Hackney’s Not3s has caught a whirlwind of buzz off the back of his maddeningly catchy single ‘Addison Lee’, which hit a million views in just over a month. In addition to his way with a witty lyric, the guy has got a seriously good singing voice, but also brings a harder edge to tracks like ‘Bark Off’. Now seriously in-demand, Not3s has got a lot of people watching for his next move. Catch him performing alongside Berna at Hoxton Square Bar later this month.
Having spent last year making numerous appearances on every radio station worth its salt, from their monthly Radar show to a recent appearance with Sian Anderson on 1Xtra, Lewisham’s seven-man Vision Crew are being tipped by many as the next big grime breakout act. MC/producer Ezro (also responsible for AJ Tracey’s ‘Spirit Bomb’) has emerged as a possible star, as has Tuckz, whose Beginner’s Luck EP is out very soon, but one listen to any of the group’s freestyles is enough to underline there’s no weak links here. Released last month, Vision Crew’s debut track ‘Feel Like’ references older sounds but feels resolutely contemporary. At a time when grime is no longer the default mode of expression for young British MCs, Vision Crew are here to make sure it stays part of the conversation.
This fast-rising Camden trio, composed of MCs Saint, PK and Lyrical Strally, will be hard to beat as 2017’s #1 grime crew. Having laid down some amazing guest spots for the likes of P Money and AJ Tracey, all three could lay claim to individual spots on this list, but it’s their infectious chemistry as a crew that has people so excited. From PK’s unpredictable seesaw flow to Strally’s considered, high-impact bars, each YGG member has his own, very distinct lyrical flavour. While their initial rise was fuelled by explosive sets on Radar and Rinse, they’ve since shown they know how to put together a killer track – just check their take on Sir Spyro’s ‘Side By Side’.