British underground music’s vital entrepreneurial urge

24.05.12

I’ve just made a documentary about the new wave of young entrepreneurs coming up with creative responses to the recession and a main part of the story was the role of UK music in this. 

There are current and historical elements to this. A ‘positive hustle’ is a vital part of any artist’s world, whether they’re making music videos, blogging, gigging, giving out free tunes on Twitter or making T-shirts or ringtones. It’s just normal, partly because technology makes it pretty simple to do this stuff, and partly because of the sheer volume of music that now exists. Mashable claim that 864,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube alone each day. Yes, each day. 

You can easily trace the DIY impulse of the current generation of grimepreneurs back to punk, via hip hop and independent Jamaican soundsystem culture. It was essentially the same demographic: marginalised youths.

UK artists have been acting entrepreneurially for some time. You can easily trace the DIY impulse of the current generation of grimepreneurs back to punk – via hip hop and independent Jamaican soundsystem culture –  because after all it was essentially the same demographic: marginalised youths. Pete Donne from Rough Trade East has worked at the shop since it opened and sees parallels between the economic and cultural conditions around punk’s birth and the world we live in now . “The political feel was not dissimilar,” he said, outside the shop on Brick Lane. “On one level it feels like a negative environment for employment and youth prospects, but as a result of that it’s a great environment for those who have got the desire to do things. There are opportunities of creativity… that’s what happened now and it will happen again now.“ 

The funny thing about being enterprising, or at least the thing we find it easy to forget, its that it’s not all about making money. Enterprise is a simple equation of ideas plus action. It’s thinking of something funny, clever, ridiculous or outrageous and doing it, like KLF burning a million quid or … well actually anything seems mild compared to that, but I’m sure you can think of some examples yourself. Artists are enterprising because they want people to hear their music and one follows the other like summer after spring. 

Pete Donne again: “Punk served as a catalyst for a lot of entrepreneurship that came out of the ’70s in terms of music production, the DIY culture, the bands making music, people inviting labels, fanzine writing, ultimately book writing, all those things were inspired by the coming together of the punk ethic… it became profitable, but even in those heady PC days of punk there was no idea that it shouldn’t be successful. But it came from the first love, which was wanting to get great music out there. It wasn’t commercially driven in the first instance, and I think that still remains true now.”

There’s a strong entrepreneurial bent to a lot of UK music right now, particularly around artists linked to the cultural mainframe of grime, garage and hip hop. Obvious examples are people like Tinchy Stryder with his Star In The Hood clothing range, or Labrinth with his restaurant and Odd Child label. 

It all links back to the ‘crews with a business plan’ who emerged at the point where UK Garage turned into grime. Acts like So Solid Crew might have seemed like a raggle-taggle bunch of talented MCs but they were an early incarnation of band as brand. They were a business, with a record label, promotions arm and radio station with a huge fanbase. They were a Wu Tang Clan, born from a Battersea estate rather than Staten Island projects. They weren’t alone: crews like Ruff Sqwad, More Fire, Pay As U Go, Musical Mobb were all channelling music and business without the former polluting the latter. 

Fast forward ten years and you’ve got JME, the poster boy for ideas + action, and the first person to monetise the impulse sent out by the UKG crews in a way that resonated outside of the margins. Boy Better Know became famous within and outside of grime for selling thousands of T Shirts, and built a solid base primarily by being one of the funniest and smartest MCs on the block, but also by making sure his business was on point. As he says on the lyrics he read out to me for the documentary “I used to have limited money, now I got Boy Better Know Ltd money / self employment, wealth enjoyment.”

Crews like So Solid, Ruff Sqwad, More Fire, Pay As U Go, Musical Mobb were all channelling music and business without the former polluting the latter. 

Grime as a whole is one epic hustle – with more artists than any other genre claiming to be dealing with business. That’s partly because whilst grime’s DNA test proves beyond all Jeremy Kyle doubt that it’s hip hop’s bastard child (paternity claims pending from garage, jungle, ragga, griot traditions, punk, street poetry and oh, just let battle commence) and any child of hip hop will have absorbed what Russell Simmons did with Def Jam, and what Jay Z went on to develop  – see Dan Charnas’ superlative The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip Hop for the full picture. 

All of which makes it strange that we tend to think that money pollutes music. Too much money, or a focus on money, will pollute anything, but there’s nothing remarkable about art and enterprise bashing against each other. On a practical level you can’t operate a label or touring schedule outside of the economy unless you’re going to start bartering and to be honest, I’ve never seen anyone accept baskets of fish or other bartering material over the counter of record shops unless you count the odd direct swap – and I’m pretty sure you’d come up blank if you tried to barter with ‘add to basket’. 


JME’s self-shot, self-released top 40 single, 96 Fuckries

Emma Warren is a music journalist and senior editorial mentor at LiveMag, a free, quarterly magazine is created by people under the age of 24. Her Radio 1Xtra documentary on the rise of youth entrepreneurialism is now streaming on BBC iPlayer, you should listen to it.