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The Four Owls
Nocturnal Instinct James Butterworth , April 30th, 2020 08:09

With features from the likes of DJ Premier and Kool G Rap, the new Four Owls album brings us back to the glory days of 1990s hip hop, finds James Butterworth

It’s hard to define ‘UK rap’ nowadays. In the 1990s, it was commonplace for British MCs to spit rapid-fire lyrics over jungle and garage, but Britain also had its own answer to the American rap scene in UK Hip Hop, the scene that birthed lyricists like Hijack, Roots Manuva and Blak Twang.

This is what UK rap was generally understood to be; British rappers who vocalised beats at the same tempo and in the same style as their American counterparts. Then garage turned dark and grime came along, and all of a sudden British emceeing was synonymous with unhinged energy, gunfingers and bass-heavy riddims.

Grime was followed over the years by road rap and later drill, and now most British music involving MCing sounds very different from traditional hip hop and a far cry from anything heard across the pond.

There are still UK artists representing the old school hip-hop sound though, and this is where The Four Owls fit in. Made up of rhymers Leaf Dog, Fliptrix, Verb T and BVA, their third album Nocturnal Instinct reminds us of the vibrancy, grit and soul that this form of British rap has to offer.

Running for almost an hour, with numerous features from household American names such as DJ Premier, Roc Marciano and Kool G Rap, Nocturnal Instinct is an impressive, arresting affair that showcases what the Four Owls are capable of. Lead single ‘Honour Codes’ is one of the highlights, the Owls swapping motivational verses over mellow guitar and piano riffs courtesy of Leaf Dog, a talented beatmaker responsible for all the album’s production.

Elsewhere, ‘Pioneer’, featuring Kool G Rap, sees intricate, tongue-twisting bars delivered over an emotive male vocal sample. It sounds like something off an old Wu-Tang album, powerful, infectious and reminiscent of those halcyon days of 90s purist hip hop. Wu-Tang’s own Masta Killa makes an appearance on ‘Deadly Movements’, where his signature laidback flow nicely complements the faster and more boisterous delivery of the Owls’ verses. Hip hop royalty DJ Premier collaborates with the Owls on ‘100%’, his trademark scratching used to weave a hook out of a braggadocious vocal sample stating, “We be the kings on our throne”.

Despite the all-star roster of collaborators, The Four Owls hold their own and never play second fiddle to the features. ‘I Got You’, towards the end of Nocturnal Instinct, has no features, leaving them to reflect and display their emotional depth: “ghostly, walking like an empty shell, lonely, my old friends only want money when they phone me”. It’s one of the few moments of melancholy on the project but it shows another side to the Owls.

Nocturnal Instinct is only their third album as a collective since 2011, yet already they sound like rap veterans, able to switch effortlessly through whichever moods and styles they choose. Moreover, the album reminds us that British rappers are more than capable of competing with the Americans at their own game. Let’s hope The Four Owls keep on improving and flying the flag for British old school hip-hop for many years to come.