Is The BBC The Enemy Of Hip Hop?

Last week amongst the detritus thrown at UK rapper Lethal Bizzle by the audience at Download was a banana skin. Forget about this though - a bigger problem facing UK hip hop stars, argues rapper/writer Adam Narkiewicz is the media itself

Just over a week ago (that’s about a year in Internet Time) a rapper called Lethal Bizzle played a British Heavy Metal festival called Download. And he got bottled.

Surprise sur-fucking-prise, right? About a couple of years ago 50 Cent received similar treatment at the rock-centric Reading Festival. And if Noel Gallagher has his way, the same thing will happen to Jay-Z at this year’s Glastonbury. No mind that Jay-Z is one of the most important artists of his generation – in the UK, he’s mainly known for that Annie sample. Regardless, the announcement of the dude’s headline slot received a shitload of press, so you can imagine the thought process in booking Bizzle for Download. All press is good press, even when there’s a big wad of racism involved (see last year’s Celebrity Big Brother). And racism was what was going on here right?


Well, not quite.

Like really, what was Lethal Bizzle doing at a metal festival? Anyone that’s seen him knows the dude puts a serious amount of energy into his live show. His beats are hard. Shit, he’s even got a few guitar riffs in there these days. But he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, metal. So was that crowd reaction racism? What do you think would have happened if they’d put Patrick Wolf on? The kid would have gotten holes put through his face. I imagine he’d have been called a faggot, but I wouldn’t take this as evidence of rampant homophobia in rock crowds. It’s more the effects of the all encompassing social and cultural segregation and ignorance that is still, in this dark year of our Lord, 2008, standard.

Bizzle wins over the Download crowd

Bizzle did get a banana skin with "black cunt" written on it lobbed at him. "That’s pretty shocking," admits Tego Siegel, an artist manager and rap journalist. "[But] if there are 1000 people in England in one place how many of them are going to be racist? Realistically it’s going to be more than one. If an idiot took that opportunity to act upon his ignorance then he’s pathetic. The branding of the whole festival as racist is pretty weak though."

"I wouldn’t say there was a racial element to what most people were doing, I really wouldn’t," wrote Bizzle in The Guardian. "I know the history of Download and that it’s really central to the metal scene, that the fans are passionate and protective of their music."

Which is true. Sepultura, for instance, have a black frontman, and they do fine at Metal festivals. Because they’re metal. As do God Forbid and Skindred. Because they’re metal. To a lot of Download attendees, Bizzle was the antithesis of everything they stand for. This is because they do not know Lethal Bizzle. This because Lethal Bizzle isn’t allowed in their world.

POW! The song that was so badass it got banned in Essex in 2004

"With maybe two exceptions in Dizzee Rascal and Roots Manuva, black music is seen as being ignorant, shallow and soulless," says Tego. "There’s no infrastructure for grime or hip-hop outside of a few radio stations that are barely listened to and a couple of TV channels that actually seem to go out of their way to make grime and hip-hop look like the most ignorant, pointless music in the world."

The BBC will tell you it’s an equal opportunities broadcaster. They’ve got numerous presenters of varying skin tone, and, shit, they’ve got 1Xtra, the black music digital radio station, dedicated purely to music of colour. A specific colour, mind. When V2 released Bizzle’s ‘Babylon’s Burning The Ghetto’, a song I produced that sampled The Ruts last year, they had to release it as a double A-side with the traditionally grimey Bizzle Bizzle – 1Xtra wasn’t about to play a rap song that sampled guitars. And Radio 1 wasn’t about to playlist any grime. And Bizzle, as a black artist wasn’t about to get on Radio 1 playlists without a 1Xtra cosign. Confused?

Akira The Don and Bizzle shoot the shit

"When you are literally tailoring your music to specific sub-divisions of radio broadcasters you’re in trouble," notes Tego. "How can the art be taken seriously when as an artist you have to bend over backwards, fuck yourself twice and eat your own shit just to be heard by white audiences?"

So 1Xtra, the BBC’s barely-heard digital radio station serves as British black music’s very own ghetto – if you adhere to the rules, maybe you’ll get played there. And if you’re making a video, you’d better adhere to the most self-destructive stereotypes you can muster, or Channel U and MTV Bass, your only outlets, could probably ignore you. And don’t try playing any gigs, unless you’re supporting white people. They’ll most likely get cancelled.

Babylon’s Burning Down The Ghetto – but is it the ‘white’ version or the ‘black’ version?

"In 2002-3 I tried my hand as a promoter and actually wanted to bring hip-hop music to the indie kids in an indie world with an indie atmosphere," says Tego. "We had a venue ready to go in the West End, we had acts on standby, we had branding, we had concepts, we actually had partnership from the main hip-hop magazine in Britain and one of the key indie websites at the time, but at the last minute the gig was pulled because a government letter went out to local councils who forwarded them on to local venue managers telling them not to promote any hip-hop nights that summer."

"It’s funny how when you have punch-ups at a rock gig they call it moshing, but at a hip-hop show it’s a riot," Bizzle mused when I spoke to him about this late last year.

"Actual music fans in this country want Lethal Bizzle, they want Dizzee Rascal, they want Roots Manuva," says Tego. "If you offer Dizzee to 6Music listeners, they react, Xfm and 6Music are responsible for pushing Roots Manuva, The Streets and Dizzee Rascal into the space that they’re currently in but since then the creation of a Black ghetto at the BBC and MTV has made it very, very difficult to cross that boundary.

"Dizzee was quite vocal around the release of his last album that he was struggling to reach the fans in this country that took to him on Boy in da Corner because he was being sectioned into a world that is way too small for his talent and his profile. So when Lethal Bizzle tries to step out of his remit, his ghetto, he gets abuse to the extent that he got it at Download Festival."

This is something the Bow born overground star of grime alleged himself last year: "The word that keeps getting used with me is ‘polarise’. 1Xtra is the station for the blacks. Nothing really ever makes it off there on to the main station. It boxes it all off, man. That’s what polarises people."

Divide and conquer has been Neo Labour’s modus operandi all along, and nowhere is it as apparent as in the music industry. The New Era fitted caps and low-slung jeans combos sported by white kids all over the country are testament to the mixed-genre outlook of the Youth Of Today, but those tastes are outright denied by radio programmers and concert organisers.

"Can a Tinchy Stryder single work next to a Good Shoes single? Absolutely." says Tego. "It does, it’s what they’re playing in the indie clubs around the country, but the system currently does not allow that to be possible. On the mix shows perhaps, Zane Lowe, Annie Mac, Bobby Friction, MTV 2 maybe, but when it comes down to it, as a hip-hop fan in Britain I would not be hearing metal, indie or anything with a guitar, you simply would not hear it in your world… as an indie fan I’m hearing very little hip-hop music and as a metal fan I’m pretty much hearing none. Is that racist? Probably."

Andy Abrahams: So terrifyingly black he needs his own radio station?

The BBC response

The view of the BBC, perhaps obviously, couldn’t be more different. The Quietus put the issues raised above to George Ergatoudis, Head of Music BBC Radio 1. Ergatoudis was keen to have it announced that he was “very close to black music” because he had started KISS when it went legal in 1999, said that 1Extra was “absolutely, categorically not ghettoizing black music”.

When asked – in a week that had seen senior BBC Non-Executive Director, Samir Shah accuse the BBC of having a failing equal-ops policy and of being run by a “metropolitan, largely liberal, white, middle-class, cultural elite” " if 1Xtra was ghettoizing forms of UK urban music such as grime and dubstep, he refuted it emphatically.

He said: “That’s fundamentally wrong. You can look at Radio 1’s mainstream output and Radio 1’s specialist output. We had ’Police On My Back’ by Lethal Bizzle on our B-list play list last year and we added Tynchy Stryder yesterday. We’ve had strong support for Dizzee Rascal for many years now.”

When it was pointed out that Dizzee Rascal had stated categorically that he found it harder to get mainstream coverage now because of the effect of 1Xtra, Ergatoudis said: “Dizzee Rascal right now is enjoying being on our A-list.”

When informed that The Quietus was of the opinion that having a specialist black station was a step backwards towards the knuckleheaded days of US chart segregation into Rn’B/Hip Hop and ’normal’ music he concluded: “Absolutely, fundamentally not. When 1Xtra launched people were really worried that this was going to happen. They thought that it would be an excuse for Radio 1 not to play black music but it’s fundamentally not the case.”

He also added that people just had to check Radio 1’s play list this week to see how much the station supported black music.

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