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Urban sprawl: How hip hop conquered Europe

IQ examines the growth of hip hop across Europe, from stadia-filling US superstars to local-language acts increasingly finding their way onto mainstream festival line-ups

By Derek Robertson on 16 Oct 2019

Canadian superstar Drake is the world's most popular artist on streaming services

Canadian superstar Drake is the world's most popular artist on streaming services

For a stark reminder of how completely rap and hip hop has taken over mainstream culture, consider the case of NWA.

Thirty years ago, the group released a song that so incensed the authorities and white America – ‘Fuck tha Police’, taken from their debut studio album Straight Outta Compton – that the FBI felt compelled to write a letter to the band’s label and distributing company complaining that “advocating violence and assault is wrong and we, in the law enforcement community, take exception to such action.” Police started to refuse to provide security for their concerts and, condemned by politicians, for a short while they revelled in their status as “the world’s most dangerous group.”

Fast-forward to today, and the recent arrest of rapper Asap Rocky in Sweden. Charged with assault following an altercation with a 19-year-old male and forced to remain behind bars until his trial – there is no right to bail under the Swedish criminal justice system – the chorus of celebrity pleas and fan petitions to “Free Asap” were joined by none other than Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States of America. “Give A$AP Rocky his FREEDOM,” he tweeted in late July. “Very disappointed in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven for being unable to act. Sweden has let our African- American community down in the United States.”

For a figure as divisive and controversial as Trump to even know who Asap Rocky is – and let’s not forget his new BFF, Kanye West – speaks volumes as to rap and hip hop’s current cultural status. The genres have long since been regarded as the new pop, with the biggest stars now elevated to first name, superstar recognition – Kanye, Cardi, Nicki, Jay, Tyler, Kendrick. And, of course, Asap, whose first two albums went platinum, selling over 750,000 copies combined and topping charts the world over (and racking up billions of streams).

Europe is fertile ground for the genre, and not just at A-list level – everyone we spoke to for this feature emphasised the strength of localised scenes across the continent driven by passionate, committed individuals; talent is spread far and wide.

“The hip-hop scene in Europe is stronger than it has ever been”

“The hip-hop scene in Europe is stronger than it has ever been,” says Jay Belin, a music agent for WME in London. The agency books some of the biggest names in hip hop globally, and so has witnessed the genre’s growth on this side of the Atlantic first hand. “Whether you are talking about chart positions, hard ticket sales or festival inventory, there are more urban artists owning the leader board than ever before,” he adds.

“Night and day,” says Belin’s colleague James Rubin, a music partner at WME, when asked to compare the scene today with five or ten years ago. Back then, he says, only the very top acts globally sold “real tickets and played serious slots at major festivals. Nowadays, most A-level events have a large percentage of foreign and domestic hip-hop artists on their bill, and the hard ticket business is healthier than ever.”

“Hip hop in the European market is at the forefront of the industry,” says Ari Bernstein of ICM Partners, an agency that reps rising new stars such as Little Simz, Bhad Barbie and Migos. For Bernstein, an abundance of such fresh, exciting talent is evidence of the genre “exploding” over the last five years and how the demographic of people calling themselves hip-hop fans is only getting bigger. “And as you can imagine, as the demographic and the audience grows, so do ticket sales,” he says of the healthy live scene.

WME partner Brent Smith, who represents the likes of Drake and Kendrick Lamar, states: “Drake is the most streamed artist in the world since streaming began and he can sell out several O2 Arenas in London, three AccorHotels Arenas in Paris, etc., across the territory. This tells you everything you need to know about the general health of hip hop in the UK and Europe.”

“It lends itself perfectly to the memes and viral videos kids have been sharing”

Urban expansion
While urban music – a term which many feel doesn’t properly capture the passion and intensity of the best rap and hip hop – has undoubtedly become something of an unstoppable juggernaut, many people tie its rise to that of streaming, technology and increased social media use, platforms without which the scene would not have grown to become as dominant as it has.

“Urban music has absolutely taken over because it lends itself perfectly to the memes and viral videos kids have been sharing,” says agent Mike Malak at Paradigm. “That makes certain songs ‘cult’ faster, and further boosts the excitement around a particular artist or track.”

“It is a culture that reacts very strongly and instantly with social media and streaming, and an act can elevate themselves very quickly through these channels,” agrees Steve Strange of X-ray Touring. He’s worked with Eminem for over 20 years, something he describes as “a fantastic experience throughout,” and sees the rise of such superstars as being indelibly tied to the modern world and new music-industry structures.

For Caroline Simionescu-Marin, a consultant for WME’s music team, it’s more about platforms such as streaming and YouTube lowering the barriers to entry for a lot of rap music, and helping it break through the underground to become the mainstream. “Apple and Spotify are hiring the right gatekeepers, and in turn, turbocharging editorial for a lot of artists who wouldn’t have a look in otherwise,” she says, pointing to rapper Dave topping the UK album chart as proof of this new paradigm.


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 85, or subscribe to the magazine here.

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