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            Back to Open Skies

Travel to Newcastle


Straight Outta Cramlington, Newcastle

29 May 2017

For a long time, British hip hop meant London hip hop. But the rest of the UK is now finding its voice, so we sent a writer to explore the scene in Newcastle.

This story starts in a barbershop and ends in an opera house.

It’s called Bad Blood, this barbers. Skateboards and bumpers and hubcaps from old American cars hang on the wall. There are copies of Hustler stacked up on oil barrels, water sprays made from Jack Daniel’s bottles. It looks like an LA tattoo parlour or an outlaw biker bar but it plays rap music and it’s in Sunderland. My turn in the chair.

I hear rappers rapping in all kinds of UK accents – Scouse, Yorkshire, Mancunian – and it takes me back, 10 years or more, to a gig in a record shop in Newcastle where I saw an MC rhyming in a Geordie accent. At that time, all my favourite northeastern bands sang in their own accents – my accent. I thought it was dishonest to sing any other way. But to my ear this Geordie rapper sounded wrong – like watching a Clint Eastwood film dubbed by Cheryl Tweedy.

I tell the barber about the gig, thinking this Geordie MC was a one-off, an anomaly. Are there more MCs from Newcastle, from Sunderland, from Middlesbrough, all rhyming the way they speak? The barber says there’s loads of them. The barber says he is one.

I meet the barber-rapper, Philip Lawrence, for coffee. He talks about hip hop in the northeast. There aren’t many club nights or places to perform. The scene is fractured too. It’s tribal. MCs from the same city stick together and within that city, MCs from the same area stick together and within those areas, MCs from the same crew stick together. But apparently there’s loads of talent out there. We agree to meet at open-mic night.

I’m not convinced. I call an expert, Charlie Sloth. Sloth hosts rap shows on BBC Radio 1 and sister station 1Xtra. He invites the best MCs in to freestyle, a feature called Fire in the Booth. Sloth makes a point of finding rappers from outside the Greater London area. Why? He knows his rap history.

For a long time, hip hop existed only in New York. When it spread to the west coast of America, the south and everywhere in between, hip hop grew from a cottage industry to a lifestyle. It became a business. Sloth says that has to happen here. “It needs to not be a London scene but a UK scene.” I ask him about the problem of tribalism in the northeast. He knows London MCs who’ve been involved in violent clashes but put aside differences for the sake of music and business. “Music is there to bring people together,” he says. If you’ve got the whole of Newcastle, Sunderland, the whole country supporting what’s going on up there, you’ve got a much better chance of resonating, of making a noise.

“I don’t know many people that don’t love the Geordie accent. It adds another element to the music. The voice of the unheard – that’s what hip hop’s all about. The next big rapper is not going to be from London.”

A full-size suit of armour stands in one corner, a child-sized suit by the bar. Long wooden benches sit tucked beneath long wooden tables. The sign above the door reads: ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.’ I arrive at ‘Sunderland’s first authentic German beerhouse’ for an open mic night called Das Hype.

It’s Sunday. It’s empty. A few people play covers on acoustic guitar. A bearded man sings songs in a weird bass-baritone. They all sound like that Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm song by the Crash Test Dummies. Finally, an MC performs. He plays ‘chip hop’ tunes and I can’t tell if he’s being ironic. I was expecting Eight Mile. This is Britain’s Got Talent.

Then Lawrence – aka Philth Like – gets up. He has stage presence. He references Shakespeare, the Iraq war. The big, round vowel sounds of his Sunderland accent afford him rhymes that wouldn’t work for other rappers. Philth Like is good – no doubt about that. But, for me, the accent is still jarring.

A rapper called Supagreen stands by the microphone in the vocal booth. He tries again and again to record a chorus – something about scanning the streets like paving slabs are barcodes. His breath control isn’t right. His throat dries up. His timing’s off. Record producer Christopher Lindon says, “The rapper’s got a cold.”

I visit Lindon Entertainment, his record label and recording studio in Newcastle. He built the studio himself from scratch. “We put the bar in first,” he says.

I sit down with Lindon, local rapper Supagreen and Sonny Neal, who makes beats and works as one of the studio’s in-house sound engineers. The lads say the term Geordie rap separates Newcastle from the rest of the UK scene. “The whole ‘struggle and strife’ thing is outdated,” says Supagreen. “But Geordie slang works in hip-hop. I don’t think anyone’s picked up on that. There’s a lot of ‘why aye, man’ – cliched Geordie-ism – but [some terms] just roll off the tongue. Your voice is your instrument. Work on your flow.”

Neal agrees. “People are saying, ‘I can make a musical product that has all the content and delivery of my favourite rappers and I don’t have to conform to Geordie rapper stereotypes,’” he says.

Supagreen gets back in the booth. He raps precisely now, powerfully, cold or no cold, records take after take without a slip-up, chews through long stretches of alliteration, twists his tongue, slows it down, speeds it up. His lyrics are full of slang and dialect. His punchlines are sharp, witty, nasty. They’re completely unprintable. Lindon, a former MC himself, looks around the room and says, “People like him are the reason I don’t rap anymore.” Supagreen steps out of the booth and apologises to the female photographer who’s been shooting the whole thing. “Sorry,” he says, “for the bad language.” Lindon laughs his high-pitched laugh. “He’s a polite rapper! I’ve signed a polite rapper.”

This name keeps coming up: Stig of the Dump. Stig performed on Fire in the Booth in 2010. I watch it on YouTube. I watch it again. Some say he’s Newcastle’s best rapper, others that he’s overrated, a sellout. I call him. He sums up the northeast scene’s biggest problem. “Being so far from London, where the music industry’s based, there’s very little to go around so it’s crabs in a barrel.”

Stig has a unique perspective on northeastern hip hop. He is both on the inside and an outsider. He moved to Newcastle when he was 13 and then to London in his 20s. He sees technology as the great leveller. “If you’re dope, you’re dope. Nobody cares about your accent. People think there’s some sort of impenetrable southern bubble of rap music but that’s not actually the case. Ingenuity comes from a lack of opportunity. People are realising they can become self-sufficient. They can create things without needing outside support and that’s bringing people together.”

Philth Like texts me about another open mic night in Gateshead. I hear these events, bringing together rival MCs from rival cities, can get a bit tense. Arch Sixteen is a late-night cafe set into the arch of railway bridge. A northeast hip hop blog, Hash Rotten Hippo, hosts the event.

There’s no battling as I imagined. MCs take turns to do a couple of tunes. Some are better than others but everyone gets a good round of applause. Towards the end of the night two, three, four MCs are on stage at the same time. They’re rapping over Wu-Tang Clan instrumentals and J Dilla tunes. Philth Like performs (he and other MCs are still freestyling in the street when I leave). Lindon’s here. Stig too. If there’s any tension, it’s been put to one side tonight.

Halfway through the night, I notice my head nodding. I stop hearing the accent and start hearing the voice, the words, the wordplay – the flow. But as far as I can see, ‘the scene’ is still just an MC in a dark room, MCing at lots of other MCs. Where’s the audience? Where are the female MCs?

“Yeah, it’s a room full of sweaty men,” says MC Leddie. “They all have their little groups and it’s just me on the sideline.” Leddie is the only female MC at Arch Sixteen. She’s been played on Radio 1 but struggled to get other northeast acts to feature on her album, A Piece of Cake. “Maybe they think, ‘Yeah but she’s a lass, I can’t work with her.’ I’m more of a technical MC than some of the popular male MCs so I don’t know if they feel threatened.” When Leddie first started MCing, she put on an American accent. It only lasted a couple of weeks as she realised that if she hid her accent, she was hiding her identity.

One critic described The Sage in Gateshead as England’s answer to the Sydney Opera House. It’s massive: three buildings covered by a shell made of steel and glass, all overlooking the Tyne Bridge, the River Tyne and Newcastle on the other side.

I visit The Sage for a UK hip hop festival, The Bridge: DJs perform, breakdancers breakdance, panels discuss the role of women in hip hop, the use of hateful lyrics and there are workshops on writing, rhyming, breaking, scratching. The festival’s biggest stage is 500-capacity. There are women and children here. And most of the acts come from the northeast. There’s one MC I’m particularly keen to see: Newcastle’s Kay Greyson. Still only 19, she’s one of the northeast’s most accomplished. Her writing’s tight and she looks comfortable onstage too – but she also raps in an American accent.

“There are a lot of people who overlook what I do,” she says, “completely disregard it because it’s perceived as me pretending. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m just making music. It’s held me back though. A lot of people don’t want to be on songs with me or put me in a gig because of the way I sound.” I admire Greyson’s defiance. But her exclusion says something important about the state of northeastern hip hop. This isn’t a scene that feels inferior to London or New York or anywhere else. It doesn’t need acceptance from anyone. Northeast hip hop is northeast hip hop: you’re either in or you’re out.

I never found the name of the Geordie MC from the gig in the record shop all those years ago. But I like to think he’s still at it. He’s certainly no anomaly. I could write this story five times over and interview a different group of MCs each time.

There is Just B, who raps hard and fast and means every word of it. H Man, who shouts, snarls on the mic, stamps, jumps, spins, goes red in the face, all the chords in his neck sticking out. There is 90BRO, a poet and a philosopher, a thinker who MCs with a big smile on his face, Reali-T and the rest of New North East. There is Ken Masters – he’s been around for years and was introduced at Arch Sixteen as Sir Ken Masters. Then there is Rick Fury, Rex Regis, Smooth Jezza, Gilly Man Giro – the pool of talent is deep and getting deeper.

I visit Philth Like at his place. He asks me if I’m going to any more gigs. I tell him no because I’m almost finished writing the article. Then I realise what he means. This story started in a barbershop but it doesn’t end in the opera house.

Words: Gary Evans / Images: Carolyn Stritch