Hip-hop and folk meet in a new wave of protest music

Published: 06/11/2012   by: http://www.guardian.co.uk

Bristol musicians are bringing together two styles that share a sense of social justice and a belief in community action.

In September, the Southbank Centre in London hosted a celebration of the centenary of Woody Guthrie's birth. Billy Bragg was there, and the American singer Joe Henry. But you'd have looked in vain for the big names of the current folk scene – Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling and the like – turning out protest songs in the spirit of Guthrie, rallying those who marched against cuts and closures and fees. As seasoned folk singers such as Martha Tilston of Amnesty's Peace Not War have noted, the closer folk comes to the mainstream, the more likely it is to be drained of political urgency. Instead, Mumford & Sons were accompanying David Cameron to the White House, and the role of young folk rabble rouser at the Southbank fell to Grace Petrie, who played her calling card of ire, Farewell to Welfare.

Petrie isn't alone, however – it's just that lots of folk singers confronting life in modern Britain are taking a different musical router from their predecessors. Since the crackle of dissent is rising out of urban spaces,it's hardly surprising that politically conscious, city-dwelling folksters are weaving their music with the strands of hip-hop. The two may seem odd bedfellows, having emerged out of different lands and eras, but the two have an much in common. Both are oral traditions, rooted in community-driven narratives, and both are beloved for expressing the pleasures and struggles of everyday people. But stylistically, the joy of rap's freestyles and cyphers echoes the spontaneity of folk's everyman, singalong jams.

One of the key locations for this wave of hip-hop inflected folk is Bristol, which over recent years has become home to a growing number of folk-hoppers who merge acoustic riffing with rap's charged, lyrical patter; artists such as Billy Rowan (AKA Undercover Hippy), who graduated from drum'n'bass DJing and MCing to being a strumming folk rapper, and Clayton Blizzard, who's turned the traditional songs learned from his Scottish musician parents into Bristolian-accented folk-hop numbers.

Bristol's rich legacy of hip-hoppers has been co-opted by Blizzard and Dizraeli (who's now based in Brighton but hails from Bristol); both cite the recently reunited Bristolian hip-hop outfit Aspects as an early influence. While Blizzard has a stripped-back approach to folk-hop, layering rhymes and sung choruses over simple acoustic guitar, Rowan and Dizraeli frequently tour with a full band (Dizraeli's troupe, the Small Gods, boast UK beatbox champion Bellatrix among their ranks). In Bomb Tesco, taken from his ECC-released Engurland: City Shanties LP, Dizraeli nods to the riots that erupted in Bristol's Stokes Croft area last year, rapping about transforming the supermarket into a wild flash mob drumming on tuna cans and "beatboxing in the cereal isle". This isn't fist-waving protest music, he qualifies, but social commentary and urban storytelling in the tradition of hip-hop's talent for chronicling street life and everyday experiences. "Hip-hop is the people's music," he says.

The folk crowd are receptive, says Billy Rowan, because hip-hop is deeply allied with the social justice messages of folk's greats. Even Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, he says, borrows from proto-hip-hop styles. That folk and hip-hop are both traditions rooted in the idea of musical lineage is an important, uniting factor, too; folk songs are traditionally passed down from parent to child the way bedroom DJs circulate homemade mixes to their friends and siblings, who in turn learn to rap by memorising and modifying the rhymes of their predecessors. Adapting the folk songs of your parents, says Blizzard, is the same as hip-hoppers who sample the vinyl records they inherit from their parents. "It's really no different from Joan Baez adapting the chords and lyrics of old time spirituals."

Decades may stand between them, but the 70s Bronx block parties that made DJ Cool Herc an icon are not so dissimilar to the thigh-slapping barn fests that happened across pre-industrial Britain; both were organised, with modest means, to unite communities through music and dance. Damian Barber, of the award-winning folk band the Demon Barbers, has merged the dance cultures of both traditions in his high-energy production The Lock In, which combines breakdance, body popping, krump and beatboxing with clogging, longsword and Morris dancing, the latter being rural traditions dating back to the mill workers and coal miners of north-east England. "How can you understand other people's cultures, particularly in England, if you have so little respect or understanding of your own?" asks Barber. Dizraeli sees this growing fusion between hip-hop and folk as inevitable. "The two scenes might not want a lot to do with each other, but they share huge common ground, and more people are coming to realise that. Its an exciting thing."

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Posted by Charlotte Richardson Andrews
Tuesday 6 November 2012 15.45 GMT

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