I believe in America. In being judged by the content of your character, your lyrics, your flow. But it's time for truth and consequences: American hip hop's in some lousy state. Sure, there are great tracks getting out there -- from indie backpackers to budget-blowing crunkers and Grammy winners. But if hip hop's music is about the damning, the reversing, and ultimately the exploitation of capitalism by those the system has vilified, right now it seems that the hunter has been captured by the game.
So, as happens from time to time, America needs to replenish from outside sources: Brazilian baile-funk and Latin reggaeton, Hispanic gangsta-mariachi rap, and that most fruitful international pop-exchange program, the redeye from London Heathrow.
Check Run the Road, Vice Records' bid to break the sounds of the U.K.'s "grime" movement on these shores. Grime was incubated in the U.K.-garage clubs and housing projects of London, and birthed in a gang culture epitomized by So Solid Crew's thug mentality. (Imagine Wu-Tang dressed for a soccer riot.) But grime has been raised on the kind of creative one-upmanship that bling and Bentley have paralyzed within America's mainstream hip-hop studios. So, for example, Roll Deep's "Let It Out" has all the moody dark atmosphere and electro-poly-rhythm of an obscure backpacker, and all the chant-along pop of a crunked-up chart hook. Lady Sovereign's "Cha Ching" is 2005's answer to Missy and Timba's groundbreaking, spacious jerk-pop. And on "Unorthodox Daughter," No Lay comes as hard as any mumbling American new-gangsta counterparts, but over a violently syncopated two-step beat.
Run the Road might be doubly important a testament to U.K. hip hop as the first and last megalith erected by grimeists collectively looking in from the outside. Since Dizzee Rascal's PR explosion, all of Britain's "Yankee managers" are tuning in to London pirate radio looking for scores. But on Run the Road, there's a fierce honesty when Wylie admits, "I done a few bad things / but now I gotta put it all behind me / stay away from trouble cuz people wanna sign me." There's a chance, a hope, for the big time. But at time of recording, nothing's definite.
More than its lyrics, its characters, its Cockney slang, Run the Road will succeed in winning American ears because of its sounds. When Terror Danjah builds beats out of Glock-cocking "chks," it's recognizable, if more Jamaican digital dancehall and dubbed drum-and-bass than dirty south. But try on "Let It Out," with the Roll Deep crew's hyper-syncopated electro-jazz beats. Or Dizzee's Playstation-inspired glitch and blurp bass lines on "Give U More." Not to mention Ears' bizarre "Happy Dayz": dripping-faucet rhythm, schizophrenic multi-layered vocals, random synth warbles. It's all a throwback to hip hop's originators: Simple, readily available tools used to make brashly new and complex music, and that desperate need to make a name with a unique sound and an original boast.