How Black British Music Became the New Wave

12 Nov 2018

This post was written more than two years ago. The content or information below may no longer be accurate.

Following last month’s Black History Month, ACM takes a retrospective look at the history of Black Music in the UK.

Black music is thriving! Whilst having always had a presence in the UK charts – from UK soul to garage  – these days music of black origin isn’t just present in the charts, it’s shaping it’s sound. From UK R&B to grime to afrobashment, it’s undeniable – the Black British sound is the new wave.

So just how did we get here?


As it always has been, Black British music of the 80’s and 90’s was a rich mixture of sounds. Drawing influences from a diversity of influences, so many that’s it’s almost criminal to categorise them all under one label.

This era saw an explosion of soul singers finding a sound removed from that of their American counterparts.From the jazz inspired grooves of the likes of Sade, Jamiroquai and Omar through to the gospel influenced acts such as Beverley Knight and Mica Paris, this was a scene finding it’s own voice. UK rap was also literally finding it’s own voice as the American accent imitators of the past gave way to rappers like Rodney P using real British accents and dialects over hip hop. But we can’t forget about the clubs, Dance music was a massive player as it’s always been in the UK, Speed Garage was born out of a mix of 90’s house and jungle – the predecessor of drum and bass. Speed garage then became UK garage and the rest was history.


The early 2000’s saw the birth of the game changing number 1 UK garage hit ’21 seconds’ a garage track credited with being one of the spiritual predecessors of the then unheard of genre of UK grime, a genre that would go on to be described by academics as ‘the most significant and disruptive development in UK music since punk.’

The early Noughties saw Black British music flourishing. British hip hop had a dearth of talent with lyrical MCs such as Klashnekoff and Skinnyman. Contemporary acts (now classified as ‘urban’) such as Craig David and Estelle were enjoying success here and across the seas in the US. Channels such as MTV Base and Channel U gave artists a platform and allowed the relatively disconnected scenes to build communities and audiences.

This was all alongside the rise of this new sound of grime, the darker child of garage. It was new, it was fresh, it was raw, and it was the voice of the new working class. From pirate radio stations to high energy waves this was a scene that played by it’s own rules and it began turning heads and gaining critical acclaim when MC Dizzee Rascal won the acclaimed Mercury Music Prize with his debut album and genre masterpiece ‘Boy In The Corner’.


The mid to late Noughties saw Black British music go through an era of commercialisation and arguably an identity crisis as record labels hopped on trends and commercialise what was once underground or organic. Grime artists started releasing poppy chart-baiting tracks far from their roots and self admittedly for the money.

Many saw themselves favouring accessibility and short term success over authenticity and art with hits such as Tinchy Stryder’s ‘I Need You’ and Roll Deep’s ‘Good Times’. A mentality that may have led to the rise and fall of short lived trends – UK funky and dubstep – both genres that were born out of UK Garage in their own way.  Other genres like British R&B were all but sidelined with the industry favouring the radio friendly approach of artists such as the chart powerhouse Adele and Duffy (remember her?).


This all changed due to one thing – the internet. The rise of Youtube and social media saw a way for artists to have a direct relationship with fans. No longer shackled by the need for record labels a new authenticity was found.  Artists were not just creating their own content but distributing it on platforms such as Soundcloud. This resulted in artists and genres going back to their roots evidenced by the grime scene’s revival started by Meridian Dan’s ‘German Whip and Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’, lighting the way for younger MC’s like Stormzy, AJ Tracey and Dave.

Whilst grime has been the foremost genre for the last 20 years, the Black British sound has always been a melting pot and other genres are resurging. Black British R&B and Soul has been reborn with artists like Jorja Smith, Nao and Ama Lou now allowed to organically grow their audience without compromising and being influenced by the new wave of neo soul. That’s without touching on the rapid rise of afro-bashment, a genre born from a new wave of British musicians like Not3s and Kojo Funds, young acts influenced by the afrobeats music their parents listened to and drill, the controversial UK cousin of the nihilistic, trap-influenced Chicago rap sound.

So what next? October 2018 saw the Drake-approved rapper Dave go to number one in the charts, the first true grime/UK hip hop number one. No one can predict the future but whatever the future holds it’s undeniable that the platform to succeed for music of black origin is better than it’s ever been.