The biggest story of the last three years in British pop has unquestionably been the gatecrashing of the mainstream by the U.K. urban underground. British rappers scored five number one hits in the U.K. in 2009, a situation that would have been unthinkable even half a decade ago. The momentum has shown no sign of slipping: once the major labels clocked that a fruitful source of income was dormant on its doorstep, the floodgates opened, and an impressive number of the artists pouring through have gone on to genuinely sustained popularity, from Wretch 32 to Plan B to Giggs to Professor Green. It's a wave that hasn't exactly been how the critics would have liked it: most crossovers took the form of MCs abandoning the harsh, aggressive innovation of critically beloved grime beats for pop hooks and Eurotrance synths. But the mere fact that these voices of urban, working-class youth now had a place in the mainstream was an exciting development in itself. Two years ago, in what seemed to be the final rubberstamp of legitimacy on the scene, Rinse FM -- one of London's most important pirate radio stations, and a driver of underground music for 15 years -- was awarded an official FM broadcast license. It followed that by ushering into the charts Katy B, a singer who represents a genuinely new strain of British pop star: the raver next door taking the funky house and dubstep beats of the underground and turning them into a pop blueprint.
Concurrently, down the road in Westminster -- a few miles away from both the council estates from which Britain's new pop establishment hailed and from the gleaming major label offices that were suddenly a conduit to success for them -- the country's new political establishment have been setting in motion another sea change. The coalition government of the right-wing Conservative Party and the centrist Liberal Democrats, formed from the ashes of a hung parliament in which the electorate didn't so much choose a party as reject the political class across the board, have opted to govern on a platform of no-holds-barred austerity. Ostensibly in order to reduce the national debt, the enthusiasm and extent to which it has gone about slashing public sector budgets seems rather to indicate that the Tory party has seen the economic crisis as an opportunity to roll back the state as far as possible. The U.K.'s disenfranchised youth has, over the last few months, found ways to fight back and protest.
What do these cultural shifts have to do with each other? Consider the backgrounds of the new British urban royalty. Plan B, Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk all honed their skills in state-funded youth clubs, as did prior legends of the scene, from '90s drum'n'bass producers Roni Size and Goldie to Dizzee Rascal, the man who started his career by lobbing grime into the mainstream like a molotov cocktail (and who went on to become arguably the UK's biggest male pop star). These projects have not been specifically targeted by the government, but, with the local councils who control their funding seeing already-squeezed budgets slashed even further, and with even more basic services such as libraries under threat, they are often the first to be cut; splashing out thousands of pounds on staff and expensive musical equipment for no guaranteed return is simply no longer a priority.
"'I'll be straight up with you, I'd have been drug dealing,' he states flatly. 'We're given three options where I'm from. You're either a road man, going around stabbing people and gaining a reputation; you're a drug dealer; or you're just that idiot who sits on your arse in the estate getting drunk 'til you're 45, 20 kids by 20 different women, going for Jobseekers' Allowance every week.'"
Sarah Akwisombe, a.k.a. producer and DJ Goldielocks, has first hand experience of these consequences. As well as her own musical career, she has been involved in the running of North London youth centre project Rithmik Studio for three years, where she teaches and mentors up to 60 young people each week. Akwisombe worries about how the cuts will have a fundamental impact on who gets to make a living out of music in the future. "The music industry is already a middle class people's thing in terms of having connections and so on," she says. Despite the current urban trend, she explains, "It's rare that people get signed without having made some strides towards putting their own music out and getting a fanbase -- and to put your music out obviously costs quite a lot of money."
Despite some touch-and-go moments, Rithmik has survived the cuts, for now. But many like it haven't. What specifically is it that they offer young people? For those unable to afford expensive studio time, access to free studios in order to record demos is key. Even before that, for some, is the opportunity to learn basic studio skills or to garner professional advice from the likes of Akwisombe on everything from lyrics to beats. Akwisombe also points out that youth centres are where budding artists begin to build an initial fanbase -- so crucial if they want to break into the industry. "They'll be recording, and other kids come down and say, oh, you're really good, can I have your tune on my phone -- it might just be a rap over a beat, but they start spreading it around beyond their little circle."
[caption id="attachment_17348" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Rithmik Studios photo courtesy of Tumblr/Rithmik"][/caption]
Sometimes, it's a matter of practicalities. Cleo Sol, an up-and-coming singer from West London who has voiced some of the best UK funky tracks in recent years, such as Perempay & Dee's "Time To Let Go," and who has just released her own debut single, the summery reggae skank "High," grew up in a close-knit council estate, maybe a bit too much so for a budding musician. "Growing up in a flat with my mum, we always had noise complaints over practicing music," she says. "I used to go to my youth club three times a week. It's a big deal to have somewhere to practice. If I didn't have that ... " Sol trails off. "I'm really upset that so many are closing," she continues. "A lot of youth don't know what to do, especially with schools becoming more and more academic. It really saddens me because I grew up with youth clubs, I used to take part in things like customizing clothes, singing, painting, dancing, bringing it all to life, and that was important to me."
Interestingly, there is also a third, hidden culture shift at work. Of the UK's crop of urban pop stars, several, such as Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Tinchy Stryder, came up via grime crews who used pirate radio stations to cut their teeth, which gave them both the confidence engendered by a surrogate family and the opportunity to record, perform and disseminate music to build up a fanbase. Fast forward to 2011, and the way in which the internet has altered teenagers' consumption of music has meant that this platform has withered somewhat. "If you wanted to hear cool new music, you used to go to pirate radio," says Akwisombe. "Now, I don't know any young people who listen to it. They all listen to tunes on their phones or go to YouTube."
Youth centres don't just steer kids into the music industry, though: they also have the potential to turn lives around. Akiwsombe points out that many are aimed at young people classed as "NEETs" (not in education or employment) or "at-risk" (eg, youth offenders) - those for whom merely not having money is just the start of the hurdles they have to overcome. She has seen Rithmik contribute to many success stories over the years, such as 19-year-old rapper and producer Wiz. Excluded from school for what he delicately terms "mischief," he is forthright about how much Rithmik has helped him begin making inroads into a career he has a passion and a flair for, but a lot more besides. "I'll be straight up with you, I'd have been drug dealing," he states flatly. "We're given three options where I'm from. You're either a road man, going around stabbing people and gaining a reputation; you're a drug dealer; or you're just that idiot who sits on your arse in the estate getting drunk til you're 45, 20 kids by 20 different women, going for Jobseekers' Allowance every week ... A couple of people I used to know, they're in jail now. When I realized there was something here I could do, I stepped away from that." As we talk, Wiz casually sketches a poster for a forthcoming open mic night that he's organizing, an example of a drive that simply wasn't there prior to Rithmik. He's most proud, though, that he's "broken the cycle" in his family: "Some of my older brothers, they're in jail. But my younger brothers all play for football teams."
At root, then, youth centre music projects are not just about music or building pop stars: they are about how music and community are fundamentally intertwined concepts. (It is ironic that a government that counts localism as a watchword should be so blind to the effects its policies are having on local people.) "If you lose youth centres, you're not just losing music that'll be great, that you won't get otherwise, but you lose that sense of community you get with music - that feeling that this is slightly bigger than just a band," says Robbie Wojciechowski, music editor of youth magazine Live. This is something that Goldie, too, has, picked up on, telling the Independent in 2009, "Kids have really been abandoned. Social community centres seem to have dissipated and there doesn't seem to be a community spirit."
For now, there are institutions such as the BRIT School: free and open to people of all backgrounds, Katy B, Amy Winehouse and Adele are all alumna of this privately-funded London stage school. But it is not the answer: Akwisombe points out that while it is technically open to everyone, "It's really only open to the type of person who wants to go to stage school" - i.e., the kind of person who already has the confidence and self-belief necessary to go for audition, ruling out many of the teenagers she works with at Rithmik. "They're really talented and could do big things if they want to, but If I suggested the Brit School, they'd laugh in my face," she says.
At the UK's Labour and Tory party conferences in September and October -- three back-to-back weeks of schmoozing and politicking -- each party leader concluded the event with the traditional speech, much pored over and analyzed in the media. In what one presumes was an effort to appear hip, both Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband chose incidental music by Florence + The Machine to play around their speeches. Florence Welch, of course, being an alumna of the £4,000-a-term Alleyn's public school. If the coalition's agenda continues, she may well be the only sort of pop star we see emerging in a decade or two.