The History of British Hip Hop

We celebrate the history of British hip hop to mark the genre's 50th anniversary…



British hip hop has developed a unique identity on the global stage, evolving as a musical genre to incorporate a range of styles and sounds with an array of stars and musical talent pushing it forward.  

2023 now marks the 50th anniversary of hip hop music with celebrations taking place across August.

The musical style is thought to have started on 11th August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc hosted a back-to-school jam in the Bronx in New York. 

Since then, the genre has spread its wings with different cities across the UK (and the rest of the world) birthing distinct sounds and artists. Out of these underground scenes in the eighties, the genre has grown with UK grime, trip hop, and drill all emerging from the original concept of two MCs and a microphone.  

As the scene celebrates its 50th in 2023, we trace its history, how it changed music and culture in the UK and the ways in which it has grown into one of the biggest musical and cultural movements of our times…

Hip Hop Roots | The 1980s

Hip hop first made waves in the US in New York during the seventies and eighties at block parties, community gatherings where locals were encouraged to come together.

At these events, DJs typically played percussive breaks of popular songs using two turntables. Other key elements of the culture included MCs/rapping, breakdancing and graffiti artists. 

It was in the seventies, then the early eighties that hip hop first started to take off in the UK too. It developed its own musical identity due to the influence of the dub and reggae of the Windrush generation and bands such as Talking Heads, Blondie and the Clash adopting elements of its rhythm and sound in their own tracks.  

The Sugarhill Gang's 'Rapper's Delight'  was released in 1979 and crashed into the UK charts at number three. It introduced a whole generation of future UK-rap fans to this new form of music.

Then Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's ‘Buffalo Gal’ featured the New York hip hop group World's Famous Supreme Team. This was a breakthrough hit that also helped introduce many UK music fans to the genre. 

Other important American artists including Run DMC, LL Cool J and DJ Jazzy Jeff released influential tracks too. 

Hip Hop Culture

British hip hop was not just about rapping and DJs. As in the US, it was a culture that encompassed different forms of expression and creativity including breakdancing, graffiti, DJing, and beatboxing. 

Young people were particularly drawn to it as it provided them with an outlet for their art and became the breeding grounds for new artists, rap battles, and new music.

Many of the UK’s maverick creatives, music makers and auteurs all emerged out of this scene. 


Goldie is a renowned DJ, musician and producer who cut his creative teeth via graffiti art. Originally from Wolverhampton, he initially joined a breakdance crew called the Birmingham Bboys, and made his name as a graffiti artist in the West Midlands.

Massive Attack | 3D 

The Wildbunch were a collective of musicians and DJs formed in Bristol during the early eighties. 

Named after Sam Peckinpah's 1969 Western, they started to perform with Grant Marshall and Miles Johnson as the main two DJs. In 1984, they invited the young graffiti artist known as 3D (aka Robert Del Naja) to join them, and he soon became one of their MCs, writing lyrics and performing.  

Hip Hop Pioneers and Early Influences

Artists like London Posse, Derek B, and Cookie Crew were among the original hip hop pioneers who started rapping in their native British accents. 

London Posse formed in the mid-eighties and got their name while in the US based on where they were from.

Some of the most important female artists included Cookie Crew, who featured Susan Banfield and Debbie Pryce, and enjoyed a club hit with ‘Rok Da House’ in 1987.

Monie Love is a female rapper who has lived in New York since 1989, and is one of the few English hip-hop artists to achieve success on the other side of the pond.

Alongside Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, she was part of the influential Native Tongues collective and released some killer tracks including 'Ladies First' with Queen Latifah. 

The success of these groups was a turning point as it gave British hip hop a distinct sound that resonated with regional audiences.

The 1990s: Forging A Distinct Identity

The 1990s was a decade of innovation for British hip hop. The genre began to find its own voice, with artists experimenting with different sounds and styles.

There were a handful of prominent MCs such as Rodney P and Blak Twang, who released his debut single ‘What's Goin' On?’ in 1995.  Skinnyman, Phi Life Cypher and Blade were other notable artists to emerge during the decade. 

Hip Hop’s Genre Fusion

Trip-hop, a fusion of hip hop and electronica, emerged in the early 1990s with bands like Massive Attack and Portishead leading the way. 

This was followed by the emergence of UK grime, a gritty and fast-paced subgenre that reflected the realities of urban life in the UK. By the late to mid-nineties, British hip hop started gaining mainstream recognition.

Artists like Tricky, The Streets, and Roots Manuva were all instrumental artists in bringing the genre to a wider audience with labels such as Big Dada and Grand Central appearing. 

The MOBO Awards (Music of Black Origin, also known as the MOBOs), launched by Kanya King, was born in the nineties too to celebrate this music, an annual British music award presentation honouring achievements in 'music of black origin'. 

The 2000s: The Rise of Grime and Mainstream Success

The new millennium saw British Black music break into the mainstream. Grime became hugely popular and the scene started picking up plaudits and supporters within the mainstream media and music industry. 

Grime Takes Center Stage

Artists like Dizzee Rascal, Jammer, and Skepta became the faces of the UK grime movement.

Emerging mainly from inner cities, the raw energy, beats and unabashedly British sound captivated audiences across the world.

Dizzee Rascal’s album 'Boy in da Corner' won the Mercury Prize in 2003, putting British Black music on the global map.

The 2010s to Present: Diversification and Global Dominance

In recent years, British hip hop has diversified with the emergence of new subgenres such as Afrobeat and UK drill.

New Sounds and Subgenres

Afroswing, a fusion of dancehall, afrobeats, and hip hop, has arrived with artists like J Hus and Not3s. UK drill, characterized by its dark and violent lyrics, also gained popularity with artists like Headie One and 67.

Global Phenomenon

Artists like Stormzy and Dave have become global superstars with Stormzy’s headline performance at Glastonbury in 2019 a defining headline moment for Black British music. 

However, he was not the first British Black artist to achieve this accolade.

This goes to Skin from Skunk Anansie who led the rock band's headline set in 1999.  Ace, guitarist with the band, works at ICMP as our Head of Industry Partnerships & Business Development

Hip Hop's Social Impact and Cultural Significance

As British hip hop continued to evolve, it also began to play a significant role in society and culture. The genre has often been a voice for the marginalized and has addressed issues such as racism, poverty, and social inequality.

Artists like Akala and Lowkey have been particularly vocal in using their music as a platform for social commentary and activism.

The Influence on Fashion and Lifestyle

British hip hop has also had a profound impact on fashion and lifestyle.

The streetwear that was synonymous with hip hop culture has now become mainstream with leading brands including Supreme, Stussy, and Palace. 

These have become so popular that even luxury high-fashion brands are incorporating elements of streetwear into their catwalk designs. Elsewhere, other brands have benefitted from the support of artists with Stormzy linking up with Adidas for a fashion partnership

The Role of Technology and Social Media

The advent of technology and social media has played a pivotal role in the evolution of British hip hop.

Platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify have allowed artists to share their music with a global audience without the need for a record label. Social media has also been instrumental in enabling artists to building communities and directly connect with their fans.

The Viral Effect

The viral nature of social media has also contributed to the rapid rise of certain artists and songs.

For example, the #DontRushChallenge which went viral on social media in 2020, featured the song 'Don't Rush' by British Hip Hop artists Young T & Bugsey, catapulting them to international fame.

The Future of British Hip Hop

As we look to the future, British Hip Hop shows no signs of slowing down. The genre continues to innovate, and new subgenres and sounds are constantly appearing.

Chart-topping British artists including Central Cee, Dave and Stormzy helped hip hop/rap claim a record share of the UK albums market in 2022, the BPI has reported in its 'All About the Music 2023' yearbook.

According to official data, the genre was responsible for 12.4 percent of all album consumption last year, the third largest share behind rock and pop. 

While the genre’s growing impact in the albums market can be attributed in part to global superstars, much of its success is down to the popularity of domestic artists, including Central Cee, Digga D and Stormzy, who all reached the number one position on the Official Albums Chart in 2022.

Artists such as Loyle Carner and Little Simz are now considered one of the UK's most exciting hip hop stars...

Hip Hop's Continued Social Impact

British hip hop will likely continue to be a voice for social change. As the world grapples with various social issues, hip hop artists will continue to use their platform to address these issues.

Hip hop is more than just a genre of music; it is a cultural movement that has shaped and been shaped by society.

From its early days to its current status as a global phenomenon, the genre has come a long way. Through innovation, social commentary, and a relentless drive to push boundaries, British hip hop has etched its place music history...

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by ICMP staff writer
July 19, 2023
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