SCENE REPORT Hip-Hop in the UK is Stronger Than Ever By Oli Warwick · January 11, 2024

It’s the last night of Black Josh, Lee Scott, and Sonnyjim’s late-September UK tour, and they’re crammed into the green room at Strange Brew in Bristol. Remy Martin is being passed around, friends have shown up to support, and spirits are high. The DJ for the tour, scene stalwart Sammy B-Side, is on stage, getting the sold-out crowd hyped before the first MC takes the stage. Backstage, the three rappers are discussing who’s going to take the first set.

Tonight, Josh, Scott, and Sonnyjim decide to switch things up: when Black Josh takes the stage, the charismatic Mancunian rapper gleefully announces to the crowd they’re going to do away with individual sets and instead run the whole show as a joint “rap roulette.” It’s a high-energy approach, but it works like a charm, even when the appearance of unexpected beats requires the swift recall of bars from back in the day. Hyping the crowd, shooting jibes back and forth at each other, and splitting the difference between relatability and superstar swagger, this is every inch a proper hip-hop show. What sets these guys and their peers apart is an instinct for the unusual—whether it’s the beats they ride, the barbed wit of the lyrics, or the artful way they deliver them.

Having cut his teeth in Antiheroes with long-time sparring partner Salar, Lee Scott established Blah Records in 2006 alongside DJ Molotov. From there, a community of like-minded MCs and producers grew through a lattice of collaborations and group projects. Since the beginning, Blah has been keyed into the fundamentals of hip-hop, but crucially, they brought their own flair to the music. With Scott hailing from Runcorn and Josh from Manchester, there’s a strong Northern twang to their flow, while Birmingham-based Sonnyjim’s Midlands lilt has its own nonchalant charm. But Blah isn’t bound by geography or any other rules besides quality and originality.

Sonnyjim has been building momentum for a while now as a veteran of the pre-YouTube battle circuit where he and Scott first crossed paths in 2003. A string of heavyweight projects, including his acclaimed album Mud In My Malbec album and White Girl Wasted with The Purist, has helped his profile rise. This tour arrives ahead of Ortolan & Armagnac, a Scott-produced album being leaked via a run of two-track 7-inches exclusively sold at the shows.

Josh had already covered a lot of ground within Manchester before signing to Blah in 2014—he began rapping at age 15 with his own crew, Ape Cult, before falling in with the 14-strong LEVELZ collective. Since then he’s grown as an artist, cultivating the image of the self-styled “Sweg Lawd” with a glint in his eye and the power to whip up a frenzy with his bars and dynamic stage presence. His hit rate is impressive, turning out a full-length every few years in between countless features on multiple tracks both across the Blah-verse and beyond.

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Blah is, of course, just one community within a broader church of UK hip-hop lifers who have carried the torch through trying times, picking up from ‘90s pioneers like Skinnyman, Blade, Foreign Beggars, and Jehst. The latter remains a relevant force, savvy enough to connect with generations who followed him, driving forward his label YNR and teaming up with Scott for a collaboration as Group. Elsewhere, labels like High Focus, Potent Funk, Daupe! and Melonskin foster new talent in UK hip-hop and forge international connections. MCs and producers move between these separate entities as the community continues to push forward.

That “crew” spirit is evident in the frequency of gigs that look like frenzied, friendly pile-ons, from the Ortolan & Armagnac launch party to the Blah Humbug Christmas party at the Fox & Firkin. If you track back to the summer of 2023, the globally touted 50th anniversary of hip-hop, celebrations took place at the Boomtown Festival in the UK, where Sammy B-Side held court while an all-star roll call of UK hip-hop jumped on stage, including a riotous turn from core Blah alumni Scott, Josh, Bill Shakes, Sly Moon, Tony Broke, King Grubb, Sniff, Stinkin Slumrok, and Sleazy F Baby as supergroup Cult of the Damned.

The larger-than-life characters on record sometimes mask problematic figures, though. It’s hard to talk about the evolution of Blah without talking about Milkavelli, a rapper from London who worked closely with Scott in Mcabre Brothers and Cult Mountain, and alongside Josh on the 2022 album Swegasus. Blah very publicly dropped Milkavelli in November 2022 after it came to light that he’d been scamming fans for boxes of merch which never materialized. Without the backing of larger players in the industry, independent operations like Blah rely on the bond of trust with their grassroots fanbase. A scam like Milkavelli’s threatens that. While Scott cites acknowledgment from people at bigger labels and magazines in the past, it’s stopped short of tangible support. If Blah commands respect, it’s been fostered through the quality of what they offer as a label.

“There was a time years ago when I would meet these people [at labels and magazines] who buy our records and know lyrics, and be a little bit like, ‘Why don’t you help?’ or whatever,” Scott admits. “But today, they’re looking at what we’re doing, and they can see we’ve got this. They don’t want to reach across and take the wheel from us.”

“It’s made us have more control of everything that we do,” adds Josh. “Still, I’d take the deal to buy a gaff innit. What’s that bar of yours Lee about trying to buy a mansion on a hill?”

“‘To be broke and depressed what a thrill,’” replies Scott. “‘I’d rather be depressed in a mansion on a hill.’”

If riches could be counted in creative triumphs, Scott, Josh and the rest of the crew would have been kicking back in palatial surroundings for a long time now. From a vast catalog overflowing with talented MCs and producers, here’s a snapshot that hints at the spectrum Blah covers in its exploration of hip-hop as an ever-evolving culture.

Here are just a few pathways into their world.

Cult Of The Damned

Cult of the Damned effectively captures Blah as a collective, bringing in the label’s key players for explosive crew showcases. The roots of the project can be traced back to a project called Children of the Damned, which originated in 2007 with the album Tourettes Camp. The idea was revived for Cult of the Damned, adding even more members to the fold for a knockout self-titled EP. As you might expect, there are too many noteworthy features to list, and CULTGANGRAPSH!T VOL.01 continued the group show of strength.

Lee Scott
There Is A Reason For Everything

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Scott’s discography is a deep well of hip-hop mastery, as he subverts the form to fit his Northwestern twang with razor-sharp, deadpan humor apparent from his earliest releases. You could pick any one of his albums and come away impressed, but 2023’s There Is A Reason For Everything is a perfect summation of his gifts as an MC and producer. The crooked angle of the jazz licks on the beats support some of Scott’s best bars to date, exploring his background in Runcorn on “Raleigh Lizard.”

Black Josh
Today’s The Day

Starting out spitting over 140, grime-centric beats, Black Josh has grown in stature as a wickedly talented, incredibly versatile rapper. “I’ve always been learning on the job,” he says, “so I guess that’s where most of my flows come from. I’m probably doing it by accident and thinking, ‘Oh, shit, let me try and do that again.’” From party-starting fireworks to snarling social commentary and melodious introspection, Josh covers a lot of ground. More recently, he’s focused on working with one producer on specific albums like 2020’s Mannyfornia with Metrodome, and 2023’s Today’s The Day with New Orleans-based Wino Willy.

Sonnyjim & Lee Scott
Ortolan & Armagnac

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Compared to Scott’s pointed diction and Josh’s dramatic range, Sonnyjim has a subtler approach as an MC, revealing its hidden depths more slowly. The wit is delivered with a droll swagger that’s entirely in keeping with Birmingham’s shoulder-shrugging, subversive counter culture. Though he worked with The Purist on the acclaimed White Girl Wasted (which featured guest spots from DJ Premier and the late MF Doom), it’s his latest project, purely produced by Scott, that brings out his best.

Nah Eeto
Auntie, What Happened To Me?

Otherwise known as Vikki Rimbui, Nah Eeto has the kind of flow that stops you dead in your tracks. Flipping between Swahili and English without missing a beat, Rimbui’s distinct East African accent and commitment to bridging scenes in Kenya and the UK made her debut EP 53 stand out amongst the persistent peaks of the Blah catalogue. She made a first appearance on Blah in a potent face-off with Scott in 2018: “Auntie, What Happened To Me?” is a low-slung, misfit masterpiece which establishes Nah Eeto as one of the strongest voices on Blah’s formidable roster.

Lyza Jane
For Your Eyes Only

Covering Echo & The Bunnymen and singing about tramadol in an angelic falsetto, Lyza Jane is the R&B subversive who embodies Blah’s blend of musical integrity and risk-embracing originality. “There’s always been a lot of slower melodic, moody rhythms on Blah so I think it fits,” she says. “There’s no formula to deconstruct—if it sounds good, do it. That’s what I love most about the music surrounding the label.” In 2017, the London-based singer released her first fully-fledged release Nobody But You; the following year, she teamed up with Sniff for the Baby Blue Champion EP. Throughout, Jane produces her own tracks, injecting a smoky soul into the beats as recently evidenced on her single “For Your Eyes Only,” featuring bars from Vel Nine and Jaydonclover.

Stinkin Slumrok & Morriarchi

Both still active on the Blah roster, Morriarchi and Cult of the Damned member Stinkin Slumrok originally made Morrstinkin’ in the early ‘90s, before the album was stifled by beef between the pair and their label at the time. Blah took a break from its focus on new music to rescue Morrstinkin’ “for the sake of hip hop.” Coming on with the icy moodiness of Mobb Deep and the toughness of Organized Konfusion by way of an East London estate, this is hard-bitten boom bap of the highest caliber, revived in 2017 with contemporary guest spots and the odd production lick to bring it up to date.

Miami Deco

When Cult of the Damned dropped “Civilised” in 2018, BeTheGun’s opening verse instantly commanded attention. It wasn’t the first time filmmaker-turned-rapper Luke Flanagan had stepped up for Blah, but the infectious hook brought his smooth, melodic flow and knack for scene-setting to the foreground. Last year’s Miami Deco rounded out the vision—a compact EP produced by Scott and Jack Chard decked out in laid-back surrounds all the better to take in his luxury bars. It’s exactly the kind of non-conformist angle on hip-hop which makes Blah what it is.

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