Can you make it big if you live outside the capital?
There’s never been a better time to be a rapper or MC in the UK.
Rap and grime now take centre stage at festivals like Reading and Wireless, independently-released records regularly take top 20 chart positions and major labels are rushing to sign new talent.
The scene is now one of the most important parts of our culture.
But for decades, the struggle to be taken seriously abroad has meant that London became the epicentre – and gatekeepers – of the UK rap and grime scene.
Now with the help of social media, talents of all kinds are breaking through, no matter the accent.
We’ve seen this with the success of Manchester’s Bugzy Malone and Aitch and Birmingham’s Lady Leshurr, Mist and Jaykae.
Three’s documentary series Rap Trip: Underground Scenes Uncovered, rappers Ransom and FOS travel across the UK and Ireland to unearth and elevate more of our unheard, underground, local scenes.
‘You don’t have to stay down because of where you started’
Liverpool’s underground rap scene has lived in the shadows of other major cities for a long time.
But in recent years artists have focused on building up the infrastructure and now new voices are tearing through – and they’re breaking the mould of what it means to be a rapper.
Pelumi is a 16-year-old rapper from Toxteth, an area in the south of the city with a tough reputation.
It’s also the birthplace for some of the UK’s most exciting talent.
“I’ve been through struggles in my life [but] I’ve come through it now and that’s what my music is going to say and that’s what you’ll hear from me,” she says.
“Normal drill artists write about killings. I do my own thing.
“I rap about what I know. I’m a Christian so that’s a big thing for me.”
Her youthful energy and soft, charming nature channels itself into venomous flows once she touches the microphone.
Juggling her religion and education, while also using rap as a vessel to heal and be heard, has allowed the emerging lyricist to stay true to her core beliefs while inspiring more young people to use rap to express their feelings.
“I’m lucky to have my family around me,” she says. “We believe you don’t have to be a product of your environment.
“You can be whatever you put your mind to. You don’t have to stay down because you started there.”
Another Scouse talent, Mal, from Wirral runs a studio to help young people in his community. He offers studio time and directs music videos while managing his own career.
Mal is a multi-talented creator who has an infectious energy and a hunger for music. He was diagnosed with autism and ADHD when he was younger and he uses music as a kind of therapy.
“Having autism and ADHD would give me certain traits,” he says.
“I might be quite obsessive with the music and that can be a good thing. There’s a good balance with it.
“I have a lot of energy sometimes and if I can channel that energy into the right things, that can benefit me.”
Mal started out producing beats at just 12 years old and tries to use music to support people going through their own battles.
“I feel like it’s my duty to put it into my music. That’s what my purpose is in life, to help other people.
“If I can do that with my words, then that’s a pretty profound thing.”
‘We’re going up against a small-town mentality’
The Irish scene, while still small, is highly focused around Dublin.
Even if you have the hardest bars and the tightest flows, when you’re not from a big city it can feel like you’re at a huge disadvantage.
“Port Arlington is like the sticks within the sticks, miles away from any major scene in Ireland,” says rapper Aggy Oi, from the group Lemon Pie Collective.
“We want to show people from small towns in Ireland or wherever you are, that you can do stuff and you can make your situation better through music.
“We’re just a group of lads that came together to make music, we created this creative outlet for people because there was nothing around here, literally.”
They’ve built their own studio and their own stage at the local pub The Barrow Lodge – but they still face criticism from local people.
“[We’re] going up against a small-town mentality, trying to get over the hurdles that are in front of us.”
They’re also aware that their Irish accents could raise some eyebrows but they’re hopeful that fans will instead focus on talent rather than where they’re from.
“When you hear an Irish boy spilling his heart and soul over a track, just because of the accent, people don’t listen to it but I think it’s becoming more of a thing now that people are hearing what they’re actually saying,” says Lemon Pie Collective member Dok.
‘I was letting my anxiety hold me back’
Ceejay, from Leicester, is an emerging UK rapper of South Asian heritage.
And his passion and drive come from his dark struggles with anxiety and depression.
“My anxiety was the worst thing,” he says. “Going outside feels like your heart’s going to come out of your chest.
“I was letting my anxiety hold me back. I was getting booked for places and I was just ignoring the emails.
“I was walking on to the stage and I started puking.”
Ultimately, it was investing his heart into telling his own story that made him decide to get help.
“Plenty of times I was close to giving up, but it was only for the family around me, they helped me get out of it. I was in a bad mind frame.
“Without music I would be trapped inside my own head still.
“Everyone goes through their struggles. Everyone goes through their highs and lows but what differentiates you is how you come out.
“I come out on top.”