A Brief History of Hip-Hop and Rhyme in Nottingham

Words: Claude Money
Illustrations: Rikki Marr
Wednesday 09 August 2023
reading time: min, words

On 11 August 2023, people from around the world will celebrate the 50th birthday of Hip-Hop (half a century since DJ Kool Herc’s famous ‘Back to school jam’ in The Bronx, NYC). Over the years Nottingham has also played a part in shaping its popularity in the UK. Claude Money goes through a brief history of Hip-Hop and rhyme in Nottingham.

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About ten years ago, I was at the Irish Centre watching Mr Scruff carry out one of his heroic sets spanning across several hours and genres. The main room was packed wall to wall with ecstatic faces and everything was a bit of a blur as it ought to be at that time of night.
Suddenly, a familiar sample of quivering strings starts blending into the mix. I look to my left and a wavy Louis Cypher’s eyes widen, he and I both know what the next track was; it was Learn to be Strong by Cappo. An underground anthem from the last golden age of British rap. Scruff pulls the other record, unleashes the drop with a deft hand and sends the place into a frenzy.

I was shocked. Sure, it’s a big tune and it sounds amazing on a club sound system, but that’s not why the Irish Centre turned into a zoo. One of the all time great UK selectors came to our city and paid homage to one of the greatest rappers this country’s ever produced. We were elated with pride. Hip-Hop has always been woven into the fabric of Nottingham, but everything has a beginning somewhere.

On the other side of the city, thirty years before that night at the Irish Centre, another great Nottingham figure was cementing his place in Hip-Hop history. DJ Jonathan Woodliffe started putting on a new type of event at Rock City, focused on a new craze sweeping the planet: breakdancing. Already known as an influential DJ in the world of funk and soul, Woodliffe, whether he realised it or not, had just turned Nottingham into the B-boy capital of the UK. His mixtapes from those events became the stuff of legend and were sold at the Jams as well as at Arcade Records in Nottingham. Those Friday night and Saturday afternoon jams were pioneering; Nottingham’s cultural landscape had been forever changed. If you want to know more we highly recommend you track down a copy of the documentary NG83 When We Were B Boys.

B-boy jams were popping off around the city, most notably at the Hyson Green Boy’s Club. By the mid eighties, The Rock City Crew and The Assassinators Crew had emerged from the burgeoning scene and would soon tour Europe, representing Nottingham against other crews.

The healthy supply chain of Hip-Hop vinyl at record shops like Arcade, Selectadisc and Guava also factored in turning Nottingham into a hotspot for Hip-Hop aficionados. This side of the industry was equally lucrative, so as the select few breakdancing elite took flight on tours, others turned to other elements of Hip-Hop, like graffiti, beatmaking and MCing.

One such former dancer-turned-rapper is MC Fizal Eff. Alongside DJ Quick (aka Dominic Owen) he had a classic cut on a 1988 BPM Records compilation 12”, Juss Cool. The duo would establish their own imprint, called Sing A Song Records and although it was short-lived, the 1989 release of MSD’s Too Late was an instant UK Hip-Hop classic.

With the nineties just around the corner, things were starting to pick up pace; Sing A Song Records pressed up their greatest release, MC Groove’s Drop the Pressure. Elsewhere in the city, other collectives had started to form. DJ Mink and K.I.D. crafted their killer single Hey! Hey! (Can you relate?) which was signed to FON records in Sheffield in 1989, then resigned to the mighty Warp Records the following year. Around the same time, Docta D and MC Steel were in their bag as Subsonic 2. They would go on to grab themselves a feature from US heavyweights Gangstarr and a session on the John Peel show before 1991 was out.

Meanwhile, at the historic Square Centre studios as Whycliffe was recording his debut album and gearing up to tour with James Brown, Nottingham legend Joe Buhdha and his crew MC’s Logik were signing with Graham Parks’ Submission Records to release the Peace and Unity EP. Legend has it that Craig Chettle MBE, founder of Confetti, was a familiar face at the Square Centre at that time and drove them to gigs.

With all of this going on, Nottingham had become a bastion of Hip-Hop in the UK with certain talents getting called up to the big leagues, emigrating to London and the US to influence the cultural movement on a global scale.

Unfortunately, not everyone who deserved to hit the big time did. In 1993, MC’s Logik were poised to sign with a major label but it fell through at the last minute. The reasons behind this vary depending on who you ask. In response, Joe Buhdha and Trevor Rose set their own label up, Represent Records. They bet on themselves and other local talent including the legendary Mr 45. His track Radford (You Get Me), coined that very term and is UK underground lore.

The Nottingham OGs had done their job. Over the course of ten years, a strong foundation had been set for the next generation. Touring as a Hip-Hop act around Europe had become a viable job thanks to MC Groove (remember him from earlier?) who had paved the way in events management and had now changed his name to Mick Blue Eyes. He and Joe Buhdha would also establish Nottingham as a tour date for name brand American artists with their clubnight, Bring The Noise.

A young Cappo who had recently been introduced to Joe Buhdha and the Rose brothers at the ACNA centre found himself hosting and hyping the crowd at some of these events alongside a fledgling Out Da Ville. Those young artists would sharpen their liquid swords and fly the 0115 flag for the next ten years until the end of the Golden Age in 2006.

If you want to know what happens next, get involved with the Nottingham Hip-Hop 50 Weekend, 11 - 13 August, at Binks Yard. Someone down there will chew your ear off about it, no doubt.

Next year will be the first year that B-boys from around the world will be winning medals at the Olympics. Thinking about the role that Nottingham played in British B-boy culture, I can’t help but feel the same sense of pride that I felt hearing Scruff drop a Cappo classic on his home turf.

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