“As far as Black-fronted rap competitions go in this country, it’s the biggest” – we meet the cast of BBC Three’s premier talent contest
No matter how much some people hate it, reality TV continues to dominate our screens. From the performative grandeur of The Real Housewives franchise to Love island’s cynical romantics, you can’t flick on the telly these days without splashing down in some soapy drama. Next on our watchlist is The Rap Game UK: a BBC remake of the Jermaine Dupri and Queen Latifah-produced talent contest in which veteran duo Krept and Konan plus 1Xtra’s DJ Target hunt for the next big British MC.
Moving from Birmingham to Manchester for series three last year, The Rap Game UK kicks off its fourth season tonight (August 11). Six new aspiring artists will be intro’d before completing challenges such as the beloved ‘cypher’ performance round. The ultimate prize? At first it was a rare recording contract with Krept and Konan’s Play Dirty label, but they scrapped that and now award the winner £20k to kickstart a career. But that’s where its similarities to other talent shows end. Instead of pitting hungry youngster against hungry youngster and crushing their spirits by sending one home each ep, this show nurtures its artists, keeping them in a house together for the whole six weeks until the champion is crowned.
Another unique thing about The Rap Game is its rankings system – the show’s way of charting its stars’ progress throughout the series. When NME meets them, judges Target, Krept and Konan all admit to having “heated debates”, taking “hours or sometimes even days” to decide who will top the list. The mentors’ priority is not to bestow bragging rights but – in the words of Konan – “to give them the gems, knowing that this journey is not easy and will never start being easy.”
This year, those hoping to receive Konan’s gems are 22-year-old Leeds “real rap” star Mwangi; youngest of the bunch P3Lz, an 18-year-old Liverpudlian; 20-year-old rapper-producer hybrid from south London, JClarke; 27-year-old Croydon lad Big Jest; and two 21-year-olds: Scotland-based Mayo (pronounced my-oh) and Brum rap newbie Zoellz, who only started her career during 2020’s lockdown.
For Mwangi, this is “the Olympics” of UK rap. “It was a crazy eye opener [coming into the competition] because I’m thinking I’m doing my thing and I’m killing it,” he says via Zoom. “And then I’m jumping into a scene where I’m realising I can’t mess about anymore… There is serious talent out there and you’ve got to beat the best to be the best – and the best are these people.”
As the youngest in the house, P3Lz begins the race to the top with an experience deficit. “When [the producers] first got in contact,” she tells us, “I was bit iffy about it because I’ve watched the show before and I’m not the type of person who would go into something and then quit because it gets too hard.” Count her out at your peril though: “The experiences I’ve got [from The Rap Game UK] I will not find anywhere else, and getting the feedback and everything’s just been really surreal.”
These experiences include industry heavyweights coming to see the budding stars flex their talents and provide some advice, and season four’s lot are some of the coolest the show has ever seen; melodic trap stars D-Block Europe, grime pioneer Lethal Bizzle, and more. One piece of advice that’s stuck with P3LZ came from popular guest mentor and drill superstar, Unknown T: “Confidence was a massive thing as well. Unknown T said that if I put more behind [my raps], then it may come across better. So I’ve taken that into every performance. Everything has to be 100 per cent so I can be on that different level.”
Big Jest, another of our faves from this season, highlights the importance of the show: “As far as Black[-fronted] rap competitions go in this country, it’s the biggest one. Well, it’s really the only one. So it’s a huge platform for UK rap… Many people want to be involved, but not many people are.”
During each rapper’s stay, the Rap Game house is their creative hub. We watch as they prepare for that week’s challenge in a swanky penthouse flat They write rhymes, practice their flow and record under strict time pressure. It’s a bit like The X Factor, but they’re not isolated from the superstar world they’ll soon join. They get to rub shoulders with some of the industry’s most coveted spitters, and work with established names in music to better their skills. As a proving ground for new talent, there’s no place like it.
Just ask DJ Target. While part of seminal grime collective Roll Deep, and as a BBC Radio 1Xtra presenter since 2013, he’s been at the scene’s forefront for decades. “We love to watch the contestants’ development and growth,” he explains to NME. “And when they take on feedback, from not just ourselves but all the guest mentors, you can see their progress.
“I’ve really enjoyed doing this show – and getting to see these contestants come in with an issue and, by the time they leave, being transformed in confidence, stage presence or ability.”
In a similar way, The Rap Game UK has also evolved over its four seasons. Starting out as a hidden gem amid the bustling feed of then online-only BBC Three, it is set to reach a much bigger audience thanks to the channel’s return to linear telly earlier this year. These new episodes should be the most-watched yet.
“I do feel very blessed [that I was in the] first conversations about the show and [discussing] where we [wanted to] try and take it,” says Target, reflecting on The Rap Game UK’s legacy. “We couldn’t have imagined how well it’s done. People are watching the show to the point it’s big enough to win some awards” — an Edinburgh TV Award for Best Entertainment Series in 2020, to be precise — “and hopefully we will be nominated for some more.”
In just four years, The Rap Game UK has become a beloved staple for the UK rap fan – and gives those aspiring to be big stars an added confidence boost as they watch others in their position prosper in the presence of UK rap’s hunchos. Krept – speaking for all the mentors – now wants just one thing to happen: “We still have a fair bit to go where someone’s gone and done the show, and then been mad successful. I feel like we’ve still got that to achieve. But there’s so many stars on this season – this might be the one.” Don’t bet against it.
‘The Rap Game’ series four premieres tonight (August 11) at 9pm on BBC Three
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