Words: Yemi Abiade
The appointment of Wretch 32 as 0207 Def Jam’s Creative Director last year marked an intriguing shift for the UK scene that it has seldom seen. A rapper arguably in the prime of his career taking an executive position at a record label is not a sight we’re used to on these shores, but it represented an intriguing new angle to the position of rappers in the industry at large. We’re usually used to seeing these happenings in the United States, where we grew up seeing Jay-Z head up Roc-A-Fella Records, Birdman mould Cash Money and, more recently, J. Cole cultivate a community with Dreamville.
There, these figures valued ownership and enterprise to such a degree that their business acumen almost mirrored their musical nous, as they gathered artists from far and wide to represent their respective ventures. Leveraging their talents and social reach to put others on, they provided strong examples for any like-minded musicians aiming to dominate the label side of the industry, giving it a more relatable and aspirational face. It’s taken a little bit longer for that mentality to land in the UK. Granted, we’ve had a slew of rappers with the ingenuity to build labels themselves: think of Boy Better Know, owned by Jme and Skepta and responsible for releases of the entire crew since its 2005 inception—including the latter’s Mercury Prize-winning opus, Konnichiwa—or Tinie Tempah’s Disturbing London, which has cultivated the careers of Yxng Bane, Poundz and Yungen, among other highly-rated talents. But these examples are still few and far between, meaning the case of the rapper-executive still has much distance to cover.
Perhaps our attitudes have been different. Seemingly more so than our American cousins, the UK—particularly at the onset of grime—seemed very much like a scene that valued the co-sign over legally signing artists; for example, Wiley is responsible for many careers—whether by featuring aspiring MCs on tracks or taking them to the studio—but never took the move to bring the likes of Chip, Tinchy Stryder and others into a definitive label under his umbrella. Grime culture, as it was, left little room for long-term thinking in that regard due to its limited infrastructure, which was only strengthened as years went by.
You could argue that the presence of labels such as Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee Stank, Chip’s Cash Motto and D Double E’s Bluku Music shuts down the overall argument, but outside of almost exclusively releasing the projects of their founders, their presence on the scene is limited from an executive standpoint. Throughout the 2000s, the wider music industry’s relationship with grime and other forms of Black British music were ambivalent, and rarely was a young Black musician able to negotiate a position as an executive without doing it themselves, completely independently, like BBK, or having significant success, like Dizzee or Tinie.
Now, as the proliferation of the UK’s Black music scene is in full gusto, and with the success it has seen over here (commercially) and worldwide (critically), a new attitude has been installed among our stars: that of limitless possibility and owning one’s narrative. With the rise of the scene, the industry’s infrastructure is changing, namely due to the prominence of Black men and women in major positions in major labels, playing their role in changing the perception of how the industry can, and should, look like. The rise of 0207 Def Jam—co-founded by brothers and veteran executives Alex and Alec Boateng—and its appointment of Wretch is testament to the new framework labels and rappers within them can thrive and mould the next ones up.
The younger generation is paying attention, too. Recently, drill superstar Digga D established his new Black Money Records as a vehicle for his wider CGM crew—the likes of Horrid1, Sav’o and more—to envelope the drill landscape one record at a time. Meanwhile, Central Cee has long spoken of his upcoming setup, under the name of Live Yours, to put his young G’s on and expose them to the blessings music can provide. Here, these artists are offering a leg up to their friends and fellow artists to establish themselves in the industry outside of the traditional label setup, undoubtedly understanding their need and wants more than any other company could. The notion of independence is key here, in that they now determine not just their own destiny but that of those they push to the world. These moves fit nicely with the words of Wretch himself, who told Complex earlier this year: “No one can speak for an artist like another artist can. If the artist is at the centre, whatever arrow you stick out of it, it would still feel better coming from an artist.”
With British rap accounting for over 20% of single-track consumption in the UK as of 2020, generating significant revenue for record labels in the present day, it’s only right and a natural evolution that rappers get a slice of that action from a label head perspective. And for fans hoping to enter the game as rappers themselves, the guiding hand of a fellow MC could unlock potential in ways traditional labels may not be prepared to, thus allowing for many talents to fall through the cracks of promise. Will moves by the likes of Digga and Cench empower legions of artists to take their destiny into their own hands? That remains to be seen, but the visibility of rapper-executives in a climate of chronic wins for the scene is long overdue, a progressive aspect of building this thing we love.
Is The UK Ready For More Rapper-Execs? – TRENCH
Words: Yemi Abiade