Over the past couple of years, the UK rap and grime scene – previously exclusive to the underground - has become an intercontinental infatuation. The DIY production and ferociously unapologetic lyricism, as well as the aesthetics synonymous with this microcosm of British culture, have seduced some of the music industry’s most influential tastemakers, subsequently enabling these genres to infiltrate the mainstream.
Independent artists are also establishing a new sense of authority and, in collaboration with a community of creatives, building a self-sufficient scene. Within that community, documenting and embellishing the most intimate moments, with the type of access gained by genuine, trusting, personal relationships, unique to a select few, are the photographers; specifically in this case, Ashley Verse, Jordan Hughes, and Vicky Grout.
"You can’t just be there and not be doing anythin"’, Verse explained when asked how he has been able to work so closely with British pioneers like Skepta, Wiley and P Money, as well as American rap stars including Drake and Future. "You have to be bringing something to the table".
Verse, a self-proclaimed "visual enthusiast" with a frontline omnipresence and distinctive photographic style, is fast becoming an integral part of the UK rap and grime scene. His images seem to successfully capture the unfathomable energy and his passion, as a fan, allows him to share his unique experiences through his work. "I remember after I met Skepta, he told me to meet him at a show the next week. He was doing a show in Ministry [of Sound] and he was like “Yeah, meet me at Ministry next week. We’ll link up and go to the show and take a couple pictures and that” and I was like “Rah, for real?”’.
Since then, as UK rap and grime have evolved, Verse has captured some of the scene’s most memorable moments and his access has enabled him to pre-empt those significant moments, ensuring they are photographed so that everyone can see what is brewing within these notoriously misrepresented genres.
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In the past, when UK artists have been less successful internationally, it seems to be the result of a lack of authenticity, or an attempt to emulate. Artists have ventured across the pond with an idea of what they think people want to hear from them and quickly returned with their tails between their legs and a rucksack full of their unwanted mixtapes.
Now, as the UK rap and grime scene becomes increasingly self-reliant and its musicians have begun to worry less about the opinions of their American counterparts, it is exuding authenticity and has ironically come under the mainstream microscope. But, as good as the live shows are and as raw and real as the experiences are for the fans who’re there, the fact that these frontline photographers are capturing artists when they’re at their realest, means that the moments can be shared with a wider audience.
One image Verse captured, which propelled Section Boyz - who were at the time relatively unknown to the mainstream – into the spotlight, was when Drake arrived on stage as a surprise guest at the south London group’s headline show in 2016. "That picture went everywhere", Verse explained, still sounding in shock at its viral success. "Like, I’ve seen it on loads of US blogs and whatnot and I think that’s when the music got taken a bit more seriously, still".
"If you’re just doing you and it catches on, you ain’t ever gotta be anyone else" – Ashley Verse
This was an image that proved the value of the UK scene’s authenticity. It wasn’t the result of musicians seeking the approval of the US market, or actively trying to earn the international co-sign, it was just an indication of how big the scene had become. "If you’re just doing you and it catches on, you ain’t ever gotta be anyone else. You can just be you forever".
The Section Boyz gig was exactly that: a live show following the standard UK rap formula – an energetic live set with a number of surprise guests. This time, however, it was Drake who was invited to join them on stage. But this wasn’t Section’s attempt to validate themselves by showing people who they were rolling with, it was just an example of the international attention the UK’s formerly underground scene was organically receiving.
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Jordan Hughes, who will often be seen on the frontline alongside Verse, captures his subjects with a similar sense of pluralism. "I always say this, like, if you’re gonna get involved in a scene, if you’re gonna get involved in something that’s bigger than you are, you need to be contributing to that, rather than taking away", he explains. "If people know that you’re not taking the piss and know that you’re in it because you love it, and that’s the reason, then they’ll open their arms to you".
Hughes has also generated the trust and respect that permits a type of access unfamiliar to the average music fan, allowing him to shoot some of the UK rap and grime scene’s most enigmatic characters at their most sincere. He describes his candid style as being like "a fly on the wall", adding "I’m still kind of trying to find what my photography style is but a lot of people say my photos kind of look like people aren’t aware of me in the room".
Like Verse, Hughes’s ability to immerse himself in every aspect of the live music circuit, from the back-stage preparations to the after parties, means he’s able to share, through his documentary-style images, the reality of these artists’ day-to-day experiences. "Photography is at the forefront of showcasing the guys and the girls’ shit to the world. Saying “Look how sick this is. I bet you wish you were in Visions when Skepta did the 'Man...' video. I bet you wish you were at the 'Landlord' Giggs show”. All that kind of stuff, people wouldn’t be aware of if there wasn’t good photography around".
Both Verse and Hughes seem to understand a sense of responsibility, in being trusted to capture the authenticity which seems to be making UK rap and grime so popular. Verse simply said "For me, for the way I shoot, I wanna document us, init. It’s gotta look and feel like our ting". Hughes added: "Would the British music scene be as healthy as it is without photography? No? And that goes back forever. The only thing that survives the musicians is the music and the photographs. People forget all the other shit".
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‘Hate photos, love Vicky Grout’ – a delicately articulated testimony from Skepta which truly epitomises the ‘access all areas’ relationship Vicky Grout has with the UK rap and grime scene. "I think this probably started when I first began going to raves - without my camera at the start - and just got to know a lot of the artists in the London scene, just through chatting to them after their sets", Grout recalls. "I think maybe the fact that artists could tell I was really into what they were doing at the time, meant they felt more comfortable with me shooting them".
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From the age of thirteen, she’s been fully immersed in music, with her finger on the trigger of her 35mm camera at every show. Now, eight years later, Grout has become a familiar face in the UK scene – even making a cameo in Stormzy’s MOBO-nominated 'Big For Your Boots' video. She also launched her debut solo exhibition, entitled ‘AAA’ (access all areas) An Exhibition of Grime Photography by Vicky Grout, which included introspective shots of grime MC’s like Trim, as well as her TimeOut cover shoot with Skepta.
"Because we live in a digital era - and a visual one - the way that artists are portrayed visually is so important", she explained when asked about why the talent, style and character of UK artists is being picked up across the Atlantic, and how important it is that every facet of the scene is captured by frontline photographers. "People want things instantly and if an artist isn’t being documented well enough then they may not get as much exposure".
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To all three of the photographers, authenticity is paramount. When discussing any aspect of UK rap and grime, whether that be in relation to photography or not, it seems as if Verse, Hughes and Grout believe the realism with which it is represented has acted as a catalyst for the scene and its plethora of prodigies, and needs to be maintained to ensure longevity. Reviewing who they thought were positive UK rap and grime ambassadors, they made similar points.
Verse declared "Stormz… Sometimes I think some people don’t think Stormz is Stormz. But that’s him. That is actually him. And I think that’s sick. He’s an ambassador. When I see him, I just think 'Yeah, you’re just being yourself and that’s sick’". Grout agreed, adding: "Stormzy definitely stands out when you think of a positive ambassador. Not only is he a positive person and a good role model, he also isn’t afraid to speak up about issues, which is needed from more people".
Another up and coming south London rapper who came up, for similar reasons, was Dave. "I genuinely think, if he plays it right, and continues to make good music and continues to be himself, I really think Dave", Hughes claimed. "That’s not saying he’ll be commercially as big as Stormzy, or that he’s gonna be at the Chanel fashion show like Skepta. But in terms of that cultural importance, when people look back at stuff, people will be like 'This kid was chatting the truth. He was talking about real shit while everyone else was talking about… Percocet".
“You can’t preach authenticity and not be authentic’ – Jordan Hughes.
As UK rap and grime continues on an upward trajectory, influencing every aspect of popular culture during its excursion through the mainstream, a certain amount of tribute must be paid to the frontline photographers.
Not only because they have the talent to shoot aesthetically pleasing photos that you might pause on for a few seconds while scrolling through your Instagram feed, but because they comprehend what it is about UK rap and grime that needs to be captured and shared in order for the scene to progress, and approach their craft with the same authenticity as the musicians they photograph.
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Words: Patrick Fennelly
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