Skepta's Collaborations Are An Act Of Cultural Renewal

Skepta's Collaborations Are An Act Of Cultural Renewal

His features are key to retaining a position at the cutting edge...

It’s not controversial to say Skepta is one of the biggest acts in the UK right now, with headline slots at Wireless festival, Lovebox, and Field Day over the past few years, as well as two Number 2 albums and collaborations with everyone from A$AP Rocky to Wizkid.

He’s also had sell-out collaborations with Nike and his own fashion range, in case you needed any more convincing about how dominant a force he is across UK culture as a whole.

What’s less clear is how, after partially instigating grime’s return to the mainstream, he’s managed to not just stay relevant, but become one of the trendiest rappers around.

Comparisons with other grime veterans like Wiley and Kano throw his success into sharp relief. Kano is happily carving out an acting career and making mature albums for the older grimeheads, whilst Wiley rode the grime wave with 2017’s excellent ‘Godfather’, only to find himself beached as soon as the tide went back out – not withstanding ‘Boasty’, the summer anthem which refuses to go away.

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Skepta, on the other hand, is a style icon and pack-leader amongst the newer generation of UK rap acts, despite being almost 40 years old. How has he managed it? In large part, by engaging with the younger artists who so desperately want to emulate his success.

Whilst 2016’s ‘Konnichiwa’ stayed mainly within grime, since then Skepta has been far more adventurous, linking with artists from every corner of the UK rap scene and pushing the boundaries of his own sound whilst he does it.

This experimental phase yielded its most visible results on 2019’s ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’, which not only incorporated sounds from far outside of grime, but also featured smaller artists on standout tracks, including Lancey Foux on ‘Animal Instinct’ and Nafe Smalls on ‘Greaze Mode’.

Taking this to the next level is the just released collaborative album ‘Insomnia’ with Chip and Young Adz (of D Block Europe fame). The rhetoric around these kind of features has usually been that artists such as Skepta are supporting the scene and bringing smaller acts up, who should be grateful for the opportunity.

Whilst this is true to some extent, there’s also a flipside to this – namely, that there’s a lot to be said for these features giving Skepta a credibility he wouldn’t otherwise have.

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To put it more bluntly, the teenagers getting into UK rap aren’t trawling through the archives to listen to the best MCs from 10 years ago – they’re listening to the best rappers now.

Aitch may have attracted criticism when he said that nobody younger than him is bothered about grime, but he actually had a clumsily phrased point.

Skepta has sidestepped that problem by never being seen as one of the elders of the scene, despite being nearly the same age as Wiley. A teenager isn’t listening to Blacklisted, but they’re listening to Octavian, who Skepta has collaborated with multiple times, most recently on ‘Papi Chulo’.

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By working with the artists of the moment, Skepta makes sure he’s always front and centre, as well as developing a reputation for having an ear to the streets – he first started working with slowthai long before the Northampton rapper blew up, and likewise with Suspect.

These features aren’t just throwaway bars, either. slowthai has spoken about how Skepta passed on two or three songs before contributing to ‘Inglorious’, keen to pick a track with the perfect vibe.

He’s also brought out Suspect and Ambush Buzzworl at shows to perform ‘One Way’ and ‘Jumpy Remix’ respectively. Whilst these songs don’t have the instant recognition of his hits, they show the diversity of his back catalogue and place him firmly at the centre of the UK scene.

With this in mind, the full length three-way collaboration on ‘Insomnia’ makes perfect sense. Young Adz might initially seem like the odd one out, the D-Block Europe force not having quite as high a profile as Skepta, or the longevity and name recognition of Chip, but rest assured that both of the more established names are getting as much clout out of the collaborative album as he is, if not more.

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'Insomnia' is out now.

Words: Jake Hawkes

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