East vs. West, NYC vs. Dirty South, BX vs. The Bridge — in this inchoate century and its ever-spinning Web-whorl, real-world rap boundaries have been tanked. Yeah, rappers still rep where they’re from, but the new territories are the Internet vs. the Internet, where battalions of bedazzled e-warriors gather for binary gang wars over whose verse is better, or who first commented on what post. (Even Ciara and Rihanna are beefing over Twitter.) Unlike the olden days, though, no one’s gonna mean-mug you if you bump beats from beyond your empire. Walk down any Brooklyn street and you’re more likely to hear Atlanta iceblock Gucci Mane bumping from multiple whips than tracks from any actual rappers from Brooklyn. Whether it’s information society giving way to global music culture, the total colonial takeover of major labels, or the equalizing force of great shazam Soulja Boy (and *Mims?), geographic divisors are relics of ancient times — when mixtapes were CDs you copped from a dude on Canal, instead of files you DL’d from DatPiff.
One of the last holdouts of rap regionalism was the UK, which spent the better part of the 20th Century trying to define itself against the cultural behemoth that is American hip-hop culture. They never quite popped off in the US on a broad scale, partly because we — or major label A&Rs — couldn’t get over the accents. (If it sounds xenophobic, note that it took until approximately 2005 for a vast majority of New York to even entertain the idea of a Southern rapper who wasn’t from Atlanta and/or OutKast.) So when UK rap really started defining itself on its own terms around Y2K with the highly local sound of grime, its practitioners naturally wanted it close to their chests, rapping over zero-gravity beats and flaunting council-houses-honed accents so deep and quick they were sometimes difficult for Americans to parse. It was a protectively regional genre, reflecting an East London that US stars could never specifically address. Some of us went in for it anyway, making dudes like eminently likable grime prodigy Dizzee Rascal a relative star in the early half of the aughties. But Brit rappers who even remotely nicked US styles got immediately used-binned, while grime’s heyday here came in waves, with stateside higher-ups like Diddy (er, mostly just Diddy) intermittently checking in and throwing down a lick for UK stars.
That’s what happened with Tinie Tempah, the skyrocketing London rapper who wasn’t shy about gearing last year’s hit single, “Pass Out,” to charts both English and American, embellishing dance-friendly synths with an Akon-approximating hook by producer Labrinth. (Diddy, duh, nabbed him for a remix.) But now that star aspirations come in global packages, Tempah’s quasi-concessions to form weren’t that outre, as he and grime peers like Wiley and Tinchy Strider skim a sound — or sound signifiers — recognizable to anyone in the Western world as pop hip-hop. Grime got translated by the international idea trade.
A more interesting example is that of Giggs, a brolic rapper with a quicksand-like baritone who’s either monotonous or hypnotic depending on your appreciation for willful sluggishness (I am obsessed with it). Born in a rough part of South London, he too came up on grime’s fireshot cadences. But his style taps the now sound of the American South, his delivery a slovenly drawl over nightmarish triple-time beats and trampolining bass. It’s a unique left turn — no other British rapper has ever sounded quite so proud to have Young Jeezy on his iPod — and through Giggs, it’s weirdly goth: dude creeping like a vampire through sludgy lyrics about roughhousing, gutter politics, and subsequent unapologetic balling. (People who are mad at the band Salem’s appropriation of screw music should try listening to Giggs — he sounds that way naturally.) Giggs never tries to hide his mushy brogue, but on his latest mixtape, Take Your Hats Off, he makes his Britishness into a lesser qualm — and not least of all because it’s hosted by Whoo Kid, the G-Unit DJ from Queens who’s a New York mixtape institution. Even more than on last year’s evilly great Let Em Ave It, Giggs is making overtures to Georgia, hopping on tracks with ATL party king Waka Flocka and enjoying the spoils of producer du jour Lex Luger, the almost-20-year-old responsible for the hammerhead sound of contemporary riot-rousing Southern rap. He’s really the first UK dude so blatantly bridging rap crosspond, and with the lethargic aesthetic of his voice — pudding to submerge into, menacing and mean — being so zeitgeistical, he’s certainly got a shot at our fancy. Giggs milks his timbre’s devil nature for the horror movies rap is apparently craving right now, too, sounding like lusty Frankenstein on “Monsta Man” and inflating his G status to fairy tale levels on the eerie “Wolf.” And yet, in another zeitgeistical twist, the first UK dude whose aspirations lean so American may not make it here anytime soon; British police keep canning his tours based on an illegal gun charge some eight years ago, including scheduled UK dates this March. Even so, Giggs is a reminder that in this ever-altering mind state, at least, you can’t keep the sound bound.
*A dude from New York whose all-points-namechecking hit ‘This is Why I’m Hot’ was a black hole inverse of regionalism, and therefore just a little bit hilarious.