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A History of Nottingham Hip Hop

25 September 17 words: Nathaniel Benjamin
illustrations: Emily Catherine

Hip hop history in Nottingham is ridiculously rich; too rich to fit into one article. This piece is an introduction, the iceberg tip of a topic that we’ve been lucky enough to clock thanks to Pariz 1, DJ Fever and Courtney Rose, who put their time aside to drop endless OG gems; some of which have been stored in the LeftLion vault, for future podcast-related endeavours. Before we go in deep, let’s take a look back at the beginnings of the movement in the US, and at hip hop’s place in humble Notts…

A lot of times, when people say ‘hip hop’, they don't know what they’re talking about. They just think of the rappers. When you talk about hip hop, you’re talking about the whole culture and movement. You have to take the whole culture for what it is. – Afrika Bambaataa

Hip hop was birthed in the seventies, in the South Bronx, New York. Conceived as a form of self-expression focused on instrumentals, the structure was initially built around the DJ, who dropped the sound to the masses. At this time, it was a mixture of drum breaks and disco samples, or “break beats.”

DJ Kool Herc is considered to be the founding father of hip hop. Not only did he throw legendary parties to help push forward the b-boy dance culture, he also introduced the concept of mic chanting, which derived from his time spent as a youth in Jamaica studying sound system culture. The notion of verbal self-expression over an instrumental beat emerged, and the master of ceremony was born.

The MC would rap to hype up parties, and each DJ would have either an MC or crew which inevitably created competition among other collectives, resulting in battles and sound clashes. Hip hop travelled outside of the US in the eighties and eventually spread all over the world, finding its way into a little city called Nottingham...

B-boy

Back in the day, you actually had to leave your house to get the vibe – we really lived it back then. – DJ Fever

Weekly Rock City meet-ups with a frosty Red Stripe in hand, watching the b-boy festivities? Those were the good old days, where disputes were settled in the dance arena with sick instrumentals, courtesy of scratch pioneers DJ Master Scratch and Nasty Nice.

Imagine a packed venue with crews of bodies moving in symmetry to break beats; a truly great time to be alive in Nottingham hip hop. People travelled all over the country to attend, and it even attracted the likes of the legendary DJ Goldie, and a young Jason Orange. Yes, the bloke from Take That.

It all started with Jonathan Woodliffe, really; he turned a rock venue into somewhere hip hop could thrive. – Courtney Rose

Jonathan Woodliffe – Nottingham’s Rick Rubin – put together the legendary Rock City Crew. This collective, and the Assassinators, became Nottingham's most renowned b-boy dance crews. Both managed to tour the world and even rubbed shoulders with legends like Chaka Khan and Melle Mel. Not bad for a load of Nottingham lads, eh?

Courtney Rose, a member of the Assassinators, says that these tours helped the crews raise the cash needed to purchase team tracksuits to compete in. Often, a crew would sport the exact same tracksuit and everybody had to look fresh.

Each dancer in each crew would have their own dance speciality. One would master popping and locking while another would focus on spinning, so everyone stayed strong and sharp, with each dancer bringing something different to the table.

Unfortunately, this era was not well documented; footage and pictures are pretty scarce, which is why the 2014 documentary NG83: When We Were B Boys is vital in telling the tale of the Nottingham b-boy scene. With exclusive footage and interviews from the OGs of the eighties hip hop dance scene, like Claude Knight, D2 and Dancing Danny, the film is a salute to the movement we continue to build on today.

The Nottingham hip hop dance scene has evolved over the years, and a lot of that’s down to Courtney. He saw the importance of dance in the community, and in 2008 went on to start Take 1 Dance with his wife Melissa. The studio has since become the cornerstone of the Nottingham hip hop dance scene.

Dancers from this studio – including Courtney and Melissa’s own children – have competed all over the world, putting Nottingham on the map. Other dance crews like The Funky Fresh Collective, Freedom Movement Hip Hop Team, and individuals like flexx dancer Jamal Sterrett, have helped mould the hip hop dance scene into what it is today.

Music

Throughout the late eighties, the Nottingham rap scene really started to take off, with MCs like M.S.D, who, alongside producer DJ Quick – not to be confused with the west-coasting, Jheri-curl-wearing rapper and producer from the States – created a number of bangers for Hoodtown heads to bounce to. 

It was around this time that Joe Buhdha rhymed in a collective with Trevor Rose called MCs Logic, who got signed and ended up touring with Queen Latifah and De La Soul. They were even offered a record deal on the same label as Run DMC, but were unable to get out of their current contract. At the time, the production duties were down to DJ Trade. However, when Buhdha decided to embark on his own production journey, his legacy was solidified by working with some of the biggest acts in hip hop music, both nationally and internationally.

In 1993, we saw Mr 45 drop the banger Radford (You Get Me). He went on to link up with Joe Buhdha, also collaborating with artists overseas, and in 1995, Pure Genius erupted on the scene with Unbelievable, followed by Undercover, and both local classics have stood the test of time.

Pure Genius was formed in the early nineties and consisted of Courtney Rose aka Viking, Trevor Rose aka Big Trev, LAW, Nicky Fogo, Framps, KID – who passed away in 2012 – and DJ Fever. The crew achieved success in their own right and became one of the first rap groups in the UK to appear on the Tim Westwood show.

Pure Genius inspired the creation of Out Da Ville: the crew that emerged under the guidance of Trevor Rose and CRS (Community Recording Studio) that consisted of Lee Ramsay, Tempa, Scorzayzee, Karizma and C-Mone. They released Blood Sweat and Tears: a certified Notts classic. Seeing them on MTV Base as a youngster made me, and many other heads, extremely proud to be from this city.

The nineties was a breeding ground for Nottingham talent, and some would argue that it wouldn’t have been possible without the Rose Brothers. In 1991, Trevor set up CRS and Courtney later established Take 1 Studios. At a time when rivalry among areas was at its peak, both studios provided a safe haven for Nottingham youths to express themselves musically.

Trevor and Courtney provided a place where the youths could go after school – I was one of those youths. They would let us record in their studio for free. – Pariz 1

The impact and importance of the opportunities offered by the duo goes unchallenged in this city, and helped Pariz to develop into one of the most prominent Nottingham female MCs. She explained that because she resided in Radford, she recorded at Take 1 Studios while her cousin C-Mone from St Ann’s recorded at CRS.

Graffiti

Graffiti writers were the most interesting people in hip hop. They were the mad scientists, the mad geniuses, the weird ones. – Adam Mansbach

Graffiti art within hip hop emerged in the late seventies, and became most prominent in the eighties. This caught on in Nottingham, with artists like Popz 100 and Pulse taking the eighties and nineties by storm; they were even able to connect and work with artists from New York. Alert, who was a member of the groundbreaking Heavy Artillery Crew, and Kid30, aka Smallkid, plus the rest of the Oxygen Thievez, have made huge leaps within the culture to put Nottingham on the graffiti map.

If there’s any doubt about Nottingham’s importance in the hip hop graffiti world, Dilk puts it to rest. Considered by many to be the Godfather of the Nottingham graffiti scene, Dilk humbly started by spray-painting his bedroom walls in his parents’ house, and went on to canvas walls in Barcelona and the Netherlands. He opened up paint shop Coverage in 2002, in the West End Arcade, eventually opening  Montana Shop on Hockley in 2008.

Both shops, specialising in graffiti, paint, ink, and specialist t-shirts, have been a base camp for writers. In 1995, Dilk travelled to Barcelona to sit down with the creators of Montana paint, expressing admiration for the cans they produced, and walked away with an opportunity to open up the only Montana store in the UK.

Fashion

We never really watched what the Americans were wearing; we just wore what was comfortable, it was street wear. – Courtney Rose

Fashion has always been a big part of hip hop culture. I remember being a young, avid hip hop head, grabbing my Fubu and Phat Farm tops from Victoria Market, thinking I was the long-lost Wu-Tang member. America has always been considered to have set the blueprint for hip hop fashion: from the eighties, when all the b-boys were running into their local sports shops to purchase the freshest tracksuits with Run DMC Adidas shell toes, to the nineties, and the emergence of gangsta rap, where the attire was mostly street wear in the literal sense of the word.

Over the years, we’ve witnessed the demise of American-inspired hip hop clothing in the UK, with the baggy jeans, over-sized t-shirts and basketball jersey becoming more of a nuisance stereotype than a fashion statement. Fast-forward to today, and we now have a wider range of hip-hop-inspired garments and outlets.

The entrepreneurship of current day designers and providers is refreshing: brands like Blue Cheese, Money Baggs Clothing and Mimm have been able to capture hip hop culture, and put their own UK spin on their designs. Mimm, acting as a platform for both local and worldwide designers, stock American apparel like Akademiks, but it’s their own, branded attire that’s fared the best with local people.

The DJ

I saw DJ Nasty Nice in a supermarket a few years back and I just went up to him and told him that I saw him play live at a particular event in the eighties, and that he killed it. He couldn't believe I remembered it. – DJ Fever

Back in the eighties, when the Rock City nights were in full swing, the DJs provided the soundtrack to the night, and DJ Master Scratch was a legendary resident DJ at these events. Master Scratch is hailed as one of Nottingham’s scratch DJ pioneers alongside DJ Nasty Nice, who DJ Fever claims had a huge influence on his DJing aspirations.

DJ Fever started spinning in the late eighties. From formulating equipment at home and converting it into decks, he studied the greats that came before him and started to master his trade. Fever went on to join Pure Genius crew in 1994 as their DJ, after auditioning for Courtney in his studio.

We used to get vinyl from Arcade Records in the West End Arcade, and if we wanted samples, we’d go to Rob’s Records. – DJ Fever

Fever, who regularly passes on his OG wisdom to students at Confetti, has also gone on to produce tracks for local Nottingham talent: from the likes of Mr 45 and Out Da Ville, to Stan Crookz, Harleighblu and J.Littles. He’s toured Dubai, and has even opened up for the purple man himself, Prince, on two occasions, who told him that he really enjoyed his set.

I don’t think you really choose hip hop, I think hip hop chooses you. – DJ Fever

The culture is very different today, with many DJs trading in vinyl for CDJs. But Nottingham has birthed DJs that have mastered both methods, and have gone on to achieve global success: Kiss FM’s Shortee Blitz and Radio 1’s MistaJam being two prime examples.

Me, Courtney and Jam were a production team together back in the day, we used to make beats. – DJ Fever

Jam is one of Take 1 Studios’ biggest success stories, and acts as a great example of the outcome of positive community involvement, and mentors providing the means for the youth to express themselves. MistaJam has publicly expressed that if there was no Take 1, there would be no MistaJam.

Future Thoughts

The other day, my one-year-old son performed his first head nod to a hip hop instrumental, and it was one of my proudest moments as a father. I only hope that he grows to love the culture as much as me, a Nottingham lad who grew up completely in love with the movement, and that he knows and understands the impact our city has had on the scene.

We have it all: from legendary artists, producers and dancers, to world-renowned graffiti artists and trend-setting fashion outlets. This piece is a mere snapshot, an outline of how hip hop elements intertwine with this great city we call home. There are plenty of names bubbling below the surface that we’re yet to mention, historic stones to turn over, that we’ll be bringing to the table soon. Stay tuned.

Do you have a story about Nottingham’s hip hop history? We want to hear from you, so drop us a line on [email protected]  

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