There was once a time when Americans treated the idea of British rappers as a joke. How could the English, with their funny accents and halting rhymes, approach the dexterity and rhythm of quality hip-hop music? Those days ended with the classic 1997 compilation Black Whole Styles, and Roots Manuva's groundbreaking 1999 debut Brand New Second Hand. Since then, we've been aware that the U.K. has a strong hip-hop movement that rivals our own.
However, our knowledge of it remains incomplete. It's not our fault -- most U.K. rap never makes it across the pond. Last week, Professor Green -- who is both hailed and criticized as the U.K. Eminem -- released his second album, At Your Inconvenience. It's expected to debut near the top of the British charts, yet it's not scheduled for release in the States. The same goes for Chipmunk (Transition) and Wretch 32 (Black and White).
Ironically, the stuff we hear tends to be via indie labels, like Ninja Tune and its Big Dada subsidiary (Roots Manuva, Wiley and Dels). It's often experimental, with obvious appeal to adventurous listeners -- electronic and indie fans in particular. Meanwhile, traditional U.K. rap gets ignored, perhaps because American hip-hop fans are assumed to be more conservative in their tastes. But even a reputation as critic favorites didn't help Dizzee Rascal, whose 2009 U.K. hit Tongue N' Cheek was never released here; nor The Streets, whose final album, Computers & Blues, didn't get a proper retail release (although it's available digitally).
With U.K. hip-hop so difficult to come by on a legitimate basis (and there are always file-sharing sites for the truly curious), the albums that receive hard-won U.S. distribution can often sound like revelations. This cheat sheet gathers some of the best, including Plan B's brilliant The Defamation of Strickland Banks and Ghostpoet's haunting Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam. But it doesn't tell the whole story.