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Yo! from the U.K.

After years of hip-hop flowing in one direction across the Pond, it's streaming back to the U.S. with a distinctly British accent in the work of the Streets and Ms. Dynamite.

March 23, 2003|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

London — When The Beatles flew over from England in the '60s, it seemed the whole of young America gathered at the airport to scream a welcome.

Now, when the United Kingdom's latest hopefuls, like the Streets or Ms. Dynamite, touch down at Kennedy or LAX, they're lucky if a record company minion shows up and pays their cab fare into town.

Still, down the decades, there are intriguing parallels.

The Beatles were Liverpool to the marrow, but their hearts beat to the pulse of American rock 'n' roll, rhythm & blues, and soul: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, early Tamla Motown. They took it all and shook it. Like Monty Python, they made it into something completely different, and they skimmed it back across the Pond. America loved them for it.

Now, the Streets -- Mike Skinner, 23, a white rapper bred in the Birmingham suburbs -- and Ms. Dynamite -- Niomi Daley, 21, a black R&B vocalist and MC from London -- are bringing home a fresh Anglo-flavored variant on American hip-hop. They have already scored heavily in the U.K., where their debut albums have sold steadily month after month, pulling together a youth audience, black and white, and a growing outer ring of older fans attracted by the way both artists combine lyrics of substance and humor with a welcoming yet utterly au courant listenability (no extreme noise terrors here).

British reviewers have dubbed Ms. Dynamite "the U.K.'s answer to Lauryn Hill." Originally an MC, rapping with a Caribbean inflection (she calls it "chattin' "), she emerges on her album "A Little Deeper" as a singer who ranges from the girlish cuteness of "Dy-na-mi-tee" through the feisty finger-wagging of "Put Him Out" to a sleek precision that, on "Gotta Let You Know," recalls the immaculate Linda Womack. Singing or chatting, she gives drugs and faithless men a very hard time in her songs. And she deals intimately in her own life's hard times.

The Streets, on the other hand, is strictly rap. U.K. critics are boosting him as "a generational spokesman, Everytown UK's Eminem." But that hardly catches it, he's so English, so not 8 Mile. Over hip-hop/U.K. garage beats, he tells stories from "the life of a geezer" -- that is, an ordinary lad, his imagination full of fantasy, his reality full of the gritty mundane.

The U.S. is already flirting with the Streets. Released last year, his album "Original Pirate Material" finished No. 4 in Village Voice's poll of more than 500 pop critics and brought him other accolades, including Rolling Stone debut artist of the year.

Dynamite's chance to make an impression abroad comes with "A Little Deeper," just released in the U.S. Her domestic credentials could hardly be stronger. She won the Mercury Music Prize for 2002's album of the year and last month won two Brits (Grammy equivalents). Hence, her high-profile introduction to the States earlier this month via a spot on "Saturday Night Live."

That's some transatlantic recognition for two artists who have, in a sense, escaped from a British underground scene that's still developing in small, sweaty urban clubs and largely dependent on tiny pirate stations for airplay -- a situation that Streets' and Dynamite's success, especially if echoed in America, could quickly transform. Though, in truth, speed has been something of an alien concept in the development of British hip-hop, and these youthful up-and-comers have been caught up in the genre for as long as they can remember.

Ms. Dynamite's love of hip-hop began with the tapes of N.W.A and Public Enemy her uncles gave her before she was 10. She couldn't play them when her mum was around because of the swearing, but she says the non-cussing parts of the lyrics brought her early awareness of "racism, freedom fighting and freedom of expression."

Skinner says, "My earliest memory is rap music -- listening to my brothers' Beastie Boys and Run-DMC albums and trying to make my own hip-hop tracks on a very cheap computer/tape recorder in my bedroom. The rhymes were like, 'I had a cat, it was fat, I wore a hat.' But I always knew I was going to be doing this."

The obsession took hold when he was 6 -- no wonder he sometimes talks like a weathered veteran puzzling over how long it took him to break through. In fact, "What kept you?" seems to be the pertinent question, not just for the Streets, but for British hip-hop at large.

Snobbery-free diversity

Bronx culture crossed the Atlantic via touchstone tracks "Rapper's Delight" (The Sugarhill Gang, 1979), "The Message" (Grandmaster Flash, 1982) and "Walk This Way" (Run-DMC, 1986). With British black music rooted in Caribbean reggae and ska, it got stirred into a whole new home-brew stew.

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