UK hip hop (and its 130 beats per minute cousin grime) rarely gets the coverage or support it deserves. While many people know of Katy B, few know of the Brixton hip hop collective, The Illersapiens, she originally sang with.
Artists such as Ty, Jehst and Roots Manuva have been honing their craft for years with very little profile. Back in 2008 Estelle said in a Guardian interview there is “blindness to black talent” in the UK music industry. Plan B recently vented his frustration that “people are prejudiced towards hip hop”.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining how Speech Debelle, despite deservedly winning the Mercury prize in 2009, has mostly disappeared from the public eye.
Now, nearly three years on, Speech Debelle has released her follow-up album, Freedom of Speech. This album is the product of a fruitful musical relationship with fellow south Londoner and producer Kwes. Kwes is signed to well-respected label Warp, which consistently supports groundbreaking and experimental electronic music – Boards of Canada, Squarepusher, Hudson Mohawke and many more.
The album really gets going with its second track, Live for the Message, which features jangling guitars, piano, atmospheric trumpet and a solid bassline. On this track Speech sets the tone for the rest of the album: “I keep asking questions, I won’t be satisfied/Until they stop taking away innocent lives”.
There is a fair amount of political commentary in this album. The cover art, with Speech’s arm raised and head tilted downwards, is reminiscent of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. One of the best tracks is Blaze Up a Fire, with includes Speech addressing the Iraq war and the revolutions in the Arab world. Realism (another under-appreciated artist) delivers an incredible verse which takes on President Obama, asking other rappers, “Do you want to make money or history?”, finishing with “Blaze up a fire till the victory”.
The suspicious death of Smiley Culture in the presence of the Metropolitan Police led Speech to write Blaze Up a Fire. The album is definitely at its strongest when dealing with politics and rebellion. The Problem expresses strong distrust of our rulers, warning them to “be afraid of what we got to say/cause we’ll be gettin’ together”. Collapse seems to be inspired by the soundtrack to the film Assault on Precinct 13 – the subject matter is an appropriately apocalyptic vision of capitalist society falling to pieces after our oil resources run dry.
This is an excellent album. Kwes’s quirky beats and intricate soundscape combine brilliantly with Speech’s soft flow and heartfelt lyrics. Definitely worth a listen.
Freedom of Speech is out now
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