Yo! from the U.K.

Special to The Times

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.

Will Ashon, co-owner of South London specialist label Big Dadda, says: "British people had problems making hip-hop their own because it was marketed as a whole way of life: how you dress, even how you move -- the pimp strut, I mean." For years, he argues, U.K. hip-hop was submerged "under wave after wave of other forms of dance music" -- acid house, jungle, drum 'n' bass. In response, it turned insular, increasingly dominated by purists, many of them white.

"It became a bedroom industry," adds hip-hop critic Angus Batey. "The conventional wisdom was that British rap was an embarrassing selection of wannabe gangstas with fake American accents making poor music that nobody bought."

But, from the mid-'90s, a new strain emerged that U.K. young bloods really could identify with. "It came out of the soulful end of house music," Ashon explains. "It's a combination of American R&B; and mainstream rap with break beats, plus big, dubby bass lines from ragga." It can be very fast -- 135 beats per minute anyone? -- and its name is U.K. garage.

America caught traces of its snobbery-free diversity in the Prodigy's "blockrocking beats," the Spice Girls' pop rap and, most recently, Craig David's twinkle-tongued R&B; approach. Fun for sure, but some of these artists won a degree of respect too; even American critic Nelson George, who's long kept his ear tuned to hip-hop culture, acknowledged U.K. garage as a genuine reinterpretation of the original Bronx spirit.

"But it's harder than ever to break America now," says Ashon, warily. "American rappers sell as much on their life story as their music -- people don't buy 50 Cent because he made the best rap album ever, it's because they hear he's been shot eight times. Whereas we're trying to sell anti-glamour. We don't even have guns!"

Hard times as inspiration

So here's Niomi Daley, sitting on a sofa at Polydor's London offices. She's looking you right in the eye. No bling-bling ostentation about her. Plain and neat, with brown jacket and trousers, hair tied back, she listens intently and answers without filtering her responses through any show-biz checklist of do's and don'ts. Her accent salty with wide-open Cockney vowels, she speaks, for instance, of her opposition to war on Iraq: "I'd nevaaa evaaa compromise what I stand for."

Dynamite (but firearm-free), she has a story all right. With Dwayne Seaforth, bodyguard and father of her baby (due June-ish) sitting beside her, she tells it with many a chuckle and never a backward step when it comes to the tough parts. The eldest of 10 surviving brothers and sisters, she grew up with her mother, Heather McLean, a primary-school teacher, who broke up with her father, Eyon Daley, carpenter and sound system DJ, when Niomi was 2. The two households, in one of the less shiny parts of a gentrifying North London borough called Islington, remained close.

But in her teens she suddenly hit a wall of pain. It built up through the successive deaths of five siblings before they were a year old (a terrible sequence of misfortunes including a stillbirth, a crib death and fatal lung damage). It reached crisis level when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Niomi was just 13, but for a time, with the support of brother Kingslee, she took responsibility for the house, the other children.

Then she cracked and ran away to stay in a hostel. She lost her religious faith. She smoked and drank her nights away. In her song "Brother," she writes that this was a time "when my soul withered and I lived in the dark / this is my confession / Thought 'bout endin' it sometime."

Remarkably, she kept attending school throughout. And, at length, her future came back to her. She went home. Her mother recovered. Her youth opened up again. She loved writing poetry -- "It became my friend, in a crazy way" -- but had never given a thought to a life in music until one night at a garage club she stood up and rapped an improvised MC spot. Within months she had her own show on pirate radio station Freek FM (a mobile operation broadcasting from unoccupied tower-block apartments).

Her self-image turned upside down. Although she passed her exams, she decided not to go to college. She MC'd. She had an underground hit single. Polydor won a bidding war and signed her. She found herself in a state-of-the-art New York studio with Salaam Remi, producer of Nas and the Fugees, and though she'd never sung in public, he was saying she should sing.

"I was meant to be chatting over whatever beat he gave me," she says. "But somehow he convinced me. I sang 'Now You Want My Love.' Although I really hated it at first, that was the most amazing thing that happened to me. I didn't think I could." She poured her life and beliefs into lyrics. Melodies flowed. But, as a novice vocalist, she still felt shaky until near the end of the album.

"Everything was so new I was afraid to let go," she says. "I couldn't do the little vocal acrobatics, the ad-libs, none of that. Then in Stockholm [with a producer called Bloodshy] I wrote and recorded two songs in a day and on the second one, 'Krazy Krush,' I was like, 'Let me try this harmony here, let me double that bit, let me ad-lib there.' When I finished, my manager, Tyrone, said to me, 'You just did that all by yourself.' "

Searching for the right words

Mike Skinner likes to let an interview take its course, no matter how many turns of the tape that may entail. So his preferred location is a pub. He's chosen a rather smart, modern hostelry in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, a district in the South London borough where he's recently bought an apartment. The area, roughly half black and highly integrated, has a reputation for ganja, street crime and music. The couple of square miles around here are, arguably, the long-term hub of British reggae and, lately, of hip-hop and U.K. garage too.

Improbably, for a geezer who's always writing about booze and drugs -- and pizza -- he quietly sips an orange juice. His conversational accent is the same twisted Birmingham-Cockney whine heard on "Pirate Material," and he seems as straightforward as Ms. Dynamite, but his body language is completely different, far less confident. He scratches his head and rubs his eyes constantly, pausing at length as he gropes for the right phrase.

His record is a cheaper affair than Dynamite's. He made almost every note of it at home with a computer, a mike and some samples. Once, at his label's behest, he tried a proper studio with a producer for a couple of days, then he beetled back to his apartment.

"I spent two years getting it right," he says with hesitant gravity. "It's perfect. By my subjective criteria."

His parents, like Dynamite's, split when he was a tot. With his father, a salesman -- anything from silverware to X-ray machines -- and his stepmother, he moved from outer London to West Heath, on the fringe of Birmingham, a sprawling industrial city a hundred miles north. 'Burb to 'burb, that is. Dull to dull, he says.

As a teenager, depressed by the clamor of school, and epileptic too, with a sense of fragility, he would retreat to his bedroom with an armful of Wu-Tang Clan and Redman CDs to hone his skills on a tatty keyboard and that old computer. His introversion deepened. He didn't run away, he ran inward.

"There was no creativity around me in Birmingham, no opportunity," he says. "Music became more than an obsession. Very unhealthy. The world was telling me, 'You need to get a proper job!' but my mind was saying -- 'I'll kill myself if I can't do music.' "

He decided to go to London: "But I never did. I was scared." Instead, he went to Australia: followed a girl, never found her, just worked at a Sydney department store and tended bar for a year. But the nerdish, uncool fellow who'd worried away his youth was gone.

Back home in January 2000, it struck him that "if I can go to Australia, I can go to London." So he did. Within two months he had found his style -- garage beats and rap, with lyrics reminiscent of Ian Dury or Billy Bragg -- and released a single, "Has It Come to This?" Indie label Locked On's Nick Worthington signed him, then moved with him to Warner label 679. The Streets' album was underway. (He even got a girlfriend, now at university.)

"My songs are very simple," says Skinner, reflecting on his tales of inept romance, takeout food and laddish bravado that never comes to a fight because everyone's a bit chicken, really. "Me being a white rapper, they always compare me to Eminem. The difference is, when he's angry he writes music and when I'm angry I punch the wall. I aspire to be realistic, for people to hear the album and say, 'Yeah, this is us.' "

Listen to the boys' night out in "Same Old Thing": "Whose round is it? Down that beer quick, smash my glass back down, fall over the table, all rowdy and [drunk]." Very aware of word-craft, Skinner says: "Rap gets people thinking about language who never would otherwise. Artists like Eminem have a great grasp of language and meter, maybe without even realizing it."

He takes a shine to the fantasy that Eminem might take up his South London patter: "geezer" for "dude," "rasha" for "high." He laughs and says: "This album could reestablish English culture in America".

More seriously, Skinner also appreciates that his album, despite U.S. critical plaudits, could fall victim to the way the old, common lingo divides our nations -- that Americans won't understand what he's talking about.

Even so, his only reservation about Ms. Dynamite's record is that she does sing with an American accent ("I've tried to sound English when I'm singing and it's impossible," she says, rather flummoxed. "I just can't sing how I speak.")

"British artists singing in an American accent is my pet hate actually," says Skinner. "I love America, but are we subconsciously saying to ourselves that our music should be American?"

Perish the thought. But how sweet it is to imagine the Streets, Dynamite and then maybe a whole wave of the U.K.'s hip-hop inheritors reaching out to young Americans who listen up and say, "Yeah, this is us too -- despite the funny accents."

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Others in the posse

Meet three top Brit-hop contenders, as chosen by hip-hop critic Angus Batey:

So Solid Crew -- With more controversy than the Sex Pistols, more members than the Wu-Tang Clan and a No. 1 hit with its second single, "21 Seconds," this South London garage outfit is a British institution but remains deeply troubled. The group is effectively banned from playing live in Britain after a shooting at a London show, and several members have been convicted of crimes including drug and firearms offenses. The music remains exciting; but whether it will follow up its debut album, "They Don't Know," remains to be seen.

Roots Manuva -- Londoner Rodney Smith is regarded by many as the brightest potential star in the U.K. hip-hop firmament. His music combines reggae and new wave influences, and his humorous, observational writing style has attracted wider acclaim than is the norm for British rappers. His dub reading of "Yellow Submarine" adorns his mix LP for the "Bad Meaning Good" series, and his second album, last year's "Run Come Save Me," was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

HKB Finn -- Born in Jamaica, reared in London and a member of one of Brit-rap's pioneer outfits, Katch 22, Andrew "HuntKillBury Finn" Ward is one of a kind. Since Katch split up, Ward has worked with jazz, rock and pop bands, played percussion in an orchestra and turned in a brilliant solo album, "Vitalistics." He even performed last year for Commonwealth Finance Ministers at the invitation of England's Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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