Queens of the South: London's Female MCs are at the forefront of UK rap
© Chris Baker
As she releases a globe-hopping collaboration with Phil Speiser and WOW JONES, discover how Ms Banks is leading the charge of a new wave of South London-based female MCs.
The most exciting UK rappers right now are women from South London, innovative, bold artists making everything from hip-hop and grime to Afrobeats, trap and UK drill. Ms Banks is at the forefront of this new female wave, with an ability on the mic and a knack for genre-hopping that’s propelled her from London to the rest of the world, performing with Cardi B and Nicki Minaj and collaborating with the likes of Tinie Tempah, Stormzy, and JME, while managing to carve out her own unique identity as an artist.
Lyrically, she’s boasty and braggadocious, vulnerable and deep – as funny as she is fierce. Her flow is just as dexterous as her wordplay with a knack for adapting and flexing to whatever beat she’s working with. This is an MC as happy spitting bars over a cold drill beat as she is skipping between melodic song and rapping verse on an Afrobeats track, riding classic UK garage (see last year’s remix of So Solid Crew’s 21 Seconds alongside UK greats like D Double E, Lisa Maffia and Romeo) or even jungle (like this year’s feature on CLIPZ’s Again with Ms Dynamite and Jaykae).
Ms Banks stars alongside Phil Speiser and WOW JONES as they collaborate remotely in a new episode of Check Your DMs. Check it out in the player below.
Carving out the track
This year, Banks also features on Mike Skinner’s first-ever Streets mixtape and Big Tobz’s Issa Vibe, stepping up with Banku pioneer Mr Eazi for Afrobeats cut Sugar Daddy. Meanwhile her recent Thot Box freestyle sees her spitting flirty bars with a sense of humour as skippy as her flow, proving she’s still a rapper to the core.
Last year’s tape The Coldest Winter Ever, Pt 2 was a masterclass in Ms Banks’ refusal to fit into any musical boxes, a diverse range of producers (from Mokuba Lives and GuiltyBeatz to South East London’s SPLURGEBOYS) providing a range of backdrops for her to riff over. Banks’ bars smoothly ride the Conducta-produced mellow UK garage of Could It Be, for example, while she brings it back to the braggadocious for colder, trappy cuts like Hood Bitch and Wifey Tingz. Snack featuring Kida Kudz sees her traversing Afrobeats and rap, skipping effortlessly between soft, melodious delivery and nonchalant bars – serving up different vocal styles in almost the same breath – while Bad B Bop is a head-nodding girl power anthem.
Listen to Nothin' on Me by Ms Banks, Phil Speiser and Wow Jones here.
Nothin' On Me
Banks shouts out her South London home reminding us she’s “Coming from the East side, not Hackney” while delivering verses with a laidback swagger reminiscent of Lil Kim: “Don't need your backhanded compliments / I'm confident / I move with an ambience / Mad ’cause my ego bigger than the continent.”
She’s been honing these skills since childhood. At just 11, when most kids are getting to grips with secondary school, Banks began penning lyrics and rapping. Drawing inspiration from strong female MCs on both sides of the Atlantic and of all styles, this hinted at the sort of genre-less artist she’d go onto become: the East Coast gangsta rap leanings of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, flipping gendered expectations about sex and power on their heads; the homegrown UK garage of Lisa Maffia and Ms Dynamite, coming up through the male-dominated, competitive world of London pirate radio, honing their skills on the mic at stations like Supreme, Delight and Raw FM; the UK hip-hop of early Estelle, who started out spitting with the likes of Roots Manuva, Rodney P, Klashnekoff, Blak Twang and the late TY.
She was also surrounded by a rich diversity of music and culture that has fed into her own work: her Ugandan mother was a fan of artists like Monica and Usher, while her Nigerian father (a sometime music producer) was into hip-hop greats like KRS1 and her uncle was in grime crew Essentials – one of the first to spring up out of South London in the mid 2000s, taking their sound to seminal raves like Sidewinder and proving you didn’t have to be East to be grime.
As far back as 2014 she identified herself as a “Rapper slash singer”, a commitment to vocal versatility that’s been there from the get-go. Banks is explicit in this rejection of pigeon holes, telling PRS Foundation: “For me, whatever the genre, it’s all under UK rap – whether that be grime, hip hop or drill, it’s all under the umbrella of UK rap. I try not to get too specific. Singers can sing on any genre, no one really cares... but with rap, everyone tries to define things so much.”
Watch Ms Banks perform in session for Red Bull in the player below.
On breakout project The Coldest Winter Ever, Ms Banks further laid out her genre-less approach, as well as digging into issues like betrayal and heartbreak. Her breakneck triplet flow on opener R.I.P. boasted US rap inflections and the infectious Clap saw the MC flex her skills, switching up flows over a skippy beat, while the icy cool Bangs saw her deep tones weaving through an unmistakably UK drill soundscape. Her singing over the trappy Know U Know make way for the breezy dancehall number Day Ones, an ode to the friends and family who’ve been by her side since the beginning – it could almost be a different artist as she sweetly sings “No number four, no number three, no number two, just day ones”.
Banks is outspoken about female rappers standing together rather than competing – another quality that makes her a formidable, positive force in UK rap. “I feel like as women we should try and stick together,” she said to The Face last year. “If we really want to talk about female empowerment and broadening opportunities for women, then we need to work together.”
“As a woman, they want you to think that you have to solidify your spot at the cost of helping another woman succeed. It’s why over in the US, we always see female rappers pitted against one another,” she said in another interview with Notion. “But I know that I can solidify my spot even if someone else is popping or another girl is blowing up. We have a responsibility as female rappers to set an example for the next girl and make it easier for their come up.”
South East [London] definitely has a massive impact on my music. I feel like it made me very strong
Banks has called out the media for pitting black women like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B against each other and this spirit of sisterhood has arguably led to some impressive collaborations with other female artists. Her 16 bars on 2017’s Stylo G’s Yu Zimme with Lisa Mercedez, full of cheeky metaphors and patois, caught Minaj’s attention, who tweeted out her favourite Banks lyrics. She even brought Banks and Mercedez out on stage during her Nicki Wrld Tour: three powerful female MCs performing together, mirroring exactly the kind of supportive sisterhood Ms Banks has been talking about for years.
Her stomping ground is an undeniable part of Ms Banks too, saying: “South East definitely has a massive impact on my music. I feel like it made me very strong, very streetwise, a little rough on the edges. There’s something special about South London. It’s got a lot of life.”
The diversity and creativity of her neighbourhood go hand-in-hand, from the deep sound system roots of long-standing Caribbean communities (South East London was home to iconic sound systems like Jah Shaka and Saxon Sound in the ‘70s-’80s) to the recent explosion of innovative jazz, with artists like Moses Boyd, Theon Cross and Steam Down Collective drawing on African and UK sounds to make something unique.
Steam Down’s weekly jam session, for example, is a showcase of the South London spirit: communal, high-octane performances meld spiritual jazz, West African rhythms and UK bass music, while Moses Boyd’s latest album, Dark Matter, folds in grime, garage, Afro beats and UK funky with his forward-thinking jazz.
It’s not surprising that progressive, genre-hopping music is being made here. South-East London is one of the most diverse parts of the country. The Nigerian community is especially deep-rooted in boroughs like Lambeth and Southwark, with Peckham home to the largest Nigerian community in the UK. Known as Little Lagos, the neighbourhood’s main street Rye Lane and its offshoot roads are lined with Yoruba-owned shops, stalls and cafes selling Nigerian food, while Nigerian churches flourish – on Sundays, the air is full of the sound of hymns and streets full of worshippers.
This diversity is reflected in the other female rappers coming out of the area, spearheaded by Ms Banks. Take UK drill MC Shaybo, recently signed to Black Butter Records who peppers her bars with Yoruba, bringing together contrasting influences in unexpected ways. Tracks Anger and You Dun Know are full of witty punchlines and impressive wordplay, as well as distinctly UK references rubbing up with nods to West African and Caribbean culture. Her Tiffany Calver freestyle is the perfect demonstration of this innovative combination: Switching up flows over the instrumental to the late Pop Smoke's Invincible, darting between different cadence, accents, and slang – “Wagwan bruv” flung into the same melting pot as Yoruba – she’s bossy, confident (“Shaybo don’t like to lose”) humorous and angry, all at once.
“South London is just a place where it’s multicultural, but we’re also just one culture,” says Shaybo of the area that’s helped form her creative identity. “People from South London have a certain way of behaving and speaking... There’s a lot of culture here.”
She speaks about how its neighbourhoods, as well as having their own distinct identities, are interlinked and bound up with each other, citing the fact that if she looks out the window of her home, one road leads to Peckham and the other to Lewisham – each with rich musical and cultural communities, all sharing a canny knack for wordplay.
When it comes to her fellow female rappers from the South, Shaybo thinks language is something that binds them together and sets them apart. “It’s just a place where we speak on our experiences and the way we articulate ourselves as well," she says. "I’ve found people from south to be very blunt and outspoken, including myself,” she explains. “It’s nice to see a lot of the female rappers coming from different areas within the south but understanding each other’s language. We get where each other is coming from."
South is just a place where music is everything to us, we listen to everything. We speak on our experiences and what we go through, our hardships and our positives as well.
Flohio is another South London MC carving out her own innovative niche. Coming up through the Bermondsey MC collective TruLuvCru, she weaves her way around grime, trap, drill and UK rap – sometimes even spitting over ambient techno – with punchy, poetic bars and cold, industrial beats. Whatever the production, it’s always interesting: take 2019’s WAY2, an icy, take-no-prisoners cut – on which she shouts out her neighbourhood: “All in Vogue and I still rep south” – this year’s Heavy (Freestyle), with unexpected electronics layered underneath skippy percussion or 2018’s Wild Yout EP, made with shape-shifting producer Clams Casino.
Flohio’s firey, fast-paced delivery and knack for innovative beat selections has not gone amiss. This year, she’s joining Ms Banks on The Streets new mixtape (as well as on Cadenza’s Dead Set, the two MCs lending their contrasting flows to the track), has earned accolades like a spot on the BBC’s Sound Of 2019 long list, and was named by Naomi Campbell as one of the 10 women changing our future for Vogue.
Elsewhere in South London, Lavida Loca blends drill with compelling storytelling. She dropped her 2 Sides EP earlier this year and served up an impressive freestyle for Kenny Allstar at 1Xtra in December last year, digging into her youth and experiences in prison. Ling Hussle blurs the lines between rap and RnB, and Elheist serves up warm, old-school vibes in stark contrast to the ice-cold trap and drill swirling London today.
At just 19, Scuti is another of this rich female rap wave, who like Flohio came up with a collective, a member of rising London crew 237 and has already packed in a Boiler Room set as well as gearing up for her first mixtape, This Is Skoo. There’s something magnetic and elusive about her meter – a nonchalant, almost childlike, naive cadence, contrasting with smokey drill-skapes.
South London has formed a large part of Scuti’s development so far, cutting her teeth onstage in Peckham, where she says she did her first performances as well as her first bars on radio – an important rite of passage for any UK MC – via Balamii, a station that’s at the centre of South London’s music scene. There’s something especially homegrown and DIY about Scuti, who recorded a lot of her first tracks in fellow South London rapper Virgil Hawkins’ bedroom – “Who I now consider to be a brother to me,” she says, talking about the creative community around her as her 'Support circle' – and whose uncle built her first studio in his Peckham youth club.
As someone who’s made female empowerment and her beloved South London central part of her creativity, it seems apt that Ms Banks should be spearheading such a diverse, genre-defying generation of female rappers coming out of this corner of the city. And the real beauty of it is that there doesn’t have to be just one Queen of the South – there’s enough room for everyone here.