The Mercury Prize is possibly the most prestigious event for respected and conscious songwriters within the UK. It celebrates the best album of the past year and is considered the coup de grace among musical aficionados and critics alike.
Past winners are known to be fairly unknown and obscure and some see the prize as a catalyst to success (with album sales generally rocketing by up to 700 percent upon the weeks after the winner is announced).
This year’s award went to Benjamin Clementine’s At Least For Now, a sombre avant-garde homage to living on the streets of Paris (which he dedicated his award to, as well as the many victims of the recent attacks).
Hip-Hop has had a somewhat patchy yet credible relationship with the Mercury Prize, as opposed to the often criticized shunning of heavy metal, in which not one act of the genre has ever been shortlisted.
Since the birth of the award in 1992, a number of iconic Hip-Hop and rap artists have been nominated with a handful going on to win. In 1993, the incredibly influential Stereo MC’s album Connected, despite winning the Best British Album at The Brit Awards, lost out to Britpop stalwarts Suede’s self titled debut.
The London based group (close affiliates of Jungle Brothers) created an addictive blend of electronic dance and jazzy hip-hop but it wasn’t until Portishead’s Trip-Hop masterpiece Dummy sweeped the award in 1995 with an LP of pure beauty. Anyone who hasn’t listened to Sour Times (below) then do it right now! It genuinely somehow provokes the image of a femme fatale in a classic spy movie being dazzled and crushed as if it were a Shakespearean tragedy (or maybe that’s just my imagination).
The possible pinnacle of British Hip-Hop came many a year later in 2002, when Ms Dynamite’s soul-drenched A Little Deeper beat out the godfather of British Hip-Hop Roots Manuva’s Run Come Save Me and Original Pirate Material by The Streets. These three albums are some of the finest albums of 21st century Britain, helping bring power and praise to British Hip-Hop like never before.
That groove on “Dy-Na-Mi-Tee” still sends chills down my spine, it’s the kind of tune you imagine walking into a dimly lit bar with nothing but hotties in every corner of the room (this has and never will happen).
Moreover, Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner put Grime and urban inner city Britain firmly on the map, beating out the mighty Radiohead and Coldplay to the prize back in 2003.
The years following were dominated by indie rock outfits, with Hip-Hop taking a backseat and ultimately fading out of recognition despite artists like Klashnekoff, Skinnyman and Jehst releasing critically acclaimed LPs. Strangely though, female rapper Speech Debelle won in 2009 with Speech Therapy to much shock by critics and fans, further backed up by the fact she faded into obscurity thereon after and couldn’t live up to the burden that the award can sometimes bestow upon the artist.
Many criticisms have always been thrown at the Mercury Prize for their somewhat contentious decisions, as well as choosing winners influenced by certain political factors or events, as suggested by this year’s winner Benjamin Clementine. This can be further backed by Scottish Hip-Hop trio Young Fathers and their eclectic fusion of punk, electronic and rap that won the award in 2014 with Dead. Whilst the album is an incredible listen, many saw the decision as a propaganda type message after the Scottish Independence Referendum to stay within Britain earlier that year. Whatever the case the trio are in my opinion one of the standout live acts in the world, with their songwriting matching the quality of their energetic stage performances.
The Mercury Prize will always be the one award socially conscious artists strive for, whether the repercussions turn out to be good or bad. It’s a symbol of creating thought-provoking music that stands out as original, inventive and hugely influential for future generations, which will hopefully never change.
Obviously it’s impossible to agree with everyone when picking a singular album that triumphs over the rest annually, this is what makes it bittersweet. Hip-Hop I’m sure will continue to be recognised by the awards panel for its achievements and artistry, regardless of outside factors.