In-depth: Cardiff’s urban legends

Welsh hip-hop seems unlikely but Cardiff has emerged as one of the UK’s leading hip-hop cities and it’s getting love from New York to Tokyo

Ruffstylz: a record-breaking rapper and the co-founder of Cardiff's most-established hip-hop label (Photo: Associated Minds)

Cardiff has the most rappers per capita outside London, says the city’s most established hip-hop label. It may seem unlikely but given Wales’s tradition of music and poetry, the transition from bard to bad has been a natural one.

British hip-hop is synonymous with London’s estates, which have given us Dizzee, Tinchy and Tinie, but urban music is booming in cities across the UK and Cardiff is at the fore. The question now is can Cardiff be to Brithop in the teenies what Manchester was to Britrock in the late 80s?

Cardiff-based label Associated Minds (AM) was founded at a De La Soul gig in Bristol in 2004 and has discovered a wealth of hip-hop talent in Wales. Last month, it released Hidden Thoughts 2006 – 2010, a free download-only compilation of unreleased material.

The tracks span several decades of urban music production, from jazz and funk to gangster rap and dubstep, and are consistent in quality from first to last. AM co-founder Mayor says, “It’s getting love all over. We wanted to get that out so we could close off the old chapter and prepare to drop a whole load of music.”

Hidden Thoughts and hidden talent

Record-breaking rapper and AM co-founder Ruffstylz is on three tracks. He set the record for longest rap in the old Toucan Club in Cardiff in 2003 clocking in at 10 hours and 34 minutes, a record he broke again in 2009 (17 hours) just because he could.

Cardiff Beatbox prodigy Beatbox Fozzy provides a purely vocal backing track. He competed in the finals of the UK beatbox championships and opened for Dizzee Rascal while still in his teens.

Barry’s Metabeats produced several tracks, his debut was Plan B magazine’s album of the year in 2007, and Blacktrix, Mudworth and Ralph Rip Shit rap in thick Cardiff accents.

Guests include Cardiff dubstep producer Monky as well as international artists such as American rapper and Mensa member Chino XL and Japanese
producer Bugseed.

An eclectic mix of styles, Hidden Thoughtsis a microcosm of Cardiff’s hip-hop scene. Ruffstylz says Cardiff is unlike Bristol that has a distinct sound or London where hip-hop is contained to certain areas. Cardiff hip-hop is defined by plurality rather than a single sound or area.

“Cardiff is an intelligent city. Cardiff is more individual, more of a free creative space,” he says. “People here stay themselves, they’re unique. Everyone has a different style from each other which is really refreshing.”

Adam Kennedy, a Cardiff-based music journalist, similarly says, “There is not one sound in terms of the music but obviously the south Wales accent gives hip-hop from Cardiff a certain hue and a real cutting sense of humour is very noticeable in most of the acts.”

Coming of age

Cardiff’s hip-hop scene is barely in its teens. Ruffstylz says when he moved to London in 1999, Cardiff didn’t have a scene but when he returned the next year, a small but vibrant community had formed. He wouldn’t leave again. “I’ve got no reason to leave,” he says. “For a long time, people would’ve laughed at the prospect of people making hip-hop round here. Now it’s not an issue.”

In the past decade, Cardiff has slowly cultivated respect in the hip-hop community. Mayor says, “Our artists have definitely broken out nationally and even more so internationally. Their music is played on radio from Australia to Germany to America to Japan and most have had LPs or singles of the month awards in numerous national magazines.”

Top of the hip-hops

Music historians will say 2011 was the year of Brithop with Londoners Example and Dappy both reaching number one. But is it time for London’s monopoly on Brithop to end?

Adam Kennedy says, “London artists like Dizzee Rascal and Example have shown you need a bit of pop nous to make it really big. There’s definitely the talent to do that in Cardiff but a lot of the artists do it because they love hip-hop not because they want to be famous for a commercialised take on their music.”

Ruffstylz says paying one’s dues is more important than commercial success, especially in hip-hop culture where respect is hard earned and easily lost, and he gravitates more towards like-minded people on the international hip-hop scene rather than the local pop market.

He has recorded a new single, Horse Rider, with Gift of Gab of American hip-hop duo Blackalicious and is recording an album, which he describes as “crazy shit you’ve never heard before.”

AM’s other artists are releasing new music too.  “People are going to see a real step up in terms of the variety and quality of the music and the guests we’ve got are truly incredible too,” Mayor says. “The finest wordsmiths in the US are on board from the full spectrum of styles that exist within hip-hop, from street music to creative West Coast styles.”

Cardiff may not have a number one this time next year but it is a recognised force in the hip-hop community and it’s only a matter of time until it gets the recognition it deserves.

Mayor says if you were to measure it pound for pound, as they do in boxing, then Cardiff has the most hip-hop artists per head of anywhere outside London. He adds, “And it’s not just numbers, it’s the depth and diversity too. Cardiff has the best spread of originality of any city as I see it.”