10 – 8: D Double E, MIA and Roots Manuva
Our top 10 kicks off with three acts who've set themselves apart as boundary breakers and innovators.
Over the past few months, a bunch of Noisey staff, journalists, artists and friends of Noisey who know their music have sat together to bash out a list of the greatest UK MC talent of all time. We're sharing the results of those chats in a top 30 countdown this week, running through the pioneers, grafters and the odd enigma who've pushed the limits of British skills on the mic. We're not just commending great MCs in the traditional sense – lyrical flow, wordplay, freestyle skills – but bigging up those who've created a legacy, stamped in a cultural mark or paved the way for the new breed.
Here's a tip. If you don't know about D Double E, go and ask your favourite MC who their favourite MC is. Chances are, D Double's name will come up. Don't believe me? Well, let Skepta back me up. "D Double is the greatest of all time, I don't even want to debate it," he said, when pushed on his favourite MC in a 2015 interview by Hattie Collins. "He's an MC, on Jungle, on whatever speed it is [...] we watch D Double E freestyles every day in the yard".
With his unique delivery, memorable catchphrases and mic control, D Double E is known as one of grime's most legendary and distinctive voices, and cut his teeth spitting over jungle and drum n bass at house parties and pirate radio as far back as the mid '90s. Even then, he was keen to stand out, eschewing traditional hosting duties in favour of freestyling, before moving onto garage and eventually grime. "I think my energy came from drum and bass," he told Clash Music, describing his style, "so when I moved over into garage and grime, it was slowed down to me". In grime's earliest days, Double was part of NASTY, one of grime's foundation crews, before going on to achieve more renown as part of Newham Generals with fellow MCs Monkstar and Footsie.
In many ways, D Double E is grime personified. An east London boy with Jamaican parents, he spits in a way that remains London to the core, mixing Patois with slick, East End talk and the odd spot of cockney rhyming slang. Double can take the most mundane cultural references and turn them on their heads, as he did flipping "bangers and mash" into a lyric about drive-by shootings on "And I Will", or deploying his mind-bending wordplay throughout "Bad to the Bone" and "Street Fighter Riddim". It's little surprise that he appeared, twice, on Noisey's own list of the 20 best grime verses in history.
"The way my brain is on point means that when I spit I'm like a DJ that is always out with the full box of tunes," he told me, in a 2014 SBTV interview, "I'm an all-rounder and I've got bars for anything that's going down, whether it's war or peace".
You only need to watch his performance in the 2014 Lord of the Mics Boiler Room to see this in full effect: he picks the mic up and racks up reload after reload for about three minutes, coming back with a different bar each time, each syllable dropping to the same ecstatic response. D Double will probably never be grime's biggest MC, and will never achieve the kind of mainstream success that Skepta, Stormzy or Wiley have seen, but ask anybody involved in the grime scene and they'll tell you that, to them, he's a living legend, the likes of which we might never see again.
Put simply, D Double E is a grime MC's final form. He has bags of technical ability and bars for days. Bars that resonated with generation after generation of grime fans due to his ability to detail what was on their doorstep in a way they had never heard before; bars that harnessed dark humour, wordplay and kitchen-sink cultural references; bars all delivered with the nonchalant swagger of someone who knows he's the very best at what he does.
Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam has been making music for 15 years. In that timeframe, she's released five critically acclaimed albums and two mixtapes, each a perfectly formed, standalone piece of art. She is the only human in history to have received nominations for a Grammy, an Oscar, a Mercury Prize, Alternative Turner Prize and a BRIT Award. She's sold millions of records; some certified multi-platinum, others certified gold.
But MIA's legacy has nothing to do with numbers or accolades – quite the opposite, in fact. She's spent her whole career sticking a middle finger up – sometimes literally – to boujie music industry circles, to the mainstream press, to America, and to dominant Western narratives, refusing to stay quiet about issues that require loudness. She is an anti-popstar. A tireless activist. A radical provocateur. An anti-fashion style icon. She subverts everything a female musician is expected to be and everything a rapper has ever been, and it's within the crevices of these facets that her legacy has grown, almost without us noticing, like a twisted piece of ivy. MIA is one of the UK's greatest MCs because there is nobody else like her. And as with all the greats, her uniqueness has inspired a generation of copycats.
That's not to say she only deserves props because of her activism and originality. Her music is pioneering, too. Drawing from diasporic communities, the global South, and the West, she creates indefinable explosions of sound, fusing everything from hip-hop to dancehall, baile funk to grime; weaving old punk samples next to winding drum beats. Her vocal style is hard to pin down, rapping aggressive bars in one track, and using an upbeat, nasal nursery rhyme flow in the next. The result is energising; turn up any of her tracks from over the years – "Bucky Done Gun", "Bad Girls", "Paper Planes", "Bring the Noize", "Bird Song" – and you'll have the whole club bouncing. You'd be hardpressed to find an MC who has remained quite as radical and politicised, while releasing radio hit after radio hit in the process. She's the whole package, though would probably never refer to herself as an MC in the traditional sense. For all these reasons, and for many more not listed above, she is easily one of UK's GOATs. No question.
You can tie yourself in knots trying to pin down Roots Manuva. He's been a sonic shapeshifter for years, coaxing dub, rap, hip-hop and his distinctive brand of dark pop into the songs and albums that came to set him apart. Everyone has a particular version of Roots that triggers their own memories: his late 90s work, and its foray into elevating UK hip-hop from beyond a caricature of the American template; a "witness the fitness" shouted over a party soundsystem; the references to corner shops, cheese on toast and kissing teeth that made his lyrics reflect elements of British life back at you.
In the years since a south Londoner, born Rodney Smith, first starting making music as Roots in the mid-90s he's turned into an inimitable figure in British music. Things weren't necessarily destined to be that way until he started to graft. Speaking to Noisey in 2015, he remembered "releasing the first things in 1995, and barely selling 200 copies, but still making enough of an indent to make other people want to work with me and send me tracks. Being the one, the positive one, to work with anyone who called and had some sweeties and cab fare – I'd be there with my 'RM', leaving my stamp everywhere." By the time he signed with Big Dada in 1997, he was ready for an album – even though at the time, "albums with music from the UK with an MC on the top was literally commercial suicide".
But he went on to make several – including 2001's Mercury Prize-shortlisted Run Come Save Me – paving the way for grime to stake its claim as a British artform. In a way, he slipped into the mould set by acts like the Stones or Led Zeppelin: picking up an American genre and reshaping it to fit his own world. With roots in boombap-era rap and the soundsystem culture that thumped through his childhood neighbourhood, he bloomed into an experimental artist – always with a sense of humour – who's never stopped innovating. Yes, he may have a catchphrase shouted at him in the street every now and then but he's left a deeper mark on both British culture and music than that. Good luck trying to categorise it, though.
Check out the top 30 – 11 in our countdown here.