It was never going to be easy, but 37 years on from what many see as the birth of rap music with the release of The Sugar Hill Gang’s Rappers Delight, the UK now has a fully functioning hip-hop scene to call its own. Although rap music has never struggled to emerge from the UK, it has only ever done so with real success in the form of trip-hop, a big export of 90s UK bass music culture, and grime. Hip-hop was always something that seemed quintessentially American, and would remain that way aside from the pioneering efforts of those behind labels such as Low Life Records. Whether it be down to timing, luck or the sheer desire to ensure the UK had a voice when it came to hip-hop, High Focus records can be cited as the corner stone of an alive and well scene in the UK, giving life to a wealth of talented emcees and producers over the course of its existence. The tale of High Focus may not be one be one that evokes imagery of the Brooklyn bridge and graffiti laden subway trains, but its journey to success can be seen as equally impressive as when the distinctive breaks of hip-hop made their way into the US mainstream.
This year, High Focus celebrates six years since Four Owls member Fliptrix took the first steps toward bringing the label into the world. Having received a solid education at the age of 12 from rappers such as Notorious B.I.G and Big L, it was hearing the sounds of Task Force, Jehst and Skinnyman that instilled a belief for the London emcee. “At 16, hearing guys from the UK rapping was something that inspired me to do it myself. I could relate a lot more to their lyrics and it also made me feel it as though there was more of a possibility to be a rapper from the UK. So that’s when I started writing lyrics.” From the 90s into the 2000s, labels such as Low Life and YNR were the main purveyors for all things hip-hop coming out the UK. However, Low Life came to an abrupt end in 2008, while Jehst’s label YNR couldn’t guarantee how much time it could offer to help support new ventures, one being the release of Fliptrix’s debut album. These setbacks created a gap that was to be opportunistically filled by Fliptrix and the soon to be High Focus label. “In the 2000s Low Life records were a massive part of UK hip-hop, so when it came to an end there was a lull in the scene. As a fan and artist I noticed this. Originally, I wanted my album to come out on YNR, but I would have had wait maybe over a year. Jehst gave me the advice of starting up my own label and it all unfolded from there.”
High Focus’ first release came in 2010 in the form of Fliptrix’s Theory Of Rhyme. Not only did the album turn heads thanks to its classic hip-hop production values and conscious lyrical content, but the process in which the album was released caught the attention of fellow emcees who were looking for a platform for their own music. Having already traded freestyles at parties and attended the same shows, close affiliates from the Contact Play crew were brought on board with Jam Baxter being the first to release his album on the label. Now High Focus stalwarts, Leaf Dog and Dirty Dike quickly followed suit. Fliptrix points out an element of the label’s early success was down to a concoction of level headedness and creative flare: “I was organised, whereas the Contact Play guys were just all about the creativity. They needed someone who could help with the business and logistics side of things like getting albums finished, shooting videos and putting together press releases. I wanted to build a platform for something I had a lot of passion for and find a way to support artists that I had belief in. I’ve never looked back really.” From what started out as a simple idea to help release his debut album, Fliptrix now had the weight of running a fully functioning label on his shoulders. This was a responsibility that was grabbed with both hands with the label head honcho driven by a self-confessed desire to be his own boss and entrepreneurial spirit.
If you take a look at the artists and producers on the High Focus roster, you quickly realise that anything featuring the High Focus signature, comes with no compromise. An essential part of what makes the records released on the label so distinctive is an ever present reminder that, although it may have been inspired by the USA, the sound originates, and is crafted in the UK. In the past, rap music emerging from the UK had been ridiculed for imitating that of its American counterpart, an accusation that High Focus is only to quickly to dispel. Take Verb T’s Where You Find Me; the track’s chorus utters the line ‘Chilling on the couch, where you find me’, hardly the kind of hook you would find being penciled in for an upcoming release on Roc-A-Fella. It’s the reality of the lyrics consistently featuring on High Focus releases that have captured the attention of an aware and growing fan base. Rather than raps boasting about bank balance which have sadly become such a stagnant feature in hip-hop, High Focus unleashes the creative minds of those on the label with the freedom to take their music where they see fit. From the bizarre mind of Lee Scott to the fresh talent of Ocean Wisdom, Fliptrix has curated a roster that offers up a plethora of styles and flows to indulge in. “I see High Focus as a brain made up of different components, everyone on the label brings their own characteristics to it. You have someone like Dirty Dike who has the more comedic bars and then you have Edward Scissortounge and Jam Baxter who are quite surreal lyrists. The Four Owls bring the more conscious and traditional sounding hip-hop. I think it works because nobody is forced to go in a direction they wouldn’t want to in the first place.”
Not only has High Focus shined a light on the careers of UK based rappers, but the label has also done its part to highlight the talents of those at the controls in the studio. A key feature of authentic hip-hop production is the willingness to sift through hours and hours of records to try and unearth the perfect sample. This process is often present in the production of Dirty Dike and other beat makers on the label. The stripped back instrumentals which can often be found on a High Focus releases are arguably another factor in the label’s success. In an age where production coming out of the USA is tied to the wrist with heavy sub bass, producers from the UK are adopting a less is more approach, a tactic which no doubt has turned a wealth of classic hip-hop fans in the UK on to High Focus. This nod to classic hip-hop is most evident in the exploits of the label’s leading quartet, The Four Owls.
Made up of Fliptrix, Verb T, BVA and Leaf Dog, The Four Owls are regarded as one of High Focus’ prize assets thanks to their two albums which have carried the flag for the UK’s contribution to a genre that had seemingly ran out of stamina at the turn of the century. 2011 release Nature’s Greatest Mystery is littered with deft piano samples and soulful beats that complement the lyrical knowledge that radiates from the album’s 14 tracks. However, crafting a celebrated body of work within the scene was not an intention when The Four Owls began penning the record. “The first album was recorded in 2 weeks at my flat. We had no idea how successful it was going to be, so was a big shock to the group. It took us almost three years to put out the second album because we were doing so much touring, plus there was some pressure from the first album and we felt the second should be heralded as highly, if not better” Fliptrix informs. The Follow up, did more to cement the group’s place at the forefront of UK hip-hop whilst also beginning to grab the attention of an audience on the opposite side of the Atlantic. When looking over the production credits on Natural Order, it is hard not double take at the featuring artist on track 4, coincidentally named Think Twice. None other than DJ Premier provided one of his sought after beats for the track which is well on its way to racking up two million hits on the High Focus TV channel.
Having earned his reputation as one half of Gang Starr along with being the brain behind that piano onNas’ New York State Of Mind and Jeru The Damaja’s first two efforts, Premier’s place in hip-hop sees him regarded in the same light as the likes of Pete Rock and J Dilla. Having a High Focus record put together with a signature Premo touch speaks volumes about the direction UK hip hop is moving in, enabling Fliptirx to operate the label on a whole new scale. “Working with Premier also took the label up a peg in regards to the shows we were doing and sales we’re experiencing. Working with the right artist at the right time can defiantly play a big part in helping get your music out there.” With the foundations seemingly steady in the UK, taking the High Focus sound further ashore has become the next obstacle to tackle for Fliptrix and co. Having experienced success in the likes of Australia and across Europe, the USA appears to be next to be cracked, a feat that seems to be on its way thanks to support already being offered by the likes of Premier, Dilated Peoples and Apathy.
If and when High Focus are able to experience substantial success in the USA, it will be done some with the UK still a firm prefix on the sound that they will be exporting. “Thanks to someone like Dizzee Rascal, Americans are a bit more use to the sound of the British accent in rap. At first it was quite funny to them, but as time has gone on they are listening to more of it and taking it seriously. When you have artists such as Skepta and Stormzy playing shows in the US, hopefully that’s opening doors for the UK hip-hop side of things also.” However, the Four Owls leader understands it is the pre-fix that can sometimes put off hip-hop fans from taking an interest in the label’s output. “By putting the UK there, people have certain opinions and the music can be stigmatised when it is fundamentally just hip hop. It would be a big positive if at some point the term hip-hop spoke for sounds emerging from both the UK and the US.” With the unannounced arrival of grime returning to the mainstream, there is a clear interest in urban music that is emerging from the UK. For High Focus, Fliptrix believes this proverbially leaves the door ajar for UK hip-hop to slowly but surely take advantage of the crossover between the genres. “As grime finds itself further into the mainstream and on the radio, I think you’ll see people digging a little deeper to see what other rap music is being made in this country. There are more and more people each day discovering UK hip-hop and due to the depth and variety of the content. In the next year or so I think it could experience something similar to what is happening to grime.”
Ensuring that UK hip-hop continues to define its sound, while developing its fan base, is a challenge that comes with added responsibility. In hip-hop, the wrong series of choices can be detrimental to even the most protected reputation, Nas being one example who wouldn’t care to explain. With High Focus, hip-hop in the UK appears to be in good hands as it continues to explore new ventures, and with Fliptrix at the helm, they have somebody who respects the level of integrity that is needed to create timeless records.
Photos courtesy of High Focus