Where We Come From pitches itself as a social history of its particular subject, and a reader will appreciate it with the fullness it deserves if they keep ‘social’ in mind as an operative. There are brisk callbacks to the pre-millennial state of UK rap, and Black British musical culture more broadly, including hip-house duo the Cookie Crew and Birmingham pirate station PCRL. For the most part, though, Aniefiok Ekpoudom – a London journalist in his early 30s – is writing about scenes and subcultures very much of the last 20 years.
The book’s essential conceit is both clever and brave: longform profiles of three acts from south London, the west Midlands and south Wales, with walk-on parts for various relevant figures in their orbit. London, home of the great majority of iconic British rap artists, is represented by Clapham MC Cadet; the Midlands by Despa, who grew up near Walsall; Wales by Astroid Boys’ majority-Cardiffian hybrid of grime and metal. None of these are obvious choices to represent their region, either because they were overshadowed by more successful acts or, in Astroid Boys’ case, because they attracted a mostly white audience with a wilfully impure retooling of the Black music they loved.
I’m very confident that before Where We Come From, no one (certainly not Buzz, per our archives, it must be said) had written anything nearly this in-depth about Astroid Boys, who split five years ago. There is an acknowledgement of Newport youth charity Urban Circle’s early influence, but a greater emphasis on the people behind the music: members’ upbringings, hectic teenage years, their darkest hours and most private thoughts extracted by an interviewer who has an exceptional talent for this.
Ekpoudom achieves much the same with Despa – whose efforts to relinquish his life as a smalltime drug dealer saw him work for six years in an Apple Store, before returning to music fulltime as a record label owner – and Cadet, who was killed in 2019 by a drunk driver and so has his story told through associates and family members including cousin Casyo Johnson of Krept & Konan. Where We Come From’s prose style is powerful, weighty and respectful of its subjects, perhaps to a fault: Ekpoudom’s almost preacher-like habit of repeating words or phrases for emphasis lends gravitas for a while, less so once you’re used to it. Regardless, he’s written something unique, valuable and captivating for anyone interested in grime and modern British rap, on a par with Jeffrey Boakye’s 2017 book Hold Tight.
Where We Come From: Rap, Home & Hope In Modern Britain, Aniefiok Ekpoudom (Faber)
Price: £18/£12.99 Ebook/£34.99 audiobook. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER