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Voice notes in UK grime offer glimpse of vulnerability behind the bravado

From answering machines in the 90s to the iconic WhatsApp voice notes of recent years, UK rappers have always used recorded messages to forge connection, intimacy and reveal their inner depths.

May 01 2024, 15.48pm

When Skepta picks up the phone to Chip at the end of 'Corn On The Curb', he sounds deflated. The self-confidence that defined the pioneering Tottenham rapper's breakthrough album ‘Konnichiwa’ is missing, his voice subdued and his energy low. Describing the “limbo” state he's found himself in - “too ambitious to be with the mandem on the road” but unaccustomed to the wealthy, glamorous world he's propelled himself into - he bears his soul on wax.

“He sounds tortured,” says music writer Yemi Abiade, discussing a call that helps bring clarity to a defining moment in grime's mid-2010s 'renaissance'.  “He's uncomfortable in his own skin as he's moving up the ranks of music and culture, and that's a very real fear.”

“Chip encourages him that he's the chosen one, the guy who's gonna take the scene forward,” adds Abiade. “It's a realignment, mentally and emotionally, for Skepta. The phone call device hammers home how candid and real it is. It's almost like something we shouldn't be privy to; it's a deeply personal conversation, but he obviously feels comfortable sharing that with us and letting us into his world.”

This is one of many iconic moments in UK rap history structured around voice messages and phone calls. Ever the pioneers, UK hip-hop crew London Posse included a brief analogue phone exchange at the start of their 1993 track 'How's Life In London', although it wasn't until a decade later when Wiley dropped 'Pick U R Self Up' that voicemail began emerging in grime and UK hip-hop tracks more regularly. The device's establishment over the following years has created some fascinating moments, from Skepta's self-reflection to the impassioned co-sign of long-incarcerated grime MC Crazy Titch on Stormzy's debut album 'Gang Signs & Prayer' in 2017 ('Crazy Titch Interlude'). However, like so many aspects of British rap culture, this tool rarely receives the critical attention it deserves.


“It's a realignment, mentally and emotionally, for Skepta.”


From bravado to vulnerability

The use of voicemail messages in rap music can be traced back to N.W.A's 1991 album 'Efil4zaggin', their first (and only) record following the departure of Ice Cube in 1989. The group's rift with their former member was addressed in 'Message to B.A.', an interlude featuring a series of angry voicemail messages from fans regarding Ice Cube's supposed betrayal of N.W.A. Later on in the '90s, other heavyweight rappers like Biggie and Dr. Dre started using answering machine messages to help emphasise their womanising credentials in tracks like 'Fuck You' and 'One More Chance'.

Over the years, as answering machines (a fairly recent invention in the '90s) became less relevant, artists like Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller continued experimenting with the tool, showing how voice messages can help flesh out deeper narratives and artistic contexts, and cementing voice messages as a hip-hop staple. And here in the UK, by the mid-2000s, artists like Skepta and Wiley were doing the same thing.

By inserting carefully chosen voice recordings at strategic points in their music, UK rappers have been able to expand significantly on their lyrical content; these moments of reality (whether dramatised re-recordings or real life messages) can offer a valuable glimpse into artistic motivations, influential events, personal relationships, family backgrounds, and community challenges. 

The effects can be profound. As Abiade says: “The phone device is a way of exhibiting real emotions outside of the rapper bravado gaze, where you have to be tough and present a certain persona."

This concept is central to Streatham rapper Dave's record-breaking debut album ‘Psychodrama’, which uses the structure of a therapy session to explore his childhood, personal relationships, mental health struggles and moral compass. The therapy concept was inspired by the programme completed by his older brother Christopher Omeregie - currently serving a life sentence for murder - in prison. Fittingly, the record's closing track contains two messages from Christopher, expressing thanks for the part his younger brother played in his rehabilitation.

“Many nights, man prayed,” stutters his grainy recorded voice, cutting through a creeping instrumental of soft organs and stirring choral vocal samples. “Someone is gonna help bring me out of this shit… it took a while for man to recognise who [God] was gonna send… I'm very happy to see it's one of my own.” Augmenting those real voice messages, Dave packs 'Drama' with powerful lyrics that flesh out the predicament faced by his family: “Losing dad was big, losing you was bigger / Never had a father and I needed you to be the figure.”

“It brought a sense of reality to it,” says culture writer Aniefiok Ekpoudom, author of Where We Come From: Rap, Home and Hope in Modern Britain. “The album was so vulnerable, but sometimes with music there can still be a bit of a disconnect; you might trust his experience but it's hard to connect if you're not hearing directly from the other people he's talking about. Rap is one of the only art forms that gives a voice to people who are incarcerated."

This was a key concern for North London rapper Avelino when he utilised a motivational phone call with a friend in prison on 2016 track 'Welcome To The Future'. The Tottenham-born lyricist (who released his debut album 'God Save The Streets' last year) is an artist known for his ability to weave complex, emotionally powerful narratives, and voicemail messages have aided him in doing this.

"Rap is storytelling, and that story becomes more vivid when you actually get to hear from the characters being rapped about," Avelino tells The Lead. "Through that medium, the listener has access to a person that they would never usually have access to. You get a little insight into my circle, you get to hear what they sound like, and you understand the nature of the conversations we have."

Amplifying the community

“So much of rap in general is centred around themes of community,” says Ekpoudom. “It's never just about the rapper themselves, it's about everyone and everything else around them at the same time, and voice notes can let you hear from those people, whether it's siblings, mothers, fathers… it helps build this soundscape and this story that they're telling.”

One song that deals with themes of community suffering with heartbreaking lucidity is Newham rapper Ghetts' 'Window Pain', the penultimate track on 2018 album ‘Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament’. In arguably the most powerful, emotive use of voicemail in UK rap to date, the song (produced by Chris Penny and Kid D) begins with a crunchy, softly distorted clip of a mum calling her son - “just phoning to see how you are, I haven't heard from you all day” - before Ghetts' suckerpunch of an opening lyric spits: “Warren died / Guess who they handcuffed for his death?”

He then launches into a passionate and empathetic documentation of the cycles of violence impacting young people in deprived areas of the UK like Newham, demonstrating how voicemail can function as a precise, succinct way of introducing a complex social issue. When the beat breaks down at the midway mark and the anguished voice of the anonymous mother returns, this time saying; “I've been phoning and texting you and there's just no reply. What's going on?” - it sends shivers down your spine.

Outside the box

While voice notes can help add context to moments of deep social commentary, they can also operate in a more lighthearted way. Beyond the slightly clichéd examples of voicemail being used to present a playboy persona to the listener (heard in the lusty note on Knucks' 'Send Nudes' or the angry message from an ex-girlfriend at the end of Skepta's 'Ladies Hit Squad'), voice notes can also be used to structure tracks in a creative, outside-the-box way.

Perhaps the best example of this is another Ghetts tune, 'Pick Up The Phone'. The track's sharp, beefy 140bpm beat is peppered with rhythmically-placed ringtones, landline slam sound effects, and voice messages from various characters in Ghetts' life, creating a rich portrait of the day-to-day conversations and conflicts he navigates.

There's a clip of the esteemed grime producer who concocted the beat, Sir Spyro (“I ain't made a tune in a minute you know, G”"), a memo from his stylist Kiera about the growing mountain of packages she's receiving, and entertaining bars like, “Mum speaks three languages / Jamaican, cockney and real well spoken / And there's other mums just like my mum / It all depends who phones them.” 


“Warren died / Guess who they handcuffed for his death?” - Ghetts


The fact that this wide-reaching, intricately-textured soundscape has been created by the same artist who put together 'Window Pain' is a testament to the versatility of the voice message as a creative device. 

The track's vibrant structure also speaks to how technological developments have pushed forward this tool; the rise of the voice note (according to WhatsApp, seven billion voice notes are sent on the app each day) has impacted the music, with artists these days as likely to include a voice note sent via WhatsApp or iMessage as they are a genuine voicemail. 

Whatever specific tech is used, the aim of bringing support networks and communities to the forefront remains crucial. In North London rapper Little Simz's hit single 'Woman', a feel-good hip-hop track centred on uplifting empowered, inspirational women across the globe, the stereotype of the elusive rapper is played upon in a humourous voice message from a close friend of Simz's. Buzzing through during the song's outro, the recorded voice runs through a stream of warm, heartfelt pieces of wisdom, ruminating on how “you don't really get greatness without sacrifice”, before abruptly bursting into anger and lightheartedly shouting “It reminds me to call you… but then you never pick up the phone!!”

“[Rappers] understand how elusive they are and the presentation they give off to loved ones and friends,” says Abiade. “Employing voice messages as a device is their way of acknowledging that and letting them know that they are heard, that I am here even if I'm not always available.”

It's worth noting that this tool can be flipped on its head, too. While a diverse range of rappers have used voicemail to portray themselves as elusive and hard to pin down, Joseph Junior Adenuga (aka Skepta) - who evidently grasps this tool better than most - did the opposite on 'Cold Turkey'.

Featured on debut album ‘Greatest Hits’, the track follows Skepta's attempts to reach his girlfriend on the phone, as both his credit and his patience runs out. There's a vulnerability laced through Adenuga's refrain, which goes: “You need to know that I love you / And there ain't another girl that I would ever put above you / But you never answer your phone / And you know I don't like leaving messages after the tone.” 

“He made a whole three minute song just professing love for his bae on a voicemail!” says Abiade. “As much as Skepta is quite an expressive person, this was very early Skepta, so we weren't necessarily used to him being so upfront about his love for a woman.”

The future of voice messages in rap

Fast forward nine years to the release of ‘Konnichiwa’, and Skepta's phone call with Chip doesn't just showcase this dynamism; it also marks a pivotal point in the structuring of the whole record. After a call in which Chip insists; “You got the call to go and make everyone look at everything else that's happening over here”, the album's tone changes. Skepta is powered up, bristling with renewed purpose and ready to take the game by storm. He strides through anthems like 'Shutdown', 'That's Not Me' and 'It Ain't Safe', tracks that defined a landmark period in British rap history.

“That voice message directly addresses the moment that Skepta and the wider Black British music scene was in at that time, when it was crossing over and skyrocketing in popularity,” recalls Ekpoudom. “You get a peak behind the curtain into what is actually going on.”

Insight and context: that's what informs the use of voice messages in UK rap music. This device can bring you inside an artist's world, connect you to their communities, and “make the movie more real and relatable to the everyday listener,” in Avelino's words. 

Exactly how this device is packaged may change; as the voice note continues to become cemented as the audio messaging device of choice for young people, perhaps the classic voicemail ring tone will fade away and other forms of technology will assert themselves within the music. But the intention will remain the same: to foster the kind of intimacy with an artist that only rap music can provide.

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