Why UK rap can't bang and go pop

I had a chance meeting last week with a senior marketing exec from a major label at Nas's last London date. Once the formalities and niceties were out of the way, talk turned to Joey Badass, the 17-year-old NY native that has been racking up internet plaudits as a precocious talent to watch. And that led to some insightful observations on UK rap that I thought were worth sharing.

Apparently, Joey Badass turned down a record deal with this label. I pointed out that he would have nothing to gain from a deal – he already had indie, and even some more mainstream, press attention. All a major could do is add some gloss and start pushing the young rapper to a more pop-oriented audience. In doing so, he would lose all the support he and his team have already built and be in thrall to whimsical teens quick to trumpet the next big fad. It would be career suicide.

I used Professor Green's career as an analogy – a respected rapper, albeit on the battle circuit in this case, who signed the dotted line and started making pop music. When I said I didn't understand who the audience was for an act like Pro Green, I was told it's “kids”. This exec went on to say that it's much tougher for UK rappers to succeed and retain their credibility than their US brethren. There's just no middle ground over here.

And, I was told, there's a practical explanation for this void. As a US act, there's much to play for at home. American rappers can sell to ready and willing heads, in itself enough to start nudging that act into chart territory. Take Nas's Life Is Good – it's an average album by a certifiable legend, backed by a label with equal amounts of clout and hip hop savvy. Faithful fans bought it and it debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Charts. Nasir was then able to sell into foreign territories and tour off the back of the LP.

That's not how it works on this side of the pond. A UK rapper has a shallower market to sell to. And it's not inevitable that their music will be accepted outside of their borders in the way that US acts are. If they're lucky, parts of Europe or Australia might latch on, but it's not a given.

And what does that mean for the majors? They can't sell credible hip hop from the UK, because there aren't enough willing punters to fund it. The only way round this is to repackage and sugarcoat acts to pitch to a broader audience and increase the likelihood of seeing a return on investment.

I'm sure we've all noticed that what's passed off as rap or hip hop in this country by major labels is mostly a sham, it's just nice to know why.