Rappers in the UK and the US share a common genre, but there are also differences in each country’s musical flavors. Strongly indebted to house and dancehall beats, as well as Caribbean culture and reggae, British rap is a unique cultural force.
Below, find our list of the best UK rappers and hip hop artists based on their contributions to the genre and sustained popularity (in no particular order):
1. Plan B
Plan B attracted attention right away with his debut, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. His background includes a not-quite-working-class, not-quite-middle-class London upbringing, a stint in a punk rock band in the 70s, and some dabbling in R&B songwriting. The influences are evident in his work, which is harsh and haunting but still eloquent, and tackles themes ranging from drug abuse, revenge, and coming-of-age.
2. Little Simz
Simbiatu Ajikawo, known by her stage name Little Simz, is a fresh and promising new appearance in the UK rap game. Steadily putting out material since 2014 but only recently attracting major attention, Little Simz has a history that showcases her wide range of sampling influences, from the full marching band intro of Introvert to the pentatonic trill weaving through 101 FM. Rapping nimbly over top the tracks, she’s clear, sharp, and pulls no punches.
3. Dizzee Rascal
Continuing the legacy of grime, Dizzee Rascal’s off-kilter beats and abrasive lyricism are a remarkable example of the genre while also leading it in new directions. In particular, 2003’s Boy In Da Corner had all the musical trappings of a great grime album, whilst also conveying Dizzee’s perspective with thought-provoking honesty. While the rapper has leaned more commercial in recent years, there’s no denying he’s still part of grime’s backbone.
4. Big Shaq
Biq Shaq isn’t a conventional rapper, but mixes his MC-ing abilities with his comedic aspirations. He is really a fictional persona created by Croydon-born Michael Dapaah, created in his 2017 “mockumentary” Somewhere in London. His most well-known song, Mans Not Hot, features lines: “The girl told me, ‘Take off your jacket,’ I said, ‘Babes, man’s not hot’ (Never hot,)” toeing the line between self-deprecation and parody.
Of British and Nigerian descent, Skepta has been on the rap scene since the early 2000s. Immersed in grime and sharp beats and encouraged by legendary rapper Wiley to get into MC-ing, he has no shortage of confidence, audaciously titling his first album Greatest Hits. Skepta’s younger brother Jme has also made waves in the industry, and is number 24 on our list.
6. Stevie Hyper D
An early drum and bass MC, Stevie Hyper D was born in London to parents hailing from Spain and Barbados. He’s widely credited as being the first to apply the double-time flow common in dancehall to MC-ing. Coming of age in the 80s, he was a frontrunner of the jungle genre scene, and was one of the first electronica-adjacent MCs to secure a deal with a major record label.
7. Roots Manuva
Making an impact in the mid-90s, Roots Manuva was and still is a highly influential rapper for the UK scene. With a reggae-heavy flow and background tracks where steel-pan drum influence takes the form of synthed blips, he sustained British rap through the 21st century and laid the roots for dubstep while he was at it.
8. AJ Tracey
AJ Tracey started putting out music in the 2010s under the name Looney, or Loonz. Coming from a musical heritage, with a former rapper for a father and a mother who used to DJ jungle tracks, his talent for rapping comes as no surprise. His latest major single, Ladbroke Grove, features a chorus by singer Jorja Smith and a beat that’s a strong throwback to classic garage sounds.
Tricky is in something of a league of his own – rapper, producer, and one of the major pioneers of the genre of trip hop, which blends hip hop with elements of psychedelia. His 1995 album Maxinquaye, though it features little of his rapping abilities, incorporates sounds as diverse as Bjork-style Icelandic vocals and dancehall, underpinned by downbeat tempos and a creeping sense of paranoia.
10. Ms. Dynamite
Another 2000s standout, Ms. Dynamite’s name says it all. Blending R&B with her considerable rapping abilities, Ms. Dynamite was a talent like few others at the time. Singles like It Takes More, a full-bodied takedown of the low expectations she sees surrounding her, were both socially-conscious and musically addictive, while songs such as Dy-Na-Mi-Tee has had clear impacts both on grime and singers of the Amy Winehouse variety.
The title of slowthai’s 2019 debut, Nothing Great About Britain, is ironic considering that it’s a pretty great British album. But the Northampton-born rapper turns a seriously critical eye on his country, while putting his furious wit and sonic clarity on full display. Listening to the lead single, Doorman, with its 100 mile per hour beat and metal-adjacent roar, you can practically hear him seeing red as he addresses the elitist doorman who simply refuses to let him in.
Stormzy is probably one of the best-known British rappers today, featuring on countless tracks both in the UK and the States. Born in 1993, he first gained steam with the freestyle track Shut Up, released on YouTube before reaching spot eight on the Official UK Charts. Bursting with cocky energy overtop a sparse track, it made Stormzy’s spot-on timing and lyrical talent evident. Since then, he’s explored genres like RB&B while retaining his hard-hitting lyricism, and sold out shows across London.
13. Lady Leshurr
Lady Leshurr, born in Birmingham in 1987, is best known for her 2016 breakout Queen’s Speech Ep. 4, the fourth in a series of freestyles that show her smirking across London. Embracing the modern trend to use YouTube as a way to publish her music, she’s put out a train of mixtapes spanning from 2009.
14. Rodney P (London Posse)
London Posse, consisting of members Sipho, Rodney P, Bionic, and DJ Biznizz, were a genre-defining group created in 1986. First finding success performing in NYC, they released a string of singles between 1987 and 1995, now assembled on the reissued version of their album Gangster Chronicles, whose impact can hardly be overestimated. Believe it or not, many British rappers used American accents prior to the group’s success. While the record’s debt to American rap is evident, it still sounds supremely like the UK—packed with the language and energy of the London streets, expertly balancing their tough lyricism with the lighter-hearted reggae and dancehall rhythms.
Yorkshire-born rapper Skinnyman moved to London at a young age and got involved with the rap scene in the early 2000s. While frequent stints in jail kept his output relatively low, his catalog is still impressive. 2004 saw the release of his major work Council Estate of Mind, a debut that speaks to his public-housing upbringing, using an inventive range of samples along with his fast and loose flow.
16. LD (67)
The frontman of the Brixton Hill Crew 67, LD did a fair amount to bring about the height of UK drill. While helping to pioneer drill’s signature characteristics, including its hard-hitting beats and fast-paced, “drill-like” percussion, LD was a mysterious figure. Almost always masked in public, his lyrics commit to a realism in depicting his often dangerous life on the streets.
17. J Hus
While African rhythms have, of course, always been a major influence on UK hip hop, J Hus is often cited as bringing the Afrobeat sound to full fruition. The genre blends trap and grime sounds with the swinging rhythms of traditional African music, often featuring a distinctive drum pattern. On his 2018 song Bouf Daddy, he gets a chance to brag about how far his lyrical abilities have taken him.
The self-declared “godfather of grime,” Wiley’s got his discography to back up his claim. Pioneering grime’s signature fast-paced, syncopated flow and eskibeat production. The rapper had a fractured upbringing, bouncing around to different homes across England and dabbling in dealing drugs as a teen. He felt that the off-kilter beats conveyed his emotional state, and the “grimy” sound went on to become a hallmark of the UK rap scene.
19. General Levy
General Levy, on the other hand, went in a different direction, leaning into house rhythms and his Caribbean roots. The Trinidadian rapper started writing lyrics at the age of 12 and featured on producer MBeat’s track Incredible in 1994, a now-classic that dominated the UK charts and the underground scene alike. His career lost steam shortly after due to confusion over braggadocious comments he made about the song. Most people today, however, have long accepted his influence in cementing jungle in the UK’s music consciousness.
FLOHIO’s been characterized as grime, but her songs are both more poetic and more pop-y than what is typical for the genre. Bouncy and hard-hitting, the South London-raised rapper write songs with a personal touch and original beats that channel her attitude towards growing up and making her mark. Her first mixtape, No Panic No Pain, debuted in 2020.
The son of Caribbean parents, Giggs grew up in southeast London and went on to help pioneer the genre of road rap. Venturing further into trap-inspired beats than many British rappers, he’s well known for his explicit lyrics and take-no-hits attitude. Starting out as a DJ playing dubstep and dancehall, Giggs launched his career independently with the release of Talkin’ da Hardest in 2007. Since then, he’s had to fight establishment pushback due to the violent nature of his songs. Talent shines through though, and he managed to sign a record label despite attempts by the Metropolitan Police to discourage the deal.
Klashnekoff incorporates elements from both the budding early 00s grime scene and from older UK hip hop roots. His beats are decidedly low-hitting and lean into a groove, lacking the more jagged edges of grime tracks from the same time period. But Klashnekoff also brought the aggressive—and explicit—energy to his tracks that kept him on underground stations amidst a commercial scene that wasn’t ready for his bite.
23. Riko Dan
Riko Dan first played as a jungle MC on pirate radio stations in the mid-90s. Leaning into his patois flow, he’s perhaps best known for his vocals in Ice Rink, a track produced by grime’s Wiley. His style fuses a lot of elements, hard-hitting while still being loose and fast in its ragga roots.
Jme, whose given name is Jamie Adenuga, has grown up in the rap scene alongside older brother Skepta, with whom he founded the crew Boy Better Know. Among the greatest of grime, he combines a vicious flow with idiosyncratic beats. Man Don’t Care, featuring fellow London rapper Giggs, is a perfect example of his above-it-all attitude.
25. Mike Skinner (The Streets)
Original Pirate Material, the Street’s 2002 debut, is probably one of the most well-loved UK hip hop albums of recent years. Defined by its remarkable production (especially considering that Skinner recorded most of it from his small Brixton apartment) and poignant originality, it expertly paints a picture of youth culture in 2000s London. While paying homage both to UK garage and autobiographical albums like Nas’s Illmatic, the Streets never stoop to simple social commentary or bland lyricism, as they’re well aware—Skinner proclaims early on “this ain’t your archetypal street sound”.
Rapper Lowkey’s independent-released 2011 album Soundtrack to the Struggle abounds with lush instrumentals and his honest, fluid rhymes. Dwelling on the difficulties of life, entertaining what-ifs, and asserting the power of expression, this is Lowkey at his best, showcasing his lyrical abilities and his viewpoint as a British-Iraqi man growing up in London.
A grime rapper and record producer, Novelist was one the the first major rappers who was influenced by UK grime as a teen. Getting his start, like many, on underground radio, until his 2013 single Rinse earned him a contract with the station Rinse FM. His debut album Novelist Guy was shortlisted for a Mercury Prize in 2018.
28. Unknown T
Born in London to Ugandan parents, Unknown T fits solidly within the genre of drill. His recent singles and two mixtapes have received considerable critical attention, with positive feedback from mags like Complex.
29. Smiley Culture
With the 1984 single Police Officer, Smiley Culture helped to bridge the gap between reggae MCs like Peter King and the modern UK rap scene. The single tells the story of an unfair cop pullover, but Smiley ends up getting off on name recognition. Though he confronted tough topics, Smiley (as might be assumed from his name) was optimistic at bottom, and his dextrous vocals maintained the happy-go-lucky feel of reggae dance hits.
30. Nadia Rose
Nadia Rose is a grime and hip hop artist from Croydon, making use of her talent on tracks that feel both vibrant and brash. In 2020, she collaborated with former Spice Girls’ member Melanie C for the track Fearless—having been a longtime fan and deriving inspiration from the group, she described the collaboration as “surreal”.
Birmingham-born rapper Mist began experimenting with rap by creating tracks in his bedroom as a teen. He cites many American rappers, from the Notorious B.I.G. to Snoop Dogg, as early influences, which he incorporates into his grime-based style. His most recent EP Diamond in the Dirt was released in 2018.
32. Lethal Bizzle
London-born with roots in Ghana, Lethal Bizzle is an MC with an aggressive streak throughout his work. Emerging in the early 2000s, he often combines dancehall and grime influences, leading to high-powered tracks that go great on a dance floor. His attention-grabbing singles were released on a compilation album in 2011 titled Best of Bizzle.
Right behind Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, Kano would probably be the next contender for most influential grime musician. Gaining exposure through joining the hip hop crew N.A.S.T.Y. (Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You), he quickly went on the leave his own mark on the genre. Things took off in 2004 with an underground hit Ps and Qs, and his most recent 2016 album Made In The Manor has received critical acclaim.
Akala is a unique figure, and spreads his creative talents across poetry, acting, journalism, and rap. The younger brother of Ms. Dynamite, he got involved in music early and released a mixtape, from his own label in 2004. Since then he’s gone on to tour with Nas, publish writing on social criticism, and start a company merging hip hop with Shakespeare.
35. Lisa Mercedez
Lisa Mercedez is definitely dancehall, but her flows are no less fierce for that. Born in Jamaica, the rapper’s versatility and distinctive sound have earned her collaborations with voices like Plan B and Stefflon Don.
MoStack makes smooth and Afro-inspired songs like the single Ride, which combines clicky beats and synthed vocals into an atmospheric track. Hailing from Hornsey, North London, the rapper has an impressive discography, and his debut 2017 mixtape peaked on Official UK Charts.
A Congolese rapper born and raised in Coventry, Jay1 has devoted himself seriously to music since 2016. With versatility both in his beats and his flows, he’s had two top 20 singles since then, both debuted in 2019, entitled Your Mrs and Mocking It.
South London rapper and musician Dave has proved himself excellent at putting out songs with a laid-back tone and smooth wordplay. He’s received no shortage of acclaim, either, with his debut album Psychodrama winning both Album of the Year at 2020 Brit Awards and a Mercury Prize. Starlight, his latest single, has by now spent a good stretch of time in the top spot of the UK charts.
Manchester-raised rapper Aitch first garnered attention with his single Straight Rhymez, which he released on YouTube in 2019. The single even caught the attention of industry giant Stormzy, and Aitch’s following output has been no less promising. The unique style of this young talent – he was born in ‘99 – points to interesting new directions for the current rap scene.
40. Stefflon Don
Stefflon Don has a diverse background – born in England to Jamaican parents, she moved to the Netherlands at a young age before returning to the UK at 14. She collaborated with French Montana for her single Hurtin’ Me in 2017, and won a MOBO award later that year. She’s now worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, spanning both British and American pop and rap.
M24 released his debut mixtape Dip N Drill in 2020, and has done numbers on UK charts since. The single Exotic features his spitfire vocals overtop a haunting ambient track, and has definitely made a mark on the contemporary British hip hop landscape.
Loski hails from Kennington and is part of the contemporary drill scene. The son of Ty Nizzy, a rapper himself and one of the “originators of road rap,” as written in the Guardian, he was practically born in the role. Part of the rap group New Spartans, Loski’s songs blend throwback elements of drill with emerging trap sounds.
43. Ms. Banks
Rapper and singer Ms. Banks has released three mixtapes as of 2022, all overflowing with her signature patois vocals and upbeat energy. Born and raised in Southeast London, Ms. Banks has plenty of personality, as showcased in both her music and a recent interview with i-D magazine.
44. MF Doom
While MF Doom was raised in New York City and spent his most musically productive years in the States, he was born in London in 1971, so we’re going to include him on our list on a technicality. It’s possible that this split between countries contributed to his idiosyncratic style, marked by his creation of unique sonic moods and vocals that often slip into a deliberate monotone. Despite having become a rapper of international renown and being married with three children, he was denied re-entry to the US in 2010 and resettled in London.
45. Peter King
Peter King, while not considered a true rapper, still contributed greatly to the roots of UK rap and hip hop. Part of the reggae crew Saxon Sound during the 80s, King was one of the first to include rapid-fire, rhythmic vocals in his work, laying the foundation for all the British-language flows of the future.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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