What the Hyundai Mercury Prize means to today’s musicians
September 19, 2019
‘The love is very appreciated’: what the Hyundai Mercury Prize means to today’s musicians
For nearly three decades, the awards’ shortlisted artists and winners have defined genres and paved the way for some of the world’s most exciting artists. Tom Thorogood explores how the prize continues to elevate the freshest of British and Irish talent
At any other music awards ceremony an unsigned rapper beating 11 other artists, including Radiohead and the late David Bowie, to the top prize would be unprecedented. But the Hyundai Mercury Prize isn’t like any other showbiz award show, where the winner is picked months in advance and the decision often has more to do with insider politics than artistry.
It’s also an award that’s highly prized by the artists who make the shortlist, regardless of genre. Last year, MC Novelist said he felt like he, “got an A*” for his album Novelist Guy, and indie star Nadine Shah, who bagged recognition for her record Holiday Destination, revealed she was a fan of the award: “If I was to go on Mastermind, it would be my specialist subject.”
After making the shortlist with her fourth album, No Shame, pop star Lily Allen – used to making headlines for reasons other than her music – says: “The artist part of me gets lost a lot of the time – being nominated has helped with that immensely.”
Tottenham MC and producer Skepta was hardly unknown in 2016 of course, he’d been a pioneering grime artist for more than a decade alongside Kano, Wiley and 2003’s own shock winner Dizzee Rascal (whose Boy In Da Corner also beat a Radiohead album).
But Joseph Junior “Skepta” Adenuga was doing things his own way, without bowing to industry pressure or pop trends – he’d made the video for the first Konnichiwa single That’s Not Me for £80 before releasing the shout-along shock of Shutdown.
On stage Jarvis Cocker announced his name, comparing Bowie’s Blackstar album to the “black star”, before Skepta spoke about his team and scene.
“We’ve travelled the world – no record label, nothing,” he declared. “We just did this for us, but the love is very appreciated. We all won today!”
His comments to friends, the industry and the TV audience, in the frenzied moments just after his win, with his parents standing next to him, have echoed through the three years since.
UK rap and grime have had many highs and lows in the past 20 years. Since 2016, when Kano’s Made In The Manor also made the shortlist, the scene Skepta helped birth has flourished in the charts, on radio and at award shows, and spawned more innovative sub genres.
Headie One, one of the leading UK drill MCs, recently made the top 10 with his single 18Hunna and has collaborated with Skepta on his current single Back to Basics. He’s also a Tottenham native who watched closely when the older MC released Konnichiwa and won the Hyundai Mercury Prize.
“I first started noticing grime when I was at secondary school,” he says. “Everyone knew Skepta and Chip were from Tottenham like us. When he won the award I realised it was important for artists to get that recognition.
“And now I’ve spent time with him I’ve learned a lot from his attitude and intelligence and the way he can adapt to different genres, the way he did on Konnichiwa.”
Twelve months on from Skepta’s win there were four equally adventurous, genre-melding British MCs on the Hyundai Mercury Prize shortlist, all from the same city, yet sounding vastly different to each other.
Loyle Carner showcased his introspective storytelling and disarmingly gentle flow on his first album Yesterday’s Gone, Kate Tempest took her poetry to new places on her concept record Let Them Eat Chaos and on his ambitious debut Common Sense, J Hus told his story in brutally honest detail.
The fourth Londoner to make the 2017 shortlist was Stormzy with his own debut Gang Signs & Prayer, a record that fused gospel, grime and pop influences and propelled him to a double Brits win and this year’s Glastonbury headline slot, where he impressed Worthy Farm with his political Banksy, BMX and Chris Martin-assisted Pyramid stage set.
In a break between songs, topless and surrounded by the sunburnt crowd, he passed the baton on – reeling off a list of artists from his scene, and highlighting essential young British rappers to the field and the many millions watching from the sofa.
Three of those names read out by Stormzy make the shortlist in 2019 – Little Simz, Slowthai and Dave, whose albums compete against Anna Calvi, Foals, Cate Le Bon, Nao, The 1975, Idles, Seed Ensemble, Black Midi and Fontaines DC. It’s a typically eclectic lineup and one that could produce a shock winner, to invoke the year drum’n’bass collective Roni Size & Reprezent’s New Forms won at the height of Britpop.
“I talked with Skepta about how he puts together his albums, and it’s hard,” says Headie One. “It’s a lot harder to put out a full album than a single or an EP, and it’s an achievement, a real body of work.”
And three decades after the prize began, and just three years since Skepta’s Hyundai Mercury Prize win, this year’s shortlist shows that hard work and the resulting albums are as valued as ever.
Watch the 2019 Hyundai Mercury Prize live on Thursday 19th September, BBC Four - 9pm. This article originally appeared on The Guardian.