The stage at Somerset House is glowing with a fierce cherry light, which makes you feel as though you’ve been pulled onto the set of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Basking in the red haze is rapper and producer BRBKO, who is stylishly kitted out in a Vivienne Westwood necklace plus a vest and trouser combo designed by CSM graduate Olly Shinder. BRBKO (pronounced brak) commands the crowd to shout “NEGROPOP! BITCH!”, louder every time, to stir up some appreciation for his fearless collective.
A necromantic stage presence takes over BRBKO as he jumps off the stage to weave in and out of the crowd and roar the lyrics to scuzzy, lo-fi tracks like BONSAM B3SU and :~$ (pronounced “moneyface”). His Negropop associates rush the stage and pass the mic in what becomes a hectic cypher, while the group’s DJ Chamber 45 holds down the 1s and 2s.
Negropop Yakuza are arguably the most uncompromising group to come out of the loose network of alternative UK rap acts that includes Scuti, Denzel Himself and collectives likes NTN, DIRTBOYZ, 237 Mob, MOBSET and Elevation Meditation.
Consisting of BRBKO (fka PK Brako), Jawnino, Renz, S’M NTN, JP NTN and Ryoko Virgil fka Virgil Hawkins, Negropop started out as rebellious grime apprentices without a collective name during the mid-late 2010s, leaving their fingerprints around stations like NTS, where they sprayed lyrical bullets in a language-defying grime lightning-war against Brazilian grime MCs.
During the Covid lockdowns, the artists announced their more experimental new chapter with the tongue-in-cheek ‘grime 2 campaign’, dropping snippets on raw new music and hosting radio sets along with the hashtags #grime2 and #negropop. As a collective, this year they unleashed their intense energy during a Boiler Room showcase of visual arts collective Nine Nights, and they’ve proved their grassroots hype by shutting down venues like Manchester’s Soup Kitchen and Shoreditch’s 93 Feet East.
A few weeks after the Somerset House gig, I meet up with BRBKO in the break room of a studio in West London, where he’s playing Xbox with JP, who’s also a member of the South London group NTN. Aside from the odd anecdote about alleged intellectual theft and elders “hating on the kid”, BRBKO is relaxed and easygoing.
“Artists get shamed about being from the underground when even the OGs like Jimi Hendrix had an “underground” phrase when he played around the Chitlin’ Circuit,” BRBKO says. “I did it in Manchester, at the very beginning, doing shows at [Pie Radio] where Aitch and Samurai would come through.”
BRBKO’s latest mixtape 2pk @; (pronounced two pack), which was released via the label of the magazine FRANCHISE, traverses from gothic industrial alt-rap to downtempo, swooning bedroom pop. “FRANCHISE fucked with me from time and when I sent them these songs, they gave me a licensing deal,” BRBKO tells me. “None of us except Jawnz, until a few weeks ago, have management. We still pretty much do everything ourselves. But I could ask NTS to let me host something, and they would.”
“Being alternative to me, is us, the fans and the collectives. I get youngers asking me for advice, like how do you do it? Some go TikTok viral and everything’s happening so fast and so many things go into it; the shows, events and meetings. The truth is, you gotta have that dog in you.”
JP bounces off BRBKO’s point: “Me and BRBKO [would get] on night buses from South London to get to Enfield at 1am just to go on Mode London [radio], standing outside in the rain just for somebody to open the door. We got banned from Mode but we did the graveyard shifts and now man’s in Warner Studios. Me, a Black man with a gold tooth, cap backwards, being in places like this.”
JP’s 2022 mixtape LEAKMUSIQDVD draws from niche inspirations, such as the 2010s bass-baptised, trappy plugg’d genre and Odd Future’s screwball sketch show Loiter Squad. He tells me that he’s planning to sell CD disks of a visual accompaniment called LEAKDVD – inspired by the legendary Risky Roads grime DVDs – and screen it in independent cinemas.
The collective began to form when JP met his future Negropop Yakuza collaborator S’M through school, and they ended up hanging out in South London’s Relentless Studios. The space was formative to the network they’d built, with BRBKO, Virgil, Squintz and Scuti all swinging through its doors.
Scuti, a rapper with a buttery-smooth flow from South London, entered the scene with her 2019 sleeper hit Skoowup, after her cousin, the producer tn_, introduced her to Ryoko Virgil. The Negropop member then showed Scuti how to make tracks in his bedroom. “I didn’t see it as an underground scene until people told me I was part of it,” Scuti tells me over the phone. “At the same time, I don’t feel ‘boxed in’. I’m very tunnel-visioned, I just make music, call it what you want.”
For Negropop Yakuza and their associates, this wave is defined as much by a mindset as a certain sound. All the artists I speak to seem proud of this sense of musical freedom. The scene can be a vehicle to express themselves without hand-wringing about optics, commercial or critical success. Hence why the artists tend to share a love for lo-fidelity, which stands out in contrast to the increasingly polished sound of most mainstream UK rap.
RenzNiro, a 22-year-old artist from Manchester, shares his thoughts. “It’s the rawness, when it’s done on a grassroots level, you can hear the passion, it may not be [run] by a machine but there’s an investment into it. That’s what attracted me to it, the underground is a space where everyone can be themselves and have pure artistic expression.” Also practising photography under his birth name, Papa Nii Akushey Quaye, RenzNiro worked side by side with the northern multimedia collective RENZODIRTBOYZ during his teenage years. Stretching from region to region, RenzNiro met BRBKO on a photo shoot in Manchester in 2016 through a mutual friend, eventually performing together at Salford’s much-loved venue The White Hotel.
Back at the studio, BRBKO is contending for the 1 – 0 score of his FIFA 2020 match against JP. He’s losing the game, but he spots a metaphor for the undefeatable confidence of Negropop. “You know in dem video games where you start in a football pack? You start a local football club, city stadiums, Premier League. For me, I feel like I’m in the Champion’s League.”