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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 20:02 GMT 21:02 UK
DIY musicians take on industry giants
Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Sway Dasafo
Sway had been nominated for two Mobo awards

Sway Dasafo, an unsigned rapper from north London, has beaten hip hop heavyweights at this year's Mobo awards.

Does his crowning as best hip hop act signal a wider movement of DIY musicians taking on the music establishment?

A decade ago, when the inaugural Music of Black Origin (Mobo) awards were being held, Derek Safo was glued to a computer screen in his bedroom.

Then 13, he was getting to grips with a program that allowed him to make his own music.

Now as the Mobos complete their 10th awards ceremony, Derek's fortunes and those of the awards have changed.

Under the name Sway Dasafo, Derek is a rapper with a substantial underground fan base, while the Mobos have become the benchmark for achievement within the UK's black music fraternity.

Sway, who remains unsigned despite approaches by record labels, beat artists who have sold millions of albums - such as 50 Cent and The Game - in the best hip-hop act category.

"I couldn't believe that they had recognised the underground," says the rapper, who was also a finalist in the best newcomer category.

Technology is allowing this to happen - music equipment can be bought relatively cheaply and it allows people to produce tracks at low cost
George Ergatoudis
BBC 1Xtra

"My name is spreading faster than my music. The underground is rising up and the industry is coming down to street level."

The recognition of an unsigned artist who plans to hold out for a record deal which gives him as much artistic control as possible - or simply remain independent - may point to an increase in the power DIY musicians.

Sway, 23, a full-time rapper and producer, began his career by making beats for rappers, before writing rhymes himself and rapping on London's underground hip hop scene in MC battles reminiscent of Eminem's film 8 Mile.

By utilising computer programs and home recording equipment, he was able set up his own record label and distribute his CD mix tapes through independent record shops.

In doing so he received airplay on the capital's pirate radio stations before being playlisted by BBC digital black music station 1Xtra three years ago.

Young artists hoping to follow in the footsteps of artists like Dizzee Rascal, Kano and Ms Dynamite increasingly make and distribute their own CDs, known as mix tapes, which can sell in the thousands.

Dizzee Rascal
Dizzee Rascal made the move from underground to mainstream success

"Technology is allowing this to happen," says George Ergatoudis, 1Xtra's music manager.

"Music equipment can be bought relatively cheaply and it allows people to produce tracks at low cost which can get played on national radio. People are also able to put material out for downloading.

"In the past you needed studio time and access to expensive equipment."

Singling out Sway for praise, he goes on: "We picked him out from very early on as somebody to watch and support because he was obviously a special talent.

"He had an exceptional ability to mix strong lyrical talent with very good songs."

He believes the British-born Ghanaian rapper from Hornsey, London, is wise to build a loyal fan base before turning to a label for benefits "such as a bigger budget and more exposure" if he wants mainstream exposure.

But Sway is by no means alone in bypassing the traditional route of getting signed by a record label to kick-start a musical career.


Last week saw the launch of a CD to be distributed free by signing up to a website and through independent record shops.

The project, called Freeness, was conceived by award-winning artist Chris Ofili as a reaction to what he saw as the use of 'urban' as a "lazy, catch-all" marketing term to categorise music from the UK's black and Asian communities.

Unsigned artists were given the chance to contribute music in an initiative that prompted the submission of 2,000 tracks from a broad spectrum of musicians.

"By tapping into local networks, Freeness sought to find out what musicians, beat makers, DJs and singers amongst others were creating," says Ofili, who won the Turner Prize in 1998.

"The process was experimental and open in its approach and we had no knowledge of what would be submitted but we received an exciting response."

Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili is behind Freeness, which targets unsigned musicians

For some, the democratising potential of the internet for the iPod generation is the key.

"The fact that you can now make and distribute tracks for free is revolutionary," says Semtex, a 1Xtra DJ and A&R for Def Jam UK.

"No-one has abused downloading properly yet, it's invaluable and people should take advantage of it before the government locks it down."

Potential freedom to reach listeners without a record deal is welcomed by Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Netsayi, who contributed to Freeness.

"People in the record industry can't imagine that there are actually audiences for music that doesn't fit into the boxes they create, when in fact in my experience there are," she says.

It may be hard for the industry to ignore the fact that Sway attracted more votes from members of the public than 50 Cent, who has sold over 2.8 million copies of his album The Massacre in the US alone.

But Sway believes "British people love the underdog".

Sound of 2005: Kano
05 Jan 05 |  Music


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