Atlantic U.K.
is set to make major waves on the British hip-hop landscape and beyond. After developing acts like Burna Boy, Tion Wayne and Kojey Radical, the label has tapped respected exec Dion “Sincere” Lizzy as senior A&R director.

Sincere started his career as a rapper, then went on to work with some of the biggest names in British hip-hop. Manager of Knucks and Fredo, he signed Slowthai to Method Music and Meekz Manny to Neighbourhood while running his own label/production/creative hub and merch company.

Sincere and EVP/President of Black Music Austin Daboh joined us to discuss the British hip-hop market, their respective ambitions and an exciting new scene bubbling under the radar.

Sincere, what do you hope to achieve in your new role?

Sincere: To build a legacy that impacts the company in a positive way. I want to be able to look back and say that during my years at Atlantic, I did something special that’s standing the test of time. Over the last five to 10 years, I’ve worked on #1 singles, double- and triple-platinum singles, #1 albums and countless Top 5, Top 20 and Top 40 albums, and I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing. If what I’ve done in the past is anything to go by, the future is going to be bright. I haven’t felt this energized and excited in a while.

Are you looking to sign up-and-coming artists or established acts?

Sincere: I’m looking at some talent established globally. I do want to develop―my hits have come from development; I’ve found a lot of artists I’ve worked with early. But I’ve never been in a position to be able to invest in more established artists, which I am now. I’d say 50% of the roster I’m looking at is established and 50% is in development. I look at it like building a football team; you have to have youth players you build up through the ranks, but when you want to win the title, sometimes you have to go and take a Declan Rice from West Ham. You have to make some big moves to earn money.

Daboh: Sincere and his team have been working on a cohesive global A&R strategy, determining how we can invest, on a seven- and eight-figure level, in Black music culture. We’ve got a bunch of acts still in the embryonic stage, and we’ll have some exciting names we can throw at you next time we talk. It’s also important to say that alongside all the new talent Sincere’s looking at, he’s been invaluable to helping us strategize from an A&R point of view for the amazing acts already on the roster. We’ve had some really positive conversations around Mahalia and how we take her to a new level off the back of her IRL album and some amazing conversations around KSI. With him, we’ve got a superstar on the roster and with her, someone we’ve had Top 5 success with but not #1 success, so we want to take that to another level.

How do you do that? Can you share your strategy?

Daboh: Part of it is being transparent, open and honest about where we are. It’s about looking at past results, audience and where the market is, sonically and commercially. In KSI’s case, we came out of the gate strong with a gold record, “Not Over Yet,” released last summer. Since then, his link-up with Oliver Tree, “Voices,” was a Top 20 record. If you look at the areas of KSI’s ecosystem, whether it be grime or his Misfits Boxing brand, they’re activated at a global level; we want the music to reflect the global energy he’s got at the moment. Some of the conversations we’re having involve the age-old A&R questions: How can I make the songs better? How can we get them to impact at a higher level? How can we tap into what’s happening in the zeitgeist now? That process is ongoing.

Sincere: For me, as an A&R, I’m trying to connect and build a relationship with the artists to make them fall in love with making music again. Sometimes artists think more about the result than the process. I’m trying to make them fall in love with the process. That’s about getting the writers and producers in the room who make everybody excited so they leave feeling it was amazing. I left a session with an artist two days ago and everyone’s been buzzing about the record. We’re not thinking about how much it’s going to stream or where it’s going to chart. Do you love the record? Do I love the record? Is everyone in love with the record? Yes! I want to bring that energy back. Sometimes with artists, all the other things weigh them down and they live in their heads too much, which is not really a good place for them to be.

Someone in the industry said to me recently that, following a successful run, British hip-hop seems to be waning. What do you make of that?

Sincere: We’re going through a transition period, which all genres go through. But if you look at the charts this year, we’ve had Dave and Central Cee with the longest-running #1 U.K. rap record ever [“Sprinter”]. Central Cee has had his first entry on the Hot 100. J Hus and Drake were at #2 [with “Who Told You”] while “Sprinter” was #1. U.K. rap is bigger than it’s ever been and it’s going to continue to grow.

You could look at it like there aren’t as many artists having Top 40 success at this moment or you can look at it like we’ve never had a record like “Sprinter” before. We’ve never had a Dave; we’ve never had a Central Cee. Stormzy did three O2s in a row on his last run; Dave did two and Central Cee will also probably do arenas. U.K. rap is an arena genre now. Artists are selling out The O2 like it’s Camden’s [1,400-capacity] KOKO. The days when, for some artists, KOKO was as good as it got are long gone. U.K. rap is here to stay.

And I’ve got my eye on a new scene that’s building. I see rappers who are not streaming well but can sell a thousand tickets in five minutes. There are 10 to 15 artists nobody’s heard of yet coming through. In two or three years, they’re going to be headlining festivals―and they will be doing millions and millions of streams. That’s the way it’s gone for 20 years; there are different eras and different artists, and it has valleys and peaks.

Daboh: Hip-hop sheds its skin every three to five years. The industry is always quick to write it off when it’s going through a shedding period. But that’s what it’s doing; it’s not going anywhere.

Sincere, what else can you tell us about that new scene?

Sincere: I can’t give away too much because the other A&Rs aren’t there yet. What I can say is that the alternative rap scene in the U.K. is building. If you look at artists like Little Simz and Knucks, they don’t rap about working-class life in the traditional way; they do it in a different way. There’s going to be more of that. You’re going to see artists who are more punk- and-dance inspired, and more conscious. In the U.S., the wave of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti wasn’t the same old trap rap, gangsta rap, that America had been known for; it started to get more alternative and a bit more left. That’s what I see emerging here. The artists coming through in the next three to four years won’t dress the same and won’t look the same as the rappers we see today. I haven’t been this excited about U.K. rap for a long while.

How should the industry be supporting the evolution and sustainability of British hip-hop?

Daboh: Flexibility on terms would help. Over the last few years, hip-hop culture has started to understand its commercial worth. The companies that have been flexible enough to work with those artists are the ones winning. I count Atlantic in that bracket. There are certain things nobody but a major label can do. There are a lot of things you can do if you’re independent but, from a marketing and promotion point of view, major labels are still best in class.

Then, like you said, some people are writing off hip-hop. Give the genre a chance. We want to make sure that the festival bookers, radio playlist managers and editorial managers are still putting hip-hop front and center, alongside pop and dance and indie and alternative music. Historically, pop music was the sun and everything else gravitated around it; nothing was really bigger than pop. What streaming has shown is that, actually, hip-hop, dance and pop are all roughly the same size.

Sincere: Time and patience. The genre is still in its infancy. It hasn’t had the exposure that other genres in the U.K. have had; we’re talking about a seven-, eight-year run, maybe 10. In the past, the sound could be compromised to get on the radio, so I think U.K. rap in its creatively purest form has only really been running for five to seven years.

International is also important. I’ve built a global A&R team. I’ve hired in Nigeria and Jamaica. I’ve been spending a lot of time on calls with the American team, making sure we’re connected on deals. We’re joining forces so that when we build the artist in the U.K., we’re also building them in America. Black music is global now, and that’s why the team brought me on—because my contacts stretch outside London and around the globe.

Speaking of stretching outside London and around the globe, what potential do you see for British hip-hop artists to penetrate the U.S. market?

Sincere: That’s something Central Cee and Dave have done―and they haven’t gone to America; America has come to them. We’re not compromising our sound, but America is coming to us. Knucks recently sold out New York, L.A., Atlanta and Chicago in under a month. And we love Australia. We do the same tickets for Knucks there that we do in England. Australia and Europe are as important as America to me. We break Europe, we break the rest of the world beyond the U.S. and then we keep picking away at America, and when it comes, it comes. I strongly believe there will be a U.K. rapper with a #1 album in the U.S. in the next five years. Our artists will continue to tour there, so it will continue to build.

Daboh: Three, four years ago, on average, one in four streams were ex-U.K. for U.K. rappers. For our biggest rappers, you’ll often see up to 50% of their streams being ex-U.K. That shows the export strength of U.K. rap, which is crucial. Like Sincere said, the U.S. is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Tion Wayne has a platinum record in Italy, for example. Tion, Central Cee and Dave are the only three rappers who’ve had #1 records in Australia. It’s mad-important that trade routes are built across different territories. Traditionally, the trade routes of U.K. rap were: the U.K. to America and the U.K. to Australia. A little bit of Europe, a bit of Africa, but that was really it. With the whole glocalization of music, there are new trade routes opening. We need to be able to export to the Nordics, to GSA [Germany/Switzerland/Austria], to Africa―and not just West Africa; there’s a mad level of consumption of hip-hop now in East Africa and South Africa, for example. We need a piece of that pie.

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