It’s 2014. My roommates and I are sitting in a makeshift circle of relative-donated hand-me-down basement furniture and a bougie white leather couch we scrapped from the back alley. The latter, which may have been the direct cause of a mouse infestation to come, replaced a broken futon that had found its way to the flat roof. We don’t see anything grimy or questionable about our scenario. Nights like these are filled with friendship, growth, and bonding over music. The obvious signs of immaturity and the acceptable poverty of youth are a simple right of passage for any university student. As a broken bong makes its way around the room, so too does conversation, occasionally giving way to silence when a particular high or a particular vibe in the music are achieved.
A squeaky and simple guitar melody weaves its way through the rigged fire hazard of surround-sound speakers and instantly attracts the attention of us all. A bizarre, ghostly sample comes next and glances of intrigue and slight head bobbing arise. All of us are anxious to find out where this is going. The deep, mesmerizing vocals and a bold, unheard style fills the room with futuristic vibes that would come to set the stage for global low-fi hip-hop and help to frame the direction for the coming generation of experimental British artists.
Who the hell is this?
It’s 2018. I’m sitting alone on a secondhand couch with my feet perched on a pastel pink beanbag chair that I swiped from a collection of seemingly abandoned belongings outside my building. The bag, which thankfully came rodent, bug, and disease free, rounds out my Chinese apartment nicely and makes me reminisce on the times spent with friends. But a lot has changed. The floor has been cleaned vigorously, the speakers are wireless, the friends are all more than 10,000 miles away, and the there is no bong to pass.
I turn on the speaker, shuffle the music, and am instantly taken aback by a familiar sound in an unfamiliar environment. But not only does the song still fit seamlessly into my life, not only do I still find myself bobbing my head, but the style of the music actually seems more relevant now than ever, leaving me with one question:
What the hell happened to Subculture Sage?
The London hip-hop duo comprised of lyricist and vocalist Hypeman Sage and producer Subculture Sounds were not so long ago the biggest new name on an exploding UK hip-hop circuit. With the release of their self-titled debut EP in 2014, they quickly were shrouded with exceptional acclaim.
"One of the most exciting UK Hip Hop acts" – SBTV
“A shining example of what UK Hip Hop can be when it’s left to its own instincts.” – Complex
“So fresh and so exciting.” – Zane Lowe
“Progressively forward thinking.” – Pigeons & Planes
Stretching the sides of what UK Hip Hop can be.” – Noisey
A listen to the 2014 project makes it obvious as to why they received such compliments. The bold experimentation to merge strong, European-inspired electronic production with Caribbean elements and a unique twist on hip-hop delivery was groundbreaking at the time. And it was in fact so influential, that sounds clearly derived from artists like Subculture Sage and reflective of their techniques are now at the forefront of some of music’s newest and most intriguing directions four years later.
2014 was also simply a great time to be an up-and-coming artist – particularly in the realm of grime, hip-hop, or R&B. All three genres in the UK have seen a universal rise to global dominance in the time since. Artists like Skepta, Stormzy, Nines, and Giggs have pushed grime into a continuously strengthening position that is garnering a similar respect and a similarly sizable audience to hip-hop. British hip-hop acts like the Mouse Outfit, IAMDDB, and Irish rapper Rejjie Snow are pushing the boundaries of the genre and making waves with their unique styles. Caribbean-inspired traphall music emerging as one of the most popular, young styles is rooted in London with artists like J HUS and Yxng Bane; Experimental R&B artists Alxndr London and Sampha are innovative, talented, and globally respected; And in recent months, the Streets who was one of the most influential names on the British garage movement in the early 2000’s and Craig David who was a well-known pop R&B star not so long ago have seen sudden, strong reemergence.
So, after a strong, influential debut landing a position at the helm of experimental music, a market primed for a worldwide takeover, and subsequent years of growth by an innumerable amount of UK artists specializing in similar styles and utilizing reminiscent techniques, why is the name of Subculture Sage less known than it was four years ago rather than being a group credited for a large part of the progressive British music scene’s current success?
Perhaps the first reason can be defined with a single word: quantity. On the heels of a debut release from any young, successful artist should come a vast collection of new music to keep fans excited, to continue to draw attention, and to continue to experiment with new sounds while perfecting the ones with which success has been found. After the Subculture Sage EP, the duo released their debut album a year later, and only one other EP project in the time since, TAKE3EP, coming in 2017. And though three full-length projects may seem like an acceptable quantity of releases over a four-year span, only four independent singles have come during that stretch as well, leaving their canon remarkably short-armed. Subculture Sage may have slowly lost the spotlight due in part to simply not releasing enough music.
A second reason for Subculture Sage’s lackluster years since phenomenal success in 2014 can be chalked up to a lack of consistency. There is something to be said about artists willing to experiment and change their sound, and Subculture Sage certainly has the talent and range necessary to do so, but with such a limited amount of music released, the idea of inconsistency leads an audience to wonder whether an artist still has what made them in the first place. Every release of Subculture Sage, though incredibly well done, unique, and interesting, has seemed like the music of a different group. Similar problems are seen all over the music spectrum. Rock bands like Muse and experimental electronic group MGMT have never fully returned to the glory they saw with their early music due to a lack of consistent styles, even though their releases since have been innovative and beautiful in different ways.
Lastly, perhaps Subculture sage just ran into a bit of bad luck. With all the music released over the past half-decade, all the new artists, and all of the changes the UK scene in particular has seen, it’s possible that their timing and their sound, though truly influential on modern trends, were lost somewhere along the way.
It’s not like they’ve completely disappeared either. Arguably their most popular song, Chances, came after the release of their sole album Big Smoke Autumn Blues in 2015. Their debut EP is still listened to and respected, and in my opinion 1=1=1 is still one of the most interesting, innovative, and influential songs to modern music. I guess I just always assumed they would do more, and with the success of the UK scene and the explosion of styles that they grandfathered, the fact that they haven’t is made all the more mysterious. Their 2017 EP was a great work displaying their wide range and capability to transcend modern British styles, but saw very little success or reach for similar reasons that they have struggled for years. Honestly, I’m not quite sure they’ll ever harness a similar sound or boast a similar audience that they did in 2014, but here’s to hoping that the future brings more to Subculture Sage, because music wouldn’t be where it is today without them.
Listen to Subculture Sage below
And check out their amazing work with Mahogonay Sessions