Words: Dylan Murphy
Tion Wayne and Russ Millions topped the charts with ‘Body’ and in doing so made history by having the first UK drill track to clinch the number one spot. With that in mind, we’ve explored its importance alongside 4 other iconic UK rap chart-toppers.
Every now and then, there’s a watershed moment that breathes new life into a bubbling scene or a release that propels a musical frontrunner to previously unchartered waters.
Social media can work wonders for someone who takes full advantage of their 15 minutes of fame, equally, it can help amplify years of work for an artist that’s been relentlessly grinding in the hopes that their years of graft finally pays off. Though artists can make a living and cement their names as lynchpins to their respective scenes without ever seeing chart success, high placements in the top 10 can represent a moment that is bigger than any individual honour for the act themselves.
One such example was Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ chart-topping single ‘Body’ which marked the first time a UK drill song had clinched the top spot on the UK charts.
It meant not only recognition for the pair of rappers from London, but a moment of validation for a sound that’s been gravitating towards the mainstream for some time.
It’s not the first time that MCs from the UK have topped the charts and it certainly won’t be the last. With pioneers from across the UK indebted to the sounds of Jungle, Garage, Grime, Road Rap and hip hop acts have been consistently punching above their weight and breaking new ground commercially and sonically speaking.
In light of Tion and Russ’ recent success, we’ve dipped back into the archives to explore five of the many landmark number ones as a mark of respect as as paying homage to the acts breaking down doors.
Considering only a few years ago Youtube deleted hundreds of drill music videos after complaints from the Met Police, it was completely unthinkable that there’d be a number one UK drill song in the UK so shortly after.
Since its inception, the genre has been demonised by the Met and the mainstream media for its connections to fatal gang crime in the capital. Though, like many underground genres, as it becomes more popular and reaches young middle class listeners many acts gravitate towards it, putting their own spin on the sound and bringing an additional level of sheen.
As is the case with ‘Body’. Though staying true to the cut-throat tenets of UK drill, there’s an inherent party-starting energy that feels set to soundtrack any post-pandemic glow ups.
Powered by viral trends on TikTok and a star-studded remix, ‘Body’ represents the intersection of a number of developments: Primarily, the commercial viability of UK drill not just within its own orbit, but as a worldwide movement as ‘Body’ currently sits at 14 in Spotify’s Top 50 Global tracks ahead of the likes of J. Cole, The Weeknd and Dua Lipa. Secondly, it reinforces the power of TikTok and its recent revival of dance in rap music in particular.
Prior to ‘Body’s chart-topping success, Russ’ ‘Gun Lean’ had become the first UK drill track to break the top ten in 2019 and more recently Headie One, Stormzy and AJ Tracey had just missed out on the top spot with ‘Ain’t It Different’.
We could just say So Solid Crew were the first UK garage crew to go to Number 1 on the Official Charts and leave it there, but there was so much more to the release of ‘21 Seconds’.
Not only did each MC spit for exactly 21 seconds exactly over a 140 BPM riddim, but it marked a win for all the artists honing their craft on pirate radio across London in the late 90s and early 2000s. There’s a deliberate element of competition between the verses that would live long beyond their years on the mic. Moreover, Pay As You Go Cartel’s Wiley was pulling inspiration from So Solid’s success as he crafted his then-unnamed sound which came to be known as grime.
Pharrell wasn’t able to do it, neither could Goldfrapp, so Tinchy Stryder and N-Dubz stepped in to become the first acts to clinch a number one single named ‘Number 1′.
While the pop-rap cut may be a far cry from Stryder’s days in grime innovators Ruff Sqwad and it could be viewed as compromising the sound that he made his name in, it’s indisputable that the track was important in opening the ears of the mainstream public to UK rap.
No stranger to breaking records, Stormzy blew a number of heavy hitters out of the water when he shared ‘Vossi Bop’ in 2019, which marked his first single in nearly 3 years.
Knocking Lil Nas X’s seemingly never-ending chart-topper ‘Old Town Road‘ off the top spot, Stormzy racked up 12.7 million streams in its debut week on sale – the highest ever by a rapper and the fifth-highest of all time. The closest before him came in the shape of Drake’s ‘In My Feelings’, which still fell short by over two million streams.
Look, I get it, not everything is about numbers, streams and sales, but as the hype around the London rapper continued he earned a headline spot at Glastonbury and delivered what can unanimously regarded as an iconic set. In doing so he became the first black British solo artist headline on the pyramid stage at Worthy Farm.
Sidenote: Watch the video of Stormzy headlining Glastonbury and tens of thousands of people screaming “fuck Boris” to brighten your day.
The mid to the late 2010s was a time of rapidly changing rules for the charts. In 2014, we saw streaming data officially recognised for charting figures, in 2016 Kanye West added a song to The Life Of Pablo after it was released and in 2018 Nicki Minaj also retroactively added ‘FEFE’ to her album Queen. In the same year Youtube video streaming numbers were included for chart data and the stage was set for Dave and Fredo to innovate further with ‘Funky Friday’.
Hitting the number one spot with a straight UK rap track was relatively unheard of. At the time, it was the first song by a rapper from the UK to climb to the summit since Tinie Tempah claimed the number one spot with Jess Glynne on ‘Letting Go. With no disrespect, it wasn’t exactly what you would call a certified authentic UK rap classic.
Moreover, the track was independently released and became the first chorus-less number one since Martin Garrix’ ‘Animals’ in 2013.
DJ Kenny All-star echoed these thoughts when the track dropped saying, “This is a turning point in the culture. It’s something that everybody who has been a lover of UK rap music, or even just who has observed how hip hop has grown in this country, has been waiting on for a long time.”
“UK hip hop has been challenged in the past for not being easy on the ears for a lot of listeners. We thought it was never going to happen. But now it’s happened… our music is the new pop.”
“The song also shows that UK rappers don’t have to compromise to be successful… The track doesn’t have a hook or repetitive chorus, they just came with bars and that was enough. It showed that they could do their music on their own terms, without watering it down or making it more poppy.”
In layman’s terms, ‘Funky Friday’ followed the release of Stormzy’s Gangsigns and Prayers as a significant crossover moment for UK rap.