Every few years, the US charts are subject to what is always called a “British invasion”. In 1965 alone, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Manfred Mann, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five all reached No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the early 80s, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, the Police, the Human League, Culture Club, Wham!, Simple Minds, Tears for Fears and Paul Young all topped the chart within a few months of each other. Early in the last decade, the success of Coldplay and Radiohead prompted suggestions of a British invasion of the album chart.
Take a look at those acts. With the exception of Culture Club’s bass player, Mikey Craig, every one of them is white. Black British acts topping the US chart are few and far between, Fine Young Cannibals, fronted by Roland Gift, had a pair of No 1s in 1989; the reggae singer Maxi Priest reached the top in 1990, as did Seal in 1995. Mel B managed it as a member of the Spice Girls in 1997.
The reasons for that lack of success are easy to determine: America has long led the world in western black music – blues, rock’n’roll, soul, funk and R&B all emerged from the US, as did their greatest practitioners. The dominant global musical force of the last 20 years, hip-hop, emerged as a black American form, before mutating into different musical strains as it conquered the world. No matter the many distinct virtues of British black music – why would you need our rappers if you’ve got hundreds of your own?
Something is starting to change, however. Of the last four Hot 100 No 1s by British acts, three have been by artists who aren’t white – Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis in 2008, Down by the British-Asian artist Jay Sean (with Lil Wayne) last year, and Break Your Heart by Taio Cruz (with Ludacris), which reached the top a fortnight ago.
Both achievements were made even more remarkable than a first glance suggests. Down was one of two Jay Sean singles to enter the Billboard top 10 at the same time, alongside Do You Remember. Cruz’s Break Your Heart, meanwhile, became the fastest-selling single in US chart history on its way to No 1.
“I don’t think you can underestimate how difficult it is to break America in any genre if you’re a British artist,” says Mark Sutherland, global editor of Billboard, the bible of the US music industry, and the magazine that gives its name to the national chart. “But it’s particularly different in this genre. Jay Sean and Taio Cruz, by any standards, have done something fairly remarkable by getting to No 1.”
Many in the industry are wondering whether or not their success suggests there are more British urban acts capable of making a successful Atlantic crossing.
“There has been a simmering trend in the past few years for American acts to co-sign a Brit – like the adoption of a parallel act oversees,” explains Jasmine Dotiwala, the former head of MTV Base production in the UK. “Damon Dash [Jay-Z’s former business partner] began it years ago with UK rap outfit SAS, then came John Legend and Estelle.” Now, she points out, the UK rapper Sway has won the patronage of Akon, and that’s not all. “Jay-Z has now signed Ladbroke Grove’s Rita Ora and Hugo and there is talk of a major American signing Tinie Tempah, too.”
Sutherland agrees that linking up with an American artist works, pointing out that both Jay Sean and Cruz “have both been quite clever” to hook up with US rappers on their breakthrough hits. “They might have done well without those collaborations, but what it does do is make radio programmers more open. They have heard of Ludacris, they’ve heard of Lil Wayne, so it’s good for opening a few more doors that may have otherwise remained closed.”
The thing that will ensure the doors remain open is the sales the two singles have generated, in a market that is shrinking. “The machine called the industry – that includes labels and promoters – is now able to see that UK sounds sell,” asserts Dotiwala.
That doesn’t mean, however, that any UK urban act now has a shot at US success. Where once the prevailing wisdom was that British urban artists who went to America were more likely to do well if they embraced their Britishness rather than imitating American styles, overt Britishness has proven to be more of a hindrance than a help for some contemporary urban artists.
“In the UK, artists like Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder and N-Dubz are all representative of the youth culture,” says Cruz. “But that [youth culture] isn’t in America, so there’s no one to relate to it. The kids in America don’t talk like that and they don’t use the same slang, so it kinda goes over their head. I think singing is a very universal thing so if I’m singing about love, everyone can relate to that. So my music is a bit more relatable.”
In fact, Dizzee Rascal was seen as a such a niche concern that his early records were released in the US on the critic-and-blogger-friendly indie label Matador, rather than on an urban label such as Def Jam or Cash Money.
What sets Jay Sean and Cruz apart is the style of the records. Even when they were making music just for British audiences, they leaned towards polished, glossy American production standards – each decided early on that their eventual goal was to succeed in the US. In fact, when Jay Sean was headhunted by Universal’s Cash Money imprint, the label’s chief executive had no idea about his nationality. “He didn’t know where I was from,” says Jay Sean. “When I sat in front of the CEO and I started talking, the first thing he said was, ‘Where you from?’ For them, they don’t care where I’m from, my music is the only thing they care about.”
And, ultimately, it is the music that makes hits in a country the size of the US. Cruz and Sean, who are both thoughtful and articulate about their careers, have tapped into a major shift in sound that is occurring within US hip-hop and R&B. That shift is seeing artists such as Beyoncé and the Black Eyed Peas move from their former styles to a fusion of pop and dance and urban. Cruz and Sean saw the changing style and cut their records accordingly, meaning they weren’t just followers of this new direction, but part of the shift themselves.
That is why, reckons David Miller, vice-president of international marketing at Atlantic Records, neither Jay Sean nor Cruz can be put squarely in the urban genre. “Taio Cruz – I definitely wouldn’t call him urban,” Miller says. “That’s pop. Straight-up pop. Jay Sean is a cool UK act that borders between pop and urban, I suppose. It’s a time now in the music industry when pop is going to be as prominent as it ever has been. It’s becoming less urban and more pop/dance. They are pop artists – capitalising on a pop sound that America is working with at the moment.”
The American way of success also means doing something the US industry has long been reluctant to believe UK acts are capable of: working as hard as Americans do. “I’m not afraid of hard work,” Jay Sean says. “When I signed to Cash Money, I realised the reason why they were so successful is because they work so hard. I’m not saying people in England don’t hustle, but when it comes to America, it’s even harder.”
Working harder doesn’t just mean turning up for meet-and-greets, or radio shows, or signings. Both Sean and Cruz – as well as other British artists such Estelle and producer Dready, who used to be part of So Solid Crew and now works with Busta Rhymes – made a leap of faith and moved to the US with no guarantee the relocation would be a success, often when the UK industry seemed to have turned its back on them. “Don’t forget,” says Dotiwala, “[these acts], including Estelle, have all persevered throughout the years when they have all been dropped by their respective labels, lost deals and had people not believe in them. Still they’ve tried different paths to get to their end goal. Many UK acts, once they have five minutes of UK fame and things go sour deal-wise, end up giving up. Estelle, Jay and Taio have grafted hard behind the scenes for a very long time to make a name for themselves.”
The artists also don’t take their British success as something that can automatically be replicated. Jay Sean says: “We don’t necessarily expect that because we’ve had some success in England, that [Americans] will care. You have to be tough; you have to be resilient. You have to keep the dream alive. If it’s tough for us in England, it’s tougher here. You have to be able to adapt, because it’s a different climate out here.”
So what does the future hold for them and other UK artists? The future is bright for Jay Sean and Cruz. Both are involved in projects featuring major American stars, and both see the opportunity to expand their brands way beyond just music. Acting may be in the stars for Jay Sean, while Cruz has already established a reputation as a producer back home, and is also involved in fashion.
Atlantic’s David Miller believes there are many more British urban artists who – with the right sound, the right look and the right work ethic – could succeed in the same way in the US, particularly female acts. “There are lots of artists who could have success here,” he says, nominating former Sugababe Keisha Buchanan, Sabrina Washington of Mis-Teeq and Jamelia. “They are incredibly talented, they’re not trying to be anything other than they are, and if they went down the Rihanna route and did pop/R&B with a bit of dance, they’d be very successful.”
Miller, Dotiwala and Sutherland are untied in the belief that many more British artists will come through. “The internet has made the world much smaller,” says Dotiwala. “We now research and have access to any music in every part of the globe. While in the past it may have been fashionable for countries to occasionally open the door to a foreign act, now we’re all connected on Twitter, Facebook and social networks 24/7. We get the American slanguage as immediately as artists invent the phrases. Our timelines are equal, unlike the days a hot American urban phrase could take days and weeks to filter through to the UK. Now it’s about diversity.”
That, and one other thing: songs as good as those that made Taio Cruz and Jay Sean stars.