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Music for the Off-Key: Twelve Macabre Short Stories

Written by Sunil Chuahan for Hip-Hop Connection on no date provided

With films like LIFE AND LYRICS, KIDULTHOOD and BULLET BOY becoming successful, there’s a newfound interest in the lives of Britain’s inner city teens. It wasn’t always this way though. In the late ’90s, when British publishing houses were still sceptical that there was a market for anything documenting the lives of black kids from England’s council estates, Courttia Newland penned books like SOCIETY WITHIN and THE SCHOLAR, a west London-set parable of the lives of two cousins from the fictional Greenside estate, convincingly depicting black teen life in modern London in a way few had managed before. The latter novel’s influence is evident in films like KIDULTHOOD (also set in Ladbroke Grove) and predates the British ‘hood fiction’ books that have appeared since.

MUSIC FOR THE OFFKEY continues Newland’s knack for warm, almost nostalgic portrayals of the adolescents he first spotlighted almost a decade ago, but he limits their appearance to only a few of the 12 short stories here. Instead, he leaves comfortable, conquered terrain to take on suicidal middle-aged men with penchants for schoolgirls, rivalry that rears its ugly head on the way to a late ’90s jungle rave and a Nigerian schoolboy out to wreak revenge on his playground tormentors.

Set in his beloved London, the city’s underlying tension is all over these stories but the everyday is made surreal. Taking premises that seem mildly illicit, Newland slyly twists them until they become grim, insidious and quietly disturbing. In the process, he hints at a few new roads for other black British writers to travel down.

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