As we move toward 2015, i-D looks back at the year past and dissects the things that defined it. Ian McQuaid examines the year that grime came back in a big way.
In February of this year, the City of London police decided to indulge in a spot of traditional bullyboy tactics. Deciding that the Just Jam party, planned to take place at the Barbican, was a bit too lively for their liking (that 'it posed a risk to public safety'), they leant on the venue, and the Barbican management had little choice but to capitulate, cancelling the event three days before it was supposed to happen. Although the police remained tight lipped on the reasons for their 11th hour kibosh, the majority of the capital knew - or felt sure they knew - why Just Jam had been pulled. On a finely curated line-up that included the wild Syrian techno pop of Omar Souleyman, and the intricate bass heavy textures of Mt Kimbie, there was an unacceptable spattering of the old bill's favourite bogey man: grime MCs.
Inevitably the police weren't ready for what followed. Flash mobs descended on the Barbican to hold impromptu protests. Questions were raised in the national press, and across social media there was an outpouring of rage and disappointment. Grime MCs, for so long banished to sporadic PAs in the WKD drenched club franchises of Essex and Kent, had attempted to return to London in style, and had been punished for doing so. It wasn't just that the police had stopped the event, it was that they had done it in a way designed to cause maximum insult and inconvenience to promoters and punters alike.
As John Lydon had shrieked many years earlier, "anger is an energy." Three weeks later Meridian Dan, carried on a wave of viral enthusiasm, stormed into the top 20 with German Whip, the first outright grime single to see a chart placing for nearly 10 years. A month down the line, and the brothers Skepta and JME were crashing into the charts with the skeletal Eski-beat perfection of That's Not Me. When Lethal Bizzle - along with Tempz and JME - steamrolled into the top 20 a month later with Rari Workout, it seemed conclusive; in 2014 grime was taking charge. Rather than quash the scene, all the police's antics had done was highlight its resurgence…
"I heard a rumour" says Tim (of Tim & Barry fame - the photographers behind music streaming show Just Jam, and directors of the MOBO award winning video for That's Not Me) "that Skepta went to his lock up, and got the original Triton synth that he wrote all the 04 - 05 tracks on. He specifically went and grabbed this Triton to try and reconnect with his past, to get back what he thought was missing from his sound - and That's Not Me was the first new thing he wrote on it."
"The lyrics to the song say the same thing; he's turning his back on all the pop stuff he tried to do, and saying 'that's not me'. I think the whole revival centres around Skepta to be honest - to be able to look at what you're doing and realise you've gone down the wrong path, and then set it right - that's incredibly hard. But he's done it."
This reconnection with the original energy of grime has been a major facet of the 2014 revival. Back in 2004, the scene was at a creative zenith. London was explosive with producers battling to fling their sounds furthest forward, and MCs were spitting fire from the backs of buses to the tops of high rises. Out went the chirpy UK Garage chants of 'Ayia Napa', and in came staccato slugs of hood mythology. This came with a price, with police demonisation leading to a crackdown that truncated careers - MCs like Lethal Bizzle swiftly found that becoming a figureheadwas something of a pyrrhic victory.
"I couldn't play out in 2004," Lethal Bizzle told me when we met earlier this year "I'd go to venues and the police would be outside saying 'nah, you can't come in.' I've driven to Leicester, to Leeds and been told, this Pow! song causes trouble, it can't happen. I saw worse things on rock n roll tours than I saw at grime raves - but in a grime rave these things aren't allowed to happen."
This castigation drove the scene apart, and for the past 8 years, with a few notable exceptions, the big hitting MCs were left with little choice but to flounder, scratching a living appeasing the 'commercial' concerns of major labels. Few had much success, and fewer still looked happy. Tinchy had a crack at trance rap. Wiley banged away, changing labels quicker than trainers and scoring about one big pop hit for every 5 pop flops. Skepta rapped nursery rhymes over electro and put his name to soft porn. Dizzee alone looked like he was enjoying making his shiny pop, but then found himself shut out by Radio 1 when he tried to return to the raw sound of early Raskit. Grime's biggest MCs had entered a Faustian pact with major labels - as original fans turned away in disgust, they found they had given up their credibility and got fuck all in return, out-maneuverered by the radio friendly grime-lite of Professor Green and N-Dubz.
Meanwhile away from the limelight, the producers behind grime's serrated electronic pulse, almost entirely disregarded by the majors, carried on innovating. Labels such as No Hats No Hoods and Butterz have carried the torch, and their role in bridging the gap between grime pioneers and a new generation of talent can't be under estimated. With a steady drip of blog posts, club nights, radio shows and record releases they laid the bedrock for an explosion in new grime, both vocal and instrumental. Talk of 2014 seeing a grime revival may do something of a disservice to the years of work put in by these labels, but it can't be denied that this has been the year that work paid off in spades.
London's Boxed night - the leading light of the instrumental grime movement - is turning away punters an hour after the doors have opened. Residents Mr Mitch, Slackk, Logos and Oil Gang have injected new life and emotion into the click clack rhythms, and crucially, the music has spread beyond London, out across England and beyond - Mr Mitch currently cites the Houston based grime technician Rabit as one of his favourite contemporaries - a situation unthinkable in the Bow-centric early days of the scene.
Concurrently, producers are finding a new generation of MCs to voice their tracks, and mic champions such as Novelist and Stormzy are rapidly rising, eschewing the beefing of their predecessors, and instead building a stronger, more cohesive scene. The older MCs are supporting the new blood, and it appears lessons have been learned. Social media has had an incredible effect, and now the primageoducers, MCs and fans have their own eco systems of communication. Artists a decade into their career are realising they can give the fans what they want, without watering down the medium at the behest of clueless A&Rs. Alliances can be forged, tracks spread, events promoted, and, in the case of the hits from Skepta, Lethal Bizzle and Meridian Dan, the mainstream can be swarmed.
In the face of outcry, the police have backed down and Just Jam will finally be taking place tomorrow. And as a couple of thousand kids pack in to the venerated halls of the Barbican, to see grime legends D Double E and Big Narstie share the stage with new blood Novelist, it's hard not to feel triumphant: 2014 was the year grime won.
Text Ian McQuaid
Photography Rémy Golinelli