2016 was the year that... grime lost one of its founding fathers
2016 was the year grime hit the mainstream, but it was also the year it lost one of its earliest patrons in Darren Platt, founder of Channel U. Here we salute the legacy of one of the genre’s unsung heroes.
This has without a doubt been one of, if not the most successful year for grime. Throughout 2016 the genre's success has been epitomised by the second coming of Skepta with Konnichiwa, the Mercury Prize winning, gold selling album from Tottenham's golden boy. Then there was i-D cover star Stormzy, who was the face of Manchester United and adidas, and the genre took over main stages at nearly every major European festival. 2016 has seen grime hit the mainstream again but this time, on its own terms. It's taken a while for grime to get to this point. 13 years in fact since Channel U began championing its roots when many didn't want to listen. Channel U's founder Darren Platt sadly passed away in mid-July, but in a year where the genre has finally received the recognition it deserves he remains one of grime's first, and greatest pioneers.
"Nobody was investing in our scene, nobody wanted to know and people certainly didn't want to advertise with us" said Cat Park, former channel manager of Channel U, in a recent interview. After the genre's emergence in the early-00s people saw it as an angry voice of bored British youth, but not one that should be taken seriously. Very few people thought it was worth investing in, and those who did morphed it into the soundtrack to your summer holidays with Dizzee's Holiday and Wiley's Wearing My Rolex. While the genre has always had its sights on the mainstream the way success came made the genre seem inaccessible, a complete antithesis to how Channel U aimed to showcase grime as a community driven entity, un-edited and at its core.
But before grime even caused a blip on the mainstream radar Channel U was championing the genre in a completely undiluted form, building the foundations of its successes today. Created in 2003 as a platform for black artists across all genres Darren's legacy was most strongly felt in grime, ushering in many of today's icons and giving them a platform when few others would. Alongside the likes of 1Xtra, created just two years earlier, Darren saw the wider possibility in what these kids were making on estates and in their mum's living rooms. He believe that these artists, ignored for so long, were creating music that the whole country should be listening to.
While the prejudices that came with the genre's emergence in the early years meant major airplay was near-impossible, Darren gave the likes of Dizzee Rascal's I Luv U, Tempz's Next Hype, Tinie Tempah's Wifey, Big Narstie's Hold It Down and Wretch 32's Ina Di Ghetto their first airings. Channel U were also one of the few stations where women MCs were given just as much precedence as the men, where Lady Sovereign, No Lay and Shystie made their names in the scene without bowing to label pressures. No hierarchy existed in what it aired but there was also little quality control. That's not to detract anything from what they did, it enforces it. It's why you saw bassline hits next to Early B's R&B-tinged break up anthem Butterflys, and why Choong Family's apocalyptic Adrenaline would have you climbing the walls at 8am before school. Songs as diverse as Blackout Crew's novelty smash Put a Donk On It were on the same playlists as Bashy's Black Boys and Akala's War, which showcased both UK hip-hop and a more socially conscious form of lyricism.
But most importantly. Channel U not only gave grime a platform, it created the culture that we associate with the genre today, albeit perhaps by accident. Its free for all broadcast policy let producers and MCs send their videos straight to the station, more often than not appearing uncensored and in all their distorted lo-res glory on a Wednesday afternoon. With that came music videos filmed in Stratford on shaky Nokia's and handheld equipment, a no label necessary attitude towards getting your music heard that's still seen today in the likes of Stormzy, Section Boyz and Novelist. Through necessity grime had to be DIY to get itself heard, but now that's its biggest asset. All you needed was ideas and some recording equipment you'd borrow from school, and Channel U did the rest.
My own experience of Channel U began in my hometown, a market town called Chesterfield slightly south of Sheffield on the edges of the Peak District. It was a relatively nice place to live, but like most small towns where picturesque pubs sit next to bad clubs called 'Escapades' or 'Elements', it was devoid of any nightlife culture. There was fun to be had but you had to be creative to find it, yet thanks to the grizzly Midlands weather me and my friends mostly found ourselves flicking through music channels on Sky TV.
Channel 385 was Channel U, found as you scroll past MTV, The Box, Kerrang and a healthy amount of Dad rock stations playing Queen and Dire Straits on rotation. It was the closest thing people like us living outside the M25 could get to experiencing the capital's pirate radio stations, and introduced me to a sound of London I had no idea even existed.
What Channel U presented was a complete world away from the type of youth I was experiencing and took place just two and a half hours away in pockets across London. Something created by kids who were not much older than me, and who applied the creativity that comes with being a bored teenager in much better ways than I did. Pirate radio helped create local champions of their postcodes but Channel U were the ones who brought them to people like me, 150 miles up the road.
Shortly after Darren's death MC and host Poet said that 'Channel U made the man across the street a celebrity', and that may perhaps be his greatest legacy. It gave a voice to all facets of UK life, where within 24 hours kids could become bedroom icons. Channel U allowed people to feel like, for the first time, they were a part of something bigger. It was bigger than just one person, it was a community, but Platt's work helped build the community that would go on to rule 2016 and beyond. In a year of high-profile passings and political unrests it's important to acknowledge the triumphs this year has welcomed, and remember that without Platt the world would be a less vibrant place.
Text Jack Needham