From Stormzy to The Square to Section Boyz, South London's been busy taking the crown from Bow and producing some the year's most visionary grime.
In popular imagination, the heart of Grime has always been located in East London. The link was made explicit by song titles, in video shoots, in lyrics, and in the names of artists and record labels. It's undeniable that a disproportionate amount of grime's first wave, including Roll Deep, N.A.S.T.Y. Crew & Ruff Sqwad, were concentrated in the estates of East London, but that's never been the whole story. In the early noughties the much celebrated record shop Rhythm Division, so crucial to the development of grime, was firing out 12"s from its base in Bow. Less well known, however, is that every producer and label of note was also heading down to Lewisham, South London, to deliver records to Independence, a grime and garage specialist that Wiley rated enough to gave it a shout in the sleeve notes of his debut album. Alongside Independence there were other signs that grime was always bubbling away south of the river; Southside Allstars is an 2004 classic that opens with the occasionally great MC Nyke reciting a list of South London boroughs like a bus conductor getting set to kick your teeth in. People often forget that grime founding fathers So Solid Crew came up from Battersea, Brixton and Peckham, and, more recently, that P Money and the OGz Crew have represented for the 'Blue Borough', a name acknowledging the blue street signs of Lewisham. So maybe those white labels sold in Independence in the mid noughties planted a seed that took a decade to come to fruition, or maybe the kid siblings (or kids) of the MCs spraying fire in Southside Allstars grew up and wanted a go themselves, or maybe grime has always been big in South London. Whatever it was, 2015 saw a change in grime's recognised geography - it was the year that artists from South London seemed to comprehensively smash through the East London hegemony, getting themselves everywhere, boisterously spitting bars that scorched a handful of new locations and postcodes onto the cartography of grime.
The Square were the crew most loudly proclaiming their South London routes. The collective of teenagers started the year with nominal leader Novelist bagging all the attention; Nov had signed a deal to XL and made an instant impact with his track Take Time - a corrosive industrial collaboration with Mumdance that was one of the few 2015 grime vocal tracks to genuinely try and widen the genre's musical remit. In April The Square released the video to 2015's definitive South London grime anthem, Lewisham McDeez, an invitation to any MCs who wanted to clash the crew to meet outside Lewisham McDonald's, complete with a video featuring fellow South Londoner Stormzy (more on him in a bit). Lewisham McDeez justified the hype The Square were picking up- it was 3 minutes of all the things that make grime great, not just the sense of threat and the roadman posturing, but also the absurdist British sense of humour that saw Ronald McDonald kung fu fighting his way through the video.
By September, however, Novelist had noisily quit The Square, claiming he was sick of carrying lesser artists. Some commenters predicted that this was the end of the road for the other members - it turned out to be anything but. A sudden rush of tunes came from the Square camp as each MC clamoured to establish himself. The quality was as high as the styles were varied. DeeJillz dropped Water It Down, a cold hearted Novelist diss, Faultsz jumped on a chipmunk-pitched grime/soul beat put together by Local Action signing Finn, Blakie recorded a dub influenced party banger celebrating his 18th birthday, and Elf Kid closed the year with Golden Boy, an exuberant sing-a-long laid over a hectic remake of Amerie's RnB classic One Thing that was a late contender for grime rewind of the year. All the tracks came accompanied with videos where the road names of South London were front and centre - from running a regular show on Peckham based internet radio station Balamii, to appearing at raves in the Bussey Building (also Peckham), The Square ran South East London, and they wanted the world to know it.
If The Square ran South East London, Stormzy had a fair crack at running grime. The Croydon MC opened the year by featuring in the BBC Introducing list, and his first shot at chart success, Know Me From was an escalating explosion of tight one-liners and frantic rhythm. It did well on the underground, but stopped just short of breaking the pop Top 40 (something that would have been almost impossible for a grime track just a few years previously). Know Me From will probably be best remembered for its video which, again, captured the mix particularly British mix of menace and comedy that grime does so well - Stormzy spat war bars and strode through his estate, only to be joined halfway through by his mum, swaggering alongside him. For a few minutes in March, Stormzy's mum became the biggest thing in grime.
It was on his next release, WickedSkengMan4 that Stormzy came closest to realising his potential. Effortlessly freestyling bars over a couple of instrumentals that were over a decade old - JME's Serious and DJ XTC's Function on the Low, Stormzy became the first MC to take a freestyle into the Top 40. Shut Up became the anthem of the summer, as likely to be heard blaring from a tent at Reading Festival as it was from the blacked out windows of a passing whip. Although Stormzy spat fire and aggression in most of his lyrics, in person he was a unifying figure - his constant honouring of grime icons such as Lethal B and Dizzee Rascal, alongside his willingness to be seen alongside fellow new comers such as The Square made his success less South London, more all London.
Finally, the future could be heard in the output in another Croydon crew. Section Boys found themselves regularly considered grime artists, although, as Sian Anderson pointed out earlier this year, they were more accurately described as road rap rather than grime. A band of 5 MCs and a DJ, Section Boys blew up with a series of unapologetically murky street anthems and a self-released mixtape that wrong-footed record labels and cracked the UK album charts. They, alongside other South London artists (Brixton's 67 and Nadia Rose spring to mind) were making tunes that looked to the States for their rhythmic inspriration, drawing on the 808 boom of trap, and throwing in occasional nods to the jitter and energy of grime. Their sound is a darker, more brutal creation than grime, and if anything it offered a depressing commentary on life in a city whose soul is being sold for cold profit. Stripped of most of grime's surreal humour - and by that count its hope - the road rap that runs the streets reflects life in increasingly isolated London estates surrounded by houses no kid can afford - by legal means at least. And as the government flogs every last council flat and housing co-op to dodgy developers, dodgy hedge fund managers and dodgy foreign oligarchs with dubious fortunes, London's children tell heartless tales of pursuing wealth by any means necessary. It looks like they understand, perhaps more than anyone, just what the city is becoming.
Text Ian McQuaid