grime i rep to the t, 140 i kept to the beat
'This Is Grime' is the definitive tome on the most exciting musical subculture to emerge from London in the 21st century. Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose reflect on the book’s magical year in the making.
The year was 2002. As we boldly stepped into a new millenium, the music that reverberated through 90s club walls evolved from house and 2-step garage to something decidedly darker in tone and feeling: grime. The scene crystalized around one of the year's standout releases, Boy In Da Corner. Hattie Collins remembers the first time she ever heard the album's standout track, "I Luv U," the gritty, somewhat jarring and brutally honest anthem about sex and its street politics. Put simply, it wasn't love at first listen. "My friend Chantelle Fiddy played me the song around 2002, and at first I hated it, I hadn't heard anything like it. I was indoctrinated into the school of US rap, I was into 50 Cent and the rappers that were popular at the time. I quite liked the British accents but I didn't like the beat."
But something about what she heard was relenting enough that she asked Chantelle to play it to her again a few days later, "then I listened again, and again and slowly something started to click for me."
The album, Dizzee's debut, went on to win 2003's Mercury Music Prize giving exposure to the part-rap, part-garage, part-jungle hybrid, characterized by 140 bpm productions, that was born on the streets of E3. Grime refreshingly spoke about a British working-class inner city experience, and an initially skeptical Hattie quickly became hooked, "buying all the 12 inches, all the records... going to gigs and even putting on a live night at Fiddy with Cargo."
Despite the Mercury nod, grime didn't permeate the mainstream straight away, instead finding a home on pirate radio stations and live shows in shadowy club basements. Conduits of the message became not only the DJs and MCs themselves, but the scene's early documenters: Ewen Spencer, Martin Clark, Simon Wheatley, Tim and Barry, Chantelle Fiddy, and Hattie herself. "Around 2005, as Roll Deep started to came through, and later JME and Skepta, I began writing bits for The Guardian and Blues and Soul. Myself and Chantelle put together a portfolio of grime's big players for i-D with the photographer Jason Evans. I then began to work for RWD magazine which became the hub for grime in print and fully chronicled what was happening."
The mid-late 00s saw grime garner airplay on major radio stations like Kiss FM and the newly-formed BBC 1Xtra; Wiley, Kano, and Lethal Bizzle created some of the scene's biggest tunes. But grime's fire all but flickered to a meager flame as its stalwarts dabbled with making a more mainstream sound. Artists P.Money, Kozzie, DJ Logan Sama, and record label Butterz helped shelter the scene as it fell out of favor, believing in its strength and making it possible for its core artists to have something to come back to. And soon they did, The 2014 releases of Meridian Dan's German Whip and Skepta's "That's Not Me," a song that in itself explains the MC returning to his roots, led to grime's resurgence, as younger generation discovered the sound online for the first time.
Hattie had always wanted to do a book on grime but was always thwarted by unprogressive publishers. "Every time I pitched a book on grime I got a flat out no." Later that year, photographer Olivia Rose teamed up with Hattie to shoot an updated version of her 2005 portfolio; Wretch 32 and Chip complete with the scene's new MCs like our cover star Stormzy, Novelist, and The Square. Hattie was struck by how well Olivia got on with everyone. "The scene doesn't like people coming in from the outside; connection with the artists was so important, and I just knew she was the perfect person to do it with. I now look back and am glad we did the book at the time we did, because what I was missing was that visual storyteller and I completely found that in Liv," Hattie comments.
Unlike Hattie, Olivia didn't grow up with grime, she approached the book as an anthropological study with the aim of putting the artists in environments we aren't used to seeing them in, off the stage and free from the studio. "I was really interested in everything that orbits grime as a subculture and documenting that — the aesthetic, the clothes, the people. So it was the perfect pairing between the two of us."
From the inception of the book over meals in Nandos to turning in the finished product, the process took seven months to complete. Rose shot 171 people over 153 days, and not without cartoon-like capers to capture those faces that are hard to pin down. "Marcus Narstie saw us shooting someone else on the street, skidded his car to the side of the road and demanded he have his picture taken," Olivia laughs. Hattie chimes in, "We went to New York to shoot Dizzee on the back of his Brooklyn show... we went to Oxford with Stormzy and his mom, we held out like spies in Liv's car to get a photograph of A$AP Rocky [one of rap's most prominent grime fans] as he worked late night at Red Bull Studios." The duo even snapped BBKs newest member, Drake, at his surprise appearance at a Section Boyz show in Shoreditch while in town for The Brits.
But beyond the hijinks, late nights, and deadlines, This Is Grime compounds what can only be described as the UK's last thriving subculture, a musical narrative born over 15 years ago that deals with tales of race, class, and culture — its renaissance aligning with 2016's most topical headlines. It's a tome dedicated to a scene whose heroes were, until most recently, unsung despite their collective power to galvanize the youth of London and beyond. "It's so much bigger than girls and guns, that is the biggest misconception. There's so much being said and said so well. These MCs really are incredible role models," Hattie says. "The people are beautiful, the scene is full of so much love and support, and the energy is incredible, unlike anything in the world."
Grime really is a human story at its heart, it stretched from 10 kids messing around on Fruity Loops, to grow into and stand for something much bigger. "Grime is solid now, its influence cemented. And I know 10 years from now we will still be talking about it," Hattie concludes. "Grime has changed so many lives and everything about it has changed my life. I just wanted to give something back."
Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Olivia Rose