grime: the sound of young britain now
It's the most important, urgent and innovative musical culture cultivated in the UK last two decades. As the scenes hits its teenage years and returns to its roots, we investigate past, present and future of grime.
13 years ago, from the bowels of Bow, E3, the voice of a generation emerged, blinking furiously under the glare of Canary Wharf's aggressively gleaming pillars of financial power. It was dark, it was angry, it was loud, it was unapologetic. It was innately provocative, it was fiercely independent. It was the brittle sound of disillusionment, resentment and despair, but also of hope and humor. It was grime.
Since its beginnings in basement studios and tower blocks, in dimly-lit raves in far-flung Milton Keynes and record shops on the Roman Road, the grime scene has shown what it is to be young, ignored and abandoned in post-9/11 days. While billions of dollars have been dispatched to fight wars, both real and imagined, funding in the UK has been ruthlessly cut from youth services, schools and community centers. It has created hostility, a widening generational gap, an insidious sense of disaffection - but more importantly, like punk, hip hop, jungle or dancehall before it, a deeply expressive and inherently creative DIY attitude. When you're down, the only way is up.
Created on crack copies of Fruity Loops and Playstation's Music 2000 and dispersed via MSN, Limewire, forums, pirate radio and tape packs, grime is the last true DIY British subculture of its time. It introduced a whole new vernacular to the English language. It was instrumental in the exploration of digital technology. It shaped what we saw and wore from Shoreditch to the High Street.
The paradigm seemed too good to last and perhaps it was. It died, some said, and perhaps that was true. For a time, a dearth of new talent and a lack of genuine grime hits from the more established MCs certainly seemed to stall the scene. The culture deviated from its origins, taking the pop charts hostage with disastrous EDM mutations and questionable collaborations, doing deals with record labels who didn't understand the culture. "There's a lot of pressure in this country if you're making music you love, but labels don't know what to do with it in terms of marketing. Two or three people in this country decide if you're eating from music," says the unofficial gatekeeper of grime, DJ Logan Sama, one of the few who has long refused to sell himself or the genre short.
But even he couldn't stop the full force of Nathaniel Thompson. In the summer of 2008, when Giggs dropped Talkin' Da Hardest, every aspiring MC and his mate decided they too wanted to be a road rapper rather than a grime MC. "Giggs happened, and everyone started rapping. Even I started, although I was rubbish," says South London's Stormzy. "I had to learn how to rap, I had to adjust to the beat. But I'm such a proper grime kid; I couldn't neglect it. I couldn't stay away from it. When you're a grime kid, you're a grime kid for life."
Indeed. Though the lights dimmed, they never fully went out. Around 2013 (shortly after the release of Skepta's Blacklisted and his Underdog Psychosis video on YouTube), grime began to remember what had made it such a powerful presence in the first place. The boy, essentially, went back to da corner. In 2014, Meridian Dan's German Whip, featuring JME and Big H and produced by trio The Heavytrackerz, further underscored grime's return to its essence - 140 beats per minute, reloadable bars, its repetitive cacophony a resolute return to the purity, the idea, the energy of what had been before. "I'd stopped MCing around 2006 to become a boxer. So I just picked up the music where I'd last left it. It wasn't conscious or purposeful; it's just what I knew," says Dan of redirecting grime's arrow back to the bull's-eye. German Whip alone doesn't tell the whole story. Stormzy and Novelist were, individually, building a movement in South London. Jay Kae and Saf-One followed in the footsteps of Devilman and Trilla, helping Birmingham rise far beyond the Bullring. Supported by DJ Target's 1Xtra Noticeboard and Charlie Sloth's Fire In The Booth, emerging MCs from Manchester to Margate finally found a platform and an audience. Now, it no longer matters where you're from, it's where you're at that really counts.
Today, the scene's influence is being felt and heard all over the country, and slowly all over the world. Stormzy was the first unsigned MC to appear on Jools Holland. Grime has gone from bars like "Stay silent like Tracy and Winston, over my dead body" to being played in the Queen Vic. JME's entirely independently released album, Integrity, went to No.11 without any press, promotion or marketing. Krept & Konan's The Long Way Home catapulted UK Rap to No.2 in the charts in June. Kanye, Drake, Wiz Khalifa and A$AP Rocky are all flying the flag for the scene. Grime-inspired beats are being heard in the ballrooms of Brooklyn. Novelist is playing in Williamsburg. Skepta was on the cover of Fader.
But with or without the co-sign of A-list rappers and hipster outlets, grime is independently ruling the hearts and minds of people who have fallen in love with this diverse, urgent, energetic culture. Similar to its 70s baby sibling hip-hop (also hugely influenced by Jamaican culture), it feels as though the scene is hitting its golden '88 period. Bring on grime's LL Cool Js, its Run DMCs, its Rakims. Grime imploded and from the dust of Robbie Williams duets and P. Diddy remixes, here come its swaggering heroes kitted head to toe in Sports Direct's best, delivering an attitude and an energy unrivaled by any American rapper.
The way in which the scene has diversified has meant a little relaxing of the rules; it felt unjust to do this shoot and not include Giggs and Krept & Konan. They may be rappers rather than MCs, but their contribution to the overall culture can't go unmentioned. A note also about those in absentia: Dizzee, Wiley, JME, and Skepta, who is of course holding the torch particularly high at the moment. Time and space and schedules mean such omissions are a necessity. The scene is busy these days; there are festivals to play, decisions to make, record label deals to politely decline.
However, the people on these pages truly represent the past, the present and the future of grime. They represent London and Essex and Manchester and Nottingham and Ipswich. They represent the anger we feel towards an apathetic generation led by a self-serving government. They represent the frustration and optimism of the working-class dream. They represent the desire to survive, thrive and succeed. This is the ultimate expression of British identity and it's finally coming of age.
Grime is dead. Long live grime.
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Olivia Rose