Originally posted in 2011
Writing a 20 best feature, I presume, is always hard. This is the first one I’ve done, and it was a nightmare.
When it’s a genre that you care about as much as I do grime, then picking records can be like choosing between children. I love Ruff Sqwad’s ‘Anna’, ‘Lethal Injection’ and ‘R U Double F’ pretty much equally, but if you feature all three then you’re killing the chance of other worthy tracks’ inclusion. It’s also hard because, inevitably, you run out of things to say. On page three of this piece, you’ll see what I mean. Grime’s often so much about instinct, feeling and physical catharsis, and instrumentally, is so powerful in its simplicity, that it doesn’t always lend itself well to writing.
The other thing that makes it hard, is that writing a feature like this implies that the genre’s dead. It’s not. There’s still great grime being made, and for the first time in several years, there’s more than just a couple of labels putting it out on vinyl. But, I would argue that current grime doesn’t bear much resemblance to the period I’m charting here (all records on this list, bar #20 were released between 2002 and 2007). This feature spans grime’s evolution to a genre sold on vinyl from car boots and small, specialist record stores, to one focussed on mixtapes and UK Record Shop exclusives, to one dominated by YouTube and iTunes. But it is what it is. Music evolves – hip-hop left the vinyl format behind a while ago now, and its creativity has only grown as a result. Rather than a dismissal of grime’s current state, this is intended as a celebration of one stage of its lifetime.
Quick disclaimer: as #1 here explains, I’ve taken Musical Mob’s ‘Pulse X’ to be grime’s year zero. So although Agent X’s ‘Decoy’, More Fire Crew’s ‘Oi’ and several others would fit in with the rest of this list in aesthetic, they came slightly too early for me to consider them for inclusion.
01: MUSICAL MOB ‘PULSE X’ (INSPIRED SOUNDS, 2002)
Things are never quite as straight-forward as one track starting a genre, but if there is a year zero for instrumental grime, it’s ‘Pulse X’, a deconstruction of breakbeat garage down to its blackened foundations. It’s nothing more than a 16-bar loop, rotating every eight from a straighter garage beat to a minimal snare and kick – but it’s that twisted sense of minimalism that went on to inform 90% of grime productions from this era.
02 / 03: WILEY‘ESKIMO’ / ‘ICE RINK’(WILEY KAT, 2002 / 2003)
‘Eskimo’ is the definitive grime riddim. Based around that hollow bass sound that would become Wiley’s trademark and, like ‘Pulse X’, inform tons of later producers, it blew the door open for grime production to be whatever it wanted, while also creating its own micro-genre in the still influential eski.
Two years later, Wiley released ‘Ice Rink’. Both the peak of another iconic Wiley sound palette and one of the most powerful instrumentals he ever made, there are countless vocal versions of it. The best though, is Wiley’s 2006 revisit, ‘Sorry Sorry Pardon What’, which is both hype as all fuck and slightly tragic, as it’s effectively Wiley having to cut and paste together the Wiley/Dizzee reunion that he’s been obsessed with since they fell out in 2003.
04: DIZZEE RASCALBOY IN DA CORNER(XL, 2003)
In a list of 20 best grime songs, Dizzee could very easily take up half the list, so picking the album seems the smartest move. The first, and by a distance the greatest album from Britain’s biggest black pop star, and just an exceptional, gut-wrenching record in every sense.
05: RUFF SQWAD ‘R U DOUBLE F’(UNRELEASED)
Ruff Sqwad were like Roll Deep’s little brothers in a way: both crews were from Bow, both had a trio of amazing producers at the core (Wiley, Target and Danny Weed for Roll Deep; Rapid, Slix and Dirty Danger for Ruff Sqwad), and they each had their breakthrough superstar in Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder.
There’s an unbelievable romanticism to Ruff Sqwad though – even when they’re talking about gats everything seems to be set at sunset, with the most evocative square-wave synths stretched across the skyline. ‘R U Double F’ is my favourite song of theirs, and appropriately for a group like Ruff Sqwad, who seemed to churn out new classic instrumentals every week only for them to be lost to the airwaves, it never came out, only available in radio rip form.
06: XTC ‘FUNKTIONS ON THE LOW’(WHITE LABEL, 2004)
07: KAMIKAZE / TREBLE CLEF
(WHITE LABEL, 2005)
Lo-fi instrumentals that sound like they’re lost in the snow – grime’s romantic side never quite came out like it did here. Widely unknown gems for years (‘Funktions on the Low’ was wrongly uploaded to Limewire as Ruff Sqwad – ‘Havana’ back in day, and so it’s still often miscredited), both tracks have seen slight rediscovery over the last couple of years, with at least one of them penciled in for a reissue.
08: ALIAS‘GLADIATOR’(ALIAS, 2003)
(WHITE LABEL, 2003)
Then on the other side of the coin, you have these two instrumentals, which are about as hard-bodied and lean as it’s possible to get.
10: LETHAL B ‘POW’ (FORWARD RIDDIM)(RELENTLESS, 2004)
Released in late 2004, this was grime’s biggest hit at the time. It charted at #11, and did so with absolutely zero compromise: there’s no pop hook, just Lethal B shouting “pow”, and at least 40% of the lyrics are about guns. It’s so intense, in fact, that some clubs were infamously banned from playing it because of what it did to crowds.
Looking back at ‘Pow’ seven years on though, what’s most striking is the video. It is absolutely ridiculous. The intro and the dancing is awkward enough, but the definite highlight is the use of props. Flowdan talks about his Nikes – we get a close-up of his trainers. Jamakabi says he’s gonna hit you with his belt buckle, he holds up a belt. And the crowning moment: when Napper says he’s gonna crack your skull, he holds up a skull. You just don’t get that from UK hip-hop.
11: TERROR DANJAH feat. KANO & SADIE AMA‘SO SURE’(WHITE LABEL, 2004)
Released the same year as ‘Pow’, these two anthems couldn’t be further apart. Part of the unfairly short-lived “R’n’G” movement, Sadie Ama (younger sister of Shola, of ‘Imagine’ fame) was apparently only 15 when she sung this, which must wind her up now because I doubt she’s done anything as good since. Mind you, neither’s Kano.
12: JAMMER feat. WILEY, KANO, D DOUBLE E & DURRTY GOODZ‘DESTRUCTION V.I.P.’(JAHMEKTHEWORLD, 2004)
The ‘Rapper’s Delight’ of grime, complete with extended version.
13: N.A.S.T.Y. CREW‘NASTY BONANZA’(HEATSEEKER, 2005)
14: ROLL DEEP
‘WHEN I’M ‘ERE’ (WILEY REMIX)
(from AVENUE EP, RELENTLESS 2005)
15: GOD’S GIFT
(from UNDERGROUND VIBES VOL. 1)
One of the reasons grime needed to compromise to blow up as a genre (as opposed to having the odd shock hit), is because this era rarely suited conventional song structure. It’s pirate radio cipher music, and it’s best with a raw, simple beat and a ton of MCs passing the mic every 8 or 16 bars. The minute you put a chorus in, or an intro longer than 8 bars, you’re just diverting that forward momentum.
All three of the above tracks are perfect examples of how you translate that kind of pirate energy to a three minute song; they’re just these intense, self-contained whirlwinds that sweep you away. I was originally going to put Roll Deep’s ‘Poltergeist Relay’ in instead of ‘When I’m Ere’, because the latter has a chorus, but it’s still impossible to listen to Roachee’s first verse without wanting to reload it.
Update: Joe in the comments section has uploaded a radio rip of ‘Pow Back’ here.
16: SKEPTA ‘DUPPY’ (BOY BETTER KNOW, 2006)
‘Duppy’ is on here first and foremost because it is a great tune, locating the perfect mid-point between grime’s pirate radio cipher cuts and club-friendly garage and pushing it to anthem status. It’s also on here because it’s the high-point of Skepta’s rise through grime’s ranks – around mid-2005 he joined Roll Deep, and spent every Sunday night on Rinse with them until he was the most inescapable, and probably the best, MC in the scene (also check ‘The End’ and ‘Soundboy Burial’ from this period if you haven’t heard them).
But for me, the defining thing about ‘Duppy’ is it marks one of the last genuine anthems from grime’s white label heyday. When it finally came out on vinyl, there was such a buzz about it (I remember going to Rhythm Division the day it came out, and everyone was buying at least one copy), and I’m not sure that’s existed for a vinyl release in grime since. It was around this time that the emphasis would fully shift away from vinyl and towards mixtapes.
17: SKEPTA‘STAGESHOW RIDDIM’(ADAMANTIUM, 2007)
And this, for me, is the point where it was clear that that white label culture would never quite come back. ‘Stageshow Riddim’ was a huge tune for a while – an endlessly spiraling drum overdrive with about a dozen vocal versions (you can hear most of them in the medley above – I believe the only rule was that you only had one take, so most just tail off into the MC screaming), and its own specialist live show designed to be as mad as humanly possible.
The really great thing about ‘Stageshow’ was that it was the first big grime instrumental for ages that multiple MCs had done versions of. It felt like a throwback to the ‘Ice Rink’ days, and was crying out for a ‘Ice Rink’ style series of vocal EPs, but it never got it. The instrumental eventually came out about a year after the original tune surfaced, and no one cared at that point – it was all the proof needed that grime’s priorities had totally changed.
18: WILEY‘NIGHTBUS DUBPLATE’(from TUNNEL VISION VOL. 3, 2007)
Context is everything with this one. Ghetto, and his crew The Movement were on the rise, with a sound that owed a lot to hip-hop. Wiley, being the Godfather and self-designated protector of grime, hated this (brilliantly, one of his criticisms of them here is that “there’s no pain in [their] camp / everybody’s so happy”). So he went to war with them. Or they went to war with him. I’m not sure who started it.
Anyway, a series of disses went back and forth on Logan Sama’s Kiss FM show, then Wiley dropped this and killed them. It’s the old master coming back to show some young pretenders who’s boss, and it’s both furious and ridiculous, with Wiley talking about Ghetto’s dead mate one moment, then dropping lines like “must be that same old kid from the dinner hall / primary, eating apple crumble and custard” the next. In a genre driven by competition, this is grime’s best ever diss track.
19: DURRTY GOODZAXIOM EP(AWKWARD, 2007)
Durrty Goodz was grime’s great major label tragedy, signing a deal with Polydor in 2005 only to be left on the shelf. In 2007, after leaving the label and watching his brother, Crazy Titch, get convicted of murder (Goodz was eventually acquitted in the case, after spending a year waiting for trial), he returned with Axiom, a mini-album that’s devastatingly intense and emotional, with messages to Titch, fantasies of tearing major labels down from the inside, and in ‘Switching Songs Pt. 2′ [above], a phenomenal tribute to the genre he just couldn’t leave.
20: TEMPA T‘NEXT HYPE’(NO HATS NO HOODS, 2009)
Slew Dem Crew were quite divisive underground figures. With Chronik, Tempa T and the now deceased Esco on the frontline, they frequently appeared on Roll Deep’s Rinse FM show, and depending on who you spoke to, were either a breath of fresh air or a jarring presence. None of that mattered in the end, because Tempa T cemented his status as a legend when he recorded ‘Next Hype’, a distillation of Slew Dem’s breakneck energy into one of the most pure, exalting expressions of British urban frustration seen since Godflesh. For me, ‘Next Hype’ closes the period of grime that this feature deals with, and opens the next one that’s currently so fertile.