Was 2015 the tipping point?

Grime fans have lived through at least three genre “revivals” this decade – moments when the press decided that grime was “back” in hastily-written puff pieces profiling whichever DJ or MC was hyped at that moment. The truth, however, is a bit more complex: while many grime artists drifted away from making music following a dip in the genre’s initial hype, many more have been grinding for over a decade, slowly but surely building fan bases and viable careers. Meanwhile, their fans grew up and took it upon themselves to keep pushing the music they loved: think Elijah and Skilliam bringing grime back to the clubs with Butterz, Family Tree delivering 8-bar rallies or some of Boxed’s residents pushing the genre’s more experimental tendencies.

Grime isn’t back – it never left – but 2015 nevertheless felt special. For the first time since Dizzee Rascal, Kano and Roll Deep earned major label attention, people beyond grime’s core community seemed to care. Suddenly, Skepta was selling out Brixton Academy in minutes. Suddenly, grime was cool. This was perhaps inevitable: the UK music scene’s boom and bust cycle dictates that house’s days as the sound of the moment were numbered the second it became too trendy – but why grime? Why a 15-year-old scene that just refuses to die? It’s down to hard graft and good music, and happily, for once, the genre’s original practitioners were able to reap the benefits. Wiley got a paving stone in Bow, JME put out his biggest album to date (independently at that), and Skepta got looks in New York and beyond, becoming the genre’s new poster boy.

Whatever you think of their current output compared to their early releases, it’s hard to see these artists’ success stories as anything but well deserved, particularly when innovators in reggae and hip-hop rarely saw commercial success. Of course, grime’s sudden turn in the spotlight also made for some truly awkward moments: from Drake getting a BBK tattoo and Rita Ora and Lily Allen ineptly making overtures to the scene, to the media calling anyone rapping with a UK accent “grime”. Overall though, 2015 saw far more good than bad: I’ll gladly take ‘Shutdown’ or Stormzy spitting over ‘Functions on the Low’ over 2008’s wave of ‘Rolex Sweep’s.

For true heads, however, the real action was taking place on the airwaves, or should I say over wi-fi. Despite pirate radio’s infrastructure having long vanished thanks to the internet’s rise and a flurry of Ofcom raids, radio was the single best way to keep up with vocal grime in 2015 thanks to a strong online presence. Rinse FM doubled down on its commitment to the format, with Sir Spyro’s long-running Grime Show continuing to be an essential stop for all up-and-coming MCs. Slimzee’s sudden return to the station this November was a feel-good moment years in the making.

But while Rinse may have the big names, it was upstart Radar Radio that truly kickstarted the conversation this year. Thanks to its online-only format (and no restrictions on language), Radar’s freer approach proved the perfect platform for a new generation of MCs to put in practice hours, even after SoundCloud shut down the station’s account. FACT readers know the names: Jammz, Mic Ty, Big Zuu, AJ Tracey, YGG, Capo Lee, RocksFOE, Mez, Row-D, The Square, Vision Crew and countless other young spitters made 2015 the first year in ages where you could hear multiple sets a week with new MCs testing out material live on air. Throw in highlights from NTS, reliable standards Mode FM and Déjà Vu, and even some BBC 1Xtra attention, and it’s clear that radio is once again an essential way forward for MCs wanting to make a name for themselves in grime. Better yet, beyond generating hype, it’s sharpening the new generation’s live performances in ways unimaginable to hip-hop artists more concerned with writing new material than refining their current bars.

So what can we expect moving into 2016? Skepta still owes the world Konnichiwa, and fans are wondering just how far he’ll go to cater to his newfound international fan base. Stormzy’s controversial rise will be tested next year as well – he’s been fending off haters for a minute but hasn’t yet silenced the chatter about his re-use of classic riddims; a strong full-length statement of original material could dead that. Novelist is on surer footing: with a self-produced album on the way and a white-hot reputation among both kids and scenesters, the game is his to lose. Finally, the aforementioned crop of radio MCs will have to step it up in terms of releases – there have been plenty of fine introductory EPs, but breaking out from the pack will require unique statements, backed with production made for more than just shelling. But thanks to their predecessors’ efforts, they’ve never had more opportunities to make an impact, or more platforms to do so.

Then there’s the instrumental scene. While 2015 saw plenty of collaborations with vocalists, particularly younger MCs ready to prove themselves, it’s become hard to deny that instrumental grime is at least partially its own beast, with its own infrastructure and ecosystem. While this limits break-out opportunities, it also shields the scene from vultures and opportunists: anyone who wants to make a quick buck off grime is far more likely to have a go at making Section Boyz-ready backing tracks than an off-kilter instrumental. And yet 2015 was the year where seemingly every other respectable underground dance music label released a project at least inspired by instrumental grime: Tectonic (Mumdance & Logos), Tri Angle (Rabit), Mixpak (Murlo), R&S (Slackk) and PAN (Visionist) all followed Planet Mu’s 2014 lead with Mr. Mitch’s Parallel Memories, making this a boom year for well-crafted experimental records. Throw in XL and Black Acre with Novelist and Rocks FOE records, vocal releases that appealed to the instrumental underground, and you’ve got the beginning of a sustainable distribution channel for grime music aimed at an audience as interested in weird beats as rough bars.

Despite this outside attention, however, some of grime’s best releases came courtesy of its long-running boutique labels. Oil Gang finally unleashed JT the Goon’s King Triton, a long-awaited debut as impressive in its overpowering sub-bass as its emotional, heartstring-tugging melodies. Coyote Records took a gamble on Los Angeles-based newcomer Letta and hit a home run with Testimony, a somber debut with shades of Burial. Butterz dropped their first proper album, a dizzyingly melodic release by Swindle that had more in common with LA’s contemporary funk than anything else in London, and they also made major moves in the clubs – it seemed like not a week went by when they weren’t up north throwing a Jamz party, finding a way forward in an era where music sales are basically loss-leaders. Throw in some big releases from Royal-T, Rapid, and TQD, essential remixes from Kahn & Neek and Wen, and a year-ending vocal compilation collecting the year’s biggest anthems, and it’s clear that Elijah and Skilliam’s brainchild has grown far beyond its initial roots as an outlet for club-ready, instrumental grime.

The flip side of this healthy growth is that the scene feels a tad more established. Producers who made noise in 2014 further pushed their sounds, but there wasn’t quite as much room for newcomers. With more hype also comes copycats, and 2015 saw them expand from bait eski-clones (enough with the clicks, please) and lazy squarewave workouts to sub-par sublow that sounded too close to dungeon dubstep for comfort. While the actual Bristol scene delivered some of its best material yet via killer releases on Sector 7 and Bandulu, the Kahn & Neek imitators didn’t add much to the conversation or come close to matching their inspirations. The same could be said for the more roughneck and bassline driven side of the scene, where unprepared soundboys couldn’t come close to the kind of damage produced by experts like Spooky, Trends and Sir Pixalot.

So where was the truly exciting material? At the margins, as always – the most exciting newcomers were the ones exploring uncharted territory. In this respect, Gobstopper was 2015’s label of the year. Starting with Loom’s late-2014 Grade EP, which deconstructed the usual squarewave tropes into something altogether more romantic, Gobstopper abandoned all restrictions on tempo, club-readiness and tone, delivering a clutch of essential releases that redefined what grime could mean and could say. Iglew’s Urban Myth floated on a cloud of bassweight, Social State was practically electronica, and remix packages for Bloom’s ‘Quartz’ and Mr Mitch’s ‘The Man Waits’ highlighted how ahead of the curve these classics sound to this day. Better yet, when Gobstopper did release club material, they hit a bulls eye: Tarquin’s ‘Lost My Marbles’ left punters at Boxed’s Room 3 excursion to Ministry of Sound slack-jawed. It’s a sound that all came together in Mr. Mitch’s upfront mix for Boiler Room, a below-the-radar summary of why this space is one of music’s most exciting.

If Gobstopper set the pace this year, it certainly didn’t go unchallenged. Mumdance & Logos’ Different Circles label released just two vinyl-only plates, but both of them made a massive impact: Strict Face’s ‘Into Stone’, Logos’ ‘Glass’ and Rabit’s ‘Tearz’ were all over radio, influencing clued-in listeners far and wide. The duo’s rave-ready album on Tectonic, Mumdance’s genre-bending mix for Fabric, their weekly series of events at The Victoria in Dalston, and their collaborations with Shapednoise as The Sprawl also served to introduce grime’s musical language to listeners outside its core audience, scaling up their influence.

Finally, Crazylegs and Local Action, labels even further off from the genre’s center, released boundary-pushing music for the instrumental audience, some of it grime, some of it very much not. Which begs the question: is this instrumental scene still grime? Some producers insist that it is, while a growing number seem ready to distance themselves from the term and any limitations they feel it imposes on them. Artists like Bloom, Gage, Ziro, Rabit, Sharp Veins, Visionist, Filter Dread, Dark0, Acre, Strict Face, Yamaneko, Finn and more pushed the definition of the genre to its breaking point, and yet some of the most exciting sets I’ve heard this year mixed their music with more established club sounds. Likewise, exciting micro scenes like Her Records’ club direction and the 130BPM rollage of artists orbiting the Keysound and Tectonic labels can’t possibly be labeled grime, but that doesn’t mean their innovations didn’t resonate with producers making 140BPM bangers.

What made 2015 so exciting is that all of these ideas and sounds could coexist in the same space, even if labelling them under the same name became increasingly perilous. The question now is whether this center can hold despite the competing interests of MCs, producers, DJs, fans, and an outside media ready to make grime the next big thing – at least until something else comes along. Nothing is certain, but I’m willing to bet that these various overlapping scenes will produce more than enough quality music to see us through 2016, no matter Wot U Call it.

Read next:

The 50 best albums of 2015
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The 30 best album covers of 2015
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The 10 best record labels of 2015
The 20 best free mixes of 2015

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