6 ways Boy Better Know revolutionised grime
We’re yet to discover the full extent of Drake’s relationship with Boy Better Know.
Last month the OVO Sound boss announced on Instagram he’d signed to the grime stable – but has he signed on has an artist? Will the two labels announce an official partnership? Is this just a bromance that’s gone way, way too far?
Time will tell, but one thing we do know is this: BBK have just upped the levels in grime, and not for the first time. Since the early days, back when JME was designing T-shirts and mixtape covers in his bedroom, BBK have been influencing the way grime artists market themselves, the formats they release their music on and even the way they speak. Here are just six of the ways that JME, Skepta and the BBK crew have forced everyone around them to up their game.
Breathing new life into pirate radio
People usually say that 2003 was grime radio’s golden age, and maybe they’re right, but 2005-2006 was also pretty special. Wiley had drafted JME and Skepta into Roll Deep (too late for either to appear on the crew’s debut album In At The Deep End, but that might have been a blessing in disguise) and Roll Deep’s Sunday night Rinse FM session quickly became the Wiley, Skepta and JME show.
They’d spend entire shows cussing Lethal B (plus a succession of also-ran MCs like Van Damage and Sniper E) while Skepta and Wiley came up with some of grime’s best back-to-back bars (“Can’t test me or Skepta / Come to your ends like Achilles and take out Hector”), and few could touch their radio chemistry at that point – listen to the various Westwood freestyles if you don’t believe it. “Boy Better Know!” eventually went from their regular radio catchphrase to the full crew name.
Turning grime into a mixtape and merch economy
BBK weren’t the first grime crew to get into the mixtape game, but the success of the Boy Better Know and Tunnel Vision mixtape series – both released through the BBK label – was hugely influential in terms of moving grime from a vinyl to a mixtape economy (though BBK still released the odd bit of vinyl post-2005, such as Skepta’s ‘Sweet Mother’).
More importantly, they led the way the grime merchandise game: Skepta regularly reminded us that “the T-shirt business is healthy” and told lesser MCs that they made him “more money than your mixtapes”. You couldn’t move for BBK T-shirts in the rave during this period. It wasn’t long before every MC was announcing a clothing brand, but few were as successful as BBK.
Showing the value of staying independent
Since grime’s inception, MCs have talked of being signed to a major label or heavyweight indie as the ultimate aim (or if you’re Wiley, both.) Skepta and JME harboured ambitions of being signed too (Skepta’s second album was released on Universal sublabel All Around The World) but making good money selling mixtapes and T-shirts direct from JME’s bedroom gave them the foundations of a DIY mindset.
Fast-forward to 2016 and they’re selling out gigantic venues without having to compromise for a major. That attitude has clearly rubbed off on the likes of Novelist and Stormzy, two artists both inspired by BBK’s DIY success and watching those who came before them get trapped in the major label system.
Proving that budget doesn’t top creativity
Skepta was hardly in the wilderness when he released ‘That’s Not Me’, with BBK still regularly selling out shows, but it was that track’s success that put him back on the wavelength of more mainstream music magazines and turned him into the critical darling he is now. Not only is ‘That’s Not Me’ a brilliant example of capturing the zeitgeist – a back-to-basics grime tune just when the genre needed it most – but its attitude is one that everyone can get behind: re-evaluate, throw away your Gucci belts and just be real.
This was exemplified by the video, which was directed by grime photographers and Just Jam founders Tim & Barry and famously cost only £80 to make. It wasn’t the first time a DIY video had proved an unlikely success story, but it’s hard to look past its influence when watching more recent DIY efforts like Stormzy’s ‘Know Me From’ and even videos from Atlanta’s Awful Records camp.
Changing the slang
JME and Skepta haven’t just had their flows borrowed by other MCs (though some will tell you that JME got his from Big H), they also added some key terms to the grime lexicon: poomplex and derkhead have been staples of every fan’s glossary since 2005, and that’s almost entirely down to JME and Skepta.
And let’s not forget…
They broke ‘Rhythm & Gash’ the first time around. The much-recycled instrumental has been hopped on by Tempa T, Prez T, Flava D and just about everyone else – but Skepta and JME were there first in 2007.