Skepta and Stormzy’s massive breakthroughs have brought grime back into the spotlight after a decade on the sidelines – but with a distinctly familiar take on London’s homegrown sound. Ian McQuaid wonders if grime nostalgia is hampering the development of a once-innovative genre, and asks the next generation of MCs and producers where they can go from here.
It seems remarkable that prior to the first Born & Bred festival in 2015, London had never had a festival centred around grime. For a sound so intrinsically tied to the streets of the capital, the genre has always had an uphill battle getting live shows approved by a hostile Metropolitan Police. This is part and parcel for a scene that has been at best ignored and at worst demonised – until now, that is. The mainstream has decided (or, more accurately, has been forced into accepting) that grime is ‘in’ and has been struggling to catch up. A positive effect of this increased coverage has been that the Old Bill’s licensing decisions are under closer scrutiny; cancelling an event means facing a public backlash.
More bizarrely, we’ve seen spectacles like ex-pop star and Daily Mail darling Myleene Klass presenting a grime special on Capital Xtra late last year. Peppering the show with piss-takes of pirate radio shout outs (“I got bare tunes for you fam!”), Klass trawled through over-rinsed grime classics – Kano’s ‘P’s and Q’s’, Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Stand Up Tall’ – with all the passion of a Spotify algorithm.
“It’s about live, it’s about merch – the physicality side needs to come back to music”Jammz
It’s easy (and probably necessary) to laugh at of Klass’s grime pantomime, but the tunes she played served as a handy reminder of what mainstream radio has increasingly come to expect from the genre: 1) tunes written a long time ago and 2) tunes written by Skepta or Stormzy. While both these things are very much essentials of grime, the scene can’t progress if it is ushered into a cosy dead end of nostalgic beats and a tiny handful of media-accepted MCs. The ability to innovate is of crucial importance to the new wave of MCs and producers if the grime revival is to be more than just a hollow, zeitgeist-grabbing term.
To try and get some idea of where the underground is heading next, we went down to this year’s Born & Bred | Rinse festival in Haggerston Park, East London, to find out from young MCs and grime veterans how they think the scene can grow from here and whether the renewed attention from mainstream media has been welcome.
“It’s a weird one,” muses Jammz, backstage at the Lord of the Mics stage. “Sometimes it feels a bit like, ‘let’s look at the animal in the zoo’. Then there’s a new exhibit next week, so they don’t care about the old one anymore.” Jammz is one of a new generation of MCs following a fairly old school path to breaking through: jumping on countless radio sets, honing his live show, dabbling in production, and even releasing a 12” of instrumentals (which sold out in just a few days). In doing so he’s picked up heat in the underground, but has seen little attention from the mainstream. Does that even matter?
“100% no,” he counters. “[Grime] will still be here if the mainstream attention finished tomorrow. When the mainstream attention went last time there were still DJs getting bookings and there were still MCs making tunes. It’s possible not to work and just live off grime. It’s about multiple revenue streams. It’s about live, it’s about merch – the physicality side needs to come back to music. People appreciate that so much more.”
The physical side was crucial to grime’s first wave. Around 2004, Wiley famously treated record shops like cash points, carving out a new release every couple of weeks and selling the 12”s he’d press by the thousand. When every last grime record shop went under in the late ‘00s and the scene switched from physical releases to YouTube videos, many artists either folded or, from financial necessity, attempted to turn towards pop. Downloading and streaming may not have killed grime, but it certainly gave it a good kicking.
As brand consultants are fond of pointing out, the rise of social media has since enabled a new generation to sidestep the traditional gatekeepers. As a result, artists can manage their own careers, sell their own merchandise, book their own shows, and break their own news. As Jammz points out, Bandcamp has been crucial in helping develop this DIY mentality. Mr. Mitch, a mainstay of grime clubnight Boxed, sells 12”s from his Gobstopper label directly through Bandcamp, allowing him the freedom to develop his take on grime as he wants, free from external mediation and with the same sense of experimentation that made grime’s first wave so compelling. His tranquil “peace edits”, the flipside to grime’s war dubs culture, blossomed into his 2014 album for Planet Mu, Parallel Memories, a spacious, ambient-inspired deconstruction of grime’s typically macho sound. He believes that despite the mainstream focus on classic grime vibes, exemplified by Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’, the whole revival owes its roots to a far more experimental source.
“I feel like Novelist working with the experimental producers spurred a lot of the older grime community to think, ‘Yeah, I like his energy, I like what he’s bringing to the table,” says Mitch, “so they went back to their roots in a sense. ‘That’s Not Me’ seemed like a response to ‘Take Time’. Nov working with Mumdance was an important moment in terms of moving vocal grime forwards. He used to do a lot of sets with [Boxed co-founder] Slackk back then as well – that’s what got Novelist heard by a lot of people that weren’t that into a traditional grime sound.”
“Grime’s an expression, it’s a way of life, it’s a culture – it’s not just a BPM”Jammer
He acknowledges that this hasn’t necessarily been followed by a slew of established MCs embracing the experimental side, but it’s still encouraging fresh developments in the underground. “I get a lot of MCs hitting me up saying they want to try something different, but it’s mostly younger guys. I guess it’s hard for them to get heard whilst there’s still big guys around. They need something different.”
For Mitch, the most important thing to keep moving the scene forward is for artists to show pride in it. “I’ve always tried to push grime and push these different sounds as grime, but there’s a lot of producers who, even though they’ve come from grime and they’re grime influenced, are quite keen to say ‘I’m not grime, I’m an electronic artist.’ I want grime to be respected as an electronic genre. The more people there are saying ‘I’m not grime’ the harder it is for the scene to broaden. It needs more people to experiment and still call it grime. It’s what I’ve always said.”
As if to prove the point, the current album he’s working on ruminates on “people’s perceptions of fatherhood, especially as a black male – people assume you’re not gonna be a father.” It’s a sensitive theme that refutes grime’s reputation as a conduit for roadman posturing. Mitch’s willingness to mess around with grime’s DNA, including dropping tracks that are below the standard tempo of 140 BPM, isn’t shared across the board. Big Zuu, whose hectic battery of bars has seen him quickly made his mark on radio sets, is all for experimentation – as long as it takes place inside the parameters.
“Grime is around 140. It can go to 135 or 145, that’s about it,” he states. Zuu is also hanging around backstage at Lord of the Mics. “I think you should use grime and show you can do something different with grime. If a beat is 110 BPM or something then I don’t think it’s grime. I don’t know what it is. It may sound like grime, because the sounds are similar, but for me as an MC, I don’t think that slow spitting is grime – grime is the fast aggressive shit. That’s the way the genre is set up.”
Novelist seems to agree with him. When the Lewisham MC decided to premiere his new ‘Ruff Sound’ style – speeding up the tempos to early jungle levels, and switching around the rhythms, he was at pains to point out that this wasn’t grime, telling an NTS documentary, “We’re not affiliating with the grime thing, we were just experimenting and found something that man like. I wouldn’t say it was avoiding the grime ting because people are jumping on grime – it’s influenced by grime, more so jungle, we like to spit fast, we talk fast. You can spit half time then spit fast after, get a little energy. I’m not saying man invented nothing, we’re just creating a theme, so when you hear us you’ll know it’s Ruff Sound.”
Jammer – who knows a thing or two about the scene’s history as a Boy Better Know crew member and as boss of Lord of the Mics, grime’s long-running MC battle series – is more open minded about switching up tempo. “It’s beyond 140 BPM. Treddin on Thin Ice, Boy in the Corner, Kano’s album, they all had a lot beyond 140. Grime’s an expression, it’s a way of life, it’s a culture – it’s not just a BPM. You can make grime tracks with different feelings and different tempos.”
As for the rise in people jumping on old instrumentals, remixing old tracks, and generally picking over grime’s golden years, he’s philosophical. “You’re always gonna get people recreating what’s been done before if it was great. Moving forward someone’s gonna come along and add their thing which is new, mix it with something old, and that’s fusion, out of a magical thing something else is gonna come.”
The fact that there can be so many differences of opinion inside the scene is in itself promising – although Novelist’s willingness to move away from the term so quickly might be less so. Still, at a busy festival that feels like a who’s who of the genre, the vibe is unsurprisingly positive. “Out of all of the genres that have come and gone, grime has survived and made it back into the mainstream,” says Jammz. “We’re at the stage now where people accept that this is the UK’s thing, the UK’s hip-hop. A couple of years ago if you told people you did grime they’d be like, ‘Oh right, didn’t you grow out of that when you were 15?’ But now it’s a culture, it’s the way you dress, the places you go. People are more open-minded and its good. We’ve had the same stuff for the past 10 years and now we can switch it up. People are open to change.”
Ian McQuaid is on Twitter