Grime’s viability in America is a paradox, simultaneously an ever-looming inevitability and a Vice Records coke dream from 2003.
On paper, it makes perfect sense: as the meeting point of globalised underground club music cool and Real Hip-Hop, grime should work in the States. But for all the potential, wide-ranging cosigns from Diplo, UGK, El-P, Kanye, Jay Z, Drake, Danny Brown and Ratking, grime has had little to show for its efforts in America. Def Jam’s tragicomic overreach in signing Lady Sovereign had scared everyone away; Dizzee Rascal’s 2007 LP Maths + English put up crazy numbers in the UK but took an extra year to find distribution Stateside (via Def Jux).
About three months ago, I saw Skepta rock a packed house at Palisades in Brooklyn. I sweated through my shirt and spent half the show helping the nice woman working the visuals keep her table from collapsing. Word was the pit was the wildest they had ever seen at the none-too-tame venue. It was easily one of the best shows I saw all year. But it also felt familiar: it was just another rowdy-ass rap show, not a showcase of the “next big thing”. In 2015, Skepta — and grime in general — makes sense in America in a way it did not a decade ago.
Given America’s impeccable track record of gaffling black people for their culture, there was an understandable uproar when “trap” became a festival staple. By flipping the dominant sounds of Southern rap into dubstep bangers, the likes of UZ and Flosstradamus were disconnecting trap from its roots. But dubstep had already undergone a similar transformation in the late 2000s. The bro-tastic party music which reached the American mainstream was far from the mind warping bass excursions of its early days. American frat boys were just as ignorant of pirate radio stations in Croydon as the Ibiza crowd was of Magic City. The increasing overlap of hip-hop and EDM in America is corrective, a spiritual pipeline between the road and the trap that was all but inevitable. It’s amazing it took this long to start hearing eski clicks in Metro Boomin beats.
The cultural solidarity is cool, but the bigger picture shows an America better equipped to understand grime as a genre rooted in dance music, and not just a foreign form of hip-hop. Ten years ago, any label pushing grime Stateside had two bad options. One was to try their luck with an extremely rigid rap game, skeptical of anything aesthetically or regionally off-trend. The other was to market their artist to non-traditional rap fans, who had a lower barrier to entry but a lower ceiling as well. The indie rock crowd had the patience for The Streets and Dizzee Rascal but not much else. And so a decade of industry upheaval which blurred the boundaries between genres, interbred hip-hop and all types of dance music, and raised questions about the role of (and difference between) DJs, producers and rappers has made room for grime to exist on its own terms.
The larger context is the abject chaos in the music industry. In the last month or so, the biggest songs in America have been a reggaeton song by a formerly chaste child star, an R&B joint from a rapper built on a lo-fi sample, a nu-disco song about cocaine by a sleazy dude from Toronto written by Norwegians, and Celine Dion 2.0. A Skepta album with Kanye production and verses from Drake and Pusha T could succeed in this marketing nightmare. But with any luck, the last 10 years of relevant progress could also make room for further grime crossovers.