The rebirth of grime is less a second wave and more a second coming. At the start of the decade it was dying: Mercury Prize-winner Dizzee Rascal, as well as pioneers like Wiley, Tinchy Stryder and Skepta, had turned to the charts, police harassed events and pirate radio struggled. Now, in a rejuvenated Skepta, grime has a second Mercury Prize winner and an independent artist who reportedly agreed a deal to sign Drake to his label, Boy Better Know (BBK), with the Canadian rapper even getting a BBK tattoo. The genre’s internet-savvy DIY spirit is central to this resurgence, grime artists having an eye for opportunity but also being keen to maintain integrity, best demonstrated by the low production and promotion but big response for songs like Stormzy’s Shut Up, which currently rests on over 50 million YouTube views.
As part of the Sound City+ programme, the festival is staging a panel titled GRIME: A MODERN MUSICAL REVOLUTION, moderated by HATTIE COLLINS, features director for i-D Magazine and writer of acclaimed 2016 bestseller This Is Grime, an oral history created in collaboration with photographer Olivia Rose.
To call the second coming of a 15-year-old genre revolutionary seems odd in comparison to the instantaneous explosions of punk and the British invasion. Yet, grime’s return to national prominence (the culture never left its heartlands) sees an inner-city, black-origin genre flourishing in the year that right-wing reactionaries have dominated politics. The independent industrial apparatus grime is building includes everything from labels, YouTube channels, internet radio (see Radar Radio) to event promotion and clothing lines; the genre no longer relies on fickle traditional means of getting a message across.
Grime’s origins lie in British dance music. It is mainly a direct descendent of UK garage (UKG) and 2-step, and began around the same time as dubstep (Skream not Skrillex). Pioneers like Wiley, Dizzee and Skepta experimented with the 2-Step beat popularised by UKG, giving it a traditional tempo around 140bpm, which coerces MCs into a fast, aggressive, confrontational flow. Think the fury of punk raised on speed garage and channelled through Fruity Loops – a brash, confrontational sound to Middle England. “Grime is sonically very challenging. To the uninitiated listener it can sound anti-social, very provocative, very angry, very noisy,” says Collins, who’s been with the scene since its beginnings, viewing it on its own terms. “It’s a lot more hippy than I think people give it credit for. If you look at albums, from Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner to Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer, it’s much more about the situation [the artist is in] and why that’s messed up.”
As music about daily struggle, both content and sound, can put off those who don’t understand, at its best, grime sonically embodies a frank reality. There’s obvious frustration over racial profiling (the infamous Form 696 epitomised this), which has dominated discussion in mainstream media. The mantra ‘if you know you know’ epitomises how the second coming has been more about grime representing itself for itself, rather than aspiring to any outside recognition. Collins didn’t give her book a glossary, instead stating, “This is a book for the scene” – an attitude which encourages the listener to come to the music. Dense use of inner-city slang and regional dialects is integral to the idea of grime as a genre firmly standing for its urban origins.
“I think you very much have to be from the inner city or from a tough, working-class environment to truly be a grime artist,” states Collins. “I think a lot of the music comes from struggle”. Grime MC Jme has talked of the beat as something that enables him to express himself, encapsulating the idea that, in beat, content and flow, grime is a cultural product of concrete Britain through which the streets can speak their own language. The concept of Collins’ book, which allows the voices of the originators rather than her own to tell their individual stories, shows an understanding of the importance of allowing the musicians’ voices to speak their own truth.
As grime’s pop cultural profile increases, gaining attention from American artists and established publications like the Guardian and TimeOut, there is a fear it could lose its integrity – artists overhauling their sound for new audiences, or agreeing big-money deals with associated brands. Dubstep was butchered in America, becoming brostep, whilst crossover success with grime’s first wave was costly. Yet, as Collins points out, so far, this generation of MCs have had success on independent labels with little promotion, having only signed endorsements with brands entwined with their culture, for example, Stormzy’s deal with Adidas. This is about grime: if you know, you know, if you don’t then fine.
The fact that the panel Collins will chair at Sound City+ also features DAPZ ON THE MAP, a Midlands MC, DESPA ROBINSON, a label boss and manager, and JOSEPH ‘JP’ PATTERSON, senior editor at Complex magazine, indicates how well rooted grime is at a national level. Grime has emerged as the musical epicentre of a wider culture that has been left in the corner for too long. It’s developing institutions that allow it to stand outside the mainstream industry, one foot in the underground and the other in the national consciousness, unearthing voices now able to talk about their lives on their terms. And it’s still developing musically and structurally: trap and drill music have influenced it more recently, 140bpm is no longer a requirement and Gang Signs & Prayer ventured into non-traditional territory with a few slow jams. All this considered, there is no other genre that feels as ready to define itself – and come to define – the next few years.
Grime: A Modern Musical Revolution takes place at Camp and Furnace on Friday 26th May.