If you were to ask me 2-3 years ago I would have certainly told you that Grime is dead. UK Hip Hop continued plodding along in no particular direction, political rappers bent our ears with unexciting didactic tirades and ‘road rap’ was filling the gap left by the 140bpm crowd with sluggishly delivered tales of drug wars and police raids over G-Unit replica beats. The only real visibility anyone from BBK, Nasty Crew, Roll Deep, Slewdem, Ruff Squad, Newham Generals or The Movement could get was via the ‘crossover’ route where lukewarm pop and dance records got a smattering of rap tossed over the top. This exciting scene which fused Hip Hop with elements of UK electronic scenes such as Garage, Jungle, Bashment and Drum n’ Bass and channeled them through an energy and irreverence that can only be compared to punk, never cashed the mighty check that it wrote. Not every crossover record was terrible but for every ‘Rolex Sweep’ (or ‘Wearing My Rolex’) and ‘Traktor’ there was a ‘Don’t Go’ and ‘Oopsy Daisy. It seems clueless A&Rs were looking to steer artists towards the Sheeran-dominated middle-aged mums market and the over-zealous Metropolitan Police were (and still are) pushing their 696 forms that led to countless events being cancelled which helped to create a climate where creative options were severely limited for artists trying to make a living from the genre.
This steady decline has been dramatically reversed in the past 18 months with hits such as ‘German Whip’ by Meridian Dan, Skepta’s spectacular return-to-form ‘That’s Not Me’ and Wiley’s ‘On A Level’ showing artists in the process of rediscovering their creative roots and making music true unto themselves. The Gucci and Louis Vuitton is in the bin, the track suit bottoms and Nike caps are back and the Vivienne Westwood spiked loafers have been replaced with the old standard-issue creps (crepes? crepz? Idk!). We are also seeing a reversal of the international siloing of so-called ‘urban music’ with the genre being watched with curiosity by Hip Hop artists across the pond such as Kanye West, who brought out half of the scene for his Brit Awards performance of ‘All Day’ as well as at Koko, Drake who is constantly s/o-ing Wiley and Skepta on Instagram, Danny Brown who cites Dizzee and Mike Skinner as major influences and featured Scrufizzer on his studio debut, Ratking, the post-internet Art Hop practitioners who have been involved in the US Remix of ‘That’s Not Me’, Earl Sweatshirt who recently kicked-off his show with the track, A$AP Mob who’s back-bencher Bari leant a hook to Skepta’s ‘It Ain’t Safe’ and Flatbush Zombies who have also worked with Skepta recently on ‘Redeye to Paris. This period of revival continues to thrill and will hopefully see the scene continue to grow whilst learning from past mistakes. Below I have listed three points of action which I believe will allow the Grime ‘brand’ to expand commercially whilst keeping its creative edge:
1. Now that the roots of the culture have been re-established, let’s see where it can be taken next
‘On A Level’ from Wiley’s recent (and apparently last?) solo effort ‘Snakes and Ladders’ did an excellent job of communicating the frustration of artists who have been mismanaged and forced to play by other people’s rules. Wiley preaches fiscal responsibility ‘live within your means init’ and the importance of creative integrity ‘I don’t want my career to end up a joke’ over a Skepta-produced Eskimo beat that you’d be more likely to hear at a Sidewinder set back in ’07 than on a Balearic Island hotspot being played off the iPod of a Dapper Laugh’s lookalike from some dreary midlands suburb. Similarly there is an urban myth that Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’ featuring his brother and often partner-in-grime JME, was born after he revisited his old lock-up and liberated his Trition (some kind of beat-making device I dunno :/) with which he made most of his 04/05 tunes. The track which delivers a strong statement about self-knowledge and integrity as a means to empowerment is both retro in a highly necessary way and incredibly zeitgeisty. The issue of self-perception could not be more prescient for the Instagram generation where hours are spent collecting the right photos, tagging ourselves at the right places and being seen to like the right things and the concept of defining who one is an isn’t strikes right to the heart of this consensus. Both of these tracks along with Meridian Dan’s ‘German Whip’, Stormzy’s ‘Know Me From’, The Square’s ‘Lewisham McDeez‘ etc. strongly assert Grime’s unique identity.
So where do we go from here? The answer is that we don’t know yet, and that’s fine for now. You can’t have Kid A without Tutti Frutti and Rock around the clock, you can’t have Paul’s Boutique, Stankonia or The Money Store without Paid in Full . However, there needs to be a point once audiences are fully on board and Grime is firmly established as its own genre that it needs to start looking to explore and experiment with different sonic and lyrical approaches or, as Wiley would say Evolve or Be Extinct. Grime now has a wider audience, Pitchfork and Noisey readers attend raves alongside guys and gals who normally frequent low-budget club nights around the A10, road guys in sportswear and curious middle-class white kids in their late teens who still wear snapbacks. This time around the audience has come to the scene and they will be bringing their own expectations into the mix, just as grime was originally a hybrid, it may well become a catalyst for entirely new genre somewhere down the line. The different cultural influences which will inevitably penetrate the boundaries of the genre should yield some exciting results especially now that links are being established with US Hip Hop artists- more of which in the next post…
2. Cultivate the links being established with artists from the U.S. and around the world
As noted in the intro, US Artist ranging from both mainstream circles such as Kanye and Drake and alternative mainstays such as A$AP Mob, Ratking, Flatbush Zombies and Earl Sweatshirt, are showing a strong interest in Grime acts. This can bring exciting things to the table such as the A$AP Bari feature on Skepta’s ‘It Ain’t Safe’, Cam’ron’s verse on Wiley’s ‘Lonely’ and acts such as Prince Rapid and Riko Dan featuring on Future Brown’s internationalist Trap-infused first LP alongside Tink, Shawna and Johnny May Cash. US Hip Hop is currently in a relatively free and expressive state with post-Lil B/OFWGKTA/A$AP weirdo-ism existing alongside Rick Ross’s fictional Mafiosi act, Drake’s post-Heartbreak & 808s croon-raps, Future’s Pluto-Trap, Young Thug’s compelling yelp-rap, Kanye at his Yeezusest, Azaelia Banks’s ballsy House-Hop, Childish Gambino’s pop culture high-concept schtick and Chance the Rapper’s goofy Psychedelia all existing simultaneously.
New ideas are currently being allowed in and Grime should get in line for a Green Card. Of course Grime doesn’t need to go cap-in-hand to its wealthier and more established cousin across the Atlantic but with music industry power-brokers in the UK having previously demonstrated that they have no idea how to market the genre to the public, it should be in the commercial and creative interest of Grime artists to look across the pond.
3. Keep it as DIY as possible
Following on from the previous point, Grime has previously been tragically mishandled by the British contingent of the music industry. The GZA’s line ‘who’s your A&R?/ a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar?’ from Wu Tang’s ‘Protect Ya Neck’ comes to mind when analysing the failure of execs who have had no idea how to market a Grime MC.
I have not run the numbers but I’m certain that this woeful misbranding of Grime which saw endless collaboration with Ed Sheeran as the natural equivalent of Jay Z’s work with high flying middle-browers Coldplay and stuck artists in the continuous loop of working with label-approved producers such as Naughty Boy and Labrinth, can not be making any of the artists more than a quick buck. Now I’m not someone who rallies against major labels or screams ‘sell-out’ at anyone who records a song with a melody and doesn’t want to starve but I do believe that Grime has vast untapped commercial potential in its own right. Grime raves pull huge crowds on their own but we’re now seeing an intriguing crossover culture in live music events exemplified by last night’s mammoth Deviation set hosted by Benji B which saw Skepta and Novelist share a bill with infamous electronic genre-disregarder Bok Bok, Mos Def, A$AP Rocky and Kaytranada. Events such as these demonstrate how there is a hungry market that is watching and waiting as Grime’s ascent continues which should allow the scene to become more and more commercially viable without having to pander to the tastes of mainstream audiences.
Much like Sway Calloway, I don’t have the answers- well at least not all of them! However I do love Grime and I do want people who make it to be able to keep making it. I would love for it to take the next step from trendy UK subculture to global creative and commercial powerhouse. Of course all of this is redundant if the police continue to pressurise venues to cancel Grime events.