It's Time to Start Taking the UK's "Grime Revival" Seriously
Welcome to Grime Week on Noisey.
All this week on Noisey, we're going to be analysing the potential of grime's newest wave through interviews with Stormzy, The Square and D Double E; premieres from Dizzee Rascal, Roxanne and MIK; and longreads on the culture of grime, from Risky Roadz, who defined the look of original grime media, to the front line photography duo of Wot Do You Call It who have documented its resurgence. We're also going to be asking the harder questions the genre faces, like why female artists are so rare in grime, and whether the genre can survive outside of London, both in the UK and America. After all, if the scene can take advantage of this rising tide in 2014, then we may well see grime finally achieve the wider success that once looked so inevitable in the noughties. Follow all the grime content right here.
Last month, Boy Better Know performed at the Red Bull Culture Clash in front of 20,000 people, most of them teenagers. There was a stampede every time they took to stage, as kids who had grown up with grime cocked back their gun fingers with a devilish look in their eyes for classics like "Murkle Man" and "Too Many Man." These were tracks that came out years before they could get into clubs, never mind complain about grime's gender imbalance.
For the past decade-and-a-bit that it has existed, grime has been everywhere and nowhere: a big bang of 140BPM Pong beats and the wiliest lyricists ever, that became the dominant street culture of Britain filtering down to a new generation of young people who missed it first time round. But it's also a permanently struggling genre whose stars had to compromise everything just to pay the bills.
Grime always suffered from some sort of crisis, especially regarding identity. Even Wiley's "Wot Do U Call It?," one of the genre's most enduring classics and the first grime song to chart in the UK, flitted between names for the sound—garage, urban, 2-step—but none of them grime. Even when a term was decided, it was never clear what it meant—was it the BPM, the production, just the instrumentals, the group of MCs from East London, or something else?
Recently though, you could argue that grime has done more to establish itself as a standalone genre than ever before. Lethal Bizzle, who has become a cult figure as famous for his rants as his craft, hit number 11 on the charts with "Rari Workout" this summer. Stormzy appeared on Jools Holland two weeks ago and won the first ever grime MOBO a fortnight before that. And the success of Meridian Dan's "German Whip," Skepta's "That's Not Me," and Wiley's "On a Level" has ensured that there has been grime music on mainstream UK radio for just about the entirety of 2014.
Around all that, social media has also been ablaze with talk of Jammer's appearance on Channel 4 News discussing the future of grime, the release of Wiley's new album (said to be his last, although I'll believe that when I see it) and his planned clash DVD, The War Report. Even the genre's own prodigal son Dizzee Rascal is back, and sounding more grimey than he has in years. He streamed an exclusive track, produced by grime legend Footsie, via Noisey for Halloween, marking the return to his original sound that we've dreamt about for years but never quite thought would happen. Today, he followed it up on Noisey with his epic new single "Pagans." Compare this to the sparse coverage and output just a few years ago and you'll understand why grime fans are looking skywards right now.
Why grime never quite took off the first time round is a complex problem to unravel. Form 696—the risk-assessment form that lead to the cancellation of countless "urban" shows over the years—gets credited with much of the collapse, but that was just one aspect of the scene's major main flaw: the artists just couldn't find a viable way to sell their talent. With grime spending so long being ignored by the mainstream media, it seemed the only way for MCs to make a living off music was to pursue that pop hit. It kind of worked for Dizzee, Wretch 32 and, to an extent, Tinchy Stryder, but it failed massively for many others, such as Maxsta and Griminal, who both announced their intentions to quit grime in hilariously over-confident posts on grimeforum.com.
Almost as soon as it had grounded itself, grime found its foundations falling away from underneath it.The famous Deja Vu FM tower block in Stratford, where Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch had that clash, was demolished to make way for the Olympic Village. Rhythm Division on Roman Road—the record shop where Wiley pressed his early instrumentals—is now a coffee shop. The nonacceptance from mainstream radio and nightclubs (DJ Target recalled to Channel Four about seeing signs advising DJs not to play "Pow"), and the scene's London-centric roots, had meant it barely registered on the conscience of the wider public. And the only way to find it was to actively seek it out.
The truth is this: original, unfiltered grime was never really suitable for the position in mainstream media that it was slowly being sucked into. The beauty of the genre was in its uncompromising and jagged form, all razor sharp innovation, savage realism, and the unmistakable air that shit was about to go off. Fuck release dates, exclusives, studio time, and the singular artistic identities that the music industry institutionally favoured, grime was releasing a song with ten people on it, half an hour after exporting it from Fruity Loops. In its essence, grime was exactly the type of shit that doesn't chart, doesn't get played on commercial radio and wasn't on the stereos of your average British family (though the image of Trim's "Boogeyman" soundtracking some sort of Bisto advert family dinner scene is idyllic).
The resurgence of grime and its reappearance in 2014's mainstream, however, seems to be based on a scene that has learned its lessons and thrives on returning to its roots with a revitalisation of that vintage grime sound. Look at Skepta's "That's Not Me" from April, and almost everything about it—from the eski-beat synths in the intro to the sight of the Adenuga brothers using a pair of headphones as a mic in the award-winning £80 video - evokes memories of grime's early days. Wiley's "On A Level" has his classic rusty strings on top of a beat that's reminiscent of his legendary "Ice Rink" instrumental and references the aforementioned Dizzee/Titch clash in the chorus. There's a sense of nostalgia about these tracks, but thankfully not the same nostalgia that has seen Tinchy Stryder collaborate with the Chuckle Brothers.
The grime that was once an unstoppable beast that fell at the first hurdle has re-emerged slow and steady, with a business head and clear plan. It's no coincidence that the big grime songs of 2014 are being dropped when they are, maintaining a consistent flow, rather overwhelming the new audience—four or five tracks from MCs who, in the early noughties, would usually be putting out thousands. Compare that to when Wiley's first album flopped because it came inbetween two quick-fire Dizzee releases, and it's clear there is an element of wisdom and maturity in this new grime wave.
The growth of the sound abroad has also been encouraging. The scenes in Japan and Eastern Europe are stronger than ever, but it is in the USA where the most potential lies. Producers such as Future Brown and Rabit have recently reached out across the Atlantic to collaborate with UK mainstays such as Ruff Sqwad and Riko Dan respectively, while Darq E Freaker, Skepta, and Jammer spent a great deal of last summer in New York working with, among others, rap trio Ratking and various members of A$AP Mob.
Make no mistake; there are plenty of people in the scene who have been putting in the groundwork for a long time and are bound to benefit from a reignited interest in grime. Artists like P Money, Flowdan, and Tempa T are all staples at festivals both at home and abroad, and Boy Better Know headlined the first ever grime stage at Bestival this year with former Kiss DJ Logan Sama. Boxed's instrumental-only raves have given us a new take on grime as a club sound, while Novelist and The Square have brought a youthful exuberance to the old-school method. Trim broke his silence this year to release two mixtapes and has been touring with James Blake as part of his 1-800 Dinosaur shows, and we've finally seen the release of Chronik's Rise of the Lengman, Big H's Fire & Smoke and Cas' The Number 23—three long-awaited albums which seemed destined for mythical absence.
What we can't forget though, is that grime is an underground, street genre and by its very nature it will only enjoy moments in the mainstream spotlight, rather than consistent success. Meridian Dan's "German Whip" hitting the charts will go down as a big moment in grime's history, but that's ultimately all it was; a moment. There's no lesson to be learned from its success; it was a fluke, a one-off. It's easy to forget that, although it charted in the spring of 2014, the song was originally released as far back as September 2013. Dan's follow-up single, "One Two Drinks," peaked at number 84 on the charts and while "On A Level" was featured on the Radio 1 playlist, Wiley still hasn't quite managed to hit the top 40. We're yet to see whether Skepta's next release, "It Ain't Safe," will hit the same heights as "That's Not Me."
With grime enjoying a second season in the sun, it's important that this time round the genre's artists don't go chasing the next "German Whip" and instead focus on establishing grime at clubs, festivals and on radio, as well as giving some identity back to Britain's most innovative and interesting genre since punk. Grime has always been everywhere and nowhere, but right now, it's just inevitable.
You can follow Paul on Twitter: @paulgibbins