Grime is Approaching the Breakthrough Moment Hip-Hop Reached in the 90s

We are about to hit a golden age.

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Dec 21 2016, 12:54pm

Trust a Tory to try and ruin something pure and joyful by wiping their grubby paws all over it. When Skepta won the 2016 Mercury Prize, Conservative Culture Minister Matt Hancock tweeted his congratulations, and told the Mirror that he and his team listened to Skepta "in the back of the ministerial car" – although he was unable to name a single track on Konnichiwa, amusingly. He spun the news as a triumph of Thatcherite values: "Grime represents modern Britain… the entrepreneurial, go-getting nature. It speaks that wherever you come from, you can make it."

But not even this desperate lunge for the bandwagon could sour an almost perfect redemption story for the genre over the last two years. Just when it seemed like Britain's final big pirate radio sound had spluttered its last, it came back stronger than ever before. Grime's revival and meteoric rise since 2014 has been as unexpected as it has been overwhelming. It's been hailed as a proudly British triumph by the same cultural gatekeepers and politicians who spent years blaming its protagonists for urban unrest and social and moral decay. Even prior to Skepta's Mercury win, the scene's resurgence had been deemed newsworthy in its own right by Channel 4 and BBC News at Six – "It's bold, it's British, and it's taking the world by storm," was Sophie 'Merkage' Raworth's introduction. In March, Radio 1 head honcho Chris Price suggested grime could become the UK's next "big cultural export... our hip-hop," adding that the world suddenly seemed to be watching. 

With new levels of success come new audiences. Everyone had a damn good laugh about the Evening Standard sending a reviewer to Skepta's Alexandra Palace show who didn't understand what a rewind was. "Frustratingly," wrote John Aizlewood, "not everything went to plan: songs were re-started... and the audience sloped home unsatisfied." Obviously this kind of thing shouldn't be surprising – there will always be a place for people who are embarrassingly far from understanding, like when the Indy sent a young racist to review Eskimo Dance, for the lulz.

More significant than the press lagging behind the zeitgeist though, are the invisible shifts in the tectonic plates of British pop culture going on beneath the surface. While the structure of Skepta's show might have confused a middle-aged rock critic, it sure didn't confuse the thousands of new(ish) teenage fans; the same generation that helped BBK headline Wireless this year, sold out every one of Kano's major headline shows in London, made Stormzy a superstar before he's even released an album, and drove JME and Skepta's records to numbers 12 and 2 respectively. And while I haven't done a thorough demographic analysis of the exact composition of that 10,000-strong crowd at Alexandra Palace, suffice it to say, it wasn't all pirate radio veterans and GrimeForum stalwarts alone. The ancient lore that stipulates true grime fans should be born within the sound of the Bow bells does not stand anymore.

So bear with me on a bit of speculative chronology: as the likes of Novelist keep pointing out, grime is not 'just a type of hip-hop' – it's not even in the same lineage. But let's say hypothetically the two styles followed a broadly similar time-line, at a delay of a decade or two: one originating in block parties in the Bronx in the 1970s, the other in house parties in Bow in the early 2000s, both reconfiguring the dominant sound of the day (funk and UK garage respectively) into something altogether different. After several apparent breakthrough moments, false dawns and premature declarations of the new sound's demise, grime's current wave of commercial success lands on the same point in the timeline as US hip-hop's huge expansion moment in the early 90s.

That crossover from the inner city to the suburbs was accompanied by a furious moral panic – even before Death Row Records shipped gangster rap into a million middle-class homes. When 2 Live Crew performed an under-20s show in the rich, white heart of the US Bible Belt in June 1990, parents tried to get them and the sale of their music banned under obscenity laws, and the local police chief attended the gig "to monitor the situation". Grime has already been through some of these rites of passage and culture wars: Tony Blair backed shopping centre bans on "hoodies" in 2005 (prompting Lady Sovereign's "Hoodie"), David Cameron followed Labour's Kim Howells by accusing black music of promoting violence in 2006 (and earned himself an infamous Lethal Bizzle op-ed in riposte, 'David Cameron is a donut'), and the Met have waged their far more damaging campaign against certain types of black music via tools like risk assessment form 696 for years. 

Meanwhile, the fall-out from the lack of industry support via the last two years of the Brit Awards was so widespread it looks very unlikely to be repeated. Former BBC 1Xtra guru Austin Daboh once told me that he got into trouble, in the early days of the station, for programming two UK tracks back-to-back. At the time, the received wisdom was that it was easier to import American rap and r&b than to take a punt on more local, underground flavours. But now? Well, things look very different. After a decade at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, Daboh joined Spotify as a Senior Editor this summer, and is on-board with the US rap in the early 90s analogy.

"I often say that musically we're 20 years behind the States, so yeah, that would place us in the early 90s equivalent of US rap music. I think we're about to hit a gold-rush for the genre, if you look at some of the things that have happened this year: Skepta breaking the daytime record for audience attendance at Reading Festival, and featuring on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. And Stormzy: it's almost unheard of for a British act to have three years of non-stop buzz the way Stormzy has, without releasing a single. If you look at the festival line-ups that are already being discussed for next year, we're going to see more of the same. When I last looked, Skepta had produced 22m streams in 59 days on Spotify – the numbers are astronomical. Even on a smaller level you can look at someone like Jaykae, from Birmingham, who is about to touch a million streams with zero radio support, zero press support, zero TV support, but he's earning enough from that to be reinvesting in his music."

It's a significant development because for many years, the received wisdom in the British music industry was that grime MCs were just MCs, from an underground scene, and would never thrive as artists – that they couldn't write hooks, or choruses, and therefore, hit songs, or albums. I've heard variations on all the above over the years. But along with the much-discussed success of grime's DIY spirit, there are signs the industry prejudice is disappearing too – even if the primary motivation is following the money – and the dinosaurs are catching up, after being criticised from all sides.

In an interview a few months ago, the team behind the GRM Daily 'Rated Awards' mentioned that the BPI (the industry body responsible for the much-maligned BRIT Awards) had loaned them some of their team to help run the grime awards ceremony – and had also invited them onto the BPI's newly (some would say belatedly) formed diversity board. Other small but significant acknowledgements from mainstream gatekeepers, like iTunes giving grime its own section, distinct from 'rap' or 'electro', helps a little. When there was a miniature gold-rush that followed Dizzee Rascal's 2003 Mercury win, with the likes of Kano, Wiley, Roll Deep and Shystie signing label deals, the albums were given some support, and achieved some success – but the genre as a whole was awkwardly handled, and never really caught fire. Within a couple of years, the label interest quickly fell away again.

According to Daboh, there is so much that is different this time around; not just the nature of the industry itself, but the personnel who are now in key positions. "It's so much more sustainable this time," he reflected. "The landscape of the gatekeepers that control the music has changed. At the point at which grime was first coming through, a decade and a half ago, it was reliant on a handful of people – literally just a couple of label bosses, a few people in radio, press and TV, and that was it: a cabal of 10 or 15 people at major corporations who held the fate of grime in their hands. And if a record label boss felt as though grime wasn't the in thing, then grime wasn't going to be supported financially. From our point of view, my coming on board at Spotify is a massive part of this sea change, to ensure Spotify's grime offer is as strong as it can be – but my story is mirrored across the industry; so in publishing you've got people who understand and grew up in the culture, you've got people who are now running record labels who understand it. And if you look at someone like Mistajam at Radio 1, even in traditional media you've got DJs in positions of power who want to push the genre forward."

The transformation of grime – often hand-in-hand with UK rap – into a thriving live genre has been one of the most striking occurrences in the last year. It would have seemed completely implausible, even a couple of years ago, that you might be able to go and see concerts – not raves, but concerts – at 1000+ cap venues headlined by Skepta, Wiley, Kano, Krept & Konan, Section Boyz, as well as AJ Tracey, Dave and Jammz, all within a few months of each other. If MTV was the evangelical tool that launched Dre and Snoop into suburban households in the Midwest, streaming services and platforms like YouTube are doing the same for everyone from Skepta and Stormzy to Mostack and J-Hus. The possibility of instant online discovery has surely been a big part of the rapid spread of grime and UK rap beyond London, Birmingham and Manchester – reflected in the fact that many of those same artists are regularly playing gigs beyond those major urban centres. Part of Daboh's new job is to harness that interest via curated Spotify playlists like 'Grime Shutdown', which he explained is close to being one of their top 10 playlists across Britain.

"It gets close to 10m streams a month, and it's 100% British, and 100% grime: I think that in itself will tell you how popular black British MC-driven sounds are." Just as Death Row started to see their albums soar in the charts after reaching white suburban audiences outside of the inner cities, so the top locations for streams of Spotify's grime playlist veers into regions like Hertfordshire and Kent, as well as London, Birmingham and Croydon. "I think grime has kind of replaced US rap as the go-to sound for young disaffected youths of all colours, creeds and religions," Daboh said. "You only have to look at Noisey's documentary on Blackpool grime to see a stunning example of that."
 
"I would caveat that point though, by saying if you look at Roll Deep's first album, or Boy in da Corner – that went gold pretty quickly, and it wouldn't have gone gold just due to a bunch of black kids on council estates buying the record – so I think to the extent there's always been suburban interest in grime music. The difference now is it's just spread out so much further. I think we're about to hit a golden age of black British urban music."

It's worth nailing a few demographic canards that crop up in often contentious discussions of race, music and commerce: if you've ever heard the stat that 80% of hip-hop sales are to white people, that bit of trivia is 25 years old, originated in Newsweek, and is a myth. It's also worth saying that the British suburbs are no more 'white' than they are necessarily middle-class. These things are inevitably more complex than they may seem. But undeniably, something has changed since grime's first wave. When hip-hop started to reach white audiences in the US at the start of the 90s, execs followed their own fuzzy and internal logic of trying to find their own version, which is how Vanilla Ice was plucked from underground semi-obscurity and sold 15m records.

It is tempting to think we live in more enlightened times, and that the nature of the music business in 2017 means that grime will be supported and allowed to stand on its own two feet. If the success of Skepta, JME, Stormzy and Wiley prove anything, it's that artists and fans often do better when left to their own devices, without too much intervention from the music industry and their formulae. The future of black British music - urban, suburban, or global - is about to get a whole lot more exciting.

You can follow Dan Hancox on Twitter.

(All photos by Ashley Verse)