Skepta's 'Konnichiwa' is the Sound of the UK Underground Finally Standing Proud at Street Level
His career has slalomed everywhere over 14 years, so it's all the more poignant that he's arrived back in this special place.
Somewhere in the back of a cupboard I still have an old 'grime is dead' t-shirt. DJ Logan Sama had them made up in 2007 – a purist's riposte to the fairweather friends leaving the sound behind. “Grime is dead,” he wrote that year for RWD magazine. “If you don't love it, don't try and make it. Don't try and get into it. There's no money for you here. Piss off. We'll keep it our secret until such time that we are ready to bring it to the wider world on our own terms.”
I first interviewed Skepta in the spring of that year; we talked about “Stageshow Riddim”, his riotous new dancehall-inspired track, complete with air horns, crowd noises, and built-in rewinds. Elsewhere, we discussed the state of the scene: all told, it didn't look good. MCs who had been signed in the brief goldrush after Dizzee's Boy In Da Corner had seen their major label deals flop (Shystie, Durrty Goodz). The mainstream press had either totally lost interest, or reported Crazy Titch’s 2006 murder conviction – for shooting a producer in a row over lyrics – as if it was grime music itself that had fired the gun. The notorious risk assessment procedure known as Form 696 was being used by the Metropolitan police to shut down what few grime nights remained in London. MCs were being followed by cops on their way out of raves and arbitrarily searched, and there were stories of grime promoters having their passports locked away as ‘insurance’ against violent incidents (as if they were about to host a Wild West-style shoot-out, and then skip the country).
Even the underground was struggling; the once-thriving DVD publishing scene was dying thanks to YouTube, vinyl production had dwindled to almost nothing, replaced by mix CDs which were mostly ripped and downloaded for free by the remaining hardcore fans. Radio sets were still happening, but less frequently; fringe MCs gave up the hobby and got real jobs, or some DJs turned their attentions to house, where you could actually get bookings. Needless to say, journalists blithely pronounced grime dead, suffocated under dubstep's global bass belly-flop. And yet, as we stood outside London's 93 Feet East those nine years ago, on a warm spring night after a show, Skepta remained almost bizarrely optimistic.
“People are running away from grime thinking it’s not working, but they’re sell-outs man. That’s why Boy Better Know is easily going to be the best thing in grime.”
A great deal happened in the intervening years, between the promise of Skepta's 2007 debut album – the modestly named Greatest Hits – and his unlikely pop turn: among them, a carnival-worthy rendering of the Match of the Day theme tune, a glorious cover of Nigerian highlife classic "Sweet Mother", a hilarious Blur-inspired war track for one of his closest allies, Wiley (“you need a Tom-Tom just to get around Bow”), and a much less hilarious Transformers-inspired piece of laddish transphobia. After several years of versatile experimentation, from 2010-2012 he notched up five top 40 singles: each of them, let's be honest, entirely forgettable. It was hard to comprehend that the same artist who once made a beat so tough that it actually induced real gunshots in a rave had come up with the happy hour-in-Ibiza anthem Amnesia; but equally, who could begrudge him a slice of stardom?
And then, in 2014, came “That's Not Me”, grime's redemption song, and the culmination of an epiphany that had begun with 2012's “Ace Hood Flow”. Both songs suggested one thing: that the seeds of his – and by extension grime's – salvation were there all along. It's tempting to speculate what would have happened if “That's Not Me” had never been made: sure, Stormzy, Novelist, AJ Tracey et al would have come through anyway; but would Boy Better Know be headlining Wireless festival this summer? Would other first-wave grime MCs like Kano have come out of retirement and gone back to the source? Would Dizzee be performing Boy in da Corner live for the first time in full?
Skepta has become the ultimate avatar for grime's resilience, suffusing the next generation with the same dazzling self-belief. As Stormzy told me last year: “Skepta’s a key part of it, because you can tell he’s got this new confidence about him... it’s almost like everyone’s just clocked at once: hang on, fuck that, we’re sick – we are sick. My tracksuit is sick. My grime freestyle is sick. The way I do things is sick. And everyone’s noticing it at once. And when you have that self-confidence and that belief, it just oozes on to people. The energy’s good right now.”
After a weekend living with it, it's fair to say the energy's good on Konnichiwa, too. In a sense, whether Konnichiwa is a masterpiece shouldn't matter too much – why does Skepta or grime need the validation of this arbitrary format in 2016? Grime has never been an album genre, with a few notable exceptions (like Wiley's Treddin' on Thin Ice or Dot Rotten's This is the Beginning); it's music that thrives in raves, on radio, on singles, on about a third of most MC's mixtapes; in collaborations, low budget videos and remixes.
But something in Skepta clearly wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, not just an MC, from the beginning. Holding the mic on DJ Maximum's Rinse FM shows, back in 2007, he would always say of the forthcoming Greatest Hits, "It's going to be an album, not a mixtape." I mentioned this to him in an interview last year, and he'd forgotten. “Is that what I was doing, yeah? I think maybe people thought grime people couldn't make an album, that maybe our music was just some rave ting. Like, 'only US rappers are album guys'.”
Like his first album, Konnichiwa isn't just some rave ting, and it's not a half-arsed mixtape either. "Corn on the Curb", one of eight new tracks, sees Skepta joined by the man that told him to pick up the mic in the first place, Wiley – and the intensity of his focus rings out: “I don't care about VIP / I've got very important places to be”. Of course, Skepta has been feted by several international VIPs recently, and as you will have seen by now, there's no rumoured Drake, Earl Sweatshirt, or Kanye features on this album (Skepta has recently said he's more likely to be on Drake's record – “It makes more sense”); what we do have is 'Numbers', with Pharrell – which is a grower, albeit slightly reminiscent of a Sesame Street educational rap.
Above all, Konnichiwa thrives because it's a grime album, not in spite of it. This is the UK underground finally standing proud at street level. “I knew I had an obligation to represent the country,” Skepta told Zane Lowe last month, “not just different MCs, but sonically. I've got every element from London... it's very well rounded.” It is – but while it's alive with vocal features from the cream of the UK scene, Konnichiwa's main strength is its consistency of sound and spirit: crucial to this is the fact eight of the twelve tracks were produced by Skepta himself.
Footsie's one contribution to the production, "Detox", is a burner of a rhythm, plumbing the Newham General's trademark dubby depths – and threading BBK in 2016 back to the FWD>> sound, when Skepta would spit over Plastician's or Skream's grimey dubstep sets to a room full of weed smoke (a hybrid crystallised on 2008's "Intensive Snare").
Another highlight among the new tracks, "Lyrics", with Novelist, is littered with classic grimey sound affects: squelches and console game power-up noises. It's also a UK soundsystem history lesson – namely, one that isn't boring or retro, but makes the legacy come alive – and a neat unison of past, present and future: beginning with a sample clipped from an ancient, foundation-stone moment for grime, a seminal on-stage battle between Pay As U Go Cartel and Heartless Crew, back in 2001. Grime wasn't called grime then, but UK garage was turning that way: as the heat rises between the two crews on stage, a young Wiley intervenes to tell the MCs to simmer down: “Lyrics for lyrics, calm. CALM”. In other words: you want to swing at this guy? Here's the mic. And here is Novelist picking it up, 15 years later, showing the enduring power of mucky bass and a skippy flow – he would have been four-years-old when that original clash happened.
Konnichiwa may be a triumph for a whole scene, and a showcase for many of its talents, but the album still peaks with three irresistible tracks that couldn't be anyone but Skepta: the trio of "Man (Gang)", "Shutdown" and "That's Not Me" are your 10-minute summary of why he is where he is; an Ivor Novello nominated songwriter. The histrionic keys and juddering bassline of "Man (Gang)" is the perfect platform for his crystal clear flow, an equal of the two tracks that helped revive an entire genre. Because Skepta's career has slalomed in so many directions in the fourteen years since "Pulse Eskimo", it means even more that he's arrived back in this place, musically and spiritually; he's experienced both sides of the divide – true grime and road fuckeries on the one hand, and Ibiza pool party glitz on the other. He seems to have found a happy kind of equilibrium now: he can put down the cash to fly his crew out to Amsterdam, but is determined never to lose touch with reality. “Boy better know man went to the Brits on the train / Think it's a game? / Man shut down Wireless, then I walked home in the rain.”
During the height of Skepta madness last summer, tailing him as he roved around London from studio to studio, to his parents' house in Palmers Green, to the 'Shutdown' launch party – a triumphant illegal free rave in a Shoreditch car park – there was one image which captivated Joseph Junior's attention. It was a photo of fans climbing a ten-foot wire fence to get in to the rave, after two security guards had shut the gate. Nursing a much-deserved hangover the next day, he said aloud to his team more than once, "We've got to do something with this picture"; I asked him why he was so fixated?
“I just feel like it captured what yesterday was about. It captured what I'm doing in the music industry: if you can't get in, climb the fence. I love it.”
Climb the fence, and shut it down.
You can follow Dan Hancox on Twitter.
Watch Noisey's exclusive documentary with Skepta right here.