The DIY Ethos of Grime is What Makes It Britain's Most Important Youth Culture
Britain has always been full of isolated young people who are bored of being bored and who are determined to make the country a more interesting place.
It's not by accident that Britain has green-housed into existence many of the most notorious and enduring youth cultures the modern world's ever seen. Ravers, grebos, blitz kids, soulies, roadmen, punks, skins, teds – these disparate factions may seem to belong to different movements and moments in time, but they all owe their existence to one unavoidable reality: that Britain is, and has always been, really, an isolated, grey, boring little country.
And we should be very thankful for that, because it means in turn that Britain is full of isolated young people who are bored of being bored and terrified of being boring, who will go out at night determined to make the country they live in a more interesting place. They will go out at night, with their hard drugs, and their bad sex, and their shoes, and they will form gangs, with values and etiquette and dress codes all of their own, and they will sever their fingers and dance through the pain to drum n' bass at disused Royal Mail sorting offices in Croydon. At some point in this process, police may be called. Hands may be wrung. Lawns may be ruined. Chemists may take longer to get served in on Saturday mornings. But all things considered, the pairing of "youth" and "culture" is an arrangement that has benefitted this country. Even your nan was probably a bit of a "face" who only really cared about records and shagging once upon a time.
But it might also be an arrangement that is coming to an end. When people talk about youth cultures now – and this is especially true in the mainstream media – it tends to be in the context of their demise. In fact, there's never been a media more thirsty for the emergence of some new tribe to filch from, fear and fete, and yet there has never seemed such a dearth of them. A lot of blame has been apportioned to the internet and that's probably not far wide of the mark. Youth tribes are, in essence, competitive displays of arcane knowledge that can last for years at a time – but due to the internet, there isn't much worth knowing about that's arcane any more. There can be no impossibly rare 12-inch to brag about in an age of YouTube, Discogs and Shazam. Wavey Garms, Tumblr and Depop have been helping teenagers the world over dress like a Larry Clark fever dream for years. At a time in history where everyone can know everything all at once, what secret information are you gonna hoover up and use as cultural currency, exactly? A new way to read the stars? A freakishly comprehensive grasp of the different types of pylon that there are?
There is one youth culture, though, that is thriving at a time when nothing else quite as coherent, or as dynamic, or as autonomous, really is. Grime's come a long way from its origins in the early 00s, whether you believe those origins to be Wiley's bedroom, Youngstar's PlayStation or an X-Men SNES game released in 1994, but one thing it still possesses – or is possessed by, depending on your viewpoint – is an independent spirit that means the best approach is usually a DIY one. That was certainly the case for Skepta, who paid tribute to musical independence when he won the Mercury Prize for his album Konnichiwa earlier this year.
"I've been trying to do this music stuff and work it out for so long," he said, "but it was the moment when I was like, 'Yo, let's do this for ourselves, for the family,' [that] all these songs travelled the world. No record label or nothing: they just travelled the world."
And from his home in Tottenham Skepta travelled the world with them, turning American kids onto British youth music in a way not seen for decades, knocking around with the world's most famous party-sore Canadian, creating with Konnichiwa what's been touted as the lead artefact of grime's resurgent wave. But while independence doesn't always mean MoMA, MOBOS and Mercury domination, DIY – in the truest sense of building something your own, from the ground up – will always give the world something that is, initially at least, arcane and autonomous. Skepta still lives in London, and though he's revealed in interviews that he knocked back at least one offer to sign for a major, it'd be ridiculous to claim he's still "underground". That doesn't mean the rest of the city is asleep, though.
"The scene as it exists at the moment has bubbled up for the last five years or so and in that time, the music has re-established itself at an underground level," says Tomas Fraser, who, since founding Coyote Records in 2012, has been releasing future-facing tracks by the likes of Spokes, Tom E Vercetti and Last Japan. "Records are back on the shelves, the music is back in the clubs and on the radio and critics are writing about it again. It's a basic infrastructure, but it's allowed the bigger artists – Skepta being the most obvious – to re-discover themselves without feeling pressured by the industry. Skepta didn't win the Mercury Prize by writing an album for a label, he won it by writing an album for himself."
Fraser and his label are part of a tight-knit independent network working to keep the party lights on in the capital at a time when so much of its nightlife is either dead or under threat. Grime's coming wave of leading MCs are fiercely independent – Novelist claims to have invented a whole new genre of music in "Ruff Sound"; AJ Tracey, who guested on a Coyote-released Last Japan track earlier this year, refuses to bow to grime's originators or its 140bpm guidelines; Santan Dave, at just 18, stands alone in his field for the righteousness of his bars – and the labels and promoters giving them the platform to shine share that DIY intent. The combined efforts of labels like Coyote, Local Action, Oil Gang and Different Circles, nights like Boxed and grime-centric shows on stations like NTS, Radar, Balamii and old mainstay Rinse have played a big part in making sure the scene can thrive without compromise. But it wasn't always that way, and grime has had to battle hard for its current place in the limelight, against police banning orders, fearful radio playlisters, fickle public tastes, geographical boundaries and rival scenes and sounds. So where does the motivation come from? Why does grime have so much thirst for the fight to operate on its own terms?
"I think grime adheres to the idea of being independent simply because a lot of the music is entirely the product of the artists and small independents themselves," explains Fraser, matter-of-factly. "You could argue that all scenes and subcultures feed into the DIY narrative to an extent, but the majority don't have to fight just to exist like grime has, which is what I think makes it such a gritty and impassioned genre of music."
While it's not tough to detect that grit and sweat in much modern grime, it's not all about adversity; certain elements have aided grime in its rise to prominence. The internet has been big for grime like it's been big for everything and everyone else, easing commercial pressures, offering new routes out of local postcodes for MCs and granting a vastly widened audience to the labels and promoters who support them.
"I'd say the DIY ethos has always been the same, but the internet – with blogs, YouTube and streaming – has allowed grime artists and labels to be a lot more savvy about how they promote their music on their own terms," says Fraser, who argues that something as fundamental as the passage of time has worked in grime's favour, too. "There are also lots of people who used to listen to grime as kids or in their teens, now working in positions of influence within the industry – whether at radio, press, TV, consultancy or management – which has certainly opened a few doors over the past few years."
Time is a double-edged skeng. Grime today is no longer the grime of Risky Roadz DVDs, Stratford Rex hype pits, the bruised blue skies that framed Dizzee and Crazy Titch's infamous shoving match, or the oeuvre of Scratchy. But it's not the grime, either, of MCs feeling obliged to make compromises in the hunt for bigger audiences – compromises like "Summertime" and "Bonkers", which were perfect examples of how to take something powerful and make it weak. As so many other youth cultures fade into parody or oblivion, this new wave of grime stays vital by remembering that autonomy is everything. And having fought so hard for worthwhile turf, you get the feeling the scene won't be relinquishing the independent spirit with which that ground was won any time soon.
As part of the Levi's Music Project, Levi's and Skepta have partnered to establish a community youth music space in the heart of Skepta's hometown of Tottenham, North London. Track the progress of the project at levi.com or through #SupportMusic'