How "German Whip" is Steering Grime's Unexpected Comeback
“This is the tempo that my heart beats at – 140 beats per minute."
The phone rings, and I pick up. “Hello?” There is a pause. “It’s Mr Blacked Out Windows Leaning Back.”
You can practically hear Meridian Dan smiling, and it’s easy to see why. The London MC’s track “German Whip” is one of the biggest grime hits in years – a genuine anthem that has had a steep upward trajectory and shows no signs of letting up. A paean to leaning back behind the blacked out windows of precision engineered motorcars, “German Whip” has enjoyed significant support from 1Xtra and Rinse, Zane Lowe has got behind the Two Inch Punch remix, and the video has now broken the million view mark. At the end of January it was announced that Meridian Dan had signed to PMR, home of Disclosure and Jessie Ware, and that the single would finally get a proper release on March 31st.
I ask him if there was moment when he realised quite how big “German Whip” was becoming. “I went for a radio interview with Charlie Sloth,” Dan explains, “and he was like, ‘This is a big fucking record.’ I was just thinking people were being nice to me. It's gone above and beyond whatever expectations I had for it.”
“German Whip” is big news because it has the potential to become a major crossover record. PMR have a clear track record of chart success, and Meridian Dan is now hoping for a Top 40 placing for both “German Whip” and his forthcoming album I Am London.
Much was made of grime’s mainstream commercial potential and, for a while, it looked like that potential might be fulfilled. Boy In Da Corner, Dizzee Rascal's lauded debut, peaked at number 23, and Showtime, his follow-up, fared even better, entering the chart at number eight. But even when grime was on the rise, it had a tense relationship with the mainstream. Lethal Bizzle’s “Pow! (Forward)”, charted at an impressive number 11, but also led to a minor moral panic. The track caused riots in clubs, was reportedly banned by almost as many radio stations as played it, and is considered by some to be have been partly responsible for the notorious Form 696, a Metropolitan Police risk assessment that required promoters to specify the expected ethnicities of the audience, and that helped to push grime back out of the clubs.
Soon, the hits started to drop off. Tracks like Tempa T’s “Next Hype” became genuine underground anthems, but none really punctured the mainstream. Grime reached the peak of its commercial success in the mid-2000s. So what’s happened in the interim?
The obvious first answer might seem to be that grime’s pioneers simply gave up on grime. Dizzee is one of the country’s biggest pop stars, but the chances of him making another Boy In Da Corner are infinitesimal. Instead he now makes a handsome living rapping about holidays and collaborating with Armand Van Helden. Wiley, meanwhile, having had flings with a clutch of labels, finally found serious chart success with The Ascent, his ninth album and his first for Warner, which produced three top ten singles, including “Heatwave”, his first number one. But The Ascent is a pop record, not a grime record. It shuddered under the weight of major label chart aspirations and, while those aspirations were met, they did not necessarily make for a good album. Indeed Wiley himself seemed frustrated with Warner, threatening in April last year to leave the label.
In fact, Wiley aside, many grime artists’ forays into more straightforward chart music have failed. Dizzee infamously lashed out at Radio 1 for what he saw as the station’s lack of support for his latest album - and that record, which explicitly set its sights on America but was critically monstered, was a comparative flop. Tinchy Stryder’s Third Strike barely scraped the Top 50. All too frequently, grime artists have abandoned grime only to find that the charts still won’t have them.
But perhaps that’s oversimplifying the story. Dizzee, for example, still represents the genre’s most successful attempt at entryism. Although he is no longer making it, to an extent Dizzee still represents grime. When he appeared at the Olympic Opening Ceremony wearing a baseball jacket emblazoned with “E3”, he still had real resonance. Spyro, who heads up Rinse FM’s Grime Show, cautions against forgetting grime’s first wave. “There are people that are considered the grime pioneers,” he says, “who aren’t doing radio and spitting their heart out every single week - but still contribute to the scene. Jammer does Lord Of The Mics; Cheeky and Wiley, they do Eskimo Dance. People are still contributing.”
But Spyro also believes that grime’s commercial potential has been held back by its lyrical content. “Sometimes,” he says, “what MCs talk about…I wouldn’t say it backfires, but it’s just a reason to say, ‘OK, we don’t want this.’ People talk about what they’ve been through. Some are liars, some ain’t. But the reason why there are so many people against it is because of the subjects they’re talking about.” There has, however, been a sense amongst some grime artists that in order to achieve the success they want, they might have to self-moderate. This tension has led to striking contradictions between posture and practice. One of the most explicit and bizarre of these came in 2010, with the release of self-styled "London City Warlord” Riko Dan’s “The Phone Call”. The video portrays a mass shooting, with Riko performing most of his verses down the barrell of a shot gun. But it also finishes with an anti-cannabis and gun crime message from Trident, the Metropolitan Police’s much criticised gangs unit.
The most overwhelming shift in post-chart grime can be seen in the music’s very form. Spyro again; “Once upon a time, when you thought of grime you just thought of MCs, not the producer, or the DJ. It was focused on the MCs.” Lately, though, that focus has been inverted. Instead of the MC running the show, grime is now surfing an overwhelmingly instrumental wave.
That wave (grime’s third, perhaps?) is helping to return the scene to a creative peak. Simon Hiscocks runs Oil Gang, a label specialising in new instrumental grime, and co-runs Boxed, a London clubnight dedicated to the genre. Like Spyro, Hiscocks has noticed a change in MCs’ tenor. “When I first got into grime,” he says, “people would just do their best bars - the bars to get a rewind, their rave bars. I always really enjoyed those tunes, but then the lyrics got more and more complicated. It just wasn't really my thing.” Hiscocks had been drawn to the instrumental aspect since grime’s first wave. “Everyone loves the early stage, when the instrumentals were just insane - all the Youngstar tunes. Personally, my favourite is a little bit later, when it was things like D Dark's “Mission Riddim”. Those instrumentals really grabbed me.”
Oil Gang is now eight records deep, and the label has helped to define the sound of grime’s latest wave. Their third release came from Darq E Freaker, whose Cherryade EP remains the label’s biggest hit. The London producer, whose track “Trojan” was a highlight from Grime 2.0, Ninja Tune’s survey of the scene, was also responsible for Tempa T’s “Next Hype”. He has since assumed production duties for Danny Brown. The video for “Blueberry”, one of the pair’s collaborations, is a perfect amalgam of Detroit house party hedonism and grime signifiers, making generous use of shots of the Trellick Tower and illustrating what fertile inspiration the genre continues to provide for international artists.
Of new instrumental grime’s predominating trends, two stand out. One, of which Darq E Freaker is a proponent, takes grime’s intrinsic futurism and dials forward the time machine, imagining stark new timbres that sound like Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building assuming sentience. The other trend can be thought of as hauntological, either grabbing disembodied vocals from crudely taped pirate radio battles and chopping them into dubby new forms, as on Wen’s excellent Commotion EP, or paying direct homage to grime classics past, as on Mr Mitch’s downtempo Peace Dubs remix EP.
Sometimes, though, these two strands meet. Last week Future Brown, an American supergroup of sorts, featuring four DJs and producers including Fatima Al Qadiri and Nguzunguzu, played their debut London show at Hackney’s Oslo. The group have close aesthetic links with Night Slugs, and their music seems to draw out even further the glacial heights and weighty depths of the Club Constructions series, compressing them into more conventionally song-shaped forms. But Future Brown also have direct links with the grime pioneers, having collaborated with Ruff Sqwad’s Prince Rapid and Dirty Danger, and Roll Deep’s Roachee. Many of Ruff Sqwad were in attendance at the Hackney show, along with associates including Riko Dan – and the live collaboration seemed to give a sense of grime’s potential trajectory. As Riko catapulted through classic Roll Deep bars over Future Brown instrumentals, and as Future Brown spun Ruff Sqwad beats under raucous, kinetic freestyles, there was a sense of grime past and future enjoying a perfect synthesis.
“I think it’s just grime music,” Prince Rapid says of Future Brown, “but their own kind, just like Ruff Sqwad have their own sound.” Rapid’s forthcoming EP will be the first on the new Ruff Sqwad Entertainment, and in his solo work he sounds like the elder statesman, having shifted from the “fighting and robbing” about which he says he used to rap towards something more contemplative. “If you listen to a lot of the tracks from the Ruff Sqwad days,” he says, “I was on the streets. But at the moment, now, I’m living a different kind of life. I provide education to the youth in Bow. I’m trying to better my life.” With Future Brown, though, Ruff Sqwad and Riko seemed to embody grime’s entire progression, from furious road tunes to the new wave of glistening production.
PMR’s involvement in "German Whip" could yet signal a sea change in the way in which mainstream labels deal with grime. Ben Parmar, the label’s head, says that grime “became a little out of fashion with radio and media. It’s unfortunate,” he says, “that there’s a negative stigma attached to it in mainstream media. A lot of the artists from that world had to split their sound to make it more commercial and do business out of the music.” Now, though, Parmar is more bullish. For him, the success of ‘German Whip’ is symptomatic of a new landscape in which the underground and the mainstream meet – the same landscape in which PMR made such a world-conquering success of Disclosure’s "Latch", and the same landscape that Parmar believes may now be more receptive to a new set of grime crossovers. “The lines are so blurred between underground music and commercial music,” he says. “If something’s good and people click with that, you seem to be able to push things through in a commercial way.”
Dan’s signing marks a potential new step in the industry’s treatment of grime. He might be the genre’s great new commercial hope, but grime’s pioneering spirit never went away. From the first, to the second, and now to the prospective third wave, grime never stopped – but now, with the right chart placing for ‘"German Whip", grime could be positioning itself back in the popular consciousness. This vanguard music, in all its avant-garde permutations, could potentially secure ground in the mainstream again. Dan sums it up: “This is the tempo that my heart beats at – 140 beats per minute. This is music to me.”
Follow Josh on Twitter: @JoshAJHall
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