Could Birmingham Ever Surpass London as the Home of Grime?
The Midlands has been bubbling for nearly ten years now. We sent a writer to find out if it will ever actually boil.
“It’s time to up the levels again. A new MC is born every weekend.”
The words printed on a banner behind the stage at The Drum, an arts centre in central Birmingham are, of course, JME lyrics. And although they’ve been repurposed here, they offer a neat summary of the city’s fresh and bubbling grime culture.
For a month, the radio station 1Xtra has decamped to Birmingham, running a series of ‘outreach’ programmes in the run-up to this year’s 1Xtra Live. Today, the focus is on the homespun grime generation. Around two-dozen young MCs - many of whom have had no previous experience recording or performing - have gathered in the venue to learn the basics, knowing that their best bars could be broadcast on 1Xtra and Radio 1.
It’s no coincidence that 1Xtra have chosen to host a grime event in Birmingham. The Brum scene has been on the up-and-up for most of the decade, with kids like Preditah, C4 and Sox becoming not just local heroes, but faces of UK grime. Just last year Skepta proclaimed the city was driving the scene forward. The workshop, packed with new MCs, shows how deeply rooted the genre has become in the Midlands; and could symbolise a shift in grime’s centre of gravity from London to England's second city.
At this event, the mentors are drawn from StayFresh, perhaps Birmingham’s most prominent grime label since the wild success of “Woo Riddim”, commonly referred to as the most-vocalled grime instrumental in history. Jamie Dred, the label’s co-founder, says the event is about giving back to the Birmingham community. “It's all about working with completely new MCs,” he says, “and getting them to record for the first time. We have a guy who's doing a maths degree who's never done any MCing at all.”
MC and 1Xtra DJ A.Dot is the only non-Stay Fresh mentor, holding court at her table as she oversees a group writing 16 bars to perform to camera. She agrees that it's now a misconception for grime to be thought of as the preserve of London’s E3 area. “I think people assumed initially that grime was very London-centric,” she says, “because it grew out of East London. But the power of grime is so much bigger than geography. Look at people like Lady Leshurr - I think she was one of the first people to really make a name for herself out of Birmingham. You can't tame it - you can't keep it in London. There was an assumption a few years ago that grime was on its last legs, but I think it's definitely defied that in recent months.”
So, having chatted to the mentors and watched the amateur MCs perform their bits to camera, I can vouch for there being something happening in Birmingham. But, is there really the abundance of raw talent and invention here that’s needed to take the driving seat? Am I witnessing the next Wileys, Kanos, Skeptas and Jammers here? Or is this just a load of over-excited enthusiasts having a laugh with the music they love?
With the amateur MCs having performed their bars to camera, the second half of the event begins, consisting of a two-part cypher - first grime and then hip-hop. 1Xtra has invited a group of more established Birmingham MCs who congregate on either side of the stage, queuing for the mic. Some of the would-be MCs from the first half of the day jostle their way to the front, and the small crowd cheers with a mixture of encouragement and surprise as a 14-year-old rapper called Little Hitz gives some of the most forthright bars of the event. But the one that really uppercuts my attention is Truemendous, a 22-year-old female MC whose debut hip-hop mixtape The Autistic Librarian was released in April. Here, she seems equally at home with grime, skipping effortlessly into intricate triplet patterns with an ease and confidence that leaves everyone totally wide eyed.
Her lyrics are stark explorations of inner-city malaise, taking in failed relationships, body image issues, and cancer survival. “The stories that I say are hypothetical scenarios,” she says. “I don't know any of the people, but as we grow up we know what happens - people get abused, people get attacked. I think it's really important that there's a lot of substance and content in a lot of people's music. Mainstream music is materialism. How can I relate to you when hypothetically I live in a council flat with no job?”
Truemendous believes that grime isn’t something localised to a particular area. “I think anyone can be a grime artist if they've gone through hardship,” she says. “There are grime musicians anywhere - there are people that come from the suburbs who can still do grime. But I do think your location plays a part. If all you're surrounded by are hard times and drugs, you’re more likely to talk about that and you're more likely to do it as grime.”
As more and more MCs joined the ongoing cypher, I started to recognise some faces; one being Trilla (pictured below). Rising to prominence with “0121”, which was included on This is UK Grime Vol 1, Trilla has been at the forefront of Birmingham grime since 2010. He spent his youth watching Risky Roadz and Practice Hours DVDs, and has long been a vocal advocate for Brum, saying the city - where he was born - has fundamentally informed his work. “In Birmingham the gang culture was quite serious when I was a teenager,” he says. “It was a postcode war, but I never really understood it and I never agreed with it. I had friends from both sides, and it just didn't make any sense to me. So "0121 fuck a postcode" [the dialing code for the whole of Birmingham] was my slogan as I was coming up. Everyone knew that, and I was getting booked in different sides of Birmingham, but really I shouldn't be going to those places. “
“Even here, at The Drum - the first time I came here was probably 2006, and that was a crazy night because this isn't my area. For me to be here, some people didn't like it. But that was something I had to do, to show people that I'll stand up for what I believe in.”
Today, he says, the situation has improved. “I can go anywhere now. Everyone knows what I'm about, and because I've pushed the 0121 thing, people respect me for it, even if they don't like me. Being in Birmingham really helped me, because that's all I was about coming up - trying to get some recognition for Birmingham. So when I did, and “0121” was playlisted on 1Xtra, it was a big accomplishment for me.”
Trilla clearly believes in the strength of Birmingham talent, but he wants to see a more professionalised industry grow up around the scene. “Londoners understand the business side of things more than we do in Birmingham,” he says. “In terms of promotion and marketing, we're kind of behind. The scene is there, but it could do with some more structure.”
That is a situation that Jamie Dred is trying to change. “That's the motivation for starting StayFresh,” he says. “There was no infrastructure, and people weren't coming out professionally. You didn't even have people creating simple things like mailing lists, contact lists, and press releases.”
“So over the years I think we've definitely helped change that, but we will need more people in Birmingham that want to become managers and agents, who want to be more than DJs or MCs or producers, for the industry to grow. But I'm starting to see it happen and it's a beautiful thing. There's so much talent, and there's so much more room for it to grow. It would be good for labels to actively have some sort of strategy towards the Midlands and outside of London. We are important. People like 1Xtra are here for a reason - we're making a lot of noise.”
By the end of the day, I’ve heard enough to understand that Birmingham definitely has all the talent to drive grime forward as an artform, and what I first thought was a surface interest actually has a big fucking iceberg of young stars beneath who can spit fire quicker than you can say Bow. However, much like London failed to do in the mid-noughties, turning that passion into a grime industry that pays, promotes and helps its artists will be the first major challenge for the Midlands melting pot.
Catch up on all of our Grime Week content right here.