Once reviled, with artists like Stormzy and Skepta grime has now come of ageby Joy White / July 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
All you need to become a grime MC are lyrical skills and the courage to perform. There are no financial barriers to entry. And at a time when the public school-educated pop star seems more common than ever, this is the beauty of grime—and one reason why it is a musical art form that matters in 21st-century Britain.
When grime first entered the public consciousness, it came with the tired stereotypes of guns, gangs and knives—just as hip-hop music was seen when it first burst on the scene in the United States in the 1980s. Like its American counterpart, as well, we have recently seen the emergence of a sharper political edge to this very British musical genre. During the 2017 general election campaign a group of artists formed Grime4Corbyn and urged their followers to vote Labour. During this February’s Brit Awards Stormzy provoked the ire of the Daily Mail when, in a freestyle rap, he called out Theresa May for what he and many other black people felt was her lack of care for Grenfell fire victims. More recently, grime MC Marci Phonix challenged Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng over the Windrush scandal.
Grime has altered the soundscape of UK popular music and its story deserves to be told. Dan Hancox’s new book, Inner City Pressure, arrives at a time when the music can be heard everywhere—as a backdrop to sell snacks, soft drinks and cars, as well as a way to encourage young people to get involved in politics. A cultural aesthetic that was once devalued—and has certainly had its creative ups and downs—now suddenly feels feted and desirable.
Grime emerged from inner-city east London in the early part of the 21st century. Its influences range from US hip-hop to reggae (particularly dancehall), jungle and UK garage. Using a distinctive flow and English regional accents, grime MCs rap over a sparse 140 beats per minute. The lyrics include an array of motifs: crime, success and making money, for sure, but also friendship and love.
Back in the early 2000s, grime was a ubiquitous east London soundscape. At my sister’s house in Plaistow, I heard my nephews put beats and lyrics together. While running a company in Silvertown, I was visited by reluctant Year 10 students for work experience. In a borough where over 100 languages were spoken in schools—perhaps even more today—grime was a common thread among young people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Somewhere in my house I have an ancient hard drive that contains the first efforts of those teenage boys, their voices barely broken, telling stories about school, girls and the neighbourhood.
In its early years, grime marketed itself through radio, record shops and raves. It was helped by file sharing services like Limewire and Bearshare and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, but also digital television’s Channel U (now Channel AKA)—and, of course, YouTube. Police crackdowns on grime events in London meant that performance locations spread out further. As more social media platforms emerged, artists used Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat as promotional tools.
Dizzee Rascal was the first grime artist to break through into the mainstream: his first album, Boy in Da Corner, released when he was 18, won the Mercury Music Prize in 2003. The youngest ever winner of the prize, Dizzee went on to make tracks with bigger artists such as Calvin Harris and Robbie Williams. He even made an appearance on Newsnight in 2008 to comment on the outcome of the US election, where he was patronised by Jeremy Paxman. His fame culminated in an appearance at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Other well known grime artists who hit the big time include Wiley, “the godfather of grime,” whose track “On a Level” was a summer anthem of 2014; and Skepta, who performs both individually and as a member of Boy Better Know crew. Stormzy, a relative newcomer, came into view in 2015 with “Shut Up”—a nostalgic nod to old-school grime. His album Gang Signs and Prayer was the first grime album to reach number one.
Inner City Pressure charts the genre’s remarkable rise: Wiley collected his MBE in March; and Skepta, alongside Naomi Campbell, graced the cover of GQ. It seems that grime is now firmly embedded in the public psyche.
Crafted in a rather breathless style, in 13 fast-paced chapters, Hancox’s book may not suit all tastes but it certainly mirrors the energy of its subject. His style is fairly summed up by the following sentence: “Young people who have been forced up against the wall of their estate, boys in the corner, whose whole life constitutes a seemingly inescapable position. They are effectively under siege—not from tanks and air raids, but from poverty and youth violence, inequality, institutional and societal racism.” Written from the perspective of a journalist who knows the scene well and has interviewed all the main actors this is a comprehensive and well-contextualised history.
Hancox shows how grime has a “sonic, stable, geography” that draws on its fluid cultural connections to the Caribbean and West Africa, as well as drawing on the UK garage scene. We are able to appreciate the significance of pirate radio in spreading the word and understand how “crews” contribute to a convivial exchange of talent, resources and support. Contributions from the women in the scene—such as Lady Fury, Shystie, Nolay and Lady Leshurr—are highlighted throughout. He articulates poignantly the allure of the mainstream for those it absorbs and those it leaves behind.
Hancox quotes Kano’s track “This is England”: “I’m from where Reggie Kray got rich as fuck, East London, who am I to mess tradition up…” The street hustling that grime both describes and exemplifies is not so new after all, drawing as it does on the legendary stories of the East End as a place where dreams of success can be born. Young people with very little in the way of material resources find a way to make something out of nothing. The shiny new developments of Canary Wharf are alien spaces, bounded territories border patrolled by private security guards. Hancox conveys the sheer weight of what it must mean for young people living in proximity to these heavily guarded structures of wealth and privilege—in plain sight, but almost always out of reach.
Family contributions are an important aspect of the grime story: intricate networks comprised of parents and grandparents, formed at church, schools, football teams and patty shops. East London has always been multicultural, but with less black Caribbean migration than say Brixton or Ladbroke Grove. During the 1980s black families were few and far between on these streets, so close-knit bonds were formed. Tinchy Stryder recalls being allowed the space and time to practice with groups of friends at home.
After appearing to be in the creative doldrums for a few years grime has reached a turning point. It has become pop music: the head of Radio 1/ BBC 1Xtra has even claimed that it has the potential to be the UK’s greatest cultural export. The triumphs—including Skepta’s Mercury prize for Konnichiwa—make it appear that grime has indeed come back from the dead. A genre once vilified and subjected to draconian policing (Form 696—a risk assessment measure introduced in 2009 by the Metropolitan Police to monitor and curtail grime events was only scrapped in November 2017), is now being praised for its entrepreneurial spirit. A flourishing live scene is in evidence and grime MCs are finally getting paid. Sold out tours and concerts are becoming the norm—although whether this fits the original grime aesthetic is a matter for debate. The arguments over authenticity, who has sold out and who is keeping it real, continue as ever.
And what of those who don’t make it—who will never scale the heights of the Mercury Prize? Along the way to success some are pushed out. Fewer and fewer black people can be seen at grime nights, an anomaly that perhaps could have been dealt with in greater depth by Hancox. I would argue that for many black youth, access to black cultural forms, such as grime, has become increasingly restricted, mainly due to affordability (ticket prices can be prohibitive) as well as the heightened levels of surveillance that black youth are subjected to.
Inner City Pressure is a book not just for those who are interested in grime, but anyone interested in the impact that a decade of austerity has had on the poor. The characters are illustrated with colour, light and shade. Despite the privations of inner-city life, the humour, good nature and collective endeavour emerges strongly.
Hancox’s book comes after This is Grime from Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose, Hold Tight from Jeffrey Boakye, and Wiley’s autobiography, Eskiboy. Grime Kids by DJ Target is now available. Grime has come of age, and therefore it is worthy of its own canon—Hancox’s book is a much needed and welcome addition.
The author encourages us to celebrate the “independent, DIY spirit and sheer-self motivated perseverance—teenagers with nothing, making something more dazzling and millennial modern than anyone could ever have imagined.” From the grandchildren of the Windrush generation, why would we expect anything less?
Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime by Dan Hancox (William Collins, £20)