Not the dirt you find on kitchen counters, but rather the music genre straight out of London’s early 2000s. It grew out of an earlier form of percussive electronic music known as UK Garage, a style marked by shuffling drum beats and the occasional pitch-shifted vocal samples. The other major influence is ragga (short for raggamuffin, Patois slang self-applied to mean music of the ghetto dwellers), a form of electronic reggae characterized by increasingly fast beats. Mixed together, they create an aggressive electro sound known for rapid syncopated beats. From personal experience, a great combination to make your car windows shake violently.
The hybridity of the style ultimately accounts for its widespread appeal to a variety of audiences and artists. In a city like London, which is marked by its largely diversified population, it seems almost improbable that any type of music will remain unchanged by its exposure to different groups. As grime grows in popularity, so does its variability. Though grime grew out of largely Afro-Caribbean communities scattered throughout the city, the reality of each population wasn’t the same. Music coming from the Eastern parts of London isn’t the same as the one coming from West London. The songs, both lyrics and music, reflect the different experiences of artists who grew up in the streets outside of central London. Generally, this experience tends to match the aggressiveness of the sound.
Grime has won an unfair reputation of inspiring violence, a common judgment for most rap music. In the Noisey documentary “Don’t Call It Road Rap,” Mike Skinner, English musician and producer, interviews members of ‘67’, a drill collective from South London (largely influenced by Chicago drill music, esp. Chief Keef). In the video, Skinner notes that people fail to see the positive message most artists are actually trying to convey, often misinterpreting criticism of urban reality as the promotion of it. Grime MCs are exposing the harshness of growing up on the streets, where minorities are subject to both gang activity and police brutality. Often, these neighborhoods are merely one street away from upper-class locations, which creates a sense of alienation and social tension. Two music videos that exemplify this really well are Young T & Bugsey’s “Gangland” (feat. Belly Squad) and Hakkz & Mulla’s “Come Find Me”.
Grime artists use music as a platform to succeed in spite of the harsh realities that surround them. There are many people who do not want this platform to grow. Because the majority of grime MCs and rappers are young and independently promoting their music through social media, there is a fear of allowing a generation to grow up on easily accessible ‘devilish music’. Shows and raves get periodically shut down by police who fear violent outburst and gang activity. Most music videos feature scenes of cop cars patrolling the neighborhoods rappers live in. And yet, self-made rappers and crews continue to promote themselves and get attention, some even starting to go international.
Born Che Wolton Grant in 1994, from Ladbroke Grove (North-West London) a.k.a ‘AJ from the Lane’. His dad is a rapper from Trinidad and his mom is a Welsh former drummer and bass DJ.
“Basically when I used to shot, I couldn’t give my real name. I used to wear loads of Armani, so I called myself AJ. The Tracey comes from this guy called Stacey in my ends. Everyone used to be/is scared of him so I thought, if a man has a girl’s name and he’s still scaring people, then maybe I should try doing it so I can be THAT guy.” (interview with GRM daily)
Songs: False 9, Packages, Pasta, Buster Cannon, Blacked Out, Spirit Bomb, Champions League
“Fader said I’m doing up shows (that’s real, you know)
Complex said I’m gonna blow (Complex)
The papers said that you should come and watch man (Guardian)
My mama said to leave my bro alone (haha)” – Pasta
Born Justin Clarke in 1984, from Plaistow Newham (East London), with roots from Jamaica and Grenada.
“Justin Clarke… I guess that’s who I am around my mum, and my nan: cool, calm, and collected. Actually, not so much around my mum, because my mum, she’s a teacher—she used to work in youth clubs—so she’s familiar with the behaviour of the youth. But around my nan, I am definitely Justin [laughs].” (interview with Complex)
Songs: Balaclava, Bad Boy, Who’s Got A Problem, Serious Face, Rebel, Know My Ting, I’m Ghetts, Esco’s Spirit
“If I’ve changed, have I changed for the worst?
I come home with blood stains on my shirt
Tryna’ fool my mum like it’s April the first
Just to think I was raised in a church.” – State of Mind
Actual name, born in 1998, from Streathman (South London), with Nigerian roots.
“I started my first year at college on May 10 2015, and dropped my first video, Black Box on the same day, it’s pretty weird. I’m studying Philosophy and Ethics, Law and Music. Ethics helps a lot with music. Philosophy gives you a great perspective on things; it makes you think deeper about what you’re saying.” (profile from Vice)
Songs: Wanna Know, Samantha, Thiago Silva, Six Paths, JKLY + HYD, Blackbox Freestyle
“See every boy’s a trapper till the shit hits the fan
And then shit hits the wall, you’re flushing bits of the raw
And every girl’s a trap queen, till they kickin’ the door
And now you’re in the station telling stories like Roald Dahl.”- Blackbox Freestyle
Born Momudou Jallow in 1996, from Stratford (East London), with Gambian roots
“I used to like this ‘Hus’ thing. It’s short for hustler, innit. I liked the way it sounds and I would always say it. Hus, Hus. It’s short, simple, easy to remember and it’s still unique. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone with a name like that.” (interview with Noisey)
Songs: Lean and Bop, Friendly, Did You See, Common Sense, Spirit, Samantha (feat.)
“They never seen such a skinny man in a big puffer jacket
That’s unfamiliar, I came lookin’ like a body builder
Out here’s windy, yana, you’re the one that I’m into, yana”- Did You See
Born 1993, from Croydon (South London), cousin of Stormzy (a.k.a Michael Omari)
“We’re cool, but I don’t like the fact that we’re separated from the guys. Sometimes I feel they like to force the ‘unity’ too much and therefore separate themselves even more. Like, we’re the girls, we stick together. But right now we’re trying to bridge the gap. It’s cool that unity’s there, but also understand that the guys are there and they’re still our competition as well. We need to be drilling all angles.” (interview with The Guardian)
Songs: Skwod, Tight Up, 2H2H, Puddycat, Breathe Slow
“‘Cause nobody bad like me
I’m fucking higher than a block of flats in Battersea
And I’m with my team (skwody)” – Skwody
Born 1988, from Haringey (North London), with Nigerian roots, the sister of JME and Skepta (founders of Boy Better Know Crew)
She is a radio presenter who is now an Apple Music station anchor for show called Beats 1.
A.G the DJ
Started her career with a show on pirate station Urban FM, until taking up moving to a grime station for her mix show
She now makes grime mixes on her station MnM on NTS.
GRIME ON CAMPUS
Grime is making its way overseas, finding its way to Hyde Park. I met two students on campus who are avid listeners, and got their perspectives on the genre. We start off with third year Steve Berkowitz from London, and then third year Sam Royall from Texas, comparing an international viewpoint to American one.
Carlotta: How did you get into Grime?
Stevie B: School mostly (went to UCS in Hampstead), you get exposed to what you hear on playground and what people are playing on their phones. It’s almost inescapable. At that time, UK rap artists were becoming popular and the music was blowing up; some songs started having mainstream success. In England people get into music because of there’s a whole culture built around watching it live and going to performances, making it a really active experience instead of a passive one.
Tell me about your first rave!
I was 16 years old, don’t even remember who it was. Harry Bizzle, maybe? Yeah, was a very small place, and he’d get a huge kick out of going ‘When I say Harry you say Bizzle!’ I don’t know if he still runs the circuit. There are different types of raves, some raves get really scary. But most grime I’ve seen in concerts, they’re big at performing at music festivals around England.
Has coming to the US changed your taste in music?
Honestly, it’s only strengthened my appreciation for British rap because I find it more relatable. Everything from the lyrics to the actual lexical choices, like the grammar and slang, reminds me of home. Even regionally, hearing music from North London artists resonates with me more, since that’s where I grew up. Grime and British rap also has become a point of contact with my friends from the UK. We stay in touch by sending tracks to one another. I think overall, I’ve been exposed to more music having been in the US, but grime always takes me home.
What’s it like showing grime to Americans?
My first year I got a lot of noise complaints because I’m a strong believer in the idea that music is best appreciated when loud. So yeah, my first year there’d be a lot of pre-games where I’d try to hype people up and try to set an ambiance that is difficult to create with other music. I always felt proud to play this type, because its aggression and noise combined has an ability to bring everyone together, almost a jolt of joint adrenaline. There have been people who reacted badly, the sound is jarring and loud. Comparatively, most American rap can be almost monotone so this can make people uncomfortable. The irony being that grime was pioneered to make people uncomfortable, and its delivery is supposed to be aggressive and loud; people who listen to grime look for that in the music.
Did you find that there was already a small grime scene that existed here?
I was really surprised with how many people were into a handful of artists form the British scene when I came. Its super impressive how music can travel across the world like that, especially since it’s a scene that grew in a really regional context. Yeah, got a crew to go to Skepta last year! There were people from every fraternity, almost, and it’s amazing how they can all appreciate the sound. I really think it also strengthened friendships, seeing as now we talk about music and what we listen to. With grime it’s always a way to open discussion and connect.
Do you think people misunderstand grime?
That’s a pretty contested point, this whole idea of ‘what is the point of grime?’. There’s a lot of people who listen to tracks some people would consider not grime and it leads into how do you label music. Personally, I think you can have artists and songs that start off as traditional grime that later develop as the whole scene really develops. That evolution can then still be considered grime.
What’s the difference between early grime vs. more mainstream grime?
There’s definitely more aggression in early grime, something I think can alienate audiences. Skepta for example has some of the same aggression, but has been influenced by the type of sound you hear in more mainstream hip hop and rap, making it a bit softer and often more appealing to a larger audience.
Have the lyrics changed as genre grows?
Rap has always been playful, there’s a lot of similes metaphors mixed in with pop culture references. I think grime artists lack some of the same philosophical ambition as American hip hop artists have. I don’t think they’re [grime artists] trying to induce a change, at least to an extent there is less of that. I guess this comes with the origination, like the question ‘Why do people start rapping?’ In England, it can start at school, with friends, and so you talk about the things that surround you; it’s much more of a depiction than a reflection I think. There is more a sense of British tact and antiestablishment, mixed with cultural ways to affront life. The way we [British] communicate at school and with our friends involves a different type of language; the day to day mentality is more straightforward almost. We go about our days and do what we have to do, then relax. Rap is a way of almost trivializing the things we take seriously through rhyme and pop culture.
How do you think this could gain more traction in the US?
I think bringing more international students in, playing it more at parties, stuff like that. It’s definitely growing. I think more shows would be the best way, but because of legal issues surrounding artists’ ability to travel that gets quite hard. But I feel like if people were able to really experience the music, they’d be able to buy into it more and enjoy the genre.
Up next, Sam Royall!
Carlotta: How did you first get into grime?
Sam: Big names like Skepta and Stormy made their way into the US when I was in High School, which made me want to explore the genre further. Learning about the history of British Hip-Hop and its dancehall roots made me appreciate the culture on top of my already existent love for its production style and the fast-paced rhythm of the artists who rap over it.
Performances you’ve seen, and how they made you appreciate the genre?
I saw Skepta at Concord Music Hall last Spring. It was a great show. A lot of people came out on a school night, and I was really surprised to see how many people knew the songs and vibed with the whole environment. I think UK hip-hop makes a lot of sense live. It grew out of dancehall, so I love experiencing it in a club setting with a bunch of other fans. It really creates a community around the genre, which gives it all life.
Do you feel like you’re able to appreciate the music even if not from there?
I think it’s really easy to write someone off for liking a style of music that comes from somewhere other than where he or she lives. But I think it’s important to realize that in our globalized world, artists want to have their sound become international. Many American rappers have devoted followings in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and I think a lot of Americans aren’t ready to accept grime as being of the same caliber. So yeah I think if you like music, it shouldn’t matter where it comes from. In the end you’re just contributing to the spread of culture worldwide.
How do you stay updated on grime?
I mainly just stay updated on what my favorite artists are putting out, and check out featured and other related artists. Word of mouth is always helpful too.
What do you like most about the genre?
I like its authenticity. It’s just like anything else in music. Region’s tend to have certain sounds, especially in rap. And while that line has been kind of blurred because of people working together from different parts of the country, over social media or just in general, UK hip hop has a very brazenly unique sound. The production is really interesting, and the music is just fun.
How do you think the earlier and newer forms of grime compare to mainstream music in America?
I think grime doesn’t necessarily need to be compared to American rap. While both are forms of hip-hop, UK rap is really quite different from its American counterpart. It was influenced by early American hip-hop, of course, but it was also meant to be a departure from it, as something uniquely British. So I have trouble with people comparing them as if this weren’t the case. I hope Americans can see it as its own genre.
How do you think grime should be popularized here, and do you think there is a growing space for it?
I think there should always be room for exploration in someone’s music taste. A lot of American’s aren’t used to grime and can’t get past some of its unique qualities. But as cultures inevitably become for familiarized with each other, I think all sorts of international music will grow. All of the world listens to American music, and I think a lot of people here are missing out by not being more open to hear what is being made outside of the US.
Here’s a photo of them with friends at Skepta last spring!
YouTube channel dedicated to the promotion of UK’s latest in Urban Culture. Everything from music videos and shows to interviews and news.
YouTube channel showing off the young and unsigned talent popping up in UK’s Urban scene. Host their own shows and freestyle competitions, and a lot of behind-the-scenes looks.
Written by Carlotta Verita.