There is something rather peculiar about the United Kingdom that breeds youth subcultures like no other place on earth. There are, of course, countless positive forces within our country that drive art and culture forward, but more often than not it’s the divisions - the class system, the general sense of dissatisfaction - that acts as an evolutionary catalyst driving Britain’s young cultural subterranea to constantly re-energise and innovate their landscape. Punk, ska, hip-hop, the blues; these are endless examples of people turning sociocultural misery into musical magic, as if from water into wine. Some of these subcultures last no longer than a blink of an eye, but every so often the planets align and something extraordinary happens, something so distinct and deep-rooted that it actually transcends the music itself and pours out into fashion, art, language, attitude and lifestyle.
In the last 13 years, Grime has become exactly that; a movement relocated from the dangerous pockets of neglected East London council estates to the star-spangled billboards of New York, LA, Paris and Tokyo. Originally set aside as a fringe enterprise bound to the confines of police court orders, pirate radio and park-bench polyphony, Grime is now the world’s leading cultural commodity representing young people the world over - and yet it remains distinctly British.
Emerging from the dark underbelly of London’s early ‘00s electronic club scene, you would be mistaken, as many have been, for referring to Grime as the UK’s answer to American hip-hop. For one, the hyper-speed multisyllabic phrasing of Grime rappers has much more to do with the UK jungle and garage dance raves where MCs would wax lyrical over tempos inherently faster than that of traditional hip-hop, treating the voice as just another percussive instrument to elevate the dancing experience.
More interestingly, however, is the aesthetic of Grime’s instrumentation. Unlike our American hip-hop counterparts who sampled the rich 70s soul records of their parents to create the bedrock of a cunning beat, the distinctive sound of British Grime was born out of a period in history where a frenzy of illegal downloading online brought the democratisation of access to expensive music production software that London’s underprivileged young creatives had no other way of obtaining.
Pirated copies of digital audio workstations (D.A.W.) such as Fruity Loops and Propellerhead Reason were burnt onto CDs and passed around school playgrounds like Chinese Whispers. The default sound-banks loaded onto these software programs were harsh and abrasive; cheap drum kicks, jagged hi-hats and corrosive bass pads only intended for demo practice until you could afford to purchase better quality sounds. But early Grime producers developed an instant affinity with the coarse noises - loud, gritty, acidic - sonically it was everything that reflected the reality of their inner-city landscape. Feeling neglected by the state and trapped within a world of gang violence, absentee parents and relative poverty, the deep bellow of the Grime sound became a metaphorical megaphone for London’s disadvantaged youth screaming out to be heard.
And it wasn’t long before people did. In 2003, 16-year-old East London Grime artist Dizzee Rascal’s debut album ‘Boy in da Corner’ was awarded the Mercury Prize, fending off Coldplay and Radiohead for the title of Britain’s most prestigious music award (past winners include Arctic Monkeys, The xx, Alt-J, Portishead and Primal Scream). The album eschews a despairing wail of issues faced by London’s most impoverished; underage pregnancy, knife-crime and postcode wars packaged up with a distinctly British sensibility and the energy and finesse of a championship boxer. Thanks to 5* reviews by The Guardian and Rolling Stone, the album reached the ears of London’s liberal middle-class, who treated the album as a signpost for well-needed political change, even prompting David Cameron to launch an embarrassingly misdirected ‘Hug-A-Hoodie’ campaign.
But for all of Grime’s achievements domestically, America and the wider world still weren’t listening. The general feedback was that the British vernacular was too hard to understand when it came to rap music, the colloquial slang too exclusive for mass listenership and radio play. Grime began to grind to a halt, Dizzee Rascal got signed to a major label and began writing pop music and in 2006 the government issued ‘Form 696’ to target violence at music events, putting a block on Grime events that slowly, but surely, dissolved the genre from the charts.
It wasn’t until 2014 that Grime found its voice again, this time through the lips of North London’s MC Skepta. Thanks to a nostalgic video lamenting the early days of Grime with vintage footage of street cyphers and lyrics that appeased the commercial direction Grime had taken in place of a raw, unrelenting and uncompromising approach, ‘That’s Not Me’ became a flagpole for a new wave in the genre. Drake co-signed Skepta after hearing the track and appeared himself in the intro of Skepta’s next release ‘Shutdown’, racking up 19 million views on Youtube. In 2015, Kanye West went further and brought more than a dozen of British Grime royalty on stage at the Brit Awards for his performance, sending global press into overdrive.
There are many parallels to be drawn between the recent post-Millienial boom of Grime music and its attraction worldwide, but the most important factor leads straight back to the youth. Much like the way youth culture around the world has moved away from the pristine nature of Facebook towards the raw and real content of platforms like Snapchat and Periscope, so too have young people become perturbed by the sustained gentrification, increasingly exorbitant rents and post-sanitisation of the cities and towns they are living in. Grime directly responds to that yearning with something real, raw and authentic. Take a look at South London MC Stormy’s video for ‘Shut Up’, which has racked up over 35 million views on Youtube, in part because of its off-the-cuff nature that includes mistakes and amateur sound recording. A peak of Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ video must look utterly exotic to the rest of the world - no designer wear, just Air Force One sneakers, powder-black tracksuits and fitted caps. It’s unapologetically British, depicting a vision of London still filled with grit, danger and abrasive urban attitude.
It’s easy to confuse Grime as a music genre that is being popularised by a handful of artists, when in fact, it’s grown far beyond into a subculture that is taking over the world in every medium. PUMA, Mercedes-Benz, UNIQLO and Adidas have all rushed to be part of the growing scene, recognising the global influence the movement has. Moving forward, the meteoric rise of Grime doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon, and as long as it remains authentic at its heart who knows how far and how deep it will entrench itself into lives around the world.
Imagery courtesy of Wot Do U Call It.