Grime – the UK’s underground rap scene

Today I thought I’d talk a little about another musical obsession of mine – Grime. For those that have been hiding under a rock for the last ten years, Grime is a homegrown rap scene that is still largely underground, but with some huge and very well known pop crossovers, such as Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Tinchy Strider, all of whom have achieved top ten chart positions as well as international success. Despite this, grime is still not mainstream and if anything is as raw & DIY now as it was 12 years ago, when it first sprung out of the council estates of East London. Grime often concerns the lives of young Londoners of many races, but primarily kids of African Caribbean parentage – just like hip hop before it, the music deals with street violence, ordeals with the police – but often, hilarious and surreal lyrics about British life. It is a uniquely British voice that resonates with me deeply.

Part of the reason why the scene hasn’t ascended to it’s rightful place at the forefront of contemporary British music is the way that raves and live events have been continually shut down by the police, using the notorious form 696 – which targets music events in a nakedly racist way that are likely to be of interest to black people. The police did it with reggae in the eighties, US police do it with hip hop in the states and the Met have strangled the grime scene here. The police know full well that shared cultural spaces are important to a community, and make no mistake, this is about control. Many people die at rock events, but they never get shut down, blockaded or are subject to heavy handed policing. Why is this?

Check out Dan Hancox’s ruminations on grime being the perfect protest music, by the way.

And it saddens me greatly that there isn’t more pride in this tremendously creative, energetic scene when fey, privately educated white boys playing maudlin indie rock are celebrated like it’s something new or important. Screw all that. It’s time to celebrate this scene by diving into a selection of explosive grime tracks.

A disclaimer: all of the tracks I’m going to talk about are my personal favourites. I’m not trying to represent what are considered to be canonical grime records, that would be another task in itself.

A brief history of Grime

Grime emerged in a small part of East London, called Bow, in the early 2000’s. Bow is an inner city area that is subject to extreme economic deprivation, up until the recent Olympics which has pumped money into the area for re-development (it’s too early to talk about how this will pan out long term, suffice to say that it shouldn’t take a big sporting event for us to deal with poverty, but that’s another topic).

Rather than aping hip hop, grime has an entirely different lineage, that comes from what music journalist Simon Reynolds calls the “hardcore continuum” – best described as the tradition of London street music, supported by an enduring network of pirate radio stations, DIY distribution and word of mouth events – something that spans decades and many genres:

Grime emerged from London’s pirate radio underground. Its immediate precursor was two-step (aka UK Garage), which at the turn of the millennium broke into the UK pop mainstream in a massive way. Two-step had been shaped by the “feminine pressure” for sing along melodies and wind-your-waist grooviness. Grime arose as a backlash against this crossover sound, a violent swing in the scene’s inner gender-pendulum from yin to yang. Out went two-step’s high pitched diva vocals, sensual swing, and sexed up amorousness; in came gruff rapping, stiff electro-influenced beats, and raucous aggression.

MCs have been part of the pirate radio tradition for at least fifteen years, going back through Garage and Jungle to the early days of Hardcore. By the end of the 90s, however, the MCs were moving beyond their customary restricted role as party ‘hosts’ and sidekicks to the DJ. Instead of gimmicky vocal licks and ‘praise the selector’ exhortations, they began to rap actual verses: initially, extended takes on traditional boasts about their own mic skills, but soon getting into narrative, complicated metaphors and rhyme schemes, vicious dissing of rivals, and even introspective soliloquies. The MC’s rise swiftly eclipsed the DJ, hitherto the most prominent figure on rave flyers or the main designated artist on record releases. 2001 was the turning point, when MCs shunted selectors out of the spotlight. So Solid Crew broke into the pop charts, and the underground seethed with similar collectives modeled on the clan/dynasty structures that prevail in American hiphop and Jamaican dancehall.

Grime is a direct descendent, in other words, of jungle and hardcore rave, via 2-step garage. UK underground dance music is a story of many schisms and regroupings – Simon tends to place year zero at 1990, with the emergence of hardcore rave and jungle, which always had MCs. The style of jungle MCing comes from a much earlier UK reggae scene known as fast chat (see this great mix here from John Eden and Paul Meme, and also this great mix cd by Heatwave which covers the length and breadth of British Jamaican music). The tradition is toasting, which is why grime MCing has entirely different cadences to American hip hop.

Jungle was hugely popular in the early to mid nineties but began to tail off around 1997 with the music shedding it’s overtly black influences and getting much more techno, harder and noiser. The black jungle audience deserted it in droves, for the nascent UK garage scene, which took jungles rudeness and married it to house tempo breakbeats that emulated jungles hyper-kinetic polyrhythms cleverly, subbass, rnb vocals…. and MC rapping. Here’s an example of an early UK garage MC track, from Heartless Crew:

Grime was an offshoot of the UK garage / 2-step scene that was quite raw compared the slicker, sometimes poppy sound of UK garage. Initially the scene elders (Djs like Dreamteam who once had a BBC Radio 1 show) were dismissive, but within a few years, Grime had all but edged out the older Djs and the scene was on. So… much abridged history over, lets listen to some tracks.

Wiley and Boy Better Know

Richard Kylea Cowie, otherwise known as Wiley, is probably the best known MC behind Dizzee. His work pre-dates the both the grime and garage scenes considerably, starting his musical career MCing on jungle pirates as far back as 1997. Following this he was in Pay As U Go Cartel, and then he exploded on to the grime scene. He’s older than many of the MCs and is regarded as the founding father of grime, even more so than Dizzee.

What I love about Wiley is how unique his lyrics are – which might involve strange conversations with himself, rumination on eating pies and many other unique and funny topics. He strikes me almost as a grime version of Ray Davies – unconsciously channeling contemporary British mores into pop, the little things about our lives that sometimes we don’t even notice. He should be as big as Dizzee. The two have worked together but there’s definitely a rivalry.

Here’s a brilliant example of Grime’s futuristic rave spikiness (the sonic lineage between grime and rave is something that I think is immediately obvious), and Wiley’s off the wall surrealism. “I’m eating chicken korma, pilau and nan – I got no qualms” he says at one point.

In this next track, Wiley gets harangued by an irate girlfriend about laziness, produced by the talented Danny Weed, and featuring several other Roll Deep members including Riko Dan (more from him later):

Next up, I love this collaboration between Wiley and old school jungle MC, Bassman, another example of the crossover between a much earlier scene. Bassman is probably in his forties now, just like me (I was 21 when the rave scene kicked off, old bugger that I am).

Here’s a hilarious cut from Wiley’s most recent album, Evolve Or Be Extinct on Big Dada, where he impersonates a variety of taxi firm customers, from cockney, to Jamaican, to middle class white bloke (“infants, juniors, school and college / university, bowl of porridge – with toast if you like”) to an angry man losing his rag and swearing at the taxi controller.

Finally on a Wiley tip, here’s a great Boy Better Know track, Too Many Man. An ensemble of Roll Deep MCs toasting over a funky grime track – as one of the Youtube commentators says, Frisco “duppies the track” – his rap is twisted. Funny video too.

Ruff Squad

From Grimiepedia (ha!):

Ruff Sqwad is a grime collective from Bow E3 in East London. They were formed in 2001. Tinchy Stryder, Slix, Rapid, Dirt David (formerly Dirty Danger) and Sir Spyro are all members that were born in the Republic Of Ghana. Mad Max, one of the founding members of Ruff Sqwad, departed in 2006 before Ruff Sqwad’s second mixtape was released. DJ Scholar left Ruff Sqwad officially in 2010. Shifty Rydos returned to Ruff Sqwad in 2011 after a long hiatus from grime. 2011 also saw the departure of long-time Ruff Sqwad member Fuda Guy in order for him to concentrate on his solo career and the initiation of DJ Sir Spyro to replace DJ Scholar.

Ruff Squad is the big rival MC collective to Wiley’s Roll Deep. They are an intensely talented group, characterised by a highly idiosyncratic production style and clever production techniques when it comes to choruses, samples of their own rapping and layered vocals.

To kick off, here is not only one of my favourite ever grime records, but it easily makes my top ten favourite songs of all time, of any genre – the monstrous “Xtra”. Check the jungalistic bassline, this track is amazingly heavy.

Here’s another slice of Ruff Squad rawness. The production values are low, but it’s a killer track.

And next up, a more recent Ruff Squad track, Gully, with rather rude lyrics. I just love the technoid instrumental that underpins this track – really out there production, something else that delineates grime from US hip hop, which has largely abandoned such strange sonic landscapes. Like the safe sex shout out from Ghetto about using condoms. Who said youth are all irresponsible?

And lastly, here’s a solo effort from a Ruff Squad member, Tinchy Strider – the seminal “Underground”. I love how he uses dog barks as percussion. Note that in grime’s early days, producers created beats using music programs on the Playstation 2, and any other software they could get hold of. Sometimes the samples used are basic compared to house and techno – which have much longer histories, and largely more sophisticated production values – but that doesn’t necessarily mean better, of course. I like the DIY nature of grime, just as I did the “bedroom producer” ethos of most jungle and rave tracks. This stuff is wasn’t sanctioned by the music labels or the establishment. Kids created and distributed it themselves using whatever came to hand. Respect is due in my opinion.

This is another reason why I couldn’t care less about major music labels whining about piracy – they’ve presided over decades of under-investment, churning out shit music calculated purely on the bottom line and completely ignored one of the most exciting and innovative music scenes to ever come out of the UK – right under their noses. These artists succeeded in spite of these useless dicks. Independent labels going to the wall is a different matter, of course. These people actually care about music, for a start.

Note how young Tinchy looks in this video. He’s now a successful pop star who’s sound has mellowed somewhat. Oh and check the nutty rave-grime track that comes in towards the end.

Dizzee Rascal & Newham Generals

Of course, no article on grime would be complete without giving Dizzee a mention, although I kind of feel he’s so big now (appearing at the Olympic opening ceremony, no less) that he doesn’t need props in a humble blog post like this. Dizzee is another super-talent, who has transcended the grime scene completely. He first came to fore with “I luv u”, an incendiary exploration of sexual politics in London’s youth. The lyrics were harrowing, and look at teenage pregnancies from a male point of view. There was a softer version of this track that dealt with love, as he felt it was unbalanced otherwise – there are also many replies using the same backing, by female MCs. It really made his name. Since then he’s gone from strength to strength.

I’m not going to post the big tracks which everyone knows, but here’s a slice of early Dizzee, from the seminal grime compilation, Run The Road. This is yet another grime track that just totally evokes hardcore rave for me. That bass pulse, and twisted samples… just mindblowing. “Give me the mic and let me get raw / What the hell do you think we came down here for?”

Dizzee’s Dirtee Stank label’s first signings were the Newham Generals, a grime duo consisting of D Double E and Footsie. D Double E in particular is a very talented rapper. Here’s a brilliant Westwood session with them freestyling. As an aside, I used to view Tim Westwood as a bit of an absurd figure. He championed US hip hop for decades, and decades on Radio 1 but like many people I have an issue with his weird pretend transatlantic accent, and cringeworthy hip hop speak from a middle aged son of a vicar. Famously KRS1 walked out of his radio show after a furious on air argument, and Westwood himself defended his accent, saying that if black men get to the boardroom, they don’t use street language, and kind of, cos hip hops his job, he has to speak that way. Riiiight. Anyway I’ve changed my mind about him mostly because of his tireless support of grime. At the end of the day who cares? He’s one of the good guys.

Anyway, this is an amazing live session with Dizzee and the Generals – just listen to the first track. That instrumental featuring the pitched down drones is total darkside rave. And Dizzee’s frenetic word-perfect rapping is truly a wonder to behold:

Here’s a heavy Newham Generals track, with a video set in a grimey East London locale, a favourite device of grime videos.

And the softer side of the Generals with the brilliant “Move to the beat” – this is a personal favourite. I just love the rhythm, it’s so unusual and funky. This track is from Logan Sama’s old Kiss radio show.

Female grime MCs

There’s a rich tradition with grime, just as in dancehall, of strong female MCs who can easily battle their male counterparts. What I like about some of this stuff is that sometimes it eschews the macho raucousness of a typical grime cut… and sometimes it doesn’t!

Here’s the brilliant Lady Sovereign, with Shystie, Jammer, JME and Baby Blue. “You might not see me on the streets at night / But you’ll definitely see my white three stripes”.

The brilliantly inventive Lady Leshurr is next – with a cute video that references sci fi, afro-futurism and surreal metaphors played out brilliantly. This MC deserves to be big.

And here’s another Westwood freestyle featuring Ny, NoLay, Lady Chann, Lady Leshurr, Lioness, Princess Nyah & Alex Mills.

Random grime thrills

Here’s a selection of grime tracks, some more obscure than others from a variety of crews.

First up is Peckham grime maestro, Giggs. Giggs is not to everyones taste when it comes to grime – his laconic thug delivery leaves some cold, but this track is hilarious, due to it’s increasingly bizarre sexual euphemisms (“Chocolate… she’s gonna get the wonker / Smash… she’s going to get the conker / Splash…. she’s gonna get the lobster”).

Here’s a slice of hyper angry aggression from Tempa T, which highlights perfectly the explosive side of grime. I can imagine this track driving people nuts in the rave. Sure, the lyrics are far from positive (“Better hand over the bag, your boys don’t want to see you shot”) but it’s exhilarating – besides I’m tired of having to defend dark concepts in music when most people couldn’t give a fuck about life on the estate. Music is a much easier target for outrage, than getting angry about the inequalities in British society.

The effervescent Stage Show Riddim from Skepta. There are many, many versions of this instrumental with all kinds of MCs chatting over it. I heard a version with some Jamaican dancehall artists toasting over recently, but unfortunately I can’t find it online. I wonder how this track got over to JA?

An obscure track I stumbled over by accident, which I love. John Wayne though, seriously?

A bass-heavy jungalistic slice of electro grime from Dot Rotten. Could listen to this track forever, its ruff.

Brasco on the bass tip, with For Da Game:

The dubstep / grime crossover

Dubstep is grimes instrumental cousin. Another direct descendent of hardcore rave & jungle, dubstep is a much dubbier version of garage, with the original music featuring lots of space, slo-mo beats (that are actually cleverly running at 140 bpm, the same speed as grime and techno). I’ve seen grime MCs struggle to chat over dubstep because it’s not as frenetic as grime, but there is a significant cross-over between the genres, and MCs often perform at Fwd, the dubstep mecca. By the way, I do NOT count Skrillex and all that midrange nonsense as dubstep. I am an EDM refusenik.

Here’s Roll Deep’s Flowdan toasting over The Bug, remixed by Loefah. (Incidentally, here’s a wicked Bug dancehall record featuring the gruff vocal talents of Wayne Lonesome, check it out).

Sci-fi influenced grime / dubstep, with Ghetto and Griminal (great name) on vocal duties:

And finally, a clip from RinseFM of wunderkind Cluekid:

Phew. That’s it for now, even though I’ve barely scratched the surface. Hope you enjoyed it, and please suggest any tracks which I should have included in the comments!

“People have to respond to that bass frequency, especially with reggae music. They have to feel it”

Mad Professor

Time for some more tasty Mad Professor tidbits – listening to that great Marvin Gaye dub whetted my appetite for more of this 2nd generation UK-based Guyanese producer. Mad Professor (real name Neil Fraser) was so called because of his aptitude with electronics. This is what distinguishes the 2nd generation of dub controllers – the technology. The first wave having used mostly analog effects including pain-staking work on reel to reel tape decks. Digidub is not always well regarded these days by reggae heads, with some feeling it has dated (I used to love Dub Syndicate in the eighties, for example, but find them hard to listen to, now) – but Mad Professor’s work might be sometimes devastatingly stripped down, but it still FEELS rootsy and the soul is always there.

His electronic based production techniques also led to collaborations with many different artists outside of the reggae world, which we will come to shortly. In fact I discovered Mad Professor via his famous Massive Attack “No Protection” dub album, of which this is a scarily intense example:

Next up is a fascinating, but short interview of both Mad Professor and the famous UK soundsystem master, Jah Shaka. Footage like this, especially with Shaka is exceedingly rare. Jah Shaka has never been into self promotion and recordings of live performances are hard to come by (there’s this and this on Soundcloud, but seriously go see him, it will be mind blowing). I particularly like the quote about feeling the bass – this chimes with me about Jungle too. It’s not really the same experience listening to it at home as it is through an enormous system, so heavy that the very air you breath in the rave is trembling with bass weight.

Mad Professor is an amazingly prolific artist. Here’s one of his early nineties productions from his Ariwa studio (in West London, now in South Norwood, about half a mile from where I live, incidentally), from the Black Liberation Dub series.

A very rootsy sounding collaboration with another dub reggae great, Scientist:

Here’s one of Mad Professor’s many many remixes of UK pop artists – the sublime Sade, Lovers Rock. Mad Professor has spoken warmly of the UK Lovers Rock scene (check out these brilliant podcasts by him from Fabric, here and here). This homegrown reggae genre from London still divides reggae fans – especially older roots and dub heads who feel that it’s poppy insouciance runs counter to what reggae should be about, but in reality lovers was huge here even if JA born Jamaicans give it short shrift. A great lovers rock mix by John Eden can be found here.

And finally another live dub on the same radio station as the Marvin Gaye clip – this time featuring Bob Marley. Enjoy.