With comparisons between U.S. hip-hop and UK grime still rife, we took to our keyboards to dispel some common misbeliefs and underline just exactly what really makes grime grime.
As long as grime’s been on the rise, critics have postulated about when the scene will finally be successful on the scale of the American rap scene. And while there’s a certain virtue to that sort of economic guesswork, any further comparison with another MC-led scene reduces grime to just another MC genre, stripping it of the surrounding culture that defines it. There are many unique aspects to grime and grime culture aside from what’s coming out of the speakers. After giving you a brief introduction to the London-born genre in A Beginner’s Guide to Grime, we’re back with five things that have made the genre what it is today, and keep grime grime.
Pirate Radio Linked the Kids to the Scene
Across genres, pirate radio is responsible for the modern sounds of London. In the ’90s, jungle and garage evolved on pirate radio as much as they did in the clubs. On air, DJs spun new tunes and dub plates, premiering the genre’s newest anthems and next artistic steps. These radio stations illegally claiming their own frequency on the FM dial have been essential in shaping British club music and were one of the earliest showcases for grime. Before it even had a name as a genre of its own, grime was largely born on pirate radio as a late evolution of garage. You can hear this step forward on tracks like “Bound 4 Da Reload,” a tune blacklisted by garage’s old guard for being too aggressive, too cold. But producers and DJs of this new sound found their own airtime.
As always, the underground’s up-and-comers grabbed their own space on the pirate airwaves and broadcasted their new sound. “Pirate radio is really the kids’ link to the scene,” said garage producer Zed Bias,”‘cos if you’re a teenager, you can’t get into clubs yet. A lot of pirates are actually run by kids, so that’s where you’ll hear the future of the music.” And that, too, is how pirates became an essential part of early grime, giving air time to the lurching goliath rhythm of “Bound 4 Da Reload” and similar tunes, broadcasting across London to influence producers who would continue to develop the nascent sound of grime and feedback into the system. Once grime got its name and began to be a well-defined musical movement, stations like Kiss and Rinse became the de facto homes for grime (despite Rinse’s one-time, ultimately unsuccessful ban on MCs) and would be the FM destination for grimeheads.
Grime is Made for the Clubs
Unlike many other popular MC-focused genres around the world, grime is made almost solely for the club. Sure, it makes for a nice home listen, too, but grime’s bass-heavy instrumentals and rowdy vocals are best enjoyed inside of a speaker stack. This shouldn’t be surprising given that grime was born from club music. Garage and jungle often featured MCs on the mic, too, but the garage or jungle MC was just the host of the party and hype man. He was loud and his voice lifted you out of your body, but he wasn’t allowed to step out lyrically like grime MCs would. This original MC presence in the club was a tradition imported from Jamaican soundsystem culture via London’s sizable Caribbean immigrant population. The connection from the Caribbean to London is so strong that today it’s still common to hear an MC use Jamaican patois. Roll Deep’s Flowdan, for instance, grew up around soundsystem culture in London and his lyrics, like in “Jah War” or “No Gyal Tune,” are peppered with the Jamaican slang.
But the most significant tradition of soundsystem culture to make its way into grime is the spinback. It’s often noted certain Inuit tribes have many words for snow. A similar logic can explain why grime and UK club culture have many words for the spinback. You’ve got: rewind, pull up, wheel it, reload, come again, haul and pull, rerinse, from the top, wheel and deal it, lick wood, forward, and many other variations. The idea behind the spinback is simple. When the crowd really reacts to a tune, the DJ will rewind it and play it from the beginning, creating a back-and-forth with the audience and DJ and, if the rewind is done right, sending the club into a frenzy. Legend has it that it was custom for Lethal B’s “Pow” to get a spinback at each verse (there are 10). Clubs found it more sensible to ban the tune.
Versace Out, Nike In
Grime’s fashion can be understood as a rejection of garage’s well-documented excess. Garage’s substances of choice were cocaine and champagne, its threads equally as opulent. Garage was a culture of blowing all the money you earned in one night, and your clothes better look the part. Many UK garage clubs in the late ’90s banned trainers, jeans, and baseball caps, and these items became the chief pieces of grime fashion.
Grime style was born out of a frustration with garage’s ritzy elitism. Early grime MCs and producers felt garage didn’t represent them and didn’t speak to them. Grime fashion was a complete about-face. Versace out, Nike in. Silk shirts out, tracksuits in. Think: Dizzee on the cover of Boy In Da Corner. His all black streetwear, hood up, and Nike Air Maxes – the latter of which is well documented in Grace Ladoja’s short film. Comfort for hanging around with your friends in your hood, and making beats in your bedroom. Grime fashion, though fresh and clean, is the look of the urban everyman on the street. And now the grime style has been wholly embraced by high-end streetwear fanatics such as Nasir Mazhar, who even recruited Skepta for the catwalk show.
Where Would Grime Be Without Its Crew?
Though the collective is not unique to grime, a discussion of grime culture would be incomplete without crews. More irrelevant than in the past, grime crews used to be a community for MCs as artistic collaborators and most crews released albums as a whole collective. To name a few, there’s the old N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, a revolving door of members that included practically everyone in grime at one point or another; the Newham Generals, started by D Double E when he was kicked out of N.A.S.T.Y.; Boy Better Know, the current crew of grime stars Skepta, Wiley, and JME; and the now defunct Roll Deep, which included rivals Wiley and Dizzee back when the two friends were grime’s fastest rising stars.
One of the first grime crews, Roll Deep was formed in 2002 by a who’s who of early grimestars: Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Flowdan (then as Flow Dan), Tinchy Stryder, and others. Dizzee famously left the crew in 2003 after being stabbed while on holiday in Ayia Napa on the southern coast of Cyprus and rumor is that Wiley was on holiday with Dizzee, but returned to England without visiting Dizzee in the hospital following the stabbing. The incident and Dizzee’s subsequent disassociation with Roll Deep caused a rift in Dizzee’s relationship with Wiley and began one of grime’s most prominent rivalries. Though to this day Dizz and Wiley claim nothing but bonhomie, the middle of the last decade saw the two shoot a few tunes at each other. Dizzee brought the incident up in “Hype Talk” and Wiley gives his take in “Ayia Napa.”
While both are polite and a far cry from diss tracks, it seems pretty clear that Dizzee calls out Wiley elsewhere on his tune “Pussyhole”: “Stop rollin’ with that breda, you don’t need him. / He ain’t got your back if its beef leave him…He’s always been a pussyhole.” To date the two stars haven’t seen each other in almost a decade and it seems even a classic Roll Deep reunion wouldn’t be enough to bring the two MCs, the biggest in the game, back on the same stage.
Harsh, Minimal, Digital Riddims
At the end of the day, grime is just another MC-led genre. What primarily distinguishes grime from hip-hop from dancehall is the riddims.
The grime riddim’s structure and harsh minimal palate was laid down early by tunes like Wiley’s Eskimo productions. Unlike the sound of the commercial garage record, grime sounded cheap and off-putting, but worked these sounds to its advantage. Like many of its early MCs, the music wasn’t polished and wasn’t embarrassed about it. These instrumentals owe much of their sound to their method of creation.
Grime was born at the turn of the century when production software like Pro Tools and Fruity Loops (and infamous productions on the PS1) allowed anyone to make beats at home. The resultant sounds weren’t studio shiny, but needn’t be. They rebelled against the over-produced garage record to create something that actually resonated with their creators. Industrial, angry, and a little bit deranged, these digital avant garde beats became the foundation of a genre.
Check out the Beginner’s Guide to Grime here
Written by Taylor Hodges for Highsnobiety.com