As details emerged back in February that Drake — one of the most successful North American hip-hop artists on the planet — had inked a deal with longstanding London grime imprint Boy Better Know, there were more than a few eyebrows raised.
Given that many had assumed the Canadian rapper was retained in a contractual chokehold by Birdman and Cash Money Records, the decision to review his allegiances and switch over to a vehemently self-sufficient, industry-averse independent label came as quite a shock. Yet, in actual fact, the move was fairly in character for Drake, and his imprecise signing to BBK is really a well-read chess move — one that further highlights just how astute and savvy an artist he really is.
Having forged a brotherly affinity and Instagram bromance with the collective’s co-founder, Skepta, over the past four years, Drake has now cemented what many wrote off as a passing fad with a serious and impactful career move. Both artists share a deep mistrust of the industry and are fiercely protective over how they distribute their art, which has likely played a significant role in Drake’s decision to nail his flag to such an obscure mast in the eyes of much of the world.
But while Drake’s own notoriety precedes him by a sizeable degree, what of his new labelmates? Although well known among crowds on their UK home turf, it’s likely that names like JME, Jammer, Wiley and Frisco will be completely alien to many ears overseas. With that in mind, we’ve put together a little guide to bring you up to speed on this much-respected underground collective.
First stablished in 2006, BBK’s assorted roster of emcees and producers have both collectively, and individually, overhauled the UK urban music scene. An independent force that has repeatedly resisted the advances of major label interference, the group has earned a reputation for forging its own path regardless of industry influence.
Although inherently associated with grime (particularly in the genre’s most formative period), the label is actually a sustained mutation of garage, dancehall and hip-hop culture, resulting in a broad and diverse output from a roster of artists who are all inherently very different. In fact, Drake’s induction into the group adds yet another aspect to its multi-faceted approach — a composite vision that BBK have been carefully honing over the past decade.
Now regarded by many as grime’s most internationally recognized artist, Skepta’s creative lineage actually stretches back much further than the founding of Boy Better Know.
Born Joseph “Junior” Adenuga, his family moved to Tottenham, North London, after the then three-year-old MC accidentally burnt down his house on Old Street by setting a teddy bear alight. Following this shift in home territory, Adenuga and his younger brother Jamie (better known as JME) began honing the craft that would later make them two of grime’s inaugural talents.
In his early years, Skepta (a phonetic variation of the word “scepter”) became consumed by the combative zeal of underground pirate radio stations such as Rinse FM and Freeze 92.7. As a producer he created instrumental beats for the Tottenham-based Meridian Crew in the early 2000s, and later cut his teeth in impromptu MC clashes between rival housing blocks in his neighborhood. His agile flow made him a vocal participant in the dynamic evolution of garage into what would later become grime.
Following the Meridian Crew’s disbandment in 2005, Skepta and JME were briefly associated with East London’s Roll Deep Crew, before splitting off to found their own brand, Boy Better Know, in 2006. Here Skepta began releasing a slew of essential mixtapes such as Been There Done That (2010) and Community Play (2011), all while lyrically dismembering vocal rivals during VHS-recorded MC battles such as Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mics.
Skepta’s 2007 studio debut, Greatest Hits, presented him as an artist with a real appetite to succeed. Yet, in the years that followed, the grime scene underwent something of an identity crisis and, bar the release of 2012’s Blacklisted mixtape, Skepta’s output slowed to a standstill. Then, like a gunshot in a silent room, 2014 saw him return from nowhere with riotous, scene-igniting manifesto, “That’s Not Me” — a track that pretty much single handedly re-lit the fire of grime’s smouldering embers.
Since early 2014 Skepta has become the genre’s unofficial poster boy, reinforced by a streak of crucial singles including “Shutdown,” “It Aint Safe” (feat. A$AP Bari) and more recently “Ladies Hit Squad” alongside D Double E and A$AP Nast. His next album — the now near-mythological Konnichiwa – is finally due for release on May 6 after more delays than many people can remember. The level of expectation surrounding it is understandably off the scale.
Co-founder of Boy Better Know, Jamie Adenuga was a former member of the Meridian Crew alongside his older brother Skepta. Together, the duo managed the recorded output of the BBK collective, yet it is JME’s university degree in 3D Digital Design that has given the label its edge in terms of savvy brand marketing.
JME is the label’s designated creative director and a veracious brand ambassador who cemented the group’s credentials within the scene during the mid-’00s with a series of must-have T-shirt and snapback designs.
As a producer he initially began by sketching out tracks as polyphonic cellphone ringtones (a key vestige of grime’s DIY roots) before moving on to Fruity Loops software, and later Pro Tools. These days JME is considered a forbearer of grime’s famed “nu shape” production style, splicing erratic 16-bar percussions with treble-heavy synth lines. His lyrical content is both comically antagonistic and refreshingly unorthodox, and is just as likely to call out gritty street politics as it is to reference video games or JME’s own strict vegan and teetotal lifestyle.
Such eccentricity has made JME a truly unique presence in the scene, and through studio releases such as his 2008 debut Famous? and a slew of hysterical mixtapes including 2006’s BBK Edition 1: Shh Hut Yuh Muh, he has earned a reputation that few can contest. His 2015 release, Integrity> was his first studio album in five years and peaked at no.12 in the UK album charts.
Wiley is the undisputed “Godfather of Grime.” Hailing from Bow, East London, the now 37-year-old MC is Boy Better Know’s most seasoned artist, and a man who commands respect like no other for his many years toiling away at the heart of the scene.
His directory of work is vast, encompassing some 10-or-so albums under his own name and alias, Eskiboy. As a key figure in the maturation of UK garage, Wiley’s early style of production was so distinctive that it spawned a whole sub-genre of its own: Eskibeat (named after his seminal 2004 instrumental beat “Eskimo” which has since been freestyled to death).
After some moderate success as part of the Ladies Hit Squad crew in 2000, Wiley later joined forces with rival collective Pay As U Go Cartel. Many artists central to grime’s formative years — names like DJ Slimzee, Flow Dan and Riko Dan — all cut their teeth in this so-called “super group,” but it was Wiley’s sustained lyrical flow that marked him out for success on another level.
Sensing the demise of Pay As U Go, Wiley went on to form the short-lived Roll Deep crew, which boasted up-and-coming talents like Tinchy Stryder and Dizzee Rascal as part of its roster, and later became an early member of Boy Better Know. Following the success of club bangers like “Eskimo,” “Avalanche” and “Ice Rink,” Wiley inked a solo deal with indie stalwarts XL Recordings. Despite this, he has always remained loyal to the BBK team, helping push upcoming artists and keep the music in the spotlight.
In fact, it’s fair to say no other grime emcee has supported the scene as much as Wiley. Having been a part of the scene for so many years, he recognizes the importance of playing the “long game” and his lyrics are packed with wise words to the younger generation, warning against everything from the perils of blowing hard-earned cash on a frivolous lifestyle to the futility of gang rivalries. Without his presence, grime may have ended up little more than a brief blip in British urban musical history, so his importance in averting that cannot be understated.
What encapsulates Jammer’s contribution to grime is his unflappable work ethic. Not only is the self-described “Murkle Man” (a name given to someone skilled at lyrical battling), one of grime’s most active competitors in emcee clashes, he also is the founder of the legendary live event and video series Lord of the Mics.
Launched in 2001, LotM has played host to some of the most contentious emcee battles in the genre’s history. The significance of such clashes as Wiley vs. Kano in 2001, Skepta vs. Devilman in 2006 and Lil Nasty vs. Maxsta in 2013 cannot be understated, and have served as cornerstones in both grime’s legacy and in the complex rivalries between some of its key players. Jammer’s involvement with BBK has been felt since the label’s inception, and is a perfect example of the passion that underpins its foundations.
If Jammer is BBK’s emotional heart, Frisco is its barbaric mouthpiece. After gaining recognition as a featured artist on Skepta’s “Private Caller” single in 2005 and clashing with future label mate Wiley in Ayia Napa (once the grime and garage equivalent of Ibiza), the North London MC released his first mixtape, Back 2 Da Lab Volume 1, in 2006 to much hype.
His brutal tongue led him to victory against The Movement crew’s Scorcher in an emcee battle the same year. While the resulting feud between the clans was brief, it encapsulates the at-times sensationalist demeanor of grime and its tendency to build keen rivalries between crews — something that has both helped and hindered the music’s progress over the years.
Despite being one of the “lesser known” long-term members of BBK’s roster, Frisco’s fearsome battle persona and dextrous flow is second to none, and his reputation in a live setting is sacrosanct. His most recent studio album, British Nights, dropped in 2014.
Shorty may be forever known as “the shortest man in grime”’ but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in sheer tenacity on the mic. Having signed to BBK in 2006, it wasn’t until he contributed to the label’s first charting single “Too Many Man” in 2009 that his involvement was fully realized.
Since then, Shorty has become paramount to the crew’s live performances, actively wrecking sound systems with his definitive flow. This came to a head during 2014’s Red Bull Culture Clash between A$AP Mob, Rebel Sound, Stone Love and Boy Better Know where, despite clamorous disapproval from the crowd, Rebel Sound took the crown over BBK. Many believe the decision was wrong, and Shorty’s bars on the night were a big part of that.
Largely shunning the limelight, Shorty has remained perhaps BBK’s most humble spokesperson, for the most part uninterested in the big business gluttony of the mainstream and driven purely by grime’s infamous DIY spirit.
What separates Maximum from the sprawl of homogenous grime DJs out there is his devout allegiance not only to BBK, but the world of pirate radio. He was present at essential battles such as the now infamous Dizzee vs. Crazy Titch feud at Deja Vu FM, and DJ’d for one of grime’s most important clashes between Wiley and Lethal Bizzle in 2006.
As a Rinse FM regular, Maximum’s position within BBK has served as a conduit between the collective and the listening public. His radio shows are archetypal examples of what you would expect to experience at a BBK live event, and without acts like Maximum, Boy Better Know’s cultural relevance would be far less than it is today.
Back in 2006, when Solo 45 went under the emcee name Major, he was sentenced to five years in jail. Upon release, the BBK affiliate was able to relaunch himself as a serious contender for extensive radio play, culminating in one of the most ferocious singles to drop out of the collective’s camp in years with 2014’s “Feed Em To The Lions.”
The single’s first recording can actually be traced back to 2012, yet it wasn’t until Red Bull’s now infamous 2014 Culture Clash that the record finally received widespread distribution. With such a tumultuous introduction to grime, it’s only in recent years that Solo’s prodigious talent is coming to fruition.
Bassboy & Preditah
These two Birmingham-based producers are responsible for some of BBK’s most heavyweight bangers. The sonic alchemy behind tracks like “Spray Like We,” “Rainbow,” “Feed Em To The Lions,” “Woah” and “Taking Over? (It Ain’t Working)” shows off a skillset that leaves these two bedroom producers unparalleled in the scene.
Individually, their arrangements are wholly dissimilar; Bassboy’s contemporary amalgam of bassline and UK funky is a distinct contradiction to Preditah’s garage-centric vocal collages. Yet, together, the composite sound has a density heavier than almost anything out there, giving BBK a sizable ace up its sleeve when it comes to the mic booth.
- Words: Tom Watson