Grime and hip-hop belong to two sides of the same coin. Much as American rap music is frequently subdivided into well-established locations (east, west, south), grime is an ancillary movement that originated in London during the first years of the 21st century. Though grime is often erroneously referred to as a subgenre of American hip-hop, it draws from a pool of influences alien to most Stateside rappers. In grime, U.K. garage, drum & bass, and dancehall are thrown together with electronic house elements and - yes - familiar rap trademarks. In fact, grime is entirely separate from the direct sibling of Stateside hip-hop, U.K. hip-hop, as produced by artists like The Streets and Roots Manuva. Though U.K. hip-hop artists also alter the U.S. formula considerably, utilising slower tempos and a broader and more analogue sonic palette, grime exists in parallel without ever intersecting - darker, more digital, and more extreme.
With grime - as pioneered by artists like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and Lethal Bizzle - the genre is typified by smooth sub-bass riffs, coldly digital percussion, and skittering uptempo 2-step rhythms. It is a sound that is immediately identifiable, striking at first listen, and often aggressively confrontational. Even before the strong accents of the featured artists further differentiate the genre from American rap music, it’s impossible for an informed listener to mistake grime for anything else.
Yet, despite its long and progressive development as a massively popular U.K. movement, grime has had a difficult time crossing the Atlantic to capture the attention of American listeners. As far back as 2007, Dizzee Rascal began to gain exposure from the international press with his third record Maths + English, which took a more commercial turn than his early releases. Yet, even as Rascal went on to score a string of English number one singles with his increasingly watered down grime over the following few years, most hip-hop fans didn’t embrace grime as they did the various subgenres of U.S. rap music. To make matters worse, violence and infighting plagued the underground grime scene during this turbulent period.
As the writer Dan Hancox told it recently:
"Through 2006 and into 2007, grime was really in the doldrums. Several MCs who had been signed in the brief goldrush after [Rascal’s debut album] Boy in da Corner had seen their major label deals flop. The mainstream press had totally lost interest, or reported Crazy Titch’s murder conviction as if it was an indictment of the music itself. Form 696 was being used to shut down what few grime nights remained in London, MCs were being followed by police on their way out of raves and arbitrarily searched, promoters had had their passports locked away as ‘insurance’ against violent incidents, and nights like Straight Outta Bethnal had been killed off after police pressure for completely spurious reasons, after six months of trouble-free parties. The grime scene had turned underground again.”
As artists like Lady Sovereign gained prominence in America with a brand of watered-down grime-lite, Tottenham MC Skepta and his younger brother JME started a record label with Wiley which they called Boy Better Know. A sort of amalgam of social circle, supergroup, and traditional record label, BBK quickly became the leading group in grime music. With a roster that reads like a who’s who of mainstream grime artists and a reputation for putting on some of the most exciting live shows in the scene, BBK are the appointed leaders of the grime scene today and perhaps the great white hope of the genre in 2016. Even in 2007, during the dark days Hancox described above, Skepta was confident in his vision for the future:
“People are running away from grime thinking it’s not working, but they’re the sell-outs man. That’s why Boy Better Know is easily going to be the best thing in grime. Without blowing my own trumpet, I think we’ve got the whole thing locked. JME – that prick over there [he points at his brother, who is being mobbed again], Wiley – he’s somewhere around here… we’ve got it locked.”
It’s fascinating to think that Skepta has seen his boasts become reality so completely. These days, grime music is in a vastly different place than it was when that quote was given, largely due to the efforts of his group. Though he hasn’t released a studio album since 2011, Skepta has a work ethic that has seen a recent string of collaborations with American artists and a number of high-profile connections forged, which taken together have the potential to break grime wide-open to international audiences.
A large part of the excitement in the 2016 climate of grime music is due to Drake. After all, the Torontonian superstar - bonafide biggest rapper in the international game, and infamously snazzy dancer - has had a career-long love affair with grime music. As far back as 2011, Drizzy had begun to specifically profess his love for the music of Brixton’s Sneakbo, with Drake even referencing the grime MC in his Take Care highlight Cameras. Friendships with Wiley and Skepta followed, and by the time Kanye West brought a group of grime luminaries on stage with him at the 2015 Brit Awards debut of his single All Day, Drake was recording hits with Skepta and frequently performing with members of the BBK team. Last year, he even had the label’s initials tattooed on his shoulder.
West’s Brits performance was a watershed moment for grime music. Allegedly sparked by a last-minute text from West’s camp to Skepta’s, and a request for a large crew of grime artists in all-black hoodies, the end result was a violent and visceral rendition of West’s single. Many fans bemoaned the fact that the studio version of All Day that was released shortly thereafter lacked the boiling-point intensity of the Brits performance, and in a way, that was fair enough. There was a particular energy flowing through the riot-like stage show that took over the Brits that night, partly because of the furiosity West’s fantastic song brought with it, and partly because the sheer joy of the 25 grime MCs mobbing the stage was so evident. Though they didn’t rap, it seemed to be clearly understood that the performance was destined to become one of the defining moments in grime’s evolution. Spur of the moment, unlikely, and brilliant, it was the sort of thing needed to bridge the cultural divide and publically join American rap and British grime.
As Wiley put it in a blog post he penned for NME:
“This year, Kanye West opened a door that’s closed to most of us. There’s no way Skepta or JME or Novelist or Stormzy were gonna get onstage without Kanye doing that. The doors are still shut in a way, and what he did won’t just happen again next year, but people will be more open-minded about the people he got into the building and onstage.
The statement he made at the Brits was: I can walk in and out of here as I like, ’cos I’m Kanye West, even though you don’t like me for ranting at Taylor Swift. And what I’m gonna do, Brits, is bring out a king, Skepta, and 25 MCs from his grime scene, who you wouldn’t usually let in here in any shape or form. I’m gonna bring ’em out and let you know they’re with me and you cannot stop it.
Though he acknowledged the previous successes of Dizzee Rascal and 2-step R&B hero Craig David in the same post, Wiley seemed supremely cognizant of the great curse of homegrown non-American musical scenes. To wit, in this day and age an American sponsor of sorts - in this case both West and Drake - is needed to put the Stateside spotlight on a foreign movement that U.S. listeners might otherwise remain unfamiliar with. Though Rascal achieved momentary crossover exposure with his EDM-flirting 2009 album Tongue n’ Cheek, old school grime music has largely remained a uniquely English phenomenon.
Exactly one year after West’s groundbreaking All Day debut, following Drake’s performance with Rihanna at this year’s Brit Awards, the artist revealed that he had signed to Boy Better Know. Ditching the flashy award ceremony (which has ironically been frequently criticised for its failure to acknowledge grime artists), Drake headed around the corner to a small club, where he performed with BBK’s Section Boyz to a £10-a-head crowd. "The first Canadian signed to BBK. Big up my brudda Skepta for life yeah,” Drake wrote beside a pic from the show posted on Instagram. The announcement came within a year of Skepta signing to Drake’s own label OVO Sound, and though at the moment details are scarce, it can only be supposed that BBK and OVO will be joining in an increasing number of joint ventures from now on.
A large part of this cross-continent collaboration seems to stem from the genuine friendship between Skepta and Drake. “I was a Skepta fan, but after meeting Skepta… we were brothers immediately,” the Canadian artist told Fader last year. “You don’t get that too much in this thing that we’re in, honestly. You don’t [often] meet somebody and actually feel like, ‘OK, we might actually still talk when we’re 35, 40 years old.’” In fact, as Drake is still signed to Cash Money records in the U.S., it is possible that his statement of signing to BBK is more an acknowledgment of alignment than anything legally-binding. After all, the homegrown groundswell of DIY promotion and markedly unconventional release schedules of the Boy Better Know label must be a breath of fresh air for Drake. Here is a community where he can belong, conquering the U.K. market more completely while fostering close friendships and joining in the sort of spontaneous rabble-rousing that makes being a pop star more exciting. He's long been a semi-outsider in America, where breaking through as a Canadian artist proved initially difficult. Perhaps Skepta and the grime scene reminds Drake of the outsider mentality he once had.
In many ways, grime’s fierce underground spirit has met its greatest challenge in the American market. Usually, one would expect a musician or group to water down their product a little and make it more marketable, as Dizzee Rascal once did. Skepta and his team have declined to take that route, opting instead for a strong-willed social media presence and a forceful reputation as a passionate and powerful independent force. Their music has in many ways grown less accessible, as shallow Rascal-esque EDM-crossover attempts like 2009’s single Rolex Sweep have been pushed aside in lieu of street bangers like 2015’s Shutdown. Yet through viral marketing and relentless determination, Skepta’s prophecies appear to be taking shape as even the biggest names in rap music cosign the grime scene he champions. After all, Drake's appearance in a small club after the anti-grime Brits garnered more press than the Canadian's star-studded awards show performance did, and there can be no better testament to the BBK crew's ability to upset the norm and shift the paradigm.
It seems amazing that in this day and age, in which a stretch of ocean can be crossed via the Internet in the fraction of a second, grime music still has trouble being heard overseas. Crossing the great divide to capture the attentions of the massive American public has been a generational challenge for British musicians, who have found varying success over the years. Much as the Beatles and the Human League championed the respective first and second British Invasions during the mid-‘60s and mid-‘80s, Skepta and the BBK team seem to be leading their own take on a 21st century equivalent. At the crest of this third British Invasion, American curators and listeners stand poised to finally embrace grime artists, and accept one of the most deceptively and yet uniquely English forms of music into the musical lexicon. Let us hope that the unique identity and innate appeal of grime music can withstand this continental shift, and that as the ranks of musicians swell, the old physical divide begins to count for less.
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