Friday, November 17, 2017

slackers

SLACKERS
end-of-year essay for Melody Maker, unpublished i think
1992?

by Simon Reynolds



There were "slackers" long before anyone gave them a name. For
decades, every college town and major city in the Western world has
had its bohemian sector of n'er do wells and time-wasters busily
engaged in trying to stave off the Real World for as long as
possible.  Rejecting the career ladder, these drop-outs prolong
adolescence and mess about - for a few years, for decades, sometimes
forever.  Financial insecurity seems a fair trade for more time to
devote to creativity, questioning and self-discovery. It was this
bohemian milieu that birthed the hippy and punk movements, and it
remains the perennial breeding ground for indie bands.

     The UK equivalent of slackerdom used to be "dole culture",
before signing on became an increasingly untenable lifestyle after
Thatcher's assault on the Welfare State.  In the USA, middle class
kids try to drag out their college education as long as possible;
after college, some live off private incomes (as with the notorious
"Grandma's trust fund" that subsidises every Lower East Side
hardcore band's recording costs and drug habits), others eke out a
living with temporary jobs (waiting, working in record stores, etc).

     But in the late Eighties, a particular rock aesthetic and
worldview emerged that was eventually christened "slacker".  It
combined elements from earlier boho-movements: slacker = the stoned
dreaminess of hippy + the faithless vacancy of punk. But perhaps
more significant was what it left out of the fusion: slackers were
hippies without the world-changing idealism, punks without the
speed-fuelled uptightness and will-to-power. The defining quality of
slacker is limp: as Mercury Rev put it on their second album,
"Boces" - "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up".  The
slacker is apolitical, a Rebel against Causes, against Movements
(and movement).

    Perhaps the archetypal slacker in rock is J.  Mascis. On the
early Dinosaur Jr's albums "You're Living All Over Me" and "Bug"
(1987/88), he came over as a pampered, housebound, spiritual
invertebrate. Mascis' ragged, frazzled guitar-sound, torn-and-frayed
drawl-whine of a voice, and fatigued lyrics, all aspired to that
early Seventies Neil Young feeling of burn-out, that stemmed from
the bitter comedown after the late Sixties high.  Another early
classic of slacker rock was Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" (1988),
which imagined New York as a psychedelic labyrinth, "a wondertown"
for the dazed-and-confused wanderer.  Songs like "The Sprawl",
"Eric's Trip" and "Hyperstation" took unmoored drifting to the brink
of psychosis.  Then there was the nouveau acid rock of the Butthole
Surfers, whose Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary chucked in careers in
accountancy for a life of making mess (on stage, on record) and
getting wasted.

     In the US, there's another strand of maladjusted, unmotivated
youth, who have less choice about wasting their lives: they don't
have any opportunities to squander in the first place. These kids,
known as "burn-outs" or "stoners", drop out while still at school.
Despised by their teachers and by their more aspirational peers,
burn-outs wear long-hair, smoke pot by the bike shed, and listen to
heavy metal (classics like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath,
contemporary thrash like Metallica and Slayer).  They hang out in
car lots and abandoned buildings, get harassed by the cops,
sometimes graduate to harder drugs like heroin.  The British
equivalent of burn-outs are probably the kind of delinquents that
made up Happy Mondays or todays' hardcore techno youth. But rave
culture hasn't impacted suburban America yet, so burn-outs don't get
hyper and happy, they numb the pain as best they can.

     In her book "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids",
Donna Gaines pinpoints the predicament that faces the burn-outs.
With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only
options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid
of union protection or prospects for advancement.  Hence their low
self-esteem, the feeling that there's no future, and the commonly
expressed sentiment: "no job is worth cutting your hair for".  The
gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of
Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is
huge.  The escape routes from this dead end include the
anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa
here" of suicide. The more optimistic imagine joining the army or
forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and
learning a trade.  Even after Clinton, the outlook is still bleak
for American youth: paying off the deficit will depress the US
economy for years. There's literally "No Future": the babyboom
generation have already spent it.

     In the late Eighties, after years of "lite-metal" (all those
poodle-perm groups like Bon Jovi), metal got heavier again,
musically and thematically. Bands like Metallica took on punk's
attitude, cutting down the musical flab and addressing grim reality
in their lyrics.  Meanwhile, the post-hardcore bands were getting
heavier, fusing the turgid ponderousness of early Seventies blues
rock with the belligerence of punk. And so grunge was born. And out
of its birthplace, Seattle, Nirvana exploded into the mainstream
with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a record that briefly forged
middle-class slackers and blue-collar burn-outs into a unity of
disaffected youth. Only Nirvana could do this, because of their
unique combination of intelligence (Cobain and Novoselic are
art-school drop outs, politically sussed) and raw, simplistic
aggression. Today, the grunge spectrum extends from arty absurdism
to bludgeoning, brain-dead bombast. At the slackerdaisical end of
the spectrum, there's Pavement, with their surreal wit and mild
disillusionment: at the other end, pure burn-out, you'll find Alice
In Chain, who are devoid of irony and totally mired in despondency.

     Pavement exemplify the brighter side of the slacker condition:
namely, that all that freedom from responsiblity gives you time to
bliss out on the weirdness and wondrousness of everyday life, time
to acquire an obsessive knowlege of music. But there's a downside
even here: you can tell that Steven Malkmus' inordinately large
record collection hasn't made him happy, that in fact he feels
dwarfed and unworthy when faced by the achievements of previous rock
eras. And like true slackers, Pavement disguise this by terminal
irony.  The dark side of slackerdom comes through more plainly with
bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Rollins Band, Nirvana:
feelings of impotence, entropy, entrapment.  I reckon grunge is
'castration blues', and if you think that's fanciful, consider the
fact that Alice In Chains actually have a song called "Slow
Castration", that there's a line in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" about
being "neutered and spayed".

     In that one song, Nirvana captured all the anguish and the
cruel irony of the slacker condition.  Nirvana want to rebel, they
want to believe that music can change the world, but their
insurrectionary spirit is crippled in advance because they know that
resistance is futile: the music industry routinely turns rebellion
into money. Teen spirit is bottled, shrinkwrapped and sold over the
counter.  And so Cobain's rage chokes in his throat, festers and
turns to bitter bile.

     *         *         *         *         *

    As well as Nirvana's breakthrough, 1991 also saw the cult
success of the movie "Slacker". Directed by 28 year old Richard
Linklater, it was a low-budget snapshot of the shiftless, decentred
life of the twentysomething hangers-on who inhabit the fringes of
the University of Austin, Texas.  Drifting through Austin's summer
streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do-
wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates
(usually concerning conspiracy theory or elaborate validations of
their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites. Funny,
touching, but implicitly sad, "Slacker" steadfastly refuses to judge
the slackers. For Linklater the film was neither diatribe nor
celebration, just a document.

    One of the things "Slacker" captured so well was the way that
slackers, while passive and weak-willed, envy those capable of
action. They have a voyeuristic, vicarious fascination with
assassins and mass murderers, perhaps because they offer a mesmering
spectacle of pure will.  "Slackers spend their whole lives in their
own heads," says Linklater.  "Making that leap of faith into action
is hard.  So when they hear of one person who did make a difference,
they're impressed, even if it's a mass murderer."

     Slacker's main activities (or passivities, more accurately) are
"daydreaming as productive activity" and trawling the detritus of
decades of pop culture.  The result is a slacker aesthetic, a weird
mix of kitsch and mysticism, that has obvious parallels in music
(Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Bongwater) but also in modern art.
Artforum magazine identified a slacker school of artists, whose
installations involve random accretions of found objects, trashy
knick-nacks and personal souvenirs. In slackerdom, wrote Jack
Bankowsky, "everyone worships at their own jerry-built altar".

     1991 also saw the publication of Doug Coupland's 'novel'
"Generation X", an amusing but lightweight dissection of the
twentysomething malaise. Seeing no hope for advancement on the
career ladder, Coupland's X-ers are into "lateral mobility", moving
from one unsatisfactory "McJob" to another.  After the success of
their debut efforts, both Linklater and Coupland turned their
attention to teenagers: Coupland wrote "Shampoo Planet" (about
today's global teens) and Linklater filmed "Dazed and Confused"
(about Seventies high school burn-outs). Meanwhile, Hollywood
detected a market in the twentysomething demographic, and started
churning out slacker-sploitation pics, like Cameron Crowe's cute but
slight "Singles" and Michael Steinberg's stylish but pseudo-profound
"Bodies, Rest and Motion".

     *         *         *         *         *         *

     Since the Zeitgeist-defining moment that was "Smells Like Teen
Spirit", the precarious alliance between slackers and burn-outs has
disintegrated, in much the same way that punk dispersed into a
myriad fragments after the Sex Pistols auto-destructed. The slacker
contingent has gone off into the rarerified realm of noise-for-
noise's sake. In the wake of Pavement, a burgeoning movement of
lo-fi avant-garage bands has emerged: Unrest, Ween, Sebadoh, Mercury
Rev, Flaming Lips, Truman's Water, Royal Trux, God Is My Co-Pilot,
Timber, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Smog, etc.  Like Pavement,
these bands favour cryptic song-titles, surreal lyrics, arcane
influences (The Fall, Krautrockers like Can, Faust, Neu), and
a mess-thetic of loose ends and wilful dishevelment.  Meanwhile, the
bulk of the audience that Nirvana created has stuck with the simpler
fare of pure grunge: the brawn and bombast of punk-metal bands like
Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Flotsam and Jetsam, who all plough the
narrow strip of terrain between Black Sabbath and Black Flag.  It's
seems unlikely that this split between arty elitism (the slackers)
and artless populism (the grungers) will be repaired.

     And what of Nirvana, the band who made the Slacker a public
figure? Judging by the sequel to "Nevermind", with its ultra-grunge
Steve Albini production, Cobain & Co seem deadset on alienating
their audience and shortcircuiting their success. You only have to
read the sleevenotes to "Incesticide", with Cobain's angst-wracked
writhing about integrity and his almost pathetic namedrops of
obscure bands, to realise that Nirvana want to go back to the indie
womb. A slacker who's somehow landed himself with a millionaire
career, Cobain is knocking on the underground's door, begging for
readmission.  And ain't that pure slack?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Boys in the (band) Hood (do cry)

Hood 
Cold House 
(Domino/Aesthetics)
Spin, 2001

by Simon Reynolds 


Hood make mope-rock for the laptop era.  

This English quartet are survivors from a brief early Nineties moment of mingling between UK indie dreampop and techno. Reared on the guitarhaze of A.R. Kane and My Bloody Valentine,  these groups  had their heads flipped around by  Aphex Twin.  While some of these outfits, like Seefeel, gradually went all the way into abstract electronix,  others, like legends-to-a-few Disco Inferno, remained attached to the song and the voice.  Updating this indie-meets-electronica formula, Hood offering glitch with a human face, their sound poised somewhere between the jackfrost fragility of  New Zealand janglers The Chills and the faded-photo poignancy of  Boards of Canada. Crunchy filtered beats jostle with bright acoustic guitar, crestfallen analog synths waver alongside mournful horns.

But just as you've got Cold House pegged as a way-underground cousin to Kid A and Vespertine,  another element comes in from far left-field:  hip hop. Abstrakt-to-the-max rhymes from Dose One and Why? of Bay Area crew cLOUDDEAD feature on three tracks, ranging from surreal lines like "sometimes the sunset doesn't want to be photographed" to stuff that's more like a braid-of-breath than actual decipherable words.


As Cold House's title suggests, the dominant mood is desolate (Hood come from Leeds in the infamously bleak  North of England) . On "The Winter Hit Hard" gale-force winds of dubbed-out drumming buffet a frail sapling of a vocal melody, and the entire album teems with  images like "there's coldness in this sky" or "your cold hand in mine". 

This heat-dearth is as much a matter of internal affect as climate, though.  The singer's fallible voice recalls too-sensitive-for-this-world folk minstrel Nick Drake, and the lyrics manage to stay just the right side of "precious" as they flick through snapshots from what seems to be the drawn-out death throes of a relationship. Pained insights flash by concerning regret, the oppressive weight of the past, dreams "snatched from your grasp," and the way the world seems dead, stripped of all enchantment, after the love had gone.  

For Hood, life's a glitch, and then you cry. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Against All Odds: Grime in 2005

AGAINST ALL ODDS: GRIME
director's cut version, Spin August 2005

by Simon Reynolds

The first thing that hits you is the clashing reek of twelve different brands of cheap perfume. The second is how weird it is to stand in a crowd of teenage girls waving gun-fingers and yelling “BRRAP BRRAP BRRAP.” The trigger for their frenzy is Crazy Titch, an East London MC who’s the closest thing the U.K. grime scene has to a heart throb. He’s hoarsely hollering his anthem “Sing Along” over a bizarre rhythm made from a chopped-up classical symphony. One 13-year-old black girl stands stock still, staring at Titch with awe and adoration, intently biting her fingernail. Everybody else in the auditorium is going mad. When it gets too rowdy—some heavy-set ruffnecks are crushing girls up against the stage—an organizer halts the music and grabs the mic: “Settle, boys. There’s girls down there. They want hugs and kisses.”

Grime is usually seen as bad-boy music, its blaring bombast and mosh-activating aggression making it the U.K.’s counterpart to crunk. Yet the huge number of young females at this show proves that grime isn’t necessarily synonymous with testosterone. The high proportion of teenagers present is partly due to the fact that the venue, Stratford Circus, is an art center, meaning that the entertainment ends at midnight—when most raves are just getting started. Tonight’s all-star grime bonanza offers a rare opportunity for under-18s to see in the flesh the MC idols they’ve watched only on Channel U, a digital/satellite TV station that airs U.K. urban music on an equal footing with American rap and R&B. It juxtaposes the latest glitzy videos from 50 Cent with shakily choreographed, low-budget promos from local heroes like Bruza.

Grime events have a reputation for trouble. The music builds up tension, but offers little scope for release—a recipe for fights on the dancefloor. And people often bring outside-world antagonisms into the club. Police are always “locking off” grime parties, which makes promoters increasingly reluctant to hold them in the first place. At one point in the night, the host Peaches comes on to report the disappearance of a cell phone, then delivers an impromptu lecture. “Stop thiefin’! Stop the armshouse!” she berates, ‘armshouse’ being grime slang for bloodshed. “They’re locking off grime raves, dancehall bashments—where you gonna go? Country & western nights?!” Later, she reports that the young lady’s phone has been found and returned. “Honest black people!” she notes with mock incredulity. “This will be a newspaper story: BLACK PEOPLE FIND PHONE.” She’s taking the piss out of stereotypes about ethnic youth, forgetting how quickly she’d jumped to the assumption that the phone had been stolen.  

The specific worry tonight is that the beef between two rival crews, Roll Deep and Fire Camp—will lead to mayhem. Although either group could claim the headlining spot, Fire Camp perform much earlier in the night, so there’s no frictional hand-over of the stage. Later I learn that Roll Deep were only let onstage once Fire Camp and their vast entourage had left the building. A couple of days later I ask Lethal Bizzle, leader of Fire Camp, about his feud with Wiley, the Roll Deep don. “Wiley is into lyrical battles, he’s done records dissing everyone from Durrty Goodz to Crazy Titch,” says Bizzle. When Wiley put out a record attacking him, Lethal took it as a backhanded compliment—a sign that he was an adversary to be reckoned with. “I was happy, my name was hot. And retaliation was gonna build up my name even more. Everyone calls him ‘Kylie’ so I got ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ and dissed Wiley over it. That just put the curtains on him. Cos the streets said I won.”

Wiley and Lethal are duking it out on the underground and overground simultaneously. While stoking their hardcore fanbase with the battle tracks, both hope to seduce the mainstream with crossover grime albums this summer—Roll Deep’s In At The Deep End and Lethal Bizzle’s solo album Against All Oddz. Bizzle’s ahead at the moment, having scored grime’s biggest U.K. hit to date with “Pow,” a massive jolt of sonic adrenaline that even turned some heads in America, getting airplay from Funkmaster Flex on Hot 97 and talk of Lil Jon protégé Pitbull versioning the track’s frantic “Forward” riddim for his debut album. But Roll Deep is more densely stacked with talent, their 15-strong ranks boasting some of the scene’s finest producers (Wiley, Target, Danny Weed) and MCs (Trim,  Flow Dan, Riko, Wiley again).

Still, for all the big noise that grime has made in the UK mainstream media—Ms. Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Prize in successive years and Dizzee appeared on the remake of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”—it remains a small scene. Only a few people within grime can make a living out of it. “There’s not a lot of MCs that are just MCing and not doing something else,” says Kano, one of the most touted performers on the scene. The doing “something else,” he hints, could be a day job or it could be something nefarious—“shottin’ weed,” in some cases. Selling 500 copies of a 12-inch is considered a good result these days, and after production costs, that would generate less than a thousand pounds profit. When they perform at raves, most MCs “get paid about 150 pounds, which is not good money,” says Kano. “And there’s less raves than there was. Clubs don’t want to deal with it. People get banned from playing certain areas, certain clubs—blacklisted.  Cos of what promoters think is going to happen.”

*          *          *         

The day after the Stratford Circus festival, Roll Deep divide their energies. One half plays a gig at a trendy hip hop club in Hoxton, a recently gentrified area of East London. The other faction stays underground with their regular Sunday night show on pirate radio station Rinse FM. Although Channel U is increasingly important, grime’s primary medium remains illegal radio stations. Rinse is literally an underground operation, its HQ being a former travel agent’s office in the basement of a nondescript building. Pass through an unremarkable-looking ante-room (pine floors, shabby sofas serving as a makeshift hospitality lounge) and you enter the spartan studio.  In addition to turntables and audio equipment, there’s a brightly flashing fruit machine and a TV tuned to a spycam monitoring people in the street outside (in case of a raid by OFCOM, the government organization dedicated to stamping out the pirates). The walls are bare (Rinse FM prides itself on its professionalism, and graffiti is forbidden) and apart from a few empty soft-drink containers, the room is incongruously tidy.

Before Roll Deep turn up, legendary grime MC D Double E does his weekly show. Nearly six-feet tall, but weighing only 130 pounds, he has elegant, cut-glass features that border on emaciated. You wonder if the sheer rapidity and intricacy of his flow burns up all his calories. “I’m gonna start zonin’ out in a minute,” he warns, and there’s something faintly redolent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in the way he stares sightlessly into the middle distance, one hand darting in dainty, air-carving gestures. Double’s imagery is relentlessly violent—“I’m on the way to stardom / Anyone test me I will scar dem”—but the vibe he transmits is entranced reverie rather than menace. Every so often he emits an eerie ululation, what he calls “the D Double signal”—“Mwui! Mwui!”

After some ads—revenue from these, plus subscription fees from each crew that has a regular show,  keep Rinse FM afloat—Roll Deep take over. The night before, at Stratford Circus, they made a Roots-like maneuver and performed a set with a live band, leaving the teenage girls long-faced with boredom, chins in hands like school kids sitting through morning assembly. Tonight, yelling into microphones to an invisible audience, Roll Deep are in their true element. Wiley, dressed in a blue Nike coat, rhymes over a new riddim built by Target out of an accordion riff, describing himself as “the black 007”. Two new recruits to the sprawling Roll Deep family dominate the mic’. Skepta, a lean black youth, pulls his jacket over his head and spits from inside this murky cocoon.  “Draw for the ’chete,” he warns some nameless adversary. “Bullets fall down like confetti / Make you look like spaghetti” (presumably served with marinara in this scenario). Syer, a stocky white kid, launches into a rant about “dutty girls” who “give brains... to every breh in the hood.” There’s a constant nerve-jangling bleeping of cell phones—‘missed calls’ that assure Roll Deep the faithful are out there (without the listeners having to pay a phone charge) or texted requests for a shout-out. “Big up the HMP massive,” intones Trim, a reference to those listeners detained at one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. “Hang tight the E3 crew.”

E3 is a zip code, or as they call it in England, a postal code. Grime is intensely territorial. The major divisions used to be between between East London, South London, and so forth, but the imperative to represent your ’hood has devolved into a Balkanized welter of mailing districts.  “E3’s the big one,” says Bruza, one of the scene’s most charismatic MCs. “That’s where Roll Deep are mostly from. E3 is like the Queensbridge of grime, bare talent comes from there. But it’s the same with my area, E17.” According to Roll Deep’s Target, “If you’re from E3 and I’m from E15, it’s not like we have to fight or anything. It started with just biggin’ up East London, and then you want to big up your exact bit of East London!”

What most of the postal zones have in common is that they correspond to a large swathe of the East End that’s not served by the subway system. You can only get there by car, bus, or the overland railway system that traverses much of London on decrepit, redbrick Victorian viaducts. This slight diminishment of ease of access to the area has contributed to its peculiar insularity. It’s also delayed the tide of gentrification, meaning that the East has remained a largely working-class area. East London (the heartland of musical innovation in Britain since at least the early-’90s emergence of jungle) has a sort of unpretentious, street-level cosmopolitanism, the result of the area having absorbed wave after wave of immigration over the last century. First came the Jews, many of them from Russia. Then, after the Second World War, migrants arrived from all over the former British Empire--from the Caribbean, from South Asia (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi), and from Africa. Most recently, the alien tongues of East European asylum seekers have been audible on the streets. From drum’n’bass to grime, the influence of Jamaica dominates (most grime MCs cite dancehall and jungle chatters as their primary influence, rather than American rappers). But the actual variety of ethnic origins on the grime scene is staggering. At Stratford Circus, Peaches called out to the audience, asking “anybody here from Nigeria? Ghana? How about Antigua? Trinidad & Tobago?” Each country triggered a flurry of hands in the air.

Possibly even more crucial than its multicultural mix, though, may be East London’s dreariness, the bleak featurelessness of its landscape. The architecture mixes shabby old buildings that hark back to the area’s industrial and warehousing past, with the kind of Brutalist architecture that was fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s. In some areas, the sky is punctured by ugly slabs of high-rise tower blocks that formed such a crucial part of punk’s imagery. More common, though, are smaller, undistinguished three-story blocks of flats, interspersed with small, melancholy recreational areas. On a sunny day, East London can look reasonably pleasant. But most of the year English skies are grey, which means most of the time East London looks grim. Grim, and yes, grimy.

In between jungle and grime came a late Nineties sound called UK Garage. You could see garage as an attempt by East London youth to manufacture their own sunshine. One of the scene’s biggest anthems was called “Spirit of the Sun”. All shiny treble frequencies (highpitched divas, skittering  snares and fizzy hi-hats), garage streamed out of the pirate airwaves like aural champagne. The sundrenched Greek island Aiya Napa became the garage’s scene very own equivalent to Ibiza, that raver’s paradise at the other end of the Mediterranean. Every summer, grime fans still flock out to Napa, but the idea seems wrong somehow. Because grime is winter music. Cold, brutal, and desolate, it doesn’t seek to escape or soften its environment. It amplifies the punitive bleakness.

Wiley caught the sunless spirit of grime with a series of brilliant minimal instrumentals, designed for MCs to spit over, and themed around ice and snow: “Eskimo,” “Ice Rink,” ad infinitum. He says the idea came to him during a period when he felt “cold inside as a person. I might make a warm tune now, ’cause I might not be angry anymore.” Yet from its shivery synths to its real-world inspiration, his most recent tune “Morgue” is as chilling as its title. The track is literally the mausoleum of a dead friendship. “I used to hang around with this boy, Wonder,” Wiley explains, alluding to one of the scene’s most talented producers. ‘Me and him fell out ’cause of bunglings” [serious arguments]. “Bunglings”--this time with a girlfriend--inspired the even more desolate “Ground Zero,” which was actually recorded on that September 11th. “I realized that was the day when I’d never see that girl again. I felt like my world came down as well then, just like those buildings.“

But private discord or woe can’t explain why a whole genre of music takes a sharp turn to the dark and doomy. Target says that “as things went bad, away from music”—meaning in the outside world—“the music’s just got darker and darker.” Wiley agrees: “The music reflects what’s going on in society. Everyone’s so angry at the world, and each other. And they don’t know why.” Tony Blair’s New Labour government, elected in 1997 after almost two decades of Conservatism, promised a fresh start for Britain. The economy was booming. It’s still strong, but in 2005, the rewards are mostly going to the already well-off, young professionals in media, marketing, and management. As a post-socialist party, Labour no longer even pays lip service to ideas of wealth redistribution, but instead talks in the bland neo-conservative language of enabling people to help themselves. The U.K. has become much closer to America than Europe, in the sense that people do believe “anyone can make it,” despite the fact that the social odds are stacked unfairly. If you don’t make it, it’s your own fault, the result of a deficit of get-up-and-go.

Grime kids constantly spout this kind of talk. Target has put out a series of CD/DVD compilations called Aim High, while Bruza’s new single is called “What You Waiting For”—“a get up off your arse song,” as he puts it. As well as the culture of enterprise built by Thatcher and maintained by Blair, these attitudes have been assimilated from American rap. Although virtually every grime artist stresses that they grew up on the fast-chatting style of jungle MCs like Shabba and Skibadee,  they have been profoundly influenced by U.S. hip hop: not so much stylistically but in terms of ambition, a sense of the scope of what can be achieved. Bad Boy, in particular, was the role model. One of Roll Deep’s earliest tunes, “Terrible,” starts with a soundbite from P. Diddy: “Sometimes I don’t think you motherfuckers understand where I’m coming from, where I’m trying to get to.”  Explains Wiley, “Puff was a big person at the time I made that tune. He had a set-up that everyone wants to have—own label, clothing line. That’s what I’m doing it for.” The Bad Boy leitmotif crops up elsewhere in grime. Guesting on a track last year called “One Wish”, Bruza offered a hilarious rejoinder to Notorious BIG-- “more money more problems, though?/Forget the problems, GIMME THE MONEY!!!!”. Bruza also appears on a new tune that remakes the Ma$e smash “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” vowing to “hold me head up and keep on movin’ and bruzin’”.

Grime lyrics teems with expressions of hunger and ambition, drive and dedication. Eight years of New Labour have not improved options and opportunities significantly for inner city youth. If they haven’t applied themselves in school, they typically face the prospect of working in a service sector job, selling things. “I think that’s why most people in our area have got on it,” says Target, referring to grime and the dream of making it as an MC or producer. “When they get to eighteen, they don’t know where they’re going.   They’ve got no money, they didn’t care about school. Where we are from, most people’s lives are not good. If we didn’t have music to express our lives, I don’t know what we’d do.”

*          *          *         

As grime’s profile surges to its highest level yet—major-label albums for Roll Deep, Lethal Bizzle, Kano, and Lady Sovereign—2005 is turning into a weirdly conflicted moment for grime. For every motivational tune like Bruza’s “What You Waiting For,” there’s a lyric advising wannabe MCs to not give up the day job. On the surface, the scene is bursting with confidence. But U.K. pirate culture has been here before—a host of jungle artists got signed to album deals, but only Goldie and Roni Size got anywhere near crossover. 2step garage crossed into the pop mainstream hugely, but didn’t endure (where’s Artful Dodger now?). Grime too has already had its fair share of failure—More Fire, Lethal Bizzle’s first group, released a flop album in 2003, as did Wiley.

On the track “Sometimes” from his debut Home Sweet Home, Kano documents a rare (or rarely acknowledged) moment of self-doubt: “When I see the fans go mad I think, ‘Why do they like me?’ / There’s about a thousand other boys just like me… I know I’ve got far / Is it too far to turn back?… Sometimes you’ll see me in a daydream / Thinking, ‘Can the underground go mainstream?’”

A soft-spoken, somber fellow, Kano is realistic about grime’s prospects, especially in America. Recently, he got to support Nas on his U.K. tour—a big deal for the grime MC, but not for the rap superstar. “Met Nas once, got a handshake,” Kano notes wryly. “That was it.” The respect will come, he reckons, when grime acts start selling records. “Not even over there, but over here, in the U.K. We can’t just fly into America and think we can bang with 50 Cent and all them lot! But if they come over here and see, ‘Oh, you’ve got a little thing going on,’ and it’s selling, they’ll notice.”

Of all grime’s major stylists, Kano’s flow seems like the one most likely to appeal to American hip-hop ears. An admirer of Jay-Z’s conversational delivery and the laidback West Coast style of Snoop Dogg, Kano sounds smooth and poised even rapping in quick time. Playing to this slick panache, Home Sweet Home, is front-loaded with mid-tempo joints. Roll Deep’s debut likewise skimps on uncut grime in favour of conventional hip hop and novelty tunes. Lethal Bizzle even promises some grime/rock fusions on his solo debut Against All Oddz, saying he’s a big fan of Green Day (“I love that “American Idiot’”) and Nirvana. Terror Danjah, the innovative beatmaker behind Bruza and the Aftershock label, dreams of one day recording tunes “with Robbie Williams or Franz Ferdinand.” The gamble with all these tentative moves to court the mainstream is that grime will lose what it has now. The strategy doesn’t even seem that sensible: difference sells, and grime is more likely to succeed by amplifying what’s unique and exotic about it. Lethal B should take heed of the success of “Pow”—his grimiest, rowdiest tune is the one that’s grabbed the ears of the world beyond London.

If grime does go pop, the most likely perpetrator is Lady Sovereign, a 19-year-old white MC. Some scowling scene purists refuse to take her seriously, partly because she’s from Northwest London as opposed to East, but mainly because she bypassed pirate radio and instead made a name for herself through the internet forums where young fans chit-chat in cell-phone text-speak (e.g. “sov ur buf”). Yet Sovereign has guested on numerous grime tracks, while her “Cha Ching” is one of the highlights of the scene-defining Run The Road compilation (the first widely available in the U.S.). Her mic skills are undeniable.

Sovereign’s also a star, something that’s apparent the minute you clap eyes on her. She keeps me waiting for 90 minutes, staring morosely out of the windows of the fourth-floor Bethnal Green studio where she and her producer Medasyn  work, taking in the lugubrious vistas of East London, the only splash of colour coming from a car dealers called RUDE MERCS. But when Sov arrives--a tiny ball of colour and rude energy herself--any irritation is charmed away in an instant. Five-foot-one but only 82 pounds, with hazel eyes and hair pulled back tightly into a long ponytail, she weirdly reminds me of Audrey Hepburn—if she’d grown up in a North London estate listening to ragga and UK garage, that is.

Lady Sovereign has signed to Island for a four-album deal reputedly worth three-million pounds (a figure Sov denies, while admitting the true amount was “nice, really nice”). It’s easy to imagine record-company execs with dollar signs reeling in their eyes, imagining the spin-offs (video games, a cartoon series, Lady Sov dolls, a Spice Girls-style movie). When she discusses how her forthcoming debut album--working title Straight Up Cheeky-- has veered off into “alternative grime,” with influences from ska and punk, you wonder if her backers are steering her in some kind of Gwen Stefani meets the Streets direction. But it turns out her dad used to be a punk rocker and she grew up listening to X-Ray Spex and the Selecter, so the direction is somewhat organic. And when she plays a couple of tracks from the album, it’s clear the grime-goes-new-wave notion is inspired. “Tango” and “Public Warning” fizz with cartoony humor, from Sov’s killer inflections and irreverent lyrics to Medasyn’s romping beats and arrangements dense with quirky detail.

The 2-Tone echoes aren’t just cute, they’re appropriate, given how grime echoes the multiracial ethos and urban-realist approach of bands like the Specials. Eerily, that group has inspired two new grime tracks,  Kode 9’s eerie remake of “Ghost Town” and Alias’ “Ska,” which samples “Gangsters” then literalizes the title with gruesome lyrics like “You don’t want fluids leaking out yer body / No you don’t.” But Lady Sov’s thing is altogether more lighthearted. “Tango,” for instance, is a put-down of a former friend who’s overdone the fake tan. “She was once really pale but now she’s orange,” says Sovereign. “It’s actually scary.” The title, she explains, comes from a tangerine-colored soda popular in the U.K.

It was hearing Ms. Dynamite’s early tracks like “Booo!” on the pirates that really inspired Sovereign to take MCing seriously. But instead of sparring with the bad boys (like other female MCs on the scene such as Lady Fury) or move into socially conscious lyrics (like Dynamite did on her crossover album), Sovereign carved out her own identity. “I’m not a mean MC, I’m cheeky,” she twinkles, puffing on a cheap brand of cigarette called Sovereign. Although her first record was called “The Battle” and she’s just done a limited-circulation EP called Bitchin’, Sovereign’s rhymes are closer to playground taunts than the ego-maiming verbal drive-bys other MCs traffic in. Perhaps that’s what galls some grime gatekeepers, the sense that it is just fun’n’games for “the multi-talented munchkin” (as Sov dubbed herself on “Cha Ching”), rather than deadly earnest struggle.


The London scene is overflowing with talent. “You see kids in the street just spitting to themselves,” says Bruza. “One kid’ll be human beatboxing, and another’ll be spraying his lyrics or clashing another MC. You see it everywhere, every day.” What’s poignant is that only a few will ever have a chance of making it. “Everyone is rushing for that one small gap and there’s that many people trying to get through,” says Terror Danjah. “Everyone can’t get through that gap, ’cause everyone’s pushing and shoving. That’s life though, innit?”