Tuesday, April 30, 2013

GRIME: A Primer
director's cut, The Wire, April 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Grime emerged from London’s pirate radio underground. Its immediate precursor was 2step (a/k/a UK garage), which at the turn of the millennium broke into the UK pop mainstream in a massive way. 2step had been shaped by the “feminine pressure” for singalong 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 2step’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 rave. By the end of the Nineties, 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 hip hop and Jamaican dancehall.

Emerging from the transitional sound known as “garage rap,” grime really defined itself as a distinct genre when the first tracks appeared that were designed purely as “MC tools”--riddims for rappers to ride. These grimestrumentals were largely sourced in the electro diaspora-- post-“Sleng Teng” ragga, Miami bass, New Orleans bounce, Dirty South crunk, and “street rap” producers like Swizz Beats. Like these genres, grime doesn’t go in much for sampling but prefers synths, typically with cheap ’n’ nasty timbres that vaguely evoke the Eighties and often seem to be influenced by pulp-movie video soundtracks, videogame musik, and even mobile phone ring-tones. But in grime’s textured beats and complex programming you can also hear the imprint of the jungle that most of these late teens/early twenties producers grew up on, alongside folk-memory traces of gabba and techno. Sometimes, listening, you might imagine you can hear uncanny echoes of postpunk-era electro-primitivists such as The Normal, DAF, Cabaret Voltaire, or the calligraphic exquisiteness of Japan, Thomas Leer, and The Residents.

Inherited from the period when 2step ruled the Top 10, but also inspired by enviously watching the living-large of American rap superstars, Grime feels a powerful drive to invade the mainstream and get “paid in full.” Pirate radio, a broadcast medium with a potentially vast audience, encourages this grandiosity. One peculiar byproduct of grime’s ambition is the scene’s craze for DVD releases, like Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mic, containing documentary material with live footage. It’s as if the scene is DIY-ing the sort of TV coverage it feels it deserves but isn’t getting. Yet while some of top MCs are being groomed for stardom by major label-owned boutique labels, the day-to-day reality of grime is grafting to get by in a narrowcast culture. Selling 500 copies of a track is considered a good result. The way Grime operates--small-run vinyl-only pressings and CD-R "mix-tapes", often sold directly to specialist stores--has a surprising amount in common with the micro-cultures familiar in the pages of The Wire *, such as noise, free folk, improv, and extreme metal. Like these genres, grime is what Chris Cutler would call an “engaged” culture, with a high ratio of performers to consumers. These aspiring MCs, DJs and producers have a deeper understanding of what constitutes skill and innovation in their scene. Grime even has an improv element with its freestyles and MC battles. There’s a glorious ephemerality to the way MCs riff off-the-cuff lyrics during pirate sessions, although fans have always tape-recorded the shows and some are now getting archived on the web.

Unlike those globally dispersed micro-cultures, Grime is geographically concentrated. It’s popular across London and has outposts in other multiracial UK cities, but its absolute heartland consists of a few square miles in that part of East London not served by the Tube. In truth, it’s a parochial scene, obsessed with a sense of place, riven by internecine conflicts and territorial rivalries (the intense competitiveness being one reason grime’s so creative). Still, despite this insularity, Grime has never been easier for “outsiders” to investigate, thanks to 1xtra (the BBC’s digital radio station for UK “urban” music, http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/garage/; check especially the weekly shows by Cameo and Richie Vibe Vee), the trend for pirates like Rinse FM to go online as well broadcast terrestrially, mail-order via companies like Rhythm Division (http://www.rhythmdivision.co.uk/home.asp) and Independance (http://www.independance-records.co.uk/ug.htm), and the swarm of blogs covering the scene.

(SO SOLID 1999)
(EAST WEST 2000)

So Solid are famous as the first MC crew to crossover big-time--they hit #1 with “21 Seconds”--and infamous for their frequent brushes with the law. In grime terms, though, their single most influential track is this instrumental, which replaced 2step’s sultry swing with an electro-derived coldness and rigour. This new starkness was a timely move given that 2step had reached the inevitable “over-ripe” phase that afflicts all dance genres, its beats becoming cluttered and fussy. With its hard-angled drum machine snares and single-note sustained bassdrone veering upward in pitch, “Dilemma” rediscovered the Kraftwerk principle: inflexibility can sometimes be more funky than suppleness. So solid, indeed: “Dilemma” is like a huge block of ice in the middle of the dancefloor, a real vibe-chiller.

So Solid affiliates DJ Oxide and MC Neutrino also scored a #1 UK hit
with “Bound 4 Da Reload”. Initially a pirate radio anthem through 1999, “Reload” created a massive rift in the garage scene: older types loathed it, young ‘uns loved it. Today’s grime heads would probably disown their teenage favorite as a mere novelty track. Which it certainly was, from the Casualty TV theme sample to the “can everyone stop getting shot?” soundbite from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Gimmicks aside, Oxide’s production is heavy, from the ice-stab pizzicato violins (“strings of death,” perhaps, given the track’s allusions to the rising blood-tide of violence on London’s streets) to the doom-boom of sub-bass to the morgue-chilly echo swathing much of the record. Probably equally repellent to 2step fans was the nagging, nasal insistence of Neutrino’s rapping, which is remorselessly unmelodic but horribly catchy. Instantly transforming 2step from “the sound of now” to its current nostalgia-night status as “old skool,” “Reload” has strong claims to being the first Grime tune.


Circulating on dubplate as early as 1999, “Know We” was in constant pirate rotation by the time of its 2001 release, alongside chip-off-the-same-block track “Terrible”. Both are back-to-basics affairs: simple programmed beats, in each case adorned with the solitary hook of a violin flourish, functioning purely as a vehicle for the MCs. Another striking shared characteristic is the use of the first person plural. Each MC bigs up himself when it’s his turn on the mic, but at the chorus individualism is subsumed in a collective thrust for prestige. “Now we’re going on terrible,” promise/threaten Roll Deep, and they don’t mean they’re about to give a weak performance. “Roll deep” itself meaning marauding around town as a mob. But there’s a hint of precariousness to Pay As U Go’s assertions of universal reknown. The sense of grandeur is latent; they’re not stars yet. What does come through loud and clear on both tracks is the hunger. “Terrible” starts with a Puff Daddy soundbite: “sometimes I don’t think you motherfuckers understand where I’m coming from, where I’m trying to get to.” Both the PAUG and Roll Deep tracks were produced by a young prodigy named Wiley, whose catchphrase back then was “they call me William/I’m gonna make a million”. Roll Deep are grime’s NWA (its ranks have included such luminaries as Dizzee Rascal, Riko, Flow Dan, Trim, and Danny Weed), with Wiley as its Dr Dre. If he’s yet to make that first million, this human dynamo must surely have released close to that number of tracks these last four years.

(KRONIK 2001)

The gangsta rap comparison isn’t an idle one. PAUG and Roll Deep pioneered criminal-minded lyrics. Taking them literally isn’t always advisable, as the imagery of “slewing” and “merking” is often purely metaphorical, signifying the destruction of rival MCs in verbal combat, the maiming of egos rather than bodies. Still, the genre wasn’t always so relentlessly hostile. Just before the grimy era, “garage rap” outfits like Heartless Crew and Genius Cru exuded playful bonhomie. The follow-up to their #12 pop hit “Boom Selection,” Genius’ “Course Bruv” talks about spreading “nuff love” in the club and stresses that they “still don’t wanna hurt nobody.” The chorus even celebrates the rave-era ritual of sharing your soft drinks with complete strangers, the “course bruv” being Genius’s gracious acquiescence to “can I have a sip of that?” Producer Capone weaves an effervescent merry-go-round groove of chiming bass-melody and giddy looped strings, while the MCs hypnotize with the sheer bubbling fluidity of their chat. The verses are deliberately preposterous playa wish-fulfillment: “Number one breadwinner” Keflon claims he’s “invested in many shares, many many stocks” while Fizzy purports to date “celeb chicks,” “ballerinas” and even have “hot chicks as my household cleaners”.

(GO BEAT 2002)

Pirate radio culture evolves in small increments, month by month. The onset of one genre or sub-flava overlaps with the twilight of its predecessor. There are rarely clean breaks. Still, every so often a track comes along that yells “IT’S THE NEW STYLE!!!!” in your face. “Oi!” was one of them. Drawing on the most anti-pop, street vanguard elements in black music history--ragga’s twitch ‘n’ lurch, electro’s
(f)rigidity, jump-up jungle’s bruising bass-blows --producer Platinum 45 created a most unlikely #7 hit. Factor in the barely-decipherable jabber of More Fire’s Lethal B, Ozzie B, and Neeko, and the result was one of the most abrasively alien Top of the Pops appearances ever. The tune’s pogo-like hard-bounce bass and uncouth Cockney-goes-ragga chants mean that “Oi!” has more in common with Cockney Rejects-style punk than you’d imagine. “Oi!”, then--grime’s biggest hit to date, before the genre even had a name.


Widely regarded at the time as UK garage’s absolute nadir, “Pulse X” is actually a pivotal track: the scene’s first purpose-built MC tool. Locating a new rhythm at the exact intersection of electro and gabba. “Pulse” is virtually unlistenable--those dead-eyed claps, those numbly concussive kicks--on its own. But in combination with a great MC, the skeletal riddim becomes an instant and massive intravenal jolt of pure adrenalin. It’s not just the headbanging energy, though, it’s the track’s very structure that is radical. “Pulse X” was the first 8-bar tune, so-called because the rhythm switches every eight bars, thereby enabling MCs to take turns to drop 16 bars of rhymes using both beat-patterns. Far from being UK garage’s death-rattle, “Pulse X” rescued the scene, rudderless and demoralized after
2step’s pop bubble burst. The sheer phallomorphic rigour of “Pulse X” gave the scene a spine, a forward direction.

(XL 2003)

Circulating as a white label from summer 2002 onwards, “I Luv U” turned London pirate culture around as much as “Pulse X”. Legendarily creating the track in a single afternoon during a school music class, Dizzee took the same sort of sounds Musical Mob used--gabba-like distorted kickdrums, shearing-metal claps--and turned them into actual music. Add a teenage MC genius desperate to announce himself to the world, and you have grime’s “Anarchy in the UK.” The punk parallel applies because of the harsh Englishness of Dizzee’s vocal timbre and the lovelessness of the lyric, which depicts the pitfalls of the, er, dating game from the p.o.v of too-much-too-young 16 year olds whose hearts have been calloused into premature cynicism. Dizzee’s snotty derision is almost eclipsed by the come-back from female MC Jeannie Jacques, who throws “that girl’s some bitch yunno” back in his face with the equally corrosive “that boy’s some prick yunno.” The original white label featured the “Luv U” instrumental, but tossed away on the XL rerelease’s B-side is the classic “Vexed”: Dizzee’s stressed delivery makes you picture steam coming out of his ears and the music--beats like ice-floes cracking, shrill synth-tingles--renders obsolete the entire previous half-decade of retro-electro in one foul swoop.


Ex-PAUG but at this point still Rolling Deep, Wiley invented a entire mini-genre of low-key, emaciated instrumentals: asymmetrically structured grooves based around sidewinder B-lines that “Slinky downstairs” (as DJ Paul Kennedy put it), and glinting, fragmentary melodies. From his legion of imitators, these tended to be strictly MC-funktional beats, but in Wiley’s case, more often than not the tracks are highly listenable stand-alone aesthetic objects even without rhyming. The first in an ongoing series of ice-themed tunes (“Igloo”, “Frostbite,” “Snowkat”, et al). “Eskimo” was the blueprint for this dinky-yet-creepy micro-genre (which Wiley dubbed “Eskibeat”). “Ice Rink” took the concept of MC tool to the next level. Instead of just being sold as an instrumental for MCs to use, it was released in some eight versions featuring different MCS. Spread across two 12 inches, ‘Ice Rink” constituted a de facto riddim album. Dizzee’s turn is the stand-out, his scrawny voice oozing the impudence of someone at the top of his game, as he invites all haters to plant their lips upon his posterior: “kiss from the left to the right/kiss ‘til my black bum-cheeks turn white”. Wiley’s palsy of gated doorslam kicks and mercury-splash blips jostles with Dizzee for your attention.

(HOT SOUND 2003)
(HOT SOUND 2003)

2003 saw a slew of 8-bar instrumentals suffused with cod-Oriental exoticism. As incongruous as a pagoda plopped smack dab in the centre of Bow, “Weed Man” is the supreme example of “sinogrime,” Hyperdub webzine’s term for this micro-genre. Produced by Nasty Crew’s Jammer, the track is dedicated to “all the marijuana smokers” and appropriately the tempo is torpid to a trip hop-like degree. The loping, sprained rhythm flashes back to Sylvian-Sakomoto’s “Bamboo Music” while the ceremonial bassline and breathy flute conjure mind’s eye imagery of Zen gardens and temples. But where Wiley’s similar excursions Eastwards were fueled by record-buying trips to Sterns, Jammer mostly likely derived his notion of Oriental mystery from videogame muzik and martial arts movie soundtracks.

“Birds In the Sky” has a similarly Medieval atmosphere but, apart from the plucky twang of some kind of stringed Far Eastern instrument, is less obviously an ethnological forgery. The solo debut of one of grime’s greatest MCs, D Double E, “Birds” has a brooding meditational aura. The lyric pivots around the bizarre trope of a verbal drive-by, the MC firing off word-bullets that are also “like birds in the sky/hit one of your bredren’s in the eye”. Double muses on his motivations--“why?/cos I’m an evil guy”--then emits his signature vocal-licks, the pain-pleasure groan of “oooh-oooh” and the mouth-mangled “it’s me, me”, which sounds more like “mwui-mwui”.

(AIM HIGH 2004)

Former PAUG stalwart and man behind the ace Aim High compilations, Target here creates one of Grime’s most stirringly cinematic epics, placing a heart-tugging orchestral refrain amid a strange decentered drum-track whose flurries of claps and kicks seem to trip over themselves. This groove’s sensation of impeded yet steadfast forward-motion totally fits the lyric’s theme of determination and destiny. In his smoky, patois-tinged baritone, Riko (another PAUG alumnus) counsels calmness and composure to all those struggling, whether they’re aspiring MCs striving to make it or regular folk trying to make it through everyday strife: “Use your head to battle through/cos you are the chosen one.” The synth swells favoured by Ruff Sqwad also have a cinematic grandeur, like gangsta Vangelis. “Lethal Injection”, though, is one of their more minimal efforts, consisting of a wibbly keyboard line, the boom of a heavily echoed kick drum, and the Sqwad’s rapid-fire jabber, swathed in a susurrating shroud of reverb and background chat. Not a tear-jerker like “Chosen One,” but incredibly atmospheric.


Judging by Industry Standard, you could justly describe Terror Danjah as one of the most accomplished electronic musicians currently active. On tracks like “Juggling” and “Sneak Attack,” the intricate syncopation, texturized beats, spatialized production, and “abstracty sounds” (Danjah’s own phrase) makes this “headphone grime”--not something that could be claimed for too many operators on the scene. Yet all this finesse is marshaled in service of a fanatically doomy and monolithic mood, Gothic in the original barbarian invader meaning. The atmosphere of domineering darkness is distilled in Danjah’s audio-logo, a demonic cackle that resembles some jeering, leering cyborg death-dwarf, which appears in all of his productions and remixes. “Creep Crawler,” the first tune on Industry Standard, and its sister track “Frontline (Creepy Crawler Mix),” which kicks off Pay Back, are Danjah’s sound at its most pungently oppressive. “Creep Crawler” begins with the producer smirking aloud (“‘heh-heh, they’re gonna hate me now”), then a bonecrusher beat stomps everything in its path, while ominous horn-blasts pummel in the lower mid-range and synths wince like the onset of migraine. From its opening something-wicked-this-way-comes note-sequence onwards, Big E.D.’s original “Frontline” was hair-raising already. Danjah’s remix of his acolyte’s monstertune essentially merges it with “Creep Crawler,” deploying the same astringent synth-dissonance and trademark bass-blare fanfares (filtered to create a weird sensation of suppressed bombast) but to even more intimidating and shudder-inducing effect.


If you hadn’t already guessed from the name, grime inverts values. Dutty, stinkin’, even disgustin’--all are positive attributes in grime parlance. So when I say “Hard Graft” is utterly dismal, you’ll know this is the thumbs up. Grime often represents itself as gutter music. Mark One and Plasticman go further, or deeper, with this track, and seem to plunge into the sewage system. Full of clanking beats, septic gurglings, eerie echoes and scuttling percussion, “Hard Graft” makes you imagine pipes, storm drains, dank chambers.

Mark One, Plasticman and their cohorts constitute not so much a subgenre of grime as a side-genre, running adjacent to the scene proper. The sound is techy, MC-free, and more danceable than grime. Although a number of black producers are involved, you could fairly describe this style’s sonic coding as whiter than grime, and situate it on a Euro continuum running through Belgian industrial techno (Meng Syndicate, 80 Aum) through the cold technoid end of rave (Nebula II) to No U Turn’s techstep and Photek-style neurofunk (the beats on “Hard Graft” sometimes recall his “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”). Plasticman’s nomenclative proximity to the Richie Hawtin alias seems telling.

The black component to this genre-without-a-satisfactory-name is dub (indeed its precursor was a UK garage micro-genre known as dubstep). Loefah’s clanking skank connects to a lineage of industrial-but-rootical UK music: On U, bleep’n’bass (Ability II’s “Pressure”, say), The Orb, Techno-Animal. “Bombay Squad” is built around what feels like a half-finished, or partially erased, groove: massive echo-laden snare-cracks, a liquid pitter of tablas situated in a localized corner of the mix, and… that’s it, apart from the dark river of sub-bass that propels the track forward. The title’s intertextual traces include Public Enemy’s producers and 2 Bad Mice’s rave anthem “Bombscare,” but actually allude to the track’s sole coloration, the plaintive ululation of a Bollywood diva.


Wonder works on the cusp between grime proper and the Plasticman/Mark One/Loefah sound. “What” makes something compellingly atmospheric out of the most meagre components: a beat dragging like a wounded leg, sub-bass yawning ominously like a portal into the underworld, a dejected one-finger-melody suggestive of an autistic desultorily toying with a xylophone, occasional dank blips of electronics. Overall, the audio mise-en-scene is something like “twilight falls on the battle-scarred moon.” Also vaguely redolent of The Mover’s gloomy brand of ambient gabba, Wonder’s remix of “Hype! Hype!” replaces the perky original backing track (produced by the great Sticky) with a groan-drone of sick technoise. This
catastrophe-in-slow-mo makes a marvelously incongruous backdrop for the roaring vocal hook chanted by North West London crew SLK.

JAMMER featuring KANO
(HOT SOUND 2003)
WONDER featuring KANO
(NEW ERA 2004)

The backing tracks are fabulous--Jammer’s frenetic snare-roll clatter, Wonder’s tonally harrowed synths, Danjah’s aching ripples of idyllic electronics--but it’s the MC who really shines. With some grime rhymesters, the flow resembles an involuntary discharge (D Double E being the ultimate exponent of MCing as automatic poetry). But even at his most hectic, as on “Boys Love Girls,” Kano always sounds in complete control. All poise and deliberation, Kano invariably sounds like he’s weighing up the angles, calculating his moves, calibrating which outcomes serve his interests. That’s blatant on “Boys” and “What Have You Done”, both cold-hearted takes on modern romance that depict sex in transactional terms, a ledger of positives and minuses, credits and debits; a war of the genders in which keeping your feelings checked and maintaining distance is strategically crucial. But it comes through even in the gorgeous ballad “So Sure,” on which Kano blurs the border between loverman and soldier drawing up plans for conquest: “ain’t got time to be one of them guys just watching you and wasting time/next time I’m clocking you I’m stopping you to make you mine.” As much as the acutely observed lyrical details, it’s the timbre of Kano’s voice that’s enthralling: slick yet grainy, like varnished wood, and knotty with halting cadences that convince you he’s thinking these thoughts aloud for the very first time.


“So Sure” is an example of the burgeoning subgenre R&G, basically a transparent attempt to lure the ladies back onto the floor, after they’d been turned off by the testosterone-heavy vibe of tracks more suitable for moshing than sexy dancing. As the name R&G, short for rhythm-and-grime, suggests, the mini-genre replicates 2step’s original move of copping American R&B’s luxurious arrangements and diva-melisma. Alongside Terror Danjah, Davinche pioneered R&G with tunes like “Leave Me Alone”. Too often these attempts at Brit-Beyonce fall short owing to a lack of grounding in songcraft and the studio art of mic’ing vocalists, and end up sounding slightly thin and shabby. So I prefer Davinche’s instrumental efforts like the Dirty Canvas EP series. The quasi-soundtrack orchestration of “Stinger”--flurrying strings, decaying tones from a softly-struck gong--are designed to swathe any MC who rhymes over it with an aura of slightly-harried majesty. Built out of similar pizzicato elements meshed to a beat like a clockwork contraption gone haywire, “Madness,” I’d wager, drew inspiration from the paranoia zone reached after one toke too many on a spliff: racing thoughts, pounding heart, jangled nerves, the suspicion that you might just be losing your mind.

Grime is synonomous with East London, but other parts of the city are starting to get a look-in. Essentials, Davinche‘s crew, operate out of South. This powerful sense of territoriality is integral to the concept of “Headquarters,” which draws on the talents of a veritable battalion of MCs, some guests and some from Essentials’ own barracks. At each chorus, a drill sergeant barks questions at the MC who’s stepping up for his mic’ turn: “state your name, soldier”, “state your location” (usually “East” or “South,” sometimes a specific postal district), “who you reppin’” (usually a crew, like Essentials, N.A.S.T.Y, Aftershock, but sometimes just “myself”). Then the sergeant orders each recruit to get down and “give me sixteen”--not press-ups, but 16 bars of rhymes. The amazing production seals the conceptual deal, the chorus being accompanied by cello-like instrumentation that’s been digitally contorted into an unearthly wraith-like whinny, or a cyberwolf howling at the moon.


Following a failed mainstream-bid album, More Fire looked all washed up in 2003, but Lethal B rebuilt their street rep from the ground up. In 2004, his “Forward” riddim became the scene’s biggest anthem. Renamed “Pow” on account of its main vocal hook, it ultimately barged its way to the outskirts of the Top Ten, achieving grime’s highest chart placing since… well, “Oi!”. The riddim, produced by Dexplicit, is basic verging on crude, a madly gyrating loop that resembles an out-of-control carousel. “Pow!!!,” Lethal’s chorus chant, evokes the fisticuffs of comic book superheroes. Matching the track’s rowdy vibe (it was reputedly banned in some clubs for inciting mayhem on the floor), a squadron of top MCs lay on the ultraviolence, the cartoon flavor of which can be gleaned from Demon’s immortal warning “you don’t wanna bring some beef/Bring some beef you’ll lose some teeth”.


Like “Pow”, “Destruction” is a rollercoaster of pugilistic noise and lyrical aggro, but Jammer’s production is marginally more sophisticated, slicing ‘n’ dicing brassy fanfares (probably from blacksploitation movies) and filtering them to create a sort of surging-yet-leashed effect, like the track is simmering with pent-up rage. The four scene-leading MCs rise to the occasion, from Wiley’s riffed variations on “I know Trouble but Trouble says he don’t know you,” to Kano’s quaintly Anglicized gangsta boat “from lamp post to lamp post, we run the road”. But the star performance comes from D Double. Seemingly battling multiple speech impediments, he expectorates glottal gouts of raw verbiage. As so often, there’s that characteristic sense of involuntary utterance, like it’s him who’s being spoken through. “Spitting” is too decorous a word for his rhyme style;
retching is closer. Witness Double’s astonishing first six bars on “Destruction”, a gargoyle-like gibber closer to hieroglyphics than language, and seemingly emanating from the same infrahuman zone Iggy plumbed on “Loose” and “TV Eye”.

On Double’s first solo single since “Birds in the Sky”, rising producer P-Jam’s snaking wooze of gaseous malevolence sparks one of the MC’s most Tourettic performances. Barely tethered to the beat’s bar scheme, Double seems to be wading waist-deep through sonic sludge. He boasts of “sucking up MCs like a hoover”, an image possibly cued by the Mentasm-like miasma unloosed by P-Jam.


The sped-up diva on “Str8 Flash” might be a nod to Kanye West’s Chaka-accelerating “Through the Wire” but equally could be a folk-memory flashback to the early Nineties, when rave producers whisked female vocal samples into helium-squeaky hypergasms of spectral bliss. That said, everything else in Lowdeep’s hot riddim testifies to the influence on grime of the last half-decade of rap and R&B. Pizzicato harp-like sounds and stuttering beats create a frozen peak of tense glory. IMP Batch’s “Gype,” the inescapable riddim of early 2005 and the backing track for Crazy Titch’s “Sing Along,” takes grime’s quasi-orchestral ambitions to the next level. Using classical music samples (Prokofiev?), IMP Batch expertly chop up and resequence the refrains--fluttery flutes, cascading strings, a cello ostinato--to form a hilariously prissy yet dynamic groove. This parodic high-culture refinement makes a wonderfully incongruous setting for Crazy’s hoarsely hollered anthem.


Like most producers in most dance genres, grime beat-makers typically invent a striking sound, then wear it out with endless market-milking iterations. Terror Danjah has often approached that dangerzone, but on “Boogieman,” he shows how much scope for inventive arrangement remains in the “Creep Crawler” template. You can hear the cartoon-comical wooh-wooh-woooooh ghostly touches best on the instrumental version, “Haunted” (on Aftershock’s Roadsweeper EP). “Boogieman” itself is a showcase for rising star Trim, here honing his persona of scoffing imperturbality: “I’m not scared of the boogieman/I scare the boogieman.”

On “Not Convinced,” Danjah draughts a whole new template that reveals the producer’s roots in drum’n’bass (the track’s futuristic tingles vaguely recall’s Foul Play “Being With You” remix). Again, though, the MC makes it hard to focus on the riddim. More than anyone apart from not-grime-really Mike Skinner, Bruza incorporates British intonation and idiom into a totally effective style of rapping, in which the not-flow of stilted English cadences becomes a new flow. It sounds “brutal and British,” as Bruza puts it. As his name suggests, the MC has also perfected a hardman persona that feels authentically English rather than a gangsta fantasy based on Compton or Kingston. He exudes a laconic, steely menace redolent of bouncers. “Not Convinced” extrapolates from this not-easily-impressed persona to create a typology of character in which the world is divided into the serious and the silly, the latter lacking the substance and conviction to give their words authority. Bruza addresses, and dresses down, a wannabe MC: “I’m not convinced/Since you’ve been spitting/I haven’t believed one word/Not one inch/Not even a millimeter/To me you sound like a silly speaker/Silly features in your style/You spit silly/You spit like how kids be**.”

(ON HOME SWEET HOME, 679, 2005)

Circling back to “Bound 4 The Reload,” this track celebrates the pirate radio and rave tradition of the DJ rewind, when the crowd hollers (or home-listening audience text-messages) its demand for the selector to wheel and come again. Until grime, the trigger for rewinds would be a killer sampled vocal lick, thrilling bass-drop, or even just a mad breakbeat. Nowadays, the MC being king, the crowd clamors to hear their favourite rhymes. “This is what it means when DJs reload it/That sixteen was mean and he knows it,” explains Kano, before listing the other top dog MCs who get nuff rewinds (two of them, Double and Demon, guest on the track). “I get a reload purely for the flow,” Kano preens, and you can see why as he glides with lethal panache between quick-time rapping and a leisurely, drawn-out gait that seems to drag on the beat to slow it down. The track itself, co-produced by Kano and Diplo, is all shimmery excitement, pivoting around a spangly filtered riff that ascends and descends the same four notes, driven by a funky rampage of live-sounding drums, and punctuated by horn samples, Beni G’s scratching, and orgasmic girl-moans. The old skool breakbeat-like energy suggests an attempt to sell the notion of Grime as British hip hop, yet if Trans-Atlantic crossover is the intent, that’s subverted by the lyric, its theme being as localized and Grime-reflexive as imaginable. “Reload It” encapsulates the conflicted impulses that fuel this scene: undergroundist insularity versus an extrovert hunger to engage with, and conquer, the whole wide world.


* footnote: I quipped to my friends that when I’d pitched this piece to the Wire it was on the grounds that the scene was now unpopular enough to be in the magazine! Joking aside, it was actually, weirdly true. The breakthrough for me was realizing that pirate radio had become a narrowcast medium. Because the potential audience is limitless, there’s always been a grandiosity to the pirates—“this one’s for you, London”—and at key points, that’s been perfectly justified: hardcore was massive nationwide, jungle was the Sound of London in ’94, as was speed garage in 1997, while 2step felt like a form of pop music in exile and sure enough broke through to dominate the mainstream. Grime initially had the air of something that was destined to be pop, and the precedents of So Solid and More Fire and various garage Number One hit wonders like Pied Piper gave it great self-expectations. But just because you’re broadcasting doesn’t mean everyone’s tuning into the signal; most people who chanced upon grime stations probably veered away as quickly as if they’d stumbled on a pirate dedicated to Derek Bailey-style improv. All of sudden, I realized that the grime pirates had become a niche thing, a micro-culture that probably wasn’t that much bigger than the anti-pop vanguards that populated the pages of The Wire.

Then of course, grime did become pop - Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee with Calvin Harris, Wiley's "Wearing My Rolex", etc etc -- but only by getting rid of all the griminess, everything that distinguished it as a genre, a movement, a cause worth championing. I was chuffed for Dizzee - especially with "Bonkers" - got a big buzz seeing him in videos on Euro MTV type channels with Shakira - and a mighty rush when he materialised onstage at the Olympics opening ceremony, doing "Bonkers". But if you'd told me in 2005 that the absolute highpoint of grime-as-grime's popcultural impact would have been "Pow" getting to just outside the Top Ten... 

** for the longest while I heard this as "you spit like Agnes B"!

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