Monday, April 15, 2013
Run the Road
director's cut, Observer Music Monthly, November 14, 2004
by Simon Reynolds
Grime is our hip hop, the final coming of a Britrap that’s not merely a pale reflection of the original. Instead it’s a wonky, hall-of-mirrors reflection. To American ears reared on “the real thing”, grime sounds disconcertingly not-right--the halting, blurting MC cadences don’t flow, the gap-toothed, asymmetric grooves seem half-finished and defective.
Something of grime’s skewiff quality is captured in the title of this compilation. “Road” is grime-speak for “street”. On “Destruction VIP,” one of the killer tracks here, Kano proclaims “from lamp post to lamp post/We run the road”.The intent is gangsta menace, an assertion of territorial might, but perhaps even to English ears, the quaint phrasing makes the boast fall a little short. American rap fans would most likely crack up on hearing the line. No wonder Grime’s modest fanbase in the United States consists almost entirely of white Anglophile hipsters.
If Grime doesn’t have a hope in hell with American’s hip hop heartland, it can console itself with the knowledge that right now it’s got the edge over “the real thing”. The records sound cheap’n’nasty next to US rap’s glossy production values, but Grime’s way with rhythm and sound is far more jaggedly futuristic. More crucially, Grime has a feeling of desperation that American hip hop has largely lost. Individual rappers may still follow rags-to-riches trajectories, but as a collective enterprise, hip hop has won. It dominates pop culture globally. The music oozes a sense of entitlement, something you can also see in that lordly look of blasé disdain that’s de rigeur in rap videos nowadays. In America, rising MCs rhyme about the luxury goods and opulent lifestyle they don’t yet have because it’s also so much more plausible, within reach. The path is well-trodden--not just selling millions of records, but diversifying into movies, starting their own clothing lines, bringing their neighbourhood crew up with them once they’ve made it.
As a sound, Grime is still very much an underdog, and so its fantasies of triumph and living large are much more precarious, and affecting. There’s a definite ceiling to how much money can be made on the underground scene. Selling 500 singles is a good result, shifting a thousand is a wild success, and even hawking your white labels direct to London’s specialist stores with a huge mark-up won’t generate that much cash. At the same time, nobody in Grime, not even Dizzee, has really mapped out a crossover career path yet. Indeed, making that transition from pirate radio to Top of the Pops is risky. Take So Solid Crew, who got to #1 with “21 Seconds” a few years back. Their second album flopped and their rep on the street (or should I say "road"?) is now non-existent.
You can hear all this in the music, in those pinched, scrawny voices--the sound of energy squeezing itself through the tiniest aperture of opportunity and grabbing for a chance that most likely will prove to be a mirage. All of the guys (plus occasional gal) on Run The Road already feel like legends in their own minds. Standout track “Chosen One” by Riko & Target distils that sense of destiny and destination. Over sampled movie-soundtrack strings that evoke a kind of stunted majesty, Riko imagines himself as a star on satellite TV, then offers counsel that applies equally to other aspiring MCs and to everyday street soldiers dealing with adversity: “Stay calm/Don’t switch/Use composure, blood/Use your head to battle through, ca’ you are the chosen one.”
American rappers, once they’ve made it, can sound like bullies and tyrants when they reel out the same old lyrical scenarios: humiliating haters, discarding women like used condoms. From Grime MCs, the endless threats and boasts, the big-pimpin' postures, somehow seem more forgivable. When Grime MCs batter rivals real and imaginary, they’re really battening down their own self-doubt, chasing away the spectre of failure and anonymity with each verbal blow. Sure, the misogyny and gun talk can be hard to stomach. “Cock Back,” one of 2004’s biggest grime anthems, is a Terror Danjah riddim constructed from the click and crunch of small arms being cocked. Over this bloodcurdling beat, D Double E spits couplets like “Think you’re a big boy ‘cos you go gym?/Bullets will cave your whole face in.” Outnumbered twenty to one, the female MCs give as good as their gender usually gets. No Lay, on “Unorthodox Daughter”, promises to “put you in BUPA” and warns “soundboy I can have your guts for garters/turn this place into a lyrical slaughter”.
Probably the best grime collection yet, Run The Road is also touted as the genre’s first major label compilation. Actually, a Warners sub-label released one in 2002, Crews Control. But its contents were more like proto-grime, the beats mostly 2step and UK garage, and the vibe far more playful and genial, courtesy of now almost forgotten crews like Heartless and Genius. Their brand of boisterous bonhomie and quirky humour is in short supply on Run The Road. One exception: Lady Sovereign’s “Cha Ching”, on which the squeaky-voiced “white midget” announces “It’s Ms Sovereign, the titchy t’ing/Me nah have fifty rings/but I’ve got fifty things/To say/In a cheeky kind of way/Okay?”
Bruza sounds comic, injecting the Cockney into “Cock Back” with his lurching, Arthur Mullard-like delivery and lines like “you’ll be left in ruins for your wrong-doings”. But content-wise, he’s “brutal and British”, reeling off the usual list of inventively gory acts of revenge. Run The Road 's brand of laughter is strictly the gloating, vindictive kind. Hence the eerie digital cackle, like an evil, leering cyber-goblin, used by Terror Danjah as a motif on all his productions (on this comp, “Cock Back” and Shystie’s “One Wish”). Compared to even a few years ago, Grime seems like it has less scope for goofing about now. There’s a deadly seriousness in the air, possibly influenced by the sense that there’s more at stake--a real chance of making it, now the majors are cautiously sniffing around and signing up MCs like Kano.
If Grime ever does makes it, collectively--achieving the sort of dominance that American rap enjoys--these last three years of the genre’s emergence will be looked back on as the golden age, the old skool. Make no mistake, the MCs on this compilation-- Kano, D Double E, Riko, Sovereign, Dizzee, Wiley--are our equivalents to Rakim, Chuck D, Ice Cube, Nas, Jay-Z. To twist slightly the words of another rapper from that American pantheon, Notorious BIG: if you (still) don’t know, get to know.