Urban Legends: The Rise of UK Grime
From Bow E3 to MBE, grime’s ascendancy has been seismic and ferocious. Sam Willis explores the story behind the UK’s 21st-century punks…
Every punk fan will remember the January 1977 issue of Sideburns in which the fanzine taught its readers three chords – A, E and G – and told them: “Now form a band”. That DIY self-governance resulted in one of the most influential forms of music ever created on either side of the Atlantic. Fast-forward to East London at the turn of the millennium and an unlikely descendant of punk was being forged – in a melting pot of poverty, disaffection and a similarly belligerent self-determination – and heralded by many as the most original frontier of UK urban music for decades: grime.
2017 was the peak of what many called a renaissance in the genre and, after a significant dip in quality and consumption at the tail-end of the 2000s and into the early 2010s, the numbers certainly seem to prove that it has arrived once again, with a vengeance. Last year saw grime streams reaching an all-time high of one billion a week and a 109% increase in physical album sales, according to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). Although many of these second-generation releases were predominantly CD and download only, they are now also widely available on wax, reflecting the format’s renewed authority.
A Brief History of Grime
In the same year, we also witnessed the first ‘pure grime’ UK No. 1 in Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer, and a Drake album – More Life – celebrating grime through featured artists, foregrounding its sonic footprint and the typically West Indian dialectal reference points that have become synonymous with grime and the wider culture.
So, how did we get from Bow tower blocks to Wiley receiving an MBE, and an album that generated 89.9 million Apple Music streams on its first day of release and went on to breach the Top 10 album charts in five countries? Culturally and socially, the story starts with the arrival of the Windrush Generation in 1948 – but sonically, the genre is undoubtedly rooted in UK garage.
By the late 90s, garage, originally an American import, was fully formed and thriving in the UK. By the early 2000s, it had mainstream totemic figures and chart hits from the likes of Craig David, Daniel Bedingfield and Artful Dodger, to name just a few.
Grime’s ascendency was born out of the disenfranchisement at a genre that branded itself as champagne-swilling, decadent and elite. “With the garage and the grime thing, the garage people didn’t like them,” remembers Nick Huggett – former A&R at XL and the man who signed grime posterboy Dizzee Rascal (as well as Adele). “They were younger, garage was like really dressed up. Those kids weren’t welcome at the garage events and part of the music was about having their own thing.”
Much like the punks before them, early grime artists had been le behind; they needed something destructive, something simple that they could make on a budget and call their own, out of artistic necessity and outsider angst.
The beginnings of a crossover arrived in the form of influential garage soundsystems gaining notoriety on pirate radio stations in London. “Pirate radio was important, and it’s influential,” Huggett says. “The whole thing emerged for those guys with the clashes on the radio stations and that sort of stuff. That was a culture in itself that existed outside of releasing records.”
A close relationship between pirate radio stations, influential record shops and the DJs and producers creating small, modest volumes of white labels and dub plates drove much of what happened in the UK garage and grime scenes at the tail end of the 90s and beginning of the 2000s.
A brief aside here is the importance of soundsystem and soundclash culture, which was imported from Jamaica and had a huge impact on the early formation and distribution of grime. It was this clan culture and tribal clashing that would lead to the Lord Of The Mics MC-battle DVDs’ ‘crew’ mentality and again, positions grime as an ancestor of the Windrush generation.
The Pay As U Go Cartel, which for a while included self-proclaimed ‘godfather of grime’ Wiley (now MBE), More Fire Crew, Genius Cru and So Solid Crew, took a defining step in the development from garage to grime. The dichotomous MC/DJ relationship, up until then, had largely favoured DJs. MCs had been an accompaniment to the music; repeating hooks rather than crafting whole verses and lyrical conceits. The aforementioned crews irrevocably changed that. Between 2000 and 2002, tracks such as Champagne Dance, Know We, 21 Seconds, Oi! and Boom Selection were crusading across pirate airwaves.
By the second year of the new millennium, a fertile new feeding ground for hungry MCs emerged driven by bold new productions, in particular Pulse X by Youngstar and Creeper by Roll Deep’s Danny Weed. These two tracks played a pivotal role in what would later be called grime. The beats were stripped back and simple, created on rudimentary production so ware, and left ample space for burgeoning MCs to ‘spit’ on.
Instead of three chords, all you needed to create culture-shifting music in the 2000s was a PC and a determined enthusiasm – that was also evident in the entrepreneurial spirit required to actually get the music into the shops.
“They’d press up a record and sell it from the boot of a car… put it in the shops, so people could consume it. They were shifting quite a lot as well, a few thousand,” says Huggett. “It was quick money coming in, but also what happened through that was it just started to catch people’s ears and spread.”
The role of key record shops – Big Apple in Croydon and Rhythm Division in Bow in particular – can’t be overstated. Like pirate radio stations, these outlets were intrinsically linked with the scene, providing an important space for white-label records to be sold in the areas that the music was being created. “You’d go there on a weekly basis, or even more than that, because there was so much music that was coming out and you wanted to make sure that you knew about it. It was early in my career as an A&R guy, so it was important for me to know all of the hot new records,” says Huggett.
Boy in da Spotlight
These early white labels have become mythologised rarities. Some were adorned with Wiley’s phone number, and they remain important relics in understanding how grime evolved into what it has become today. The blurred dividing lines between producer, distributor and retailer created an energetic ecosystem of collaboration, which put money into the hands of the people involved. It allowed those artists to grow organically, irrespective of any industry interest.
The first real commercial breakthrough, when people outside of the scene started to take serious note, was Dizzee Rascal’s seminal Boy In Da Corner, released in 2003. Huggett had been listening intently to what was going on and saw in Dizzee the hallmarks of someone more substantial. “I Luv U was branching out of pirate radio into Radio 1, into XFM and, for an A&R person, those are the kinds of people you look for,” he says. “Whatever it was, garage, grime, dubstep, was fine in its scene, but you are looking for the things that were gonna reach outside – and that was reaching outside.”
Huggett, who had already been wildly impressed by So Solid Crew, managed to convince Dizzee and his manager that XL was the right home for him. It turned out to be a fruitful partnership, but at the time it may have seemed a curious choice. “There was me, a young A&R guy that had never done anything, working for an indie which, at the time, had no reputation in that world. XL had hardcore, it had Prodigy and SL2, but it didn’t really have a great deal of credibility in black music. An emerging MC wouldn’t be looking at XL and going, ‘that’s where I want to sign’, which is funny, because it’s where everyone wants to sign now.”
The infatuation for major-label signings may have proved another barrier but, luckily for Huggett, XL and perhaps even Dizzee, they weren’t interested enough in the scene yet. “The majors thought, ‘this is cool, but we’ve got The Neptunes or Timbaland’, or whoever was the hot American thing. They were completely missing the point,” says Huggett. “50% of what was brilliant about it was that sonically, it was British. It owed a lot to jungle and drum ’n’ bass – that’s what Dizzee had listened to – and Southern hip-hop, and you can hear that in it… There is that influence there, but it was something very British and, to me, that was what was exciting.”
The resulting Boy In Da Corner acutely reflected a time and place, with blistering lyrical dexterity, inspired production and brutal social commentary on subjects ranging from teenage pregnancy to knife crime. This unfettered honesty sold. A lot. Boy In Da Corner has now sold over 250,000 copies worldwide; it won the Mercury Prize and went gold in its first year – which, according to Huggett, “was significant, because there weren’t loads of other black music artists having gold records. There weren’t actually that many gold records across the whole music business.”
However, grime was still misunderstood for its rawness in those early years, which made it a challenging record to market at first, for all of its later successes. “It’s important to remember that he didn’t just come out and sell 100,000 – it was a slog,” remembers Huggett. “Every time we took a single to radio, they didn’t want to back it, because it was too hard. Which, again, was funny, because fast-forward five or six years and they’re playing Skrillex on daytime Radio 1. I’m scratching my head, because this sounds way more mental than I Luv U or Fix Up, Look Sharp.”
Culturally, Boy In Da Corner has had a profound effect. It’s one of those records that come along once or twice a decade and change everything irrevocably. Dizzee wrote about what he saw and the result was dark, cold and unflinchingly honest. It was the first breakthrough grime record – although the genre didn’t have a name by that point – and set a bar for Dizzee’s peers to aspire to.
Along with Wiley and his tutelage of the scene (which would take another five pages to write about), the album was a key factor in stepping things up for everyone.
Today, the UK…
The album also helped pave the way for the second generation of artists, who are enjoying the renaissance now: “The cultural impact of that and where we find ourselves today, I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of Boy In Da Corner…,” says Huggett. “When I listened to the Stormzy record, I could hear a direct lineage back to Boy In Da Corner. His flows, some of the references he lifts from that.”
Nine months after Sideburns’ three-chord diagram, Never Mind The Bollocks… arrived kicking and screaming from the womb, holding up two fingers to convention and a ghoulish mirror to society. It was the culmination of a scene bubbling with aggression and an inherently British terra firma, from which tendrils of influence still stretch today. Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner has a similar space within the history of grime. Here we have a record which was forged from a music culture backlashing from convention, railing against social inequality and innovating without vanity. Both punk and grime paid credence to enthusiasm, ingenuity and sovereignty over virtuosity; both were contrarian and highly controversial. Importantly, both have since become forces for critical, as well as commercial, success. The next step on from grime’s conquering of the UK must now be the world.