All seems well with grime as we head into 2015. With hits both overground and underground, Boiler Room & Logan Sama’s showcases continuing, new talents rising and scene originators re-energised, and MCs not feeling they have to jump on pop-dance backing tracks to earn a living, there seems to be a lot to look forward to, right? Well, yes, BUT…
Complacency is never healthy, and so in the second of our first-person Perspectives series, Red Bull, Fresh Habits and (with his satirical hat on) Wunderground writer Alex McFadyen casts a dedicated fan’s eye over the most recent developments and comes up with some difficult questions.
Maybe you disagree with what he says, indeed it’s inevitable some will: after all, a big part of grime’s energy comes from its ability to channel opposing views and rivalries without softening or diluting them. If that’s the case, hit us up on firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us why. We’re listening!
Even if all you knew about the grime scene in 2014 was five words – Boxed, Butterz, Boy Better Know – you’d be able to conclude the scene is vibrant. Skepta and JME reached 21 in the charts while staying true to their musical roots, and grime pushed its way to the forefront of contemporary music culture with showcases courtesy of, among others, Red Bull and Boiler Room.
Despite this rising tide, however, to me as someone who’s followed the genre closely for nearly a decade, the various strands of the grime sound in 2014 feel more disconnected, more disparate, than ever. So while the proliferation and popularity of grime has without question been a dominant narrative of 2014, it cannot in itself be taken as a cultural rejuvenation of the genre – a genre that has always been defined by its engagement between the beatmakers and the lyricists.
On the one hand, the music coming from labels such as Coyote, Gobstopper, Lost Codes, Keysound, Local Action and the rest is deeply sonically intriguing, and is spreading grime’s credibility as creative music among a whole new audience. But this is post-internet grime – profoundly self-aware of all that has come before, and shot through with a deconstructive nostalgia. It’s fair to say it’s music more concerned with investigating its own sonic origins (and sampling snatched echoes of old lyrics) in quirky ways than with providing a platform for MCs.
It’s the same way the IDM scene of the early 90s had stylistic parallels with the concurrent jungle scene, but chose to diverge
That means, naturally, it’s developed a completely detached infrastructure – a separate scene with different fans, different platforms and different nights. In the same way the IDM scene of the early 90s had stylistic parallels with the concurrent jungle scene, but chose to diverge. It used the frenetic breaks of the latter to produce music that was actively aimed at a distinct, niche audience – a crowd who got their kicks from the depth and digital sophistication of the music, more than from the raw thrills of dubplate sets and MCs shouting for a reload.
Perhaps the best example of this more introspective grime subgenre is the (justifiably) much-lauded Mr Mitch, who’s making waves in electronic music at the moment for his slow, emotive take on the sound. Arguably, however, he takes his cues from producers such as Zomby, and other avant-garde electronica artists, as much as he does from grassroots grime. He makes music that stands apart and evades easy definition. His affiliation with Planet Mu, trailblazers in the 90s IDM movement, is no doubt in small part due to this idiosyncrasy.
And though the beats coming out of these new labels are by no means divorced from the live experience – and generate a significant response when played out – it feels as if it’s a reaction closer to the spirit of the early dubstep scene than to the furious energy and chanting along to lyrics you’d expect from a grime rave. Sometimes it feels like Boxed and Eskimo Dance could be happening in different worlds. There are plenty of exciting producers around – Logos, Shriekin, Murlo, Visionist, Bloom and Dark0 to name just a few – but they don’t make their beats with the explicit expectation that they’ll be voiced by MCs from any ends, in the way that Wonder, Lewi White, Terror Danjah, Dexplicit, Waifer or DaVinChe were a decade ago.
On the other hand, meanwhile, what you might call the more traditional grime scene might be lively (just look at the energy levels of the crowd at Boiler Room’s ICA show by the time Skepta hit the stage), but it’s not pushing musical boundaries like it once did. It speaks volumes that some of the biggest records in recent times have either been on 140bpm trap rhythms (“German Whip” and Dizzee Rascal’s Footsie-produced singles “Pagans” and “Couple of Stacks”), or have harked back to straightforward Eski production with Wiley’s “On A Level”, Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” and Big H’s “Been Doing This”. All these tracks are great, but they’re not progressing the music through experimentation in the way that the aforementioned instrumental scene is.
It just doesn’t feel as though the grime scene has a genre-defining beat-maker to bring its vocal and instrumental strands together. Where’s the producer making the kind of intricately structured grime that Maniac, prior to his incarceration, and Nocturnal, prior to his, were putting out? Maybe this pair could make significant comebacks in the next year. But in their absence, who’s making the kind of beats that were respected in their own right, but that MCs throughout the scene were itching to vocal?
It seemed, for a while, as though Preditah might inherit the mantle, but as his name gained more traction he became increasingly embedded with Boy Better Know, and less interested in wider collaboration. And even if he doesn’t define the BBK “sound” in the way that, say, Rapid and Dirty Danger did for Ruff Sqwad, Wiley, Target and Danny Weed did for Roll Deep, Jammer and Big E-D did for NASTY, or Dot Rotten did for OGz, it seems as though he’s unlikely to detach himself from such a hugely successful crew.
Grime, as a scene, as a community of musicians, now lacks the coherence it once had. It’s become nebulous, and in doing so expanded to reach places it couldn’t go before, but also lacks the single-minded energy, the direction and the purpose – however frustrated – it had in its infancy. In too many cases the most active group of forward-thinking beatmakers are working in tandem, but completely separately, to the MCs, who are revisiting older styles. The result is a disconnection between two different micro-scenes.
There is a danger, if the scene becomes too segmented, that it will become stale.
It would be good to see grime reclaim the sense of unpredictability it had in the beginning, the feeling that MCs weren’t taking themselves too seriously, and while they often had very serious messages to get across, it was done with a tongue-in-cheek playfulness, an absence of self-consciousness and a genuine audacity which, crucially, was echoed in the strangeness and invention of the constantly-evolving beats. There was a willingness to experiment that gave it the spark – the element of surprise – that was so vital to its appeal. There is a danger, if the scene becomes too segmented, that it will become stale.
This sense of humour and willingness to branch out seems to be something The Square are bringing back to the music, and hopefully in time they’ll start producing songs with the lyrical wit, introspective intelligence and sheer sonic eccentricity of Dizzee Rascal’s early albums, Young Dot’s This is the Beginning and Ruff Sqwad’s first mixtapes. To regain the impact grime had at its outset MCs and producers simply need to be willing to break established paradigms and work with people outside their comfort zone.
There are examples of this beginning to happen – Manchester native Chimpo’s free mixtape Monkey Teef, which saw musicians from across the country working together, and Riko’s “Black Dragons” – with producer Rabit – which was accompanied by a video that perfectly encapsulates the kind of aesthetic collision that gives grime its unparalleled spark. JME’s track “Shift” with Deep Medi’s Commodo, is an amazing example of a vocalist looking outside the scene for inspiration in an echo of Skepta & Plastician’s “Intensive Snare” and Newham Generals & Breakage’s “Hard”. And of course the partnership of Novelist and Mumdance gave us one of the tracks of 2014 in “Take Time”. These are still one-offs, though – exceptions that prove the rule. We need more. Just imagine if 2015 brought us a CD that merged the ethos of Keysound’s recent Certified Connections with the vocal clout of 679 Recordings’ old Run The Road compilations…
It’s these kinds of projects that can provide the blueprint for a grime scene in 2015 that builds on its mainstream exposure and the instrumental experimentation that’s blossomed in the past couple of years, and begins to merge them. If the scene becomes a little less compartmentalised, and a little more driven by collaborative dynamism, then grime will finally claim its title as the music that emerged from a secluded corner to become the defining countercultural insurgency of the millennial generation.