There is hype about grime’s relationship to rap wherever you look right now. Of course we just threw the party of the year with the A$AP Riot Rave where we saw an interesting contrast between A$AP Mob’s hollering and UK MCs’ tightly disciplined bars – and that was not the start of A$AP’s relationship with grime by any means. Of course Kanye’s gathering of London’s finest for his Brit Awards performance and Koko support has got everyone gassed too, and Drake has been co-signing the grime scene to boot.
But what lies beneath the hype? There’s been an uneasy relationship between UK underground culture and the behemoth that is hip hop for a long time – witness early UK rap MCs putting on American accents, or awkward (and sometimes brilliant) attempts to fuse jungle and hip hop. More broadly we as a nation are inevitably influenced by American culture at a deep level: we watch the TV, wear the streetwear, eat the fast food and absorb the pop music. And perhaps most importantly, it’s the biggest music market in the world. What musician can honestly say they haven’t at least given a minute to thinking about “breaking America”?
So is anything different happening now? To try and give some context to all of this, we gathered some of grime’s sharpest: DJs Logan Sama (who of course is coordinating our series of grime broadcasts with the ICA), Elijah Butterz and Sian Anderson. You can hear their full discussion – and trust us, it goes deep into the very nature of grime and the UK underground – on Soundcloud or on our podcast. And below, esteemed New York rap journalist Kathy Iandoli gives her own personal perspective on the changes that have happened within rap over the years which might just explain some of its current curiosity about grime.
I started out as an American hip hop journalist about 15 years ago, which was arguably the shittiest time to ever pick up a pen or a laptop. In the world of rap journalism, the digital age was upon us, but was riddled with angry paper cuts from the print world which reacted with suspicion and derision. The landscape of hip hop itself, meanwhile, was in a very weird state.
It was the turn of the century, and rap’s upward trajectory seemed shaky after taking a hit in the music industry’s 1999 version of the stock market crash – otherwise known as Napster – though some artists were nonetheless certainly still living large.
There was a sharp division between the haves and the have-nots. The haves being anyone who cosigned Diddy’s “shiny suit era” – and profited off it – the have-nots being anyone who still rocked a Jansport with cargo pants. Doubt and uncertainty were everywhere. Even so, nobody in journalism or music knew just how much weirder things were going to get as the 21st century progressed. Can it be it was all so simple then?
Let me pause to declare my interest here by saying that I have always followed overseas trends: music, fashion, film, whatever. I’m a self-proclaimed Anglophile, mainly because I personally feel like everything across the pond sets the tone for everything that I come to love in America one-to-two-years after the fact. Everything, that is, except for hip hop. Hip hop is all-American, all the time, right?
Well… maybe. To most chest-beating hip hop purists, the culture always has and always will set its trends Stateside first. Its music was birthed from samples, collecting styles and inspiration and throwing it into one big pot (or MPC) with to create a beautiful hodgepodge. One that’s always absorbed influences and spread influence worldwide. So yes, hip hop was birthed in the U.S. (the South Bronx to be exact), but since it left the front doors of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, it’s been in global possession.
The resurge in electronic music, polished and repackaged as “EDM,” is, after all, something that’s opened America’s eyes as to what’s going on in the rest of the world, for better or worse.
In recent years, though, hip hop has been less reticent when it comes to accepting changes and broadening its horizons as far as the world perspective is concerned. For a while, it seemed that hip hop artists might gravitate toward grime as rave music, by way of its diluted cousins, i.e. artists like Baauer or RL Grime or anyone with a fetish for synths and loudness. The resurge in electronic music, polished and repackaged as “EDM,” is, after all, something that’s opened America’s eyes as to what’s going on in the rest of the world, for better or worse.
And yes, the rap population all looks like a bunch of Johnny-cum-latelies with this semi-sudden electronic obsession. Many times their electro-execution sucked – take Snoop Dogg and David Guetta on the horrifying “Sweat” or Waka Flocka Flame and Steve Aoki on “Rage The…” – which I attribute to rappers jumping on what was within reach in the EDM landscape and not necessarily grabbing for the best sonic fit.
But from where I stand in the birthplace of hip hop, what’s happening now really has next to nothing to do with the “oontz oontz” sound and more to do with American hip hop finally embracing its hybrid offshoots. Because that’s exactly what grime is, to us at least. It’s an art form that has incorporated rap, but also elements of electronica, dancehall, garage (another more-or-less unknown thing in the U.S.) and all the rest. We don’t hear the rest though. We hear hip hop. And we regard grime as a subgenre. We might be totally wrong of course – we were also wrong about Detox eventually dropping, after all – but that’s how we see it.
Understand the long, complicated history American hip hop has had with even its own subgenres. There has always been a negative spin on a rap spinoff. For an art form that is so incredibly liberal, hip hop adopts a very conservative policy when it comes to expansion. Something that detracts from hip hop viewing changes as positive – and this has happened for decades on end.
Take gangsta rap, a subgenre that suggested talk of police brutality and violence in the streets was relegated to its own little categorical jail cell by institutions like the FCC or mass media, who highlighted the subgenre’s illegal activities and misogyny – but also from those within hip hop who saw it as a cartoonish version of the form. In the end, though, gangsta rap became the hip hop norm, so who won that battle?
On the other side there was backpack rap, indie, underground, conscious: all screamed “broke broke broke” and evolved into the now super negative “struggle rap.” Even the flower child generation of rappers – De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest – found the “alternative” peg deplorable. Hip pop was another example back in the nineties, widely presumed to be the death of real hip hop, as the tidal wave of the mainstream would eventually wipeout whatever was left of the culture’s origins and authenticity.
Crunk and Hyphy were both viewed as nothing more than music to dance to, almost always chased with a drug reference like sizzurp aka lean (once again negative). Even more recent tags like trap and drill, identifiable mainly by cadence, screamed, “This is something different from hip hop! We don’t know why, but it is!”
“Maybe it’s time to check out the rap music in the rest of the world. Oh hey, look, grime is awesome.”
So how in God’s name could we ever fully embrace grime in the past when we’re so conditioned to believe that anything that seems to be “sort of” hip hop is categorically a detriment to the art form? It’s been a very reluctant move, but finally, finally, the hip hop tree seems to be learning to accept all of its branches. Call it a survival tactic or call it evolution: either way, as the hip hop audience is expanding across nations and generations, their horizons are broadening.
Back in the eighties and nineties, hip hop artists were less inclined to head to places like Europe. As the culture became a cash cow, artists could both afford international holidays and have their labels book expansive tours, where they could witness foreign trends at a ground level. So maybe it should be less about saying to hip hop, “Oh now you dig grime?” and more hearing hip hop saying, “Maybe it’s time to check out the rap music in the rest of the world. Oh hey, look, grime is awesome.”
In fact, let’s address an elephant in the room that’s waving a Union Jack flag: Americans are kind of obsessed with British culture lately. This rampant anglophilia has been happening since an unofficial British Invasion happened about a decade ago, when acts like Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen were singing songs about dudes and smoking blunts. It was a stark contrast to the sad sissy shit other singers were feeding us Stateside.
These Brit girls seemed to have a rough edge, probably due to the fact that they listened to hip hop growing up. Take Amy’s ode to Nas “Me & Mr. Jones” or Lily Allen interpolating 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper” for her diss track to her grandmother titled “Nan, You’re A Window Shopper.” They were unicorns, and hip hop found them fascinating.
Other more ethereal Brit girls entered the fray, too, their voices screaming “sample me!” to the avid hip hop producer, even causing them to travel further back in their crate digging (Clams Casino sampling Imogen Heap for both Lil B and A$AP Rocky being one example). Before you know it, Jessie J and Jessie Ware are getting rap remixes, Rita Ora is signing to Roc Nation, and there are points where we’re starting to forget where the U.S. ends and the UK begins.
But back to Grime… Of course guys like A$AP Rocky and Drake and Kanye West would gravitate toward grime first. These are the men who read British fashion mags and aren’t afraid of subgenres because they are the subgenres themselves. They are the weirdos that hip hop feared in the past, armed with tight jeans and emotions. Everything that we knew of rap music from yesteryears has been replaced with sartorialists and free thinkers who live in a world without a “Pause” button. They simply don’t care about looking hard, they want to create art and make money.
They’re also the current kings of U.S. Hip-Hop – throw in Kendrick Lamar, who has already collaborated with Emeli Sande and Jay Z who has signed almost anyone with a borderline Cockney accent to the Roc 2.0. See: Anglophiles! The rest are slowly following suit, too, embracing this two-part change of 1) positivity towards subgenres and 2) the UK setting the tone for “cool.”
The way I see it, that is where the sudden acceptance of grime comes from. Yes, maybe it’s due in part to simply hearing Skepta and thinking, “Hey he sounds great rapping over that intricate production,” followed by the knee-jerk rapper response, “Maybe I can too!” – but there’s a lot that’s led us to this point. And be prepared, grime scene: someone Stateside is bound to call themselves a grime act soon enough (and not RL Grime or Grimes either). For now, though, you can have it, while we ogle at it from a distance, foam at the mouth and fantasize about becoming a part of it. Kind of how the rest of the world was with hip hop long ago.