The Resurrection of Grime Music
On February 21st, 2018, British artist Stormzy won two of the biggest Brit awards, Best British Male Solo Artist and Album of the Year. Stormzy is the first grime artist to have an album reach number 1 in the UK charts. Since it began, grime has mostly been an underground scene—and it’s great to see it finally get broader recognition in the mainstream.
Grime is a sub-genre of hip-hop, essentially the British version of American rap, but mixed with influences from UK Garage, 2-Step, Drum & Bass, and Jungle.
If you were to ask a grime artist what grime is, you would receive multiple definitions. Jammer, an MC from East London, describes grime as “a way of living—it doesn’t really matter about the BPM—it’s about where you are from and the shit you went through growing up.” Another famous Grime MC, JME, describes Grime as, “In my opinion, it’s just me and my mates, just chilling. What we do is Grime.” Skepta, JME’s brother, says people gravitate towards Grime because the artists are true to themselves and make music because it’s something they love. Overall, Grime is a British sound, culture, style, and language.
There are also technical characteristics that make grime different from other hip-hop genres. The tempo most associated with Grime is 140 BPM (beats per minute), which references double time, influenced by UK Garage. But what truly makes grime different from American rap is the accent—being able to hear the accent in a song is very important for grime artists and the British youth. Jammer explained the importance in a Vice documentary: “[It’s about] The approach, the attitude, the things you say, the slang.” The British youth couldn’t connect with American rappers because they didn’t sound like them. The creation of grime gave the London youth hope for success.
The artists of grime aren’t called rappers, they are called MCs. There is an ongoing argument between the difference of MCs and rappers. Some say there is no difference and that the titles are interchangeable. Others say that rappers are entertainers that make rap music. MCs, on the other hand, put an emphasis on freestyling and take control of the crowd in addition to recording songs. MCs can be rappers, but rappers can’t be MCs.
It was the early 2000s in Bow, London—the East End—when grime started. Most of the grime MCs were born and raised in low income neighborhoods of London. This upbringing and the hardships grime artists faced are a substantial element in the music. Compared to artists comprising their predecessor, UK Garage, grime artists didn’t have the access to high quality production. This meant that the MCs were creating their music from scratch.
MC Lethal Bizzle describes the natural progression of Grime as “having fun, you would be with your men playing FIFA, [one] would have [DJ] decks, [one] would start spitting bars casually. Then we went on pirate radio, then we started building a fanbase, then we did underground raves.”
Everyone in the neighborhood, it seemed, had the same mindset: they wanted to make music, they wanted to DJ or MC. It would be a group of friends congregating to someone’s house and piling into the basement to make beats and spit bars.
The most famous and influential grime MCs, also known as the First Generation, are Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Kano, and Jammer.
Richard Cowie, also known as Wiley, is considered the Godfather of Grime. In the beginning of the 2000s, Wiley started to create his own music. It wasn’t garage music, and it wasn’t drum and bass, but it wasn’t grime just yet. He independently released his own music, which he called “Eskibeats.” It wasn’t until Wiley met other local MC, Dizzee Rascal, who was making the same type of music, that grime was born.
Dylan Mills, widely known as Dizzee Rascal, started his grime career when he started DJing at age 14. His rise to fame didn’t start until he was 16, around the same time grime started. Dizzee was the first grime artist to win awards, sell music, and get signed. Dizzee paved the way for other grime artists and was the second grime artist to win the Mercury Prize for best album, in 2003, which is a huge accomplishment for British talent.
Kane Robinson, Kano, is another significant member of the grime community. All of these men were from the same area and were all interested in the same music. Kano, along with Jammer, was a part of the N.A.S.T.Y. Crew (Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You). You can watch Kano battle Wiley in the first episode of Lord of the Mics, and witness his talent in freestyling.
Jammer, whose real name is Jahmek Power, is both an MC and producer. He is widely known for hosting battles in his parents' basement with other local MCs. This became so popular that he created a web series, Lord of the Mics. Jammer was part of a lot of crews all over East London, connecting Dizzee, Kano, and Wiley together.
Violence is a huge part of grime culture because all of the artists grew up around it. The police started Operation Trident in the early 2000s, which targeted black on black violence because gangs and guns became a large problem in the late '90s. The police targeted a lot of the grime artists because of their upbringing and made it hard for them to expand their music. The police cancelled many grime shows because of the violence they thought the shows would instigate.
In 2005, when grime was picking up, the police created Form 696, which is a risk assessment form event promoters were required to fill out 14 days before the event. This form is used by the police to "to identify and minimise any risk of most serious violent crime happening."
With public safety in mind, Form 696 seems like a good idea, but the police enforce it when the event involves DJs or MCs because they are thought to invoke such violence. This form prevented many grime artists from performing, losing them money and exposure.
The most challenging thing about Form 696 was the fact that the police refuse to comment on why they cancel the shows. JME recently tried to uncover the reasons behind the police behavior in a Noisey Documentary.
As a result of police presence and Form 696, grime started to go under the radar, but this didn't mean it was completely abandoned. In fact, a new resurgence has seen its popularity grow more widely than ever. In addition to Stormzy, grime's resurrection is thought to be because of Skepta. Another important figure in grime history. Skepta has been with grime since the beginning, but today he is bigger than ever. He was one of the first Grime artists to make it big in America.
In 2016, Skepta won the Mercury Prize for Best Album. This made him the first grime artist to win since Dizzee Rascal in 2003.
With plenty of first generation and newcomer Grime MCs, there isn't a shortage to listen to—below are some of my favorites.