The punk of now
UK RAPPER STORMZY, PHOTO BY KIM ERLANDSEN
Picture the scene: you’re at home, engaged in usual quotidian activities, and sounds start to emanate from your son or daughter’s bedroom. Rhythmic, stripped-down music; it seems to be just an energetically rapped vocal and sparse drumbeat. Or you’re on the bus to work, and from the backseat drifts an unwelcome hiss of skittering skeletal beats from a smartphone speaker. Befuddled, you try to make sense of what you’re hearing. This isn’t hip-hop, yells your unsettled brain. Back in my day we had proper rap, like Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and De La Soul. I can’t get a handle on this! Why is life so confusing and where’s all the toilet paper gone? Chill, boomer. You’re listening to grime, punk rock of the 21st century.
Grime is in no way a new phenomenon, birthed almost twenty years ago from multiple genre-parents: dancehall, jungle and UK garage. It’s characterised by rapping over machine-made beats and glacial synths at a pacey 140bpm. The scene has stayed decidedly British, with influences coming more often from the Caribbean and Africa than US hiphop. Grime artists also use their own regional accents to rap, sing and toast (dancehall rapping), be it Mancunian, Glaswegian or Thames Estuary twang. And the genre boasts a proud lineage of superstars, from Dizzee Rascal, Lethal Bizzle and Wiley (“the godfather of grime”) through to today’s younger titans, such as Dave, Little Simz and Headie One.
What does make grime novel is how it has stayed true to itself. The music has not been co-opted by commercialism or diluted by lumbering record companies. Yes, a few grime-y feet have dipped into pop’s glittering waters, with Stormzy joining Little Mix on their 2017 smash “Power”. And back in 2010, grime crew Roll Deep went full EDM-tastic on “Green Light” and “Good Times”, which both topped the UK chart (and are absolute bangers). Today, grime acts work regularly with pop royalty, Ed Sheeran counting Dave, Central Cee and Stormzy as just some of his less “mainstream” collaborators. But grime has retained its credibility throughout, with Mercury Prize-nominee Little Simz’ new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert winning plaudits across the whole media landscape, Glastonbury headliner Stormzy unafraid to call out the British government on their handling of the Grenfell tragedy, and Wiley’s latest album cover depicting him standing defiant in a sea of riot police. The Godfather’s no grandpa just yet.
Looking through recent underground UK grime videos shows the genre has lost none of its edge. Many of the artists perform with their faces covered by balaclavas and masks (possibly not for Covid-safety reasons) while standing on very “no filter” stairwells and street corners. Gentler “lover’s grime” does exist, but outside the UK charts the emphasis is on tougher battle-style raps.
Not only can the look of grime be quite stark, it also carries over into the sound. Gone are the upbeat Stax horn stabs and funky Motown guitar licks from “golden era” hip-hop. Grime’s beats and rhymes are hard and unforgiving, the sounds assault rather than cosset your ears. On some tracks the bass is taken out completely to make the ambience even more chilly. As Wiley says in Sonic Intimacy by Malcolm James, “It’s a cold, dark sound because we come from a cold, dark place.”
This tougher side of grime reminds me of discovering punk in the early 1980s. Punk was furious and fervently political; album covers depicted war atrocities and eye-watering anti-vivisection imagery. The Sex Pistols’ implosion had left behind an angry scene that was full of genuine “smash the system” vitriol and could be a very tough listen.
Like truly anarchic punk bands, grime is designed to make you uncomfortable. Artists talk about the things they see and experience on their neighbourhood streets. And these things often aren’t pretty. On the BBC’s The Rap Game UK, a much more real version of The X Factor, the goal is to look for the next big grime MC. In one challenge the would-be stars had to rap about a personal experience that affected them deeply. These covered heartbreaking topics from family deaths to imprisonment and sexual assault, a million miles from TV-friendly “I’m doing it for my nan” sentimentality.
Grime is authentic. It is real rebel music. And this can make it more challenging than hearing a US artist rap about the far-off streets of Chicago or South Central LA. It’s very close to home, and that can sometimes make it hard to digest. But here’s the thing: your son doesn’t WANT you to like it. That millennial at the back of the bus LONGS for you to hate the jittery beats leaking out of her iPhone. Grime music is saying to us, Get lost, boomers. Run back to your dewy-eyed reminiscences of old skool hip-hop and late 1980s Daisy Age. Grime can do it softly, but at its best it is harsh, cold and unforgiving – in other words, it’s the punk of now.
Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love