For some, grime is a dirty word. Certainly, it seems that way for the Metropolitan Police, who, since 2004, have been doing their best to dissuade London venues from hosting performances of this UK-grown variant of rap music. Club promoters in the city tell tales of nights being cancelled at the last minute following "intelligence" warnings from the police; venues are pressured to adopt prohibitively expensive security measures, based on their answers to questions on the notorious Risk Assessment Form 696. The original version of the form, which has been adopted by 21 London boroughs, even asked: "Is there a particular ethnic group attending? If yes, please state which group."
After fans, the music industry and even a House of Commons select committee protested that this blanket bureaucracy threatened live music, the Met announced it would restrict its attention to "large promoted events between 10pm and 4am which feature MCs and DJs performing to recorded backing tracks". In the context, it's hard not to see this as a continuation of what the music journalist Dan Hancox has described as a "systematic and deliberate attempt . . . to remove music performed largely by young black men from the public sphere".
Perhaps it's not so much what you're listening to as how you listen to it. Large gatherings of young black men in public places evidently worry the police, but singles by grime artists are topping the charts as never before. Last year brought the rise to A-list status of Dizzee Rascal, born and raised on an east London council estate, now a darling of the music press and a fixture at mainstream festivals. Tinchy Stryder, a fellow east Londoner, has followed in his wake. At a time when many of the musicians populating the charts either boast a private education (La Roux, Lily Allen, Florence and the Machine) or have emerged from the stage school/reality TV conveyor belt (Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis, JLS), it appears that grime is one of the few remaining areas of British pop where working-class kids can have a shot at stardom on their own terms.
But all that police attention has left its mark on the music. Because the scene hasn't been able to develop organically - the capacity to meet and exchange ideas freely is severely curtailed when your raves keep getting closed down - any grime artist who wants to sustain a career must try more established techniques. As a result, there is a curious division between the music that is traded on mix CDs or broadcast on pirate radio and the stuff that makes it into the mainstream.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the career of Wiley, a stalwart of the grime scene, whose single "Never Be Your Woman" has been hovering around the Top 20 for the past fortnight. If you're a fan, then you'll know he's one of the most talented British musicians of the past decade: as a lyricist, he dabbles in scattershot, witty wordplay; as a producer, he builds richly textured, polyrhythmic sounds from synths and samples. Yet when it comes to his success as a pop act, Wiley pursues a parallel career in which he makes unashamedly commercial singles that border on being novelty songs. This was most evident in his biggest hit to date, "Wearing my Rolex" (2008), which had a fairground-ride pulse so blatant you could almost hear the clanking of a rusty roller-coaster in the background.
“Never Be Your Woman" embodies the split in microcosm. A reworking of the 1997 hit "Your Woman" by White Town (the stage name of Jyoti Mishra, another mercurial bedroom genius), the version made by Wiley is a slinky beast of a track, its melodic line muffled and throbbing with pent-up energy. But what the casual listener is likely to hear, thanks to tightly controlled playlists that ensure only a narrow range of sounds makes it across most of the airwaves most of the time, is the radio edit.
Produced by Shy FX, this remix removes all the subtlety of the original and adds a plodding drum'n'bass beat. There's nothing to make your ears prick up, no depths to explore with repeated listens. Quite the opposite, in fact: like most radio fodder, it is Music While You Work, designed not to be noticed, but to make the day glide by a little more easily. Wiley's vocals, which blend well in the original, sit uneasily on top of this version, struggling to find a place in the cluttered mix.
Tinie Tempah, whose single "Pass Out" is enjoying its second week at number one, has made a somewhat slicker bid for attention. Over a slow, imperious beat that has much in common with conventional US hip-hop, Tempah, a 22-year-old south Londoner, delivers an account of bling-fuelled braggadocio, undercut with a very British ear for the banal quotidian detail: "I've been to Southampton but I've never been to Scunthorpe . . . I'm about to be a bigger star than my mum thought."
In this respect, "Pass Out" is not so much hard-hitting social realism as another step in our long-established tradition of light entertainment. Not quite a successor to "My Old Man's a Dustman", but it neatly exposes the fake democracy of today's pop charts. Success is open to anyone - but only if you learn first how to be an entertainer and not an artist.