The grime revival shows unrest in urban society as a whole. Photo: Flickr/kevin
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The resurgence of grime music exposes a new form of political disillusionment

Young people are still frustrated – but the genre's revival shows a universal urban discontent.

In the words of Paul Mason, it’s (still) kicking off everywhere. This frank diagnosis is applicable at every level of British society’s layer cake. At the top, in the rarefied atmosphere of pre-election Westminster, the incumbent 2.5 party system has been pulled apart. Electorate faith wanes. And after scandals such as the HSBC tax avoidance debacle, in which a government trade minister appointed in 2010 once headed the bank, it's hardly surprising. The message is clear: politicians play by a different set of rules to everyone else.

From the tabloid press to Russell Brand to Thomas Piketty to everyone on Twitter, people are trying to make sense of our times. But beneath these manifestations of discontent, does the melancholy trickle down into Britain’s young cultural subterranea?

The reawakened popularity of grime – a musical genre born out of the deprived boroughs of east London in the early noughties – can offer insight into the mindset of urban young people and their place in the landscape of 21st-century disillusionment.

Grime was conceived shortly after the millennium. The New Labour government had introduced ASBOs and increased CCTV surveillance in its bid to be “tough on the causes of crime”, while elsewhere embracing big business, preaching a third-way, trickle-down economics. This pairing of policy – seen by some as a mix of harsh panopticism with neoliberal overconfidence – resulted in an inequality best symbolised, as Dan Hancox has pointed out, by the juxtaposed architecture of east London: Canary Wharf versus the high-rise council estates of Bow E3.

This claustrophobia incubated the birth of a raw sound. Grime is the reaction of neglected youths peering up at the exclusive, unobtainable futurism of the city from positions of poverty. Doused in anti-establishment slang, typical lyrics relay the gritty aspects of an underclass preoccupied with park bench apathy, gang warfare and drug dealing. It is a middle finger up at disingenuous "hug-a-hoodie" conservatism – a patronising philosophy that in essence still plagues politicians in their failed attempts to connect with the sceptical young voter.

Where in 2002/3 it started as an organic social reaction, grime’s role as a unified voice of the oppressed became gradually less coherent. Despite a slowly accumulating nucleus of underground loyalists, the commercial success of a few artists brought a softened sound to the mainstream. In this respect, some aspects of the genre’s evolution are comparable to post-Olympics east London: gentrified and unrecognisable.

And yet last year there were claims of grime’s return. It isn’t that it went away, but an unprecedented chord of wider media appreciation has now been struck. The sound has spread to Bristol and Birmingham, while a moody instrumental style develops alongside the new generation of angry, punchy MCs. This versatility means music fans at large – the technologically empowered Spotify generation – are listening, not just the teenagers at the back of the nightbus. Unlike ever before, a Shoreditch art gallery is a reasonable venue for a grime show. The squeezed middle, seeking cultural expression, is starting to understand grime’s raw charm.

After all, the coalition government’s policy of austerity has affected multiple levels of the electorate. As the 2011 riots hinted, urban young people in particular are still frustrated. Not interested in voting and thus ignored by election manifesto policy; facing housing crises and zero-hour contracts; locked out of the top city jobs and positions of influence in pop culture unless born into the privately schooled 7 per cent: a voice of expression has to come from somewhere. And this time around, with post-financial crisis awareness, more people – not solely the black working class of east London – share grime’s persistent despair about the unjust trappings of British society.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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