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4 July 2017

Hold Tight: a witty and perceptive history of grime music

Author Jeffrey Boakye opens with a cascade of rhymes, displaying no little talent as a lyricist.

By Musa Okwonga

We are in a moment where grime has truly arrived. The genre has taken some time to rise: its first rumblings came in the late 1990s, born from garage and sound systems, and its energy – each track rattling forward at 140 beats per minute – the perfect expression of the intensity of inner-city London. For years, at raves or over crackling pirate radio, MCs stepped up – playful, rage-filled, or often both – to flow over grime’s frenetic, bass-heavy beats. Dizzee Rascal’s seminal LP, Boy in da Corner, claimed the Mercury Music Prize in 2003, but grime was long seen as an art form that could provide one-off anthems and little more. Yet in the past year or so, it has produced at least two classic albums: Kano’s Made in the Manor and Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayer. One of the scene’s leading lights, Skepta, walked away with the latest Mercury Prize for Konnichiwa. Conceived in London, grime can now boast thriving scenes in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and elsewhere.

Grime can also claim to have played a compelling role in the recent general election. Several of its most eminent names, including Stormzy, Novelist and A J Tracey, inspired young people to visit the polling booth for the first time. The Daily Mail even deemed Jme, a politically outspoken MC, influential enough to attack in one of its articles in the run-up to the vote, exercised, it seems, by his Jeremy Corbyn interview for i-D, which the Mail saw as a popular and therefore dangerous endorsement. The genre has come a long way from having its events shut down: grime is truly here.

Or rather, as Jeffrey Boakye makes clear in his compelling work, maybe it always was. In Hold Tight – in one sense a deeply personal and thrilling history, in another a nerd’s journey – the author, scrambling back through time like an archaeologist, traces the roots of this music up to the present day. The format he uses is a striking and engaging one: he examines grime through a series of seminal tracks, so that the effect is a little like Julian Barnes’s History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Instead of a conventional narrative, we have a tracklist; the book is a DJ set, and Boakye’s job is to weave it all immaculately together.

That he does so with apparent ease says much for his skill as a writer. Like all the best albums, his book opens with a bold statement of intent, a cascade of rhymes in which he displays no little talent as a lyricist.

Bars got parallel parked like cars from MCs far from the charts, if you’re asking what made grime get started, look to the history, look to the past. Look to pavement, from the ground up, where the soundboys of London turned the sound up. Lyrics for lyrics turned the crowd up and UKG just got them wound up. Frustrated, had to go make it. Matrix downloaded the bass kicks. Syncopated, Rinse’ll play this even if a champagne rave can’t take it.

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From there he tears on at a riotous pace, from the birth of the Amen Break – the distinctive drum pattern to which music owes so much – through the emergence of grime from Caribbean soundclash culture, and on to the early skirmishes between rival MCs. Throughout, he ties the narrative of grime back to his experience of growing up in Britain as a man of African heritage. As a result, we are not merely passive observers; we become enthusiastic passengers as he takes us on a road trip. “To be black and British,” Boakye writes, “necessitates a conflation of different, often clashing identities. From experience, I can confirm the negative capability necessary to be black and English and Ghanaian and a Londoner and Afro-Caribbean and working class and middle class and post-colonial all at the same time.”

A notable aspect of this work is its deference. Boakye does not claim to provide an exhaustive study of the genre: for that, he credits Hattie Collins’s This Is Grime. What he offers is an exploration, and it is a vivid, often spectacular, one. An early passage examining the relationship between grime and swaggering manhood is a particular gem:

There’s an understandable allure to gangster mythology. Anti-establishment folk heroes who live outside of society’s laws . . . It honestly took me the best part of my adolescence to appreciate that gangsta rappers aren’t actually real gangsters. Which is embarrassing, because that’s like admitting you thought that Scorsese movies were documentaries.

He profiles grime’s most influential ­figures in affectionate detail, with Wiley, Jme, Jammer, Ghetts and Kano, among others, all getting their due. He celebrates the genre’s originality and creativity, its role as a yet more inclusive form of punk for the modern era; and, at the same time, he is unafraid to provide it with an unsparing critique. “Arguably, the least palatable aspects of grime,” Boakye writes, “its violence, its homophobia, misogyny, greed, criminality, latent homophobia and hypersexuality, are its most masculine – adolescent blackness seeking to win empowerment by conforming to society’s warped ideals of strength.”

There are areas where this book could have been even better. More insight would be welcome into the roles of the DJs who brought grime forward. Tim Westwood, as Boakye notes, has done a great deal for the genre, but there are MCs from the UK hip-hop scene who will remember that he was not always so generous with his patronage. It is possible, too, that this book did not need its appendix – the narrative loses some of its punch and power once Boakye steps back to explain the genre more fully. Though the focus is black masculinity, there could also have been a deeper examination of the important role that female MCs have played in the evolution of grime, given the misogyny that goes hand in hand with hypermasculinity.

On the whole, though, this book is an excellent addition to the literature. Like the best grime MCs, it is witty and perceptive, confident and charming – and its flow and timing are flawless. 

Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime
Jeffrey Boakye
Influx Press, 387pp, £9.99

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague