In 1985, following rioting in Tottenham, north London and in Handsworth, Birmingham, a 29-year-old Oliver Letwin submitted a confidential memo to his boss at No 10, Margaret Thatcher. The note was responding to her cabinet colleagues’ pleas for an urban assistance fund in predominantly black neighbourhoods. “So long as bad moral attitudes remain, all efforts to improve the inner cities will founder,” he warned, adding that Afro-Caribbean entrepreneurs would use the money to “set up in the disco or drug trade”, council blocks would “decay through vandalism combined with neglect” and those assisted would graduate to a life of “unemployment or crime”. The prime minister took his advice and sustainable funding never materialised, though the government found a way to invest in inner-city development, endorsing a £1.5bn proposal from an American banking consortium to regenerate the London Docklands.
Twenty-one years later, the now MP for West Dorset found himself policy chief to another Conservative leader, David Cameron. Yet to make his infamous “Hug a Hoodie” speech – which Letwin thought was “marvellous” but the future PM came to regret – the youthful leader of the opposition struggled in his attempts to cultivate a young support base, asking the BBC Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood, “Do you realise that some of the stuff you play on Saturday nights encourages people to carry guns and knives?” His comments prompted a response from the grime artist Lethal Bizzle in a Guardian op-ed simply entitled “David Cameron is a donut” – their “beef” continued in the pages of the Mail on Sunday, with Cameron accusing the MC of “talking rubbish”, before quoting back lyrics of his 2004 hit single “Pow!”, said to have been banned from clubs and airplay for being too incendiary (“I will be cocking back my steel… bullets bullets, run run, fire fire, bun”).
Fast forward a decade, and Lethal Bizzle is something of a national treasure, the anthemic “Pow!” having been performed at the Royal Albert Hall flanked by a full orchestra for the BBC Proms. He even duetted for a viral video with an 82-year-old Judi Dench. As Dan Hancox argues in Inner City Pressure: the Story of Grime, recent years have seen the genre itself “suddenly hailed as a proudly British triumph” – Wiley, the “godfather of grime”, was awarded an MBE for services to music in the 2018 Honours list; billion-dollar sports teams and international consumer brands fall over themselves to sign up artists; while Stormzy’s song “Blinded by Your Grace” provided inspiration to a nervous 62-year-old former oil executive and Old Etonian Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the run-up to the recent royal wedding: “There’s a line in that – ‘I stay prayed up and then I get the job done’ – I think that sort of sums it up.”
Grime’s principle pairing of “beats and bars” infused many of the country’s fin de siècle underground music subcultures. A product of the Black Atlantic – US coastal hip-hop, Chicago house, Caribbean dancehall, West African syncopation – this arrangement underpinned every genre from ragga, rave and jungle to drum and bass, and dubstep. Hancox explains that a distinct “Britishness” derives from the nation’s multicultural diasporas “intermingling with working-class slang and culture, rubbing up against each other” – their scenes driven by second- and third-generation migrant youth invested in occupying cultural spaces, having been shut out of political ones. That grime became the pulsating sound of “millennial east London” – just as Hancox believes Detroit techno once captured “the metronomic industrial rhythms of the city’s car factories” – is miraculous if only because it refuses to pander to the uplifting forms of escapism associated with other forms of UK urban music.
Like punk raging against the pretentiousness of prog, grime emerges in the early 2000s as a rejection of the “grown-up UK garage scene”, popularised by sleek, stylish and saccharine superstars such as Craig David and Daniel Bedingfield. The ground-breaking record producer-MC Wiley, himself a garage graduate who thinks of grime as “young black man’s punk rock”, pioneered a sound he labels “eskibeat”, notorious for its “futuristic, icy cold synths, devastating basslines and awkward, off-kilter rhythms”, making it – in Hancox’s words – “too strange and irregular to dance to”.
Rather than crooning about love and sex, Wiley’s fellow upstarts sought authenticity, “transmuting the anxiety, pain and joy of inner-city life” into music. The “cathartic kitchen-sink” nature of tracks such as “Sittin’ Here” from Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album Boy in da Corner presented “poignant snapshots of bleak social realism” to a mainstream audience until then subjected to the “champagne and designer clothes” aspirational aesthetic of two-step: “I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much, I just think/My eyes don’t move left or right, they just blink.”
Dizzee Rascal, grime’s breakout star, grew up on the Crossways estate in Bow, Tower Hamlets, between the soon-to-be-built Olympic Park and Canary Wharf, the flashing skyscraper of One Canada Square visible from his bedroom (“It’s in your face. It takes the piss,” a teenage Dizzee told a BBC film crew on his way to winning the 2003 Mercury Music Prize). The image of “decaying tower blocks” standing cheek by jowl alongside glistening privatised plazas provides Inner City Pressure with a backdrop to project grime’s rise, as its author expertly charts how the scene succeeded despite the “turbo-gentrification” transforming the capital.
Unlike the dotcom-funded new bohemians rapidly migrating to Shoreditch in search of cheap rents, grime artists were incubated within close-knit historic east London communities. Early grime crews made friends in their council house blocks, and with future stars practising in their lunch breaks, school served as what Hancox calls a “vital node in the network”. Our chronicler – a devoted fan and energetic hobbyist who has collated insights from every one of the scene’s architects – contends that though grime often ended up being created in bedrooms, its musicians didn’t develop in isolation. For all the MCs’ bluster claiming the crown of being “top boy in east”, the success of the subculture, its “scenius” – Brian Eno’s term for the fertile ecology predicating innovative cultural movements – developed as ideas and idioms were cumulatively absorbed.
DJ Target, a successful BBC radio presenter who achieved a brace of number ones as a founder member of Bow-based collective Roll Deep, calls grime a “scene that invited the uninvited”, made up of young people dodging parties to dedicate their time to making music with whatever they could lay their hands on – second-hand laptops and Playstations; samples ripped from Jet Li videos; beats laid down on cheap Nineties software such as Mario Paint. In his book Grime Kids, a personal journey through the scene’s ascendancy, the man who introduced Dizzee Rascal to Wiley in his teenage bedroom offers entertaining insights into the movement’s early years. The true foundations were laid on pirate radio – the “lifeblood of inner-city talent” where producers and MCs could hone their craft, broadcasting over a radius of only a few miles from transmitters affixed to the top of high-rises.
Crews and collectives from across London graced the illegal airwaves each night, cramming themselves into makeshift studios – at Rinse FM, decks and mixers would be placed in the kitchen, “on the counter top where you would probably usually make sandwiches, with a large speaker propped by the sink”. All the while, the pirates were playing cat and mouse, with Ofcom and the Department of Trade and Industry determined to seize equipment and shut down unlicensed stations. DJ Slimzee, having spent years stalking rooftops in search of somewhere to rig the Rinse antennae, is eventually arrested and given an Asbo “banning him from going above the fourth floor in any tower block in the borough of Tower Hamlets”.
Grime Kids adeptly illustrates the self-sufficient, enterprising qualities of the UK grime nexus: radio revenue would be generated by selling advertising space – even the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Trident paid for illicit airtime – while contributors would each pool together a fiver a week in subs. Target walks us through the minutiae of vinyl distribution, in which an artist would spend a few hundred pounds getting white label promos pressed for specialist independent outlets such as Rhythm Division on Roman Road (now the site of an artisan coffee house). Target would drive up and down the country in his red Fiat Punto full of records and “tatty receipt books”, preaching grime’s gospel outside its east London epicentre, beyond “the manor”.
After years dragging its heels, the music industry finally embraced the emerging network, but not in the way many had hoped for. Five years after Dizzee won the Mercury Music Prize, large record companies were coming around to exposing grime MCs to conventional audiences. In order to conquer the charts, however, major labels felt the need to interfere creatively, issuing tracks barely resembling the genuine east London sound – Hancox describes the winning formula as “towering Ibiza electro-house synths… and simple lyrics about cars and girls and holidays”.
Yet this pivot to pop was profitable: within two years a generation of grime vocalists – including Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk – scored 12 watered-down number ones between them. With back-to-back bestsellers, Wiley and Target’s Roll Deep entourage was suddenly supporting big American hip-hop acts such as Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, scheduled for children’s TV shows and brand launches, and drinking champagne at celebrity parties. Other MCs duetted with drab guitar groups and X Factor finalists. As the rapper Kano quipped, “I’m in an industry man, in Eng-er-land, where I’ll never sell more than an indie band.” Mainstream success for grime’s second wave – a chart hit and a decent pay cheque – had come at the expense of artistic freedom.
The move into public view provoked a degree of establishment backlash. The press made spurious links between black youth culture and urban violence – journalists, in Hancox’s words, acting like “colonial reporters who’d just arrived in the orient” published articles entitled “The secret world of gang slang” (“It is often hard to distinguish without looking between the black, brown and white boys and girls sat behind you on the bus,” the Evening Standard piece read). The ex-culture minister Kim Howells – the former art school revolutionary who once breached a police cordon at a demonstration outside the US embassy in London – had blamed “boasting macho idiot rappers” for a spate of shootings in the capital during grime’s initial upsurge. Hancox, dismissing the argument that fans might be led astray by their icons “glorifying” gun and knife crime, poses the reader a question: “Which looks more attractive? Making wads of money and appearing in music videos, or bleeding to death?”
Hancox saves his scorn for Blair-era absurdities such as the “Respect Agenda”, whose figurehead the “respect tsar” Louise Casey had joked about “decking” her bosses at No 10 and getting “pissed [as] doing things sober is no way to get things done”. The performative machismo demonstrated by successive prime ministers – Blair’s “compassion with a hard edge”, Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” – was mirrored by grime soloists in the much-misunderstood culture of competitive “clashing”.
Far from inciting violence, writing explicitly visceral lyrics is, Hancox argues, “part of the playful practice of MCing”. Drawing parallels with punk, Dada, Goya and Shostakovich’s Seventh, he informs us that rather than glamourising amorality, grime’s macho facade is nothing but an act – its exaggerated aggression a defence mechanism. Drawing a clear dividing line with the “dark and nihilistic” genre of drill music – the tabloids’ latest bête noire in their decades-long quest to stymie black British culture – he asks his audience to consider taking D Double E’s cartoonish threat to “turn your shirt into a string vest” as seriously as we would Jme’s promise to jab you “in the eye with the fob I use to log in to my HSBC”.
Nevertheless, under the pretence of public safety the Metropolitan Police began monitoring popular black music nights, targeting venues with “Form 696”, a risk assessment questionnaire that explicitly asked the “ethnic” make-up of an audience and genre of music being performed. A long-standing campaigner against 696 who views it as “racist intervention in black social spaces”, Hancox asserts there was an almost immediate impact, with the number of live shows decreasing as cautious promoters, fearing trouble and under threats of losing their licences, shut down grime gigs.
After years of wrangling, in November 2017, 696 was scrapped. Hancox accepts that it took grime’s “commercial success” to ultimately force the Met’s hand. The re-emergence of a flourishing live scene has encouraged corporate sponsors to associate themselves with the genre’s vitality: the collective Boy Better Know cut a brand partnership deal with Nike before the group’s day-long takeover of the entire O2 complex (formerly the Millennium Dome), while Boy in da Corner was performed in full by Dizzee Rascal in New York City at the behest of Red Bull (“Big Taurine” is apparently a major player in the music industry).
Advertisers swarm over artists hoping for a sprinkling of grime’s stardust: Maxsta’s ads for Google Chrome and Adidas convinced beverage brand Oasis that he was the perfect person to front their new campaign (“Braap, Braap, Braap, drink ‘em up, up, up!” he spits in an online marketing video, flanked by a thirsty estate crew). Maxsta was one of many involved in last year’s #Grime4Corbyn phenomenon, credited with encouraging a new generation to register their vote at the general election. The Labour leader himself has attracted the attention of the genre’s brightest star, Stormzy, who admires the 69-year-old’s “energy” and feels he understands what “ethnic minorities are going through and the homeless and the working class”. Corbyn presented the 25-year-old artist with a GQ Men of the Year award in 2017, and in turn Stormzy used his performance at this year’s Brits to launch a vociferous freestyle attack on the Conservative government over its handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Today’s grime stars are under minimal pressure to compromise artistically, able as they are to bypass industry gatekeepers. Over the past couple of years, grime has outperformed all other UK music styles in sales, and critically acclaimed albums including Skepta’s Konnichiwa and Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer entered the charts at number one. The collaborative nature of a “scene built almost entirely by teenagers” remains present, with artists surfacing at each other’s gigs, guesting on tracks, offering continued peer support.
But there have been conspicuous changes on the road from the manor to the mainstream. Crossways estate, where Dizzee grew up – the setting of countless videos and sometime home to Rinse FM – is no more. Regenerated as the privatised “Bow Cross”, it is another victim of New Labour’s “Urban Renaissance” strategy, which Hancox feels was little more than an attempt to “bring the middle classes back to the inner cities” through “Ikea urbanism that would make the city look like a kids’ play centre”. On his sixth album Raskit, Dizzee elegantly maps out the process of gentrification overwhelming his area: “The developers rocked up… and the hood got chopped and the natives cropped and the ends got boxed up, then the price got knocked up/Foreign investment raising the stock up…”
How far inner-city black culture has come can be seen in recent Conservative claims that grime exemplifies Thatcherite values. The then culture minister Matt Hancock – justifying his presence at Skepta’s 2016 Mercury Music Prize party by announcing he listened to grime in the back of his ministerial car – authoritatively proclaimed that “grime represents modern Britain, the entrepreneurial, go-getting nature”. Questioned by a journalist, he admitted wearily that he could not name a single track.
Inner City Pressure: the Story of Grime
William Collins, 352pp, £20
Grime Kids: the Inside Story of the Global Grime Takeover
Trapeze, 288pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war