It had been a good year for grime even before Skepta accepted the 2016 Mercury Prize, surrounded by friends, family and his overjoyed mum who has become an instant internet favourite.
Over the last 12 months, America’s biggest artists have come to inhabit a grimey state of mind with the excessively-bankable rapper Drake even signing to Skepta’s UK-based Boy Better Know record label. Last month, the British grime veteran Dizzee Rascal announced that he’d be performing his own 2003 Mercury-winning album Boy In Da Corner in its entirety and it sold it out immediately. Even the Mayor of London is getting involved: a few weeks ago a hard-hat clad Sadiq Khan announced an upcoming edition of Eskimo Dance, the grime scene’s leading touring club night, at the opening of Croydon’s Box Park — a pop-up shopping mall constructed entirely from shipping containers.
We’ve come a long way since Dizzee made the long walk to collect his prize, ending his acceptance speech with something close to a plea: “Remember to support British talent – because it is there.”
You can see why he felt the need to make the point. Dizzee’s win came in the same year that the then Culture Minister, Kim Howells, dismissed rappers as “boasting macho idiots” in a radio interview about the tragic deaths of two girls in Birmingham who were caught in the crossfire between rival gangs after a new year party. Howells singled out garage innovators So Solid Crew as “glorifying gun culture and violence.”
How the tables have turned: in May of this year the then Minister for Culture and Digital Economy, Ed Vaizey, told the International Showcase Fund, an organisation which helps England-based based artists to take their first steps into new markets overseas, that the likes of Stormzy “contributed to the brilliant rise of grime music, which is now taking the US, Canada, the UK and the British government by storm.” “I just want to show you,” he added enthusiastically, “we are completely on it.” These days So Solid Crew are practically national treasures and this month their latest iteration will be mostly playing university Fresher’s Week shows.
The music made by Skepta – real name Joseph Junior Adenuga – and his hard-working grime peers, grew directly out of the potent mix of clubs, record shops and pirate radio that made London a world-leader in new music – and particularly new electronic music – since the late 1980s. That world-leading power is unlikely to continue now that the capital has lost of 50% of its nightclubs over the last eight years and 40% of its live music venues. The mayor has said he’s concerned and is appointing a Night Czar. He might want to look to grime for some solutions.
Back in the Noughties, it was almost impossible to put on grime raves in mainstream venues, thanks to a combination of racism and the Met Police’s unwelcome Form 696 which originally forced promoters to declare the ethnicity of performers and the genre of music they’d be playing. This pushed artists and promoters out to peripheral venues like the Sanctuary in Milton Keynes and the Stratford Rex in pre-Olympic east London. The intro from “Lyrics” on Skepta’s album was recorded at one such event – Watford’s Destiny in 2001 – and gives you a sense of how energetic those nights were. Grime wasn’t welcome, so it built its own spaces and infrastructure and now it’s thriving. Eskimo Dance sells out venues across the country and grime artists frequently run their own businesses, signing to major labels if they need an extra cash injection but generally having learnt through the lean times that it’s better to control your own destiny.
This is British pop music in 2016, where pretty much everyone under the age of 25 will have a favourite MC from a scene that is pulsing with full-blown, on yer bike, hard graft success stories. The music is popping, from cheeky cockney girl Nadia Rose to the grittier thread generated by the likes of Section Boyz – probably favoured by today’s equivalent of the East London estate kids who pushed things forward, and who are now probably living in Thamesmead or Birmingham thanks to undignified housing clearances. There’s the kind of commitment to family – see Mrs Adenuga – that should have the most vehement adherents of British Values jumping for joy.
The 2016 Mercury Prize is a personal success for an artist who has always tried to grow grime alongside his own career. But it’s also an opportunity for the UK’s much misrepresented youth to bask in the glow. The grime world has another winner of the music industry’s most coveted prize – and this time no-one’s got to remind people that British talent should be supported; not least because it’s doing a pretty good job of supporting itself.