G is for Grime: How a grassroots genre changed the course of music history

The seventh letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade.

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In January of this year, Wiley released “Boasty”, a triumphant, bubbling track featuring Stefflon Don, Sean Paul and Idris Elba. Its first line captures its essence: “Boasty, boasty, Godfather, man a OG”.

Wiley has plenty to boast about. This lyric refers to his status as the “Godfather of grime”, the genre that has undeniably defined the UK music scene of the 2010s. In an academic study commissioned by Ticketmaster in 2017, Mykaell Riley wrote that grime “could provoke the most disruptive cultural transformation of the British music industry since punk.”

Though it has come to the fore in the past decade, Wiley and other grime “godfathers” were breaking ground much earlier. The genre developed in London in the early 2000s as an offshoot of the UK garage scene, with affiliate links to pirate radio (there’s a nod to this in Stefflon Don’s verse in “Boasty”, when she describes herself as “sweet just like the chocolate”). By the mid-2000s, artists including Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and Kano had made the genre mainstream. Though grime could no longer be described as underground, it retained a grassroots feel and remained primarily a medium for young black artists.

Grime is characterised by deep, repetitive beats, quick tempo and fast-paced flow. Like hip hop, grime lyrics are often self-referential and break the fourth wall. Though grime was gaining ground in the 2000s, in the 2010s it became a driving force in mainstream pop.

Grime began to seem less relevant towards the end of the 2000s. But by the early 2010s, the genre was on the rise again. In 2011, Skepta, who had been on the grime scene since the early days (most notably with his brother Jme in the collective Boy Better Know), reached no. 19 in the UK album charts with Doin’ It Again. In 2014, Skepta released “That’s Not Me”, a track at grime’s favourite tempo – 140 bpm – about being true to yourself; in 2016 his seminal album Konnichiwa won the Mercury Prize. Stormzy entered the scene in the middle of the decade with Wicked Skengman, a series of grime freestyles. By 2015, one of the freestyles – the now infamous “Shut Up” – had entered the UK top 40 at no. 18.

Stormzy soon became the most recognisable face in grime. His indie record label, Merky Records, partnered with major label Atlantic in 2018. This year he became the first grime artist to headline Glastonbury Festival, having only released one studio album (Gang Signs and Prayer) – a performance hailed by critics and fellow artists as “historic”, “iconic” and “an inspiration”.

That grime has risen to such dizzying heights is significant, both culturally and emotionally, because of its affiliations with black youth culture. It has given voice to the experiences of urban communities, not normally represented on such a prominent platform. Stormzy wore a union jack stab vest designed by Banksy for his Glastonbury set to make a statement on Britain’s knife-crime crisis and the racial discrimination that prevails in the justice system. Performing at the 2018 Brit awards, he called out the prime minister for the aftermath of the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy in a freestyle: “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell? … You got the cheek to call us savages. You should do some jail time, you should pay some damages. We should burn your house down and see if you can manage this.”

As well as making astute statements like this, grime has played a more active role in British politics. In the 2017 general election, a group of grime artists formed the movement Grime4Corbyn, encouraging young people to register to vote (and to vote for Labour). Artists supporting the movement included Stormzy, but also Nadia Rose, Lethal Bizzle, Wiley and Sharky Major. The group endorsed the Labour party a second time during the 2019 general election campaign.

Next year Stormzy will release his second album, Heavy Is The Head, and Little Simz will headline Lovebox festival. Many more grime artists – AJ Tracey, Dave, Novelist – dominate the charts. Over the last ten years, grime became the definitive genre of British music, fronted by black men and women who are often underrepresented elsewhere in pop culture. Grime is about more than music – it's part of a political movement fighting for equality and justice. In both senses, it shows no sign of abating. 

This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

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Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.