UK Grime: from pirate radio to the vital voice of a generation

UK Grime: from pirate radio to the vital voice of a generation – words Alice Mortimer

In very recent years it has catapulted from the capital’s underground scene to internationally acclaimed success, but how much do we actually know about London’s home-grown genre?

Primitively associated with London’s East End and pirate radio, UK grime today is famous for combining elements of UK rap, garage and jungle with a brash, gritty and often political edge a la punk in the 1970s.

Since the early-2000s, grime has seen an (albeit interrupted) journey into the mainstream, climaxing earlier this year with a debut release from Croydon MC, Stormzy; Gang Signs & Prayer went straight in at number one in the UK, breaking new ground as the first ever grime album to do so.

Having initially developed out of earlier UK styles including UK dance music (thanks, Wiley), jungle, UK garage and Jamaican dancehall, grime spread across pirate radio and local raves in the early end of the millennium. It wasn’t until Wiley (aka The Godfather of Grime) created Eskibeat and Dizzee Rascal dropped some grime tunes that the genre began to draw in the attention of music critics, Dizzee dropping a Mercury Prize winning debut with Boy In Da Corner in 2003, still widely acknowledged as the most influential and best grime album of all time.

But the timing was never great for grime, and significant commercial success in the production of true-to-genre music was for a long time considered largely dubious. Physical releases turned into YouTube videos turned into digital downloads, causing grime artists to either flop due to lack of record sales – or, as with the case for Dizzee’s platinum selling Tongue n’ Cheek, morph into commercialised pop at the wave of some definitive cash. New genres like grime were left with no way to grow. Raves were getting shut down and we saw an organic move into new sounds such as dubstep.

Long term, though – and once the playing field had levelled out –  the digital revolution was a godsend for grime music artists, who were now able to side-step traditional methods of music production and promotion, using social media platforms to bypass costly gatekeepers to target and build their own fan base. The likes of Twitter and scene-produced YouTube channels began to provide an alternative route, artists rapping in their own make-shift home studios (it only took a computer, mics, a few bits of software and some soundproofing foam); this DIY mentality reflected the very nature of the genre’s origins.

Queue second gen grime and Skepta, who reinvented himself in order to recognise a new wave of ‘successful’ grime. Despite reaching colossal commercial heights with bangers ‘That’s Not Me’ and ‘Shutdown’, Skepta remained completely independent, signed to collective label Boy Better Know, which he founded alongside brother and fellow MC, Jme.

By 2016 Grime was finally going global, with a Mercury Prize win for Skepta’s Konnichiwa  and a nomination for Kano’s Made In The Manor, alongside sell-out and worldwide tours for grime artists, climbing chart positions and regular mainstream airplay.

Grime begun to capture a mood in the same way that Britpop did in the early 90s. But why didn’t this happen first time round? There’s the argument that grime was almost ahead of its time at its birth, a minority group whose voices had not yet been recognised. The resurrection of grime has occurred at a time where youth are finally speaking up in politics and campaigning to take control of their own futures, well-timed with Brexit and seemingly endless referendums. The genre is the voice of a generation, the capital’s youth – rooting from black urban minority groups – rising up from their oppression, and using political wordplay and a punk-tinged attitude to say ‘enough is enough’.

The incredibly influential #Grime4Corbyn campaign helped further propel grime’s credibility as a vital genre. In the lead up to the 2017 UK General Election, the hashtag was a top trend on Twitter as grime artists vocally cited the leader as the radical change Britain needed. Jme interviewed the man himself in a local London café, while earlier last year South London MC Novelist tweeted Corbyn – “Do not resign. The mandem need you”.  This was after the release of perhaps the most outwardly political grime record of all time, Novelist sampling David Cameron on his track ‘Street Politician’.

Despite grime’s fast-rising success in the past couple of years, the roots of the grime music genre continue to remain firmly intact, persisting as it expands, putting London on the map as the birth place of a genre seeping in cherished urban culture. It’s this very DIY, underground culture of grime which makes it feel like such a significant genre in contemporary music.

Its sensibilities are independent and anti-establishment, it’s proud of its heritage. Its music has a wholly gritty aesthetic, is loud, energetic, and has a fierce presence. It’s the re-birth of the attitude behind late 70’s punk, this time manifesting itself in rapid breakbeats and quick-witted wordplay, grime MCs spitting bars with the same ferocity as punk performers snarled revolt. Except this time, a powerful, mainstream generation are backing, and they ain’t backing down.

UK Grime: from pirate radio to the vital voice of a generation – words Alice Mortimer