I text a couple of my friends to ask them about their earliest memories of grime music. "When George used to play that song that goes 'what endz are you repping – south'", replied one. A Channel U staple, as I’m sure longtime fans will remember. "And then there was some homemade video and they took a picture of the London Borough of Lewisham sign."
Another replied saying that her early memories are probably more UK garage-based than grime. "Like, literally banging in Crystal Palace sports centre for as long as I can remember. Even at birthday parties at McDonald's in primary school." I reminded her of all the times our friend, who was actively carving space for herself as an MC at the time, would play us beats on her phone in the playground at secondary school. I’m pretty sure a few of us had her as a ringtone on our Sony Ericsson Walkmans for a bit, too.
As much as race is intertwined in the UK’s music culture, social class has a role to play, too.
That’s the fabric of a lot of 'underground' and 'urban' music genres; it’s irrevocably rooted in the mood, aspirations and heart of the areas from which it emerged. 'Underground' and 'urban' both allude to music with ethnic origin, because let’s not pretend there isn’t a racially charged undercurrent to the way we talk about music that doesn’t sound like it's come from a white artist. That’s a big and slightly different conversation, though. In this case we’re talking specifically about inner city London. We’re talking about grime’s beginnings (in Bow in east London, if you weren't already aware), its ascension in the 2000s into a consciousness beyond local communities, its slip away from the limelight and its more recent reemergence 'above ground' to fanatical mainstream acclaim.
Here, in grime’s second wave, with artists like Stormzy and Skepta deservedly celebrated as two of the most respected and stimulating names in music right now, how does the genre's popularity actually affect, or even reflect, the communities it came from? As much as race is intertwined in the UK’s music culture, social class has a role to play, too.
Sociologist and author Dr Joy White has dedicated a huge amount of her work to grime, and her knowledge of the urban music landscape is extensive. Over her years researching the subject, she spoke to about 40 people and all but one of them were working class, she says. "Class as a category didn’t come up. But I don’t think that’s unusual; when people are just living their experiences," she explains. "Most of them would describe their area in ways such as 'Oh, it was humble. People didn’t have much.' They’d talk about their experiences that were class and racialised as well, even if they didn’t define it in that way. That was the nature of their experience."
Grime is as much a lifestyle as it is a music genre. It’s steeped in a particular, majority black experience which is typically dismissed from the wider societal narrative. So now that the genre has once again been welcomed into the structures within British culture that have systematically pushed its originators down, has the wide celebration of artists like Stormzy, Dave, Kano, Wiley and Skepta done anything to shift society's perception of grime culture?
"I think black creative practices of black musical expression have always been sidelined, up until the point where the mainstream finds a use for it, either as decoration or as some other thing to take up," Dr White explains. "I don’t think that’s unusual about grime as a musical practice, I think it’s always been that way. When you combine black creative practice with working class practices as well, then I think that those things are always evident."
Obviously, the selective sidelining of black culture which flourishes within inner city communities doesn’t disappear with a few awards, radio plays and headline festival slots. But as we continue to rumble on in this current phase of pro-grime culture, we can’t afford to dismiss the reality that still frustrates and fuels the underrepresented. It’s in the distinct energy of their performance and the force of their lyrics attacking the societal injustice that, more often than not, affects them first.
You’ll have noticed that no female MCs have been named here and, yes, black women have continuously been overlooked as grime's waves of mainstream popularity have ebbed and flowed. It’s a crucial observation that journalist and Slay In Your Lane co-author Yomi Adegoke addresses in a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary, and we still have to ask: Why do black women continue to be excluded from spaces that were built on a culture in which they play a huge, yet seemingly invisible role? Shouldn’t the rise of a genre like grime benefit all its players? It’s a familiar story across the entire music industry, of course. But the sting doesn’t hurt any less, after almost 20 years of grime's zig-zag in and out of the UK’s majority consciousness – in Ticketmaster’s 2017 grime report, not a single woman was named among the public’s favourite artists.
It undoubtedly has a lot to do with grime’s general visibility beyond the estates, playgrounds and chicken shops where so many of us in London would Bluetooth songs to each other. After a peak in the 2010s, when Tinie Tempah, Tinchy Strider and Dizzee Rascal were still in the limelight, there came a dip where grime didn’t go away but rather wasn’t as commercially prominent as it had been.
"Probably what happened was that the mainstream, for want of a better word, didn’t really know what to do with it. They didn’t know how to make it and lost interest and so moved along to the next big thing," Dr White explains. "And now we’re in our next wave, which may or may not be on the wane again in terms of visibility. Grime has become, in a lot of ways, [like] the well-behaved older brother and drill has taken its place [as] the 'unruly, chaotic, what on earth do we do with this' genre."
You may have read the news reports recently about police asking YouTube to remove drill music videos because of their apparent potential to cause "a risk and a harm". The genre's association with gangs and violence isn’t dissimilar to authorities' previous gripes with rap and hip hop generations, and much of the frustration around it comes from the continued stigmatisation of young black people who sit far down the social ladder.
"[It’s] young people making anything. Young black people making a noise. Young black people being visible. And there’s a continuity that runs through all UK black creative production. You can go back to reggae in the '60s and the '70s and the difficulties around putting on events and sound systems," Dr White explains. This is the same discrimination that grime artists are having to deal with now when booking venues for live shows and performances. "All of those things – [being] heavily policed, always getting shut down. There’s a thread that runs through all of this in terms of control, curtailment, surveillance and all the rest of it."
Dr White adds: "When grime first arrived on the scene, garage was the thing and grime was the unruly kid on the block – no, we’re not wearing sharp suits and no, we’re not doing champagne bling. The attitude was very much, 'We’re going to turn up in our tracksuit. We’re going to say it like this, and we’re going to say it in our own voices as well.'" The impact of the language used by young black people reaching the masses must work in some way towards the mainstream’s assimilation with an increasingly influential culture, right? Well, only so much. The words we hear in music have always made their way into the wider consciousness really quickly, but when it comes to the rigid bureaucratic forces trying to penetrate these communities, the distance between them is evident. Only a couple of months ago it was reported that UK police were recruiting experts to "decipher rap-influenced urban slang" to help them look through evidence. The connotations of 'other' just keep on coming.
The grime scene is a site of emancipatory disruption. A place where you can be you.
Dr Joy White
While grime is "absolutely a black musical creative production, because of what it is and where it came from ... white working-class teenagers were involved in it as well," Dr White adds. "We can't and we shouldn’t discredit their contribution, because if we talk about Roll Deep we’ve got to talk about Scratchy [a founding member of Roll Deep] as well." She explains that if we separate white people's contribution to the genre, it "takes away a foundational thing about grime, which was that if you’re on the block and on the corner and in those streets, and you’re making that sound in that way, that’s what grime is. That kind of devil-may-care [attitude], do it anyway we’re from here, we’ve only got a little bit of this and we’re gonna make it happen anyway."
The influence of location and community on grime is defining. The energy that the distinct 140bmp sends through you is, for many people, connected to a feeling of belonging, which is likely why the grime fans who have followed it from pirate radio to Glastonbury's Pyramid stage have such an affinity with it – it speaks to the lived experience of an entire community of people. It's for this same reason that the genre has resonated with people who might not have grown up in the areas where grime, or even the 'urban' music that influenced it, was born.
"Grime’s not going away, whichever form or shape it takes. For some reason, it’s hit home with a lot of people not just in the UK but [also in] Europe and beyond. It resonates with people and it’s that spirit and having your own voice," Dr White rationalises. "I wrote about it in [her book] Regeneration Songs, that the grime scene is a site of emancipatory disruption. A place where you can be you, where you can carve out a spot for yourself, particularly if you’re from a working class background where what’s on offer, particularly in these neoliberal times, is not very much."