Recently a housemate of mine, in one of our frequent, in depth music discussions asked me to define grime music (I’m trying to educate him. He grew up in the arse end of nowhere and doesn’t like Stevie Wonder, but he’s a nice guy. Honest. He’ll learn). In a futile attempt to lay some defining traits I ended up tailing off onto various different tangents, slowly descending into muttering words like '16 bars', ‘sidewinder’, ‘2004’ and generally making no sense to anyone.
Okay then, I thought, lets try some Youtube-digging, this will make it clearer: I played him the classics - Dizzee, Danny Weed, Eskimo, Oi! I played him the new school - Royal-T, Preditah, Spartan, P Money. Still, I was no closer to a ‘definition’, as such, not in the normal terms of genre. Instead, what I was left with was Grime as a feeling, an emotion: it’s an ethos, a gut reaction that aims for the jugular. It’s heavy, it’s the political voice of the inner city, of angst, of tension, but with a wry sense of humour that belies its cold attitude and external media terror. And, with a current renaissance underway, it’s growing, evolving beyond the realms of what lay before.
The beats have always been crucial within grime. Those early rhythms by Musical Mobb and Jon E Cash had a visceral quality to them that matched the ferocious, pirate radio spitting MC’s. Yet the MC was always the leader, the boss. Sure, everyone liked to freestyle over seminal beats like ‘Rhythm ‘n Gash’, but the focus was on the lyrical flow, the veracity of the artist, the hype, and not so much who made the beat itself. Recently though, there has been something of a paradigmatic shift.
Contemporary grime is lead as much by the figure of the producer as it is the MC; instrumental grime is a beast in its own right, a fully grown monster brandishing writhing low end and dangerous melodies. Taking the template of early grime beats, they’ve progressed to fully encompass broader influences, from funk to US style ‘trap’ beats (the current genre du jour), and in the process spawned all sorts of metropolitan mutations.
As is evident by the recent onslaught of dubstep, from both an underground and mainstream perspective, the 140bpm spectrum has broadened considerably. The pervasive influence of grime within this field is clear, with artists like Joker, Starkey and Plastician all self confessed ‘heads’, and the music they produce all clearly aligned. The presence of the producer figure has become all the more vital within musical knowledge now too, possibly as a by-product of the exponential growth of dubstep, where the producer is king (there aren’t any strict ‘dubstep vocalists’, are there? It’s much more about the person behind the songs).
With this new found identity, then, comes new found ambition. They are pushing the envelope beyond the more simplistic 16 bar loops that forms the foundation of grime rhythms. The dubstep angle has pushed a heavier side to grime music; producers embrace the weightier elements of dubstep ‘drops’, with ever more bombastic basslines, and the MC’s are now jumping on these rhythms with more fervour. Take P Money for example: his vocal takes on key dubstep anthems have thrown him into the mainstream - Doctor P’s ‘Sweet Shop’, Flux Pavilion’s ‘Bass Cannon’. The aggression that many MC’s used to dominate with is now matched by screeching low end. The difficulty at some points, is, once again, defining where these songs fit. Influences grow, and so the lines between genre blur ever further...
As dubstep soars to the top of the charts, the renaissance of UK underground music is at an all time, paradoxical high. As dubstep increases in popularity, larger audiences are going below the surface, people are going further to find the roots of the sound, whilst also seeking contemporary responses to the genre. It is no secret that garage has been a key influence on grime and dubstep, but now that influence has been pushed ever further to the fore. With producers such as Royal-T, with his eponymous album slated for release on Rinse later this year, and TRC wholly embracing the ‘steppers’ sound.
Flipping between the rugged 4x4 bassline style to the smoother 2-step style, the swing is key. Even the newer sounds of UK Funky, which (for some reason) seems to be sneered upon by many producers and critics has warped grimier influences into its slower, more tropical beats. Take Funkystepz, the north London crew famous for many of funky’s biggest hits. Sure, some may be lighter, more pop-oriented beats than others... and then they’ll drop a madness like ‘Royal Rumble’. Even UKF’s current MVP, Champion, is clearly highly regarded within grime circles: Terror Danjah, a self confessed non-fan of Funky, signed Champion’s first single ‘Motherboard’ to his label, Harddrive. Since that, he’s gone from strength to strength, and even dropped arguably one of the biggest grime tunes of the year in ‘Crystal Meth’ on Butterz.
Looking beyond the UK love-in, artists such as Swindle have embraced a more global sound, taking in the undeniable transatlantic funk vibes of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Roger Troutman. Arguably one of my favourite producers of recent times, his songs revolve around a musicality that is as much focused on melody and funk instrumentation (his recent collaborations with mystery vocalist Sam Frank attest to his love of Zapp and Roger, his synth lines reminiscent of Herbie Hancock) as it is the gut busting, screw-facing climax. S-X on the other hand, a young Midlands based producer, clearly has a penchant for the stylings of Southern US hip hop beats. His seminal ‘Wooo Riddim’ was one of the biggest songs of 2010, and fuelled a slew of copy cats, yet his inimitable style cuts through, and to an extent predates the current crop of Trap beats that seems to dominate the underground soundscape.
This is not to say that these producers have lost their roots! Quite the opposite. They have all taken these influences as supplement to their unabashed love of grime; and with other producers like Preditah, Teddy Music, Spooky and Faze Miyake all peddling their wares as grime producers of the highest calibre, they’ve taken the initial template and stretched it to their personal vision.
The role of the internet within today’s musical culture is something worthy of another discussion entirely, yet it needs to be noted how crucial it has been, I feel, in the development of grime in particular. The detrimental effects don’t need to be thrown about here, they are well known enough as it stands. Rather, it is important to realise how artists and producers that have embraced the web have helped fuel this new generation, this new resurgence.
Butterz, a superb label run by grime stalwarts Elijah and Skilliam, is a prime example of a label that has taken full advantage of this new worldwide connectivity and used it to brilliant potential. Creating an iconic brand under their black and yellow guise, they’ve created an open source ethos to their ideology, giving people the chance to remix and mess around with their releases and in turn using this as a platform to discover new talent. They’ve released regular batches of quality free zip files as a means of interacting with audiences, including the best remixes that get sent to them, as well as forming a familial vibe with their artists through regular features.
The Butterz team, as it were, boasts a strong line up of players, including many of the artists I have previously mentioned. To continue with my line of enquiry into the current instrumental facet of grime, they have fully embraced it, with their 7th official release being their first vocal release. It is online strategies like these that make underground genres and individuals stand out, and it is this grass-roots (or should it be concrete-roots?) approach that has lead to their current, and continued, success.
Grime, then, is a difficult beast to tame. Impossible to define, maybe. Continuously evolving, and embracing change and influences on a worldwide scale, absolutely. Yet still as aggressive, as obnoxious, as fun as ever. This is the charm of the inner city champion, the London born rogue that aims for more than what the city can offer, and will adapt to every challenge thrown at it. It is the personification of a metropolitan existence, and it ain’t going anywhere.