I'm not going to pretend to you that I was rolling around in the ends bumping Rinse FM during 2003 and was present and correct during Grime's heyday; I was 13 and growing up near Maidstone prison, where the only decent music for a 25 mile radius was coming out of my Dad's cellar (the two locations aren’t linked. In any way).
Years back, though, whilst I was coming to understand the grime landscape, there were a few mythical figures that came to prominence. One of them was Ruff Sqwad. A collective of MCs, DJs and Producers, they were crafting some of the weightiest, most innovative instrumentals around with a crew of MC’s that were hyping in all the right places; their regular show on Rinse FM was the go to listening spot, and they were featured, both instrumentally and lyrically, on many of the big mixtapes of the era. It is with no surprise then, that their upcoming compilation ‘White Label Classics’ is being clamoured after with such fervour.
Twenty two tracks of some of the ruffest, most innovative instrumentals from the conception of the genre, some of these tracks were, before the imminent release of this compilation, some of the most sought after records in the scene. Almost impossible to get a hold of, they were, as the title suggests, subject to the odd white label test presses or unreleased entirely. Collected, almost a decade later on ace label No Hats No Hoods, these 22 tracks were whittled down from over 50. Rapid describes them as as: “the anthems, the tunes people remember us by. The ones people have been asking for ever since.” He’s not kidding.
For someone that is looking for a slice of history, a perfectly crystallized excerpt of the era, this is perfect. It shows not only the musical qualities of this crew, but also the innate tension and raw attitude of the early grime scene that can so easily be lost with a lot of the clean, studio polish of a lot of modern producers. It’s also a clear precursor to many of these modern producer’s styles, and how heavily indebted they are to Ruff Sqwad: look at Preditah, Teddy Music or Faze Miyake, and the influence is pervasive.
Unlike some Grime instrumentals at the time, that focused so heavily on simplistic 8 or 16 bar switch ups that were built almost entirely for the pirate radio MC’s, Ruff Sqwad were so much more musical in their ambitions; the melodious intonations of the synths matched the shuffle of the drums and the fast paced delivery of the vocalists. No matter how simplistic the Casio-tone synths could be at times, the intertwining melodies and warped samples was proving these instrumentals as musical pieces in their own right: just look at the complexity, for example, of tunes like ‘Functions on the Low’. A multitude of different sounds all tumbling in and over each other in panoramic harmony, yet with a gritty, devastating undercurrent. It is songs like this that so steadfastly retain their individuality and creativity.
They’ve always held an international view towards grime, clearly trying to stretch beyond the realms of London that had always been such a core hub of the scene. It’s no surprise then to see one Tinchy Stryder, one of the key members of the crew, making such steps towards glory on a global scale. The beats, even back in the day, reflected this: take the crashing drums and stretched, chipmunk vocals of ‘Your Love Feels’ or ‘Down’ - they reek of Just Blaze and the US Hip Hop scene. These were local boys with global aspirations, and the fact that certain members are making that movement as well as having this wealth of songs that are so highly sought after is clearly testament to their far reaching ideals.
At the same score, they weren’t about to forget their roots; when they needed to make a punishing, London dubplate, tracks like ‘Tings in Boots’ were downright evil; all whipcrack snares, dissonant synths and distorted basslines. Tracks like that could slay a rival from 50 yards. They also had the bollocks to back up their hype: sampling The Beatles, Cutting Crew AND The Police!? It takes a strong, middle fingers up attitude to take on classics such as those and make it their own. This was a crew that could play to any crowd they damn well wanted to, and they knew it. Which is innately part of their charm; these chameleonic personas, with each individual showing their own styles and abilities, and using each other to move in different and sometimes unpredictable directions, but with the end result always being devastatingly effective.
The fact that these instrumentals have been so sought after for so many years is testament to their longevity; whilst there are almost certainly many other instrumentals from this period that hold their place now from a nostalgic position, these songs are still just as vibrant, and sound just as new as most contemporary grime producers. They should be recognised for their contributions, and the new furore around ‘White Label Classics’ should hopefully give them the commendation they deserve in this new, bass heavy era of 2012.