Presented by Dr Joy White at the Reggae Research Network Symposium: Scoping the Field in Norwich on the 25th January 2017.
Grime is a specifically English musical genre. What started out as a niche practice that articulated the lived experiences of young black men from a particular place, is now an endeavour that attracts a national and international audience. A diaspora cultural form, Grime has been nourished by its black Atlantic connections to the Caribbean, Africa and North America. In this presentation, I reflect on the influence of Reggae on Grime musical production.
I’ve been writing about Grime for almost a decade. A 21st century genre, it came of age in the YouTube era, but its primary ground was the pirate radio network. Along with Déjà Vu and Freeze, Rinse had a central role in showcasing Grime. At the age of sixteen, DJ Geeneus, with DJ Slimzee set up the station in Tower Hamlets. According to Geeneus, it was on Rinse in 2002, where UK Garage began to evolve into Grime. He said:
‘it was more like a darker side of Garage. We kind of converted the scene, into a darker sound…Grime started in east London…’
Grime sounds like where it is from; the street corners and council estates of inner city east London. It’s sonic origins flow through the musical practice of the black diaspora, namely Hip Hop, Reggae, UK Garage and Jungle. Jamaican and UK sound system culture and practice also had a significant influence.
Over a five-year period, between 2007 and 2012, I interviewed 40 people who were involved in some way in the urban music economy. Many of them were Grime MCs.
My starting point is a quote from one of those interviews. In 2009, I spoke to Kevin just as he was about to play his set on a beach in Ayia Napa in Cyprus. Kevin was a 30-year-old DJ, who had been a member of a north London crew for 15 years. He spoke about playing music of various styles over the years, Jungle, Garage and Grime. He said:
‘Of course, the roots of all this is Reggae’
So long before Chuck D called Rap the CNN for the ghetto, Reggae music articulated the struggles of the poor in a newly independent Jamaica. In Jamaica, Reggae could be heard via the sound systems – a portable endeavour comprised of equipment and crew, particularly the selector who assesses the vibe and chooses the records to suit, and the DJ who ‘toasts’ or chats over the selected tunes. The sonic genealogy of Grime can be traced back to these Jamaican sound systems and this heritage is manifest in three key ways; firstly the role of the crew and contemporary examples such as Roll Deep, Pay as U Go, Heartless Crew and N.A.S.T.Y crew, secondly, the ‘sound clash’ or adversarial performance battle, and finally Grime MCs ‘spitting’ lyrics over a beat.
I’m going to show clips from two videos to illustrate this, the first is from Jamaica – Sting 1993 – with Beenie Man and Bounty Killer and the second is from a Sidewinder event in Swindon – 2005, Wiley and Skepta are also on the bill but we’ll watch Trim and JME do their thing.
Grime has its origins in the hybridity genre of Reggae which itself grew out of a mix between American and Caribbean musical forms. As a black Atlantic creative expression its provenance is firmly rooted in urban east London, specifically the London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. Grime is traceable to a specific and particular location, namely urban east London, it comes out of an inner city environment where the offspring of Caribbean migrants intermingle with a white working class population and its linguistic canon reflects this. This genre has been created out of what Paul Gilroy calls the ‘[…] displacement, relocation and dissemination of black creative expression’. The practitioners in this field are predominantly, but not exclusively, young, black males. The consumers of it however, are from all over the UK, Europe and increasingly Africa and North America.
We have now had more than a decade of Grime. Dizzee Rascal, a Grime MC – won the Mercury Music Prize in 2003 (Boy in Da Corner) and Skepta (Junior Adenuga) won it last year for his album Konnichiwa.
Dizzee Rascal learned his craft via a sporadic apprenticeship with the Roll Deep crew, where he was championed by Wiley – the ‘Godfather of Grime’ until artistic differences led to a parting of the ways. Roll Deep was a Grime crew of approximately a dozen young men from Tower Hamlets, it included Scratchy, Riko Dan, Trim, Tinchy Stryder, Danny Weed and Target. In a recent interview Danny Weed and Target reflected on their early Grime days and discussed how they – along with Scratchy and Breeze another Roll Deep member – grew up together. All of them at one point worked in Wiley’s dad’s patty shop in east London, where, according to Danny Weed: ‘We got free patties and shit money’.
Slightly further east in the London Borough of Newham, Marcus Nasty, Jammer and other members of the N.A.S.T.Y crew were also formulating a new sound from the waning UK Garage genre. N.A.S.T.Y; an acronym for Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You was founded at the turn of the 21st century by Marcus Nasty, D Double E and Jammer until an acrimonious split left Marcus Nasty at the helm for a while. Like Roll Deep, this crew was also a fluid collection of approximately a dozen young male artists. Members included: DJ Mak 10, Stormin, Lil Nasty, Ghetts, Sharky Major and Kano. In the early days, Dizzee Rascal worked with DJ Mak 10 and Kano. After the split, D Double E, Jammer and Footsie transformed themselves into the Newham Generals and eventually signed to Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee Stank label. While N.A.S.T.Y. is no longer a prime force as a crew, their pirate radio sets, such as this one where they go back to back with Roll Deep, are the stuff of legend.
Former members have evolved into different roles and genres; Marcus Nasty is a DJ on Rinse FM, Ghetts is an independent recording artist, Stormin is a Drum and Bass MC and Jammer’s annual MC clash, Lord of the Mics is now in its tenth year.
The crew is a key component of sound systems and the subsequent UK Garage and Grime scene. In this context a crew is a group of like-minded individuals who are friends or have some kind of kinship connection and share a common interest, in this case – music. So, for example So Solid, Heartless Crew, Boy Better Know (BBK), Pay As You Go, Roll Deep and N.A.S.T.Y, contain members who attended the same schools, grew up on the same estates, are brothers or have some kind of familial relationship.
The Grime scene offered a liminal space for young men with limited resources to create music that spoke to and of their surroundings; the street corners and council estates of east London but with a reach back into their Caribbean heritage. Ina de Ghetto a track by Wretch 32, featuring Badness and Ghetts demonstrates this and also speaks to a collision/collapse of space, time and place. The words are spoken and sung by the three artists in a London and Jamaican dialect and some very lyrical wordplay is used to describe those that are focused on criminality as a way out of the hard life. The lyrics and visuals make connections between east London and Kingston; Jamaica and illustrates how Grime emerged from east London, but draws on a distinctly Caribbean heritage to speak to a global audience.
Grime is predominantly young, male and black. An arrhythmic, unconventional genre it samples an eclectic mix of sounds structured around 140 bpm. It can be hard on the ear, the beats can be disturbing and brutal and sometimes, in the rapid-fire delivery, the words are almost imperceptible.
Like Lovers Rock in the 1970s – a UK specific Reggae genre created by the offspring of Caribbean migrants to the UK, Grime draws on the cultural, political and economic history of having parents and grandparents from elsewhere. It stakes a claim to the lived experience of a specific and particular place, in this case urban east London. It is an opportunity for artists to bring forth a character with which to tell stories from a fictional personal perspective. Asserting black urban identities that are rooted in, for example, Plaistow or Bow rather than Africa or the Caribbean, these personas reflect the gritty nature of the environment.
The foundations of Grime music lie, and are grounded in, the sound systems, shebeens and blues dances of the previous decades. In Jamaica in the 1950s, sound systems had started out playing American RnB imports, but in time this gave way to Ska, followed by Rocksteady and ultimately Reggae. In the 1970s and 1980s each area of London and every big city with a black community of Caribbean heritage, had a sound system. Over time, UK based sound systems emerged and started to play other styles of music: Swingbeat, RnB, Soul and Garage. It is possible to recognise the sonic remnants of Dancehall DJs such as Bounty Killer, Cutty Ranks and Ninjaman in the early Grime clashes. It is this influence that can be heard in the early Grime canon and when Garage was evolving into Grime. Here is a video from a live performance at Alexandra Palace in 2002, where we can, among others, see Maxwell D, Romeo (from So Solid Crew) and Wiley.
The adversarial or sound clash element of the outdoor sound system included versioning – where different lyrics were spoken or sung over the same rhythm tracks. In a ‘sound clash’ – an antagonistic lyrical competition – the act of rhyming over a beat is a crucial aspect with the emphasis on bringing something new or original to the battle. Grime MCs will often throw down a lyrical challenge and ‘send for’ another artist.
The performers themselves talk about the influence of reggae on their own work. When I interviewed, Ian a club and radio DJ, in 2009, he let me know that that his father was a UK Reggae singer, who had had some commercial success in the 1980s. Another informant, Oliver a pioneer in the UK Garage and Grime scene, now operating as an independent recording artist explained his father was a Reggae and Sound system DJ who started out on pirate radio and who also had a long stint on a national radio station. At different times over a two-year period, I interviewed four brothers; Victor, James, Edward and Andrew who were all heavily involved in the urban music economy (as MCs and DJs playing a variety of genres, including Grime). Each of them informed me that their father was a musician, a drummer in a Reggae band of many years standing. Edward said ‘I grew up around music, you could say that music is my backbone’. David, an independent recording artist who was also a member of a north London crew described being part of a fabric of music, sounds and performance. He told me: ‘I’m not sure when I started, my brother was a DJ, my Dad was a DJ, music took hold of me…’
In an interview with an online magazine last week, Wiley talks about the major influences on him and his musical practice. After pointing out that his Dad was in a reggae band (playing piano, bass, keyboard and drums), Wiley has this to say:
“We gotta remember here that no matter what anyone is doing there’s a lot of influence that’s gonna have come from Jamaica and the West Indies, parts of Africa, America – and England where you watch Top of the Pops […]. What comes out will always be a fusion […]. Without there being dancehall and American music that we’ve all grown up on then none of this would be possible.
To conclude then, the opening decade of the 21st century saw Grime music emerge from the street corners and council estates of urban east London. This is where the offspring of Commonwealth migrants and the young white working class socialised and congregated, drawing on Jamaican sound system culture and practice and Dancehall rhythms to create a uniquely English sound. I want to end with this clip of General Levy performing his track Incredible live on Radio 1. What is interesting is how veterans of the Grime scene, Dizzee Rascal, Lethal Bizzle, JME , Jammer and Footsie, take such obvious delight in a song that was released when they were probably still at school. General Levy acknowledges the importance of the Grime youth and we see the influence of reggae at work across the generations.