I was in a rural place yesterday with someone far removed from urban culture, and as we walked through the winter sunshine, out of the blue he said: “do you know where the word ‘ghetto’ comes from?”
His explanation went like this…
The Turks overran Constantinople in 1453, throwing out the Venetians and threatening their commercial position as traders in the eastern Mediterranean. The Venetians then invited the Jews into Venice, because they recognised the shrewd commercial abilities of the Jewish people.
This was an era when Jews were more likely to be being thrown out of countries, not invited into them. In 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand threw all the Jews out of Spain. The one condition imposed upon the Jews by the Venetians, was that they had to live in a certain quarter, a part of Venice that was a fort. And the Venetian word for fort was…
Of course in grime 2004 there is an MC called Ghetto, an electrically charged hype man of Nasty Crew fame. Visually, he bares more than a passing resemblance to Chris Rock. Sonically, primeval forces get channelled up through the violent undulation of his body into the mic in his hand. Or so it seemed when I saw him recently at Fabric and Sidewinder in Hackney.
Walking through the rural winter sunshine I wondered if Ghetto knew where his name came from, knew its etymology? Ignoring the obvious issue surrounding the lack of impact of educational organisations in inner city London, I wondered: why should he? Should it even matter? What does this say about grime?
Grime is a relentlessly progressive scene. Don’t release a tune for two months (Skepta!) and you’ve fallen off. So Solid are old school, even though they ruled 2001. Have your station off air for a month (Heat! Raw Blaze!) and the baton passes to another station. In stark contrast to scenes like hip hop or techno, grime doesn’t worship its elder statesmen either. You’re either all up in people’s faces right now, or you’re no one, no where.
This is a reflection of much of urban culture in general. If an event isn’t on posters around your ends, plugged on pirate radio or seen in RWD mag given away free in Rhythm Division, it doesn’t exist. Watford is “up north.” This is the sphere of influence. Anything beyond that is “offkey.”
Given this horizon of perspective it’s ridiculous to think Ghetto would know the history of the name he uses every day. And again, why should he have to? Believe me nothing irritates me more than the Radio 4-style intelligentsia’s assumption that the only knowledge worth knowing is gained through understanding of highbrow classical culture.
But regardless of what Ghetto knows or doesn’t, it’s fascinating to speculate on how much the combination of this precisely defined perspective, with all that it includes and excludes, has shaped grime. There seems to a variety of differing consequences.
On one hand grime’s unconstrained by it’s forefathers. That’s healthy. Frankly if I went to another hip hop night that plays “Rappers Delight” I’d wanna lamp the DJ. If I hear another dad-house duffer tell me that acid house was the be-all and end all and it’s not as good as it used to be “back in the day” (1988 and all that…) I’d wanna lamp him too. So god bless grime’s dubplate culture.
On the other hand, the narratives grime perpetuates, particularly the “ghetto/keep it real” perspective, are seldom built upon, a point I saw made by Sony A&R George Roberts today live on Ras Kwame’s 1Xtra show.
So oddly then, grime’s perspective seems to both constrain and release it. Ah good old dynamic tension: ever the source of real inspiration. Just like MC Ghetto…