I’ve been in the San Francisco and Bay Area for the last two weeks, being baked by a brittle sun in dry heat.
Despite two brief forays into US waters, I’ve never been to America before. Despite so much of it being comfortably familiar – thanks to blanket global media exports – there’s still so much to take in.
Naturally, Americans, particularly in shops (“stores”) and restaurants are as ludicrously friendly as expected. But contrary to expectation, the darkside Londoner in me doesn’t find it ridiculous. Or want to hit them. It must be the weather.
Their friendliness contrasts interestingly with their government, though not really California’s government, a point not lost on me while bashfully reading Philippe Sand’s Lawless World (America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules) in restaurants, hoping no one notices the cover. Sitting in the US I’m a little outnumbered. Outgunned too.
Over ten chapters, Sands – a respected international law expert – describes how in 1941 Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt built the cornerstones of global law as we know it by writing the Atlantic Charter, which the UN Charter went on to be based upon. As the chapters unfold, it describes how in recent years the US has cherry-picked the international laws it wants to honour. Trade agreements, Geneva Conventions (when US citizens are captured) and prosecutions of foreign ex-dictators like General Pinochet: yes. Kyoto Agreements on greenhouse gas emissions, Geneva Convention (when foreign citizens are captured), UN resolutions and the International Criminal Court: no. Doesn’t explain why people are friendly in shops (“stores”) though.
I do however understand why Bush starts war for oil. It’s a scale thing. One morning I walked from the local train station to an office in the same town. It took an hour. In that hour not one bus passed me. The road lead into an industrial park. With tech firms to the right and US Air Force and cruise missile manufacturers to the left, the road was five lanes wide. Each way. Dammit even the roads got supersized here.
When the first bombs went off in London this summer I was on the tube. London’s all about immersion but that was far too close for comfort. When it happened again I was out of the country. Expats kept saying they felt removed. To me it was beyond that, like it was happening to someone else’s way of life, while I was in a place where the lights had been turned on too bright, the hills bleached to dust and the weather gage jammed to “scorchio.”
Skanking round my hotel room to Skepta on Rinse started to feel weird. If you can’t feel the tube dirt in your lungs and your blood simmering down from some east London road rage, grime make less sense. Given this, how can grime have any US following?
As a teenager I dreamt of Detroit. Carl Craig and Robert Hood, Underground Resistance and Derrick May. But beyond the mournful melodic synths, my lasting impression is of a curiosity for a city far removed from my birthplace that had given us Motown and P Funk, Planet E and the Model T. Detroit wasn’t a sound, it was a narrative. Why else would I be daydreaming of deserted streets decorated with junk by local artists or of the white-flight phenomenon or decaying buildings? Like Kid Kameleon describes, I was an outsider looking in.
It was around 2002-3 that I felt the same should be assembled for London (if jungle hadn’t done it already), and in particular for Croydon too, so that Londoners didn’t have to be the outsiders looking to other cities. That thought set me on the journey towards learning to produce, and ultimately, to launch Keysound Recordings, a label that in essence acknowledges that it’s our surroundings that influences the feel of our sound. An essence that explains why dancing round my Californian hotel room to Skepta on Rinse felt weird.
Gazing out of the Caltrain to San Francisco felt weird too. American buildings: they’re all so large, cubic and flimsy. Flat roofed, square, stocky industrial units spreading as far as the eye could manage in the bright sun’s glare. Impermanent. Modern. Different. How could dubstep or grime ever make sense here?
Part of grime’s importance is that it threw away the rule book. It was ejected from garage. It in turn rejected garage. Its one big “fuck you” to the establishment, a multicultural punk revolution. And within this movement of change, the life cycle is punishing. To its young fans, 2003 is “old school.” On the RWD forum the other day no one could remember Wonder’s anthem ‘What,’ only Wiley’s recently released cover version “Morgue.” The past is irrelevant to grime. It’s not where you’re from it’s where you’re at.
But staring out across rows of Bay Area dusty industrial units zipping by, it occurred to me grime, whether it overtly acknowledges it or not, might be nothing without it’s past. Grime owes the Victorians, for row after row of terraces houses, or experimental 1960s city planners for ugly concrete brutalist towerblocks. Dubstep owes Croydon too, for it’s flyovers and motorways. Grime owing the Victorians, well I never. Well I never thought I’d think that.