Sunday, October 12, 2008
Where is grime?
The other week I rolled through the free Adidas/RWD Mag/Kano gig at the O2’s Indigo.
A few years ago I saw this talk by this hairy hilariously named American new media dude called Randy Farmer. Only in America. My mate reckons he once knew an American guy called Randy Bender. [For all the American’s reading this who are bit lost in translation, calling yourself Randy Bender in UK is like calling yourself first name Aroused, second name Homosexual].
Anyway I digress.
I saw this talk once by this hairy hilariously named American new media dude called Randy Farmer. His talk was called “Context is King,” a social media twist on Bill Gate’s (?) quote “Content is King.”
So who is right, Bill or Randy?
Kano was performing at the O2’s Indigo club, which on inspection was more like an old school theatre converted into a live venue. Even before I get in the venue I’m asking myself: “is this going to feel wrong.” The context was all wrong.
Grime is a genre born out of frustration and alienation of an urban community. It’s born out of the anger of the glass ceilings of race, class and culture within urban London and of the cycles of violence endemic in it’s community. Its original heartland are the margins of the capital: Milton Keynes’ Sidewinder, Stratford’s Rex and the ethereal pirate radio stations like Rinse, Raw Mission and Déjà.
So what’s it doing in Indigo? The context doesn’t feel real right…
Randy 0 Bill 1
When hip hop journalist Steve Yates interviewed Dizzee for Jockey Slut (RIP) magazine, he described the interest in the violence that surrounded the young grime star as cultural tourism; misery voyeurism. Logically, for all their frustrations, to ask them most grime stars would unashamedly love to make a lot of money out of the genre (regardless of whether they know how to, which is a whole ‘nother issue…). Sure they’re inherently raw, that’s their surroundings, but ask them to stay raw and never profit is to condemn them to the confines of their upbringing.
If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have said “forever underground.” I’d have said “fuck all sellouts, in all and every forms,” and to an extent I still feel that way to this day. Certainly I spend my time trying to push exceptional underground sounds a little further up the “long tail.”
But here’s the catch .22, sorry, twenty two with grime. For the most part, bar “Boy In Da Corner” and “Pow,” raw authenticity and originality have been diametrically opposed to financial success. So the question is, with a momentum behind a genre and a need for its stars to make a living at some point, who would you most like to be the ones to take it to the mainstream? The original innovators or the cloners/fakers/manufactured grime boy bands?
Gimme “Rolex Sweep” over Blazing Squad all day every day.
[I was asked by a major to write Blazing Squad’s artist biography once, a piece of paper used to sell them to other journalists, but I was busy in a world music shop on my birthday buying the CDs that would end up being sampled for Keysound 004’s “Akkaboo”. Nuff said!]
So the question is: if grime’s to succeed commercially, it’s not a question of whether it should, but will it get there on its own terms? On tonight’s evidence, it will. Randy 1 Bill 1.
First time I saw the Dome was in the winter of ’99 when I was a journalism student working at The Guardian and the venue was preparing itself for the Millennium. Since then it’s gone from being a political bête noire to an American mall-style venue. (Tonight featured KA and friends at Indigo but Stevie Wonder in the main arena. Boy was I confused on the train ride there. “These don’t look like Kane’s core fanbase…”).
I last saw the dome this was summer. I’ve not blogged about this before but I spent a long long time in June and July sitting in the Isle of Dogs waiting and waiting and waiting for, erm, a well known grime MC, trying to make him part of our video. When I say a lot of time, I mean upwards of 20 hours spread over about five frustrating, fruitless visits. (See my point above about “if grime’s to succeed commercially”. Some people just aint ready for that).
Killing time, the video director Jonathan and I got to know the Isle pretty well, wandering between soulless City-worker flats, east end pubs, avoiding gangs of youngers throwing water bombs at joggers, navigating The Telegraph printing presses and heading into quite serious looking estates for stock shots – despite my better judgment. As you go east on the IoD one very serious looking estate gives way to a long set of railings, beyond which is the muddy Thames, beyond which unveils the most epic view of the Dome, unreachable across the river. Very few other contrasts of the haves and have nots are quite so well visually articulated in London.
So yeah, the Dome: now an American mall-style complex, as good as any as a metaphor for sellout MCs' commercial ambitions: massive, successful, clean and slightly sterile. But, while I don’t think it will probably be their most essential work, I still support the MCs’ right to want that success: just look at where many of them have come from. Think about the message it gives to the entire grime community if everyone of their most visible acts continually fails?
This year has been a great year for grime MCs succeeding on the overground, as my Pitchfork column outlined this month, and successful events like this are integral to giving the message to the powers that be, in the major labels and the live circuit that grime can both pack big venues and behave in a civilised way. Tonight did both.
The importance of live performance is especially important in the post-MP3 era, where the largest revenues available to artists has shifted from sales to live performance, certainly for the biggest acts. But the transition from pirate radio/club DJ network to the lucrative live circuit (think Camden, Soho, regional venues or even the mega-festivals), often creates some musical watering down. Think Destiny’s Child produced by Rodney Jerkins on CD versus Destiny’s Child with limp live band.
But Kano, to his credit, keeps it raw: one mic and two turntables. No live percussionist or fat bloke on slap bass giving it some Seinfeld riffage. It’s a healthy half way compromise between Sidewinder-style 25 mans on stage grime clash and, well, said Seinfeld/Destiny’s Neutered Child (live).
I reached the venue with a mate who’s much more of a hip hop fan than grime. It’s interesting watching his reaction to grime, as he has a totally different position on it. He’d seen Kano before and been left unimpressed. Here’s what he felt this time:
[disclaimer: the following text does not represent the views of Blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com, as we think grime owns UK hip hop and most of US rap too if we’re honest, but we respect the right of UK-based rap fans to express their views, even if they did get free tickets for the gig only cos they know some waste-blogger]
“The wizardries of production on Kano’s albums have masked his darkest secret – he is a one trick rapper with an average trick. This truly comes out when you see him live.
Kano’s voice carries no lasting impact. It’s plain & forgettable and as needs to be molded in someway to drive his tunes. He does this by mock angrily spitting out words in short stanzas. These short bursts of angry monotone grind you down, and choruses come as a big relief.
Twang and rhythm are what keeps music interesting and it is Kano’s lack of the former and solitary delivery style in latter which ruins my ability to appreciate him as an artist of any lasting quality.”
It’s funny, because it’s “these short bursts of angry monotone” that I like Kano best, like when he double time switches into “I was on Raw/I was on Déjà…” And I think this energy-over-rhyming is what separates grime from rap. But if I’m honest I don’t think KA will ever be my favourite grime MC. He’s too, well, emotionally restrained to be top 3 selected. (That’s fought over by Wiley, Dizzee, Trim, Goodz and Ghetto right now.) But he’s definitely a credible grime MC. And that’s important if you’re claiming to be grime and filling the Indigo
Hype moments of the night were the highlights. Tinchy’s proven to be a polished, gyal-friendly solo act. Ghetto burst on stage and up the energy levels. Skepta did the same but came on rocking (only) a white silk dressing gown. By the time Wiley had turned up to do “Rolex…” even the upper tiers of the theatre were on their feet.
Wandering home, the night felt like a success: it brought it’s content to a whole new context. If grime’s to succeed it needs footholds like this on terms like this. Onwards and upwards.