Monday, June 06, 2011
Over the weekend I stumbled across the video above on Grime Daily and found myself transfixed. Over 40 minutes, south London MCs SAS tell the most open, vivid and almost unbelievable tales about their experience in the music industry.
I remember SAS from about ten years ago and I vaguely recall remember them getting “signed” to a US major of some kind and thinking “why them?” Through tales of moving to Staten Island as teenagers to play basketball, getting into “road stuff”, to being shot and stabbed in the neck, battling and winning against US MCs in some of the roughest projects to hanging out with Kanye, Beyonce and Jay-Z in the studio when the latter was writing “Blueprint II,” it’s a pretty amazing tale. It’s also pretty unique.
The history of the last decade of London based MCing has a few major clusters. Of those that are influenced by US rap (rather than dancehall), they fall into two loose camps: those that see hip hop as a lyrical style to be adopted (UK hip hop/road rap) and those that see it as a framework to be adapted (grime). Both groups usually eventually become preoccupied with “breaking the US” at some point and this usually takes two general approaches: go to the US and build from the bottom up (pretty much unheard of) or get massive here first then attack (more common). SAS fall firmly into the former camps in both cases.
I guess from my writing about grime over the years, it’s probably pretty clear that I think adapting hip hop (and indeed dancehall) into your own local framework is much more creative and promising than acting like a reverent outpost to the mothership. But if you are going to try the “build from the bottom up” approach with rap, then MCing in Marcy Projects in a way the local top boys have never heard nor will ever recognise, is probably not a good idea.
So as the pair describe in detail their path from promising Brixton basketball players to Staten Island high school students, local gang affiliates with road enterprises, to MCing with the best in top New York ghettos, it just seems so remarkable. This is what every garage, drum & bass, UK hip hop and grime MC in the last decade dreamt of. And they seemed to get within a hairs’ breadth of what those MCs wildest dream consisted of, as Busta appears on the video to big them up or they talk about recording in hotels with Ruff Ryders. The Atlantic is littered with sunken ships launched with the best intentions of sailing into the top of the Billboard charts. So Solid had a number 1 single and sold millions of units, but never broke the states. When Dizzee went out after “Boy In Da Corner” he wasn’t MCing in Marcy projects, it was hipster press and festivals.
Despite all this, I don’t really know why it all didn’t work out for SAS. It looks like they had to return to the UK because of “cases” and by their own admission all the people they knew were soon inside, some of them for murdering two FBI agents; never the most advisable career move. But brushes with the law are nothing new for hip hop, in fact in some cases it thrives on this kind of hype and drama.
One thing that is remarkable about this interview is the vivid pictures they paint and the candour with which they describe the fights, guns, robberies and rivalries they became embroiled in. In my experience of interviewing MCs, this is how they speak off camera. On camera/tape, it’s all “certain man” and “certain situations” or endless non-specific bragging about themselves. Sure, a lot of the interview here smacks of bragging (paraphrasing: “I hit the guy, got blood on my designer shirt, took it off, gave it to the girl, knocked the guy out, got the girl’s number, then left...”) but there’s far too much detail for it to be entirely made up (and in some cases, like being shot, they show the local press cuttings!).
Reputation rules the roads, it’s a reputation economy and names are the most powerful vectors of reputation, hence why grime MCs speak in indirects and brag about themselves, rather than naming names until they have to. Perhaps for SAS they’re safe, since everyone involved are either on another continent or doing “football numbers” in correctional facilities, but still, the whole interview seems exceptionally honest and direct. Bigup Grime Daily.