Monday, December 20, 2004

"Don't check me with no integer beats…"

Why "grime?"

It could have been any one of a handful of terms - sublow, eski, 8bar or eastbeat - but in 2004 garage's hottest hybrid has somehow firmly inherited the name "grime."

The scene itself still isn't comfortable with a term that was imposed upon them by the very 2step "godfathers" who had excluded them. The term had implied, negative associations from the outset, defined by an absence of warmth, not the presence of anything. DJs like Matt Jam Lamont and EZ proclaimed they "don't play any of that grimey garage." And that was that.

But personally I've come to love the term. Compare it with the tediously dry and functional "drum & bass." Surely pretty much every black music form, ever could be covered by "drum" and "bass," especially if someone had lent Robert Johnson some instruments? So too by "r&b" aka rhythm & blues, so broad a term they've used it twice.

Grime, when you think about it, is fiercely evocative. It's all dirt and evolutionary ooze, compressed London sounds set to infinite urban delay/decay.

Sit on the overland train from Highbury and Islington to Hackney and you'll see grime. Homerton station is the best: harrowing disintegrating towerblock being choked by green repair-netting to the right, bomb struck once-terraced house rubble to the left. Beyond Hackney Wick is a no-mans-land before Stratford station looms. Derelict canals choke with luminous green algae on one side. Disused factories like rotting urban skeletons on the other.

Yet these scenes are so much more inspirational than the more celebrated parts of London. Head into the (nearby) City, around Bank tube or Liverpool St station, and it's just miles of geometric line and planes, sterile surfaces and granite culture-repelling defences. Street after street of dehumanised data stores, installed to divide money into either ones… or zeros. It’s a lifeless, futuristic techno citystate… that no one actually lives in.

Nah, for inspiration, give me the grimey bits of London anytime. There's no straight lines and precision points, no rules or laws, no clean streets, no absolute black nor white. Instead values somewhere between quantized zero and ones apply (though if you measured them, they'd only change…). This is some glorious fertile middleground, found between the gaps.

In grimey, shithole areas like Hackney, Whilehouse and Bow grew Dizzee and Wiley, Trim and Scratchy, Riko and Target. Producers like Wonder and P-Jam now compose vital atonal jams, with notes that fall between the traditional scales. Like Chantelle always says, "shit makes the best fertiliser." Alongside all the desolate metallic train tracks grow intense purple flowers.

Humans are greater than the sum of our parts. A bucket of water, salt, protein, DNA, RNA etc combined does not create life. We evolved, not in a vacuum or on the surface of the sun, but out of a primordial bubbling side-pond. So did grime.

PS And people still can't see dubstep and grime are cousins! Tcha!

Thursday, December 02, 2004

MC or die

“Pow! I’m Lethal B/If you don’t know about Lethal B/Betta ask someone quickly” – Lethal B
“The spotlight’s on me” – Fumin
"I’ll crack your skull" – Demon
“Rudeboy fi jus sekkle/Don’t make Jamakabi draw for the mekkle” – Jamakabi

Lethal B and friends on the "Forward Riddim" aka "Pow"

If there’s two things that 99% of all grime lyrics have in common it’s extreme aggression aimed in a predictable direction: another MC. Just check the bars on Lethal B’s “Forward Riddim.”

A great deal of the commentary about grime comes from the outside in. And maybe because so much comment has come from outside, it’s often overlooked that most of the MCs are talking to each other within the grime community, oblivious to the wider audience. (I showed Terror Danjah a blog once, he looked somewhere between baffled and uninterested).

The tone of the lyrics aimed at fellow MCs is so relentlessly aggressive, you begin to wonder if all the MCs in grime are not just lyrically, but psychologically at war with each other. Even within the few minutes of the “Forward Riddim” you can get Pow-ed, your skull cracked, arms house [aka a fight] at your mum’s house and Jamakabi with his gun drawn. It’s like a permanently mentally militarised community, continually expecting attack and delivering internal pre-emptive strikes.

In some situations a resting state is the default state: not so in grime. If you’re not out exerting your aggression and existence on pirate radio you’re failing. Other MCs will swarm forward, take your slot on radio or your eight bars on the riddim and exert their own existence and warn their foes. Without hype you don’t exist. If you haven’t exerted your existence, you’ve not existed.

In this light grime MCing seems an extreme manifestation of a primal and ancient need, the need to be remembered, to have made a difference or a mark. Knowing this, it explains why MCs lyrics are so obsessed with names.

Every MC and all their mates have street aliases they adopt. (By contrast it’s then shocking when MCs reveal their real name, like Riko calling himself “Zane” on Trim’s “Boogie Man” or Flowdan using “Mark” on Creeper Vol 1 mixtape).

This alias then becomes a powerful weapon in other people’s mouths. It’s become a shortcut to grime fame/infamy to call out MCs names (most of all Wiley’s name - see Dirrty Doogz, Sharky Major, 2Tuff and most recently Bashy) on pirate radio. MC even say pre-emptively, “you don’t want to call out my name.” Other MCs have described the worried text messages from friends they get when someone calls out their name somewhere over the pirate ether. Kano’s even parodied the phone call MCs get on his new b-side “Mic Check 1,2.”

The same applies for trademark flows. Grime has perfected the trademark flow, whether it be a single lyric, sonic gimmick or rhyme that clearly demarks that MC over some next MC. See D Double’s “meh meh,” Flirta D’s sound effects, JME’s “Serious” and Lethal B’s “Pow.” In truth every decent MC has one.

The seriousness to which MCs take these trademarks is shown by the ongoing war over Lethal B’s use of “Pow.” On a dubplate designed to counter the “Forward Riddim” Roll Deeps’ Trim point to God’s Gift using it four years ago on his seminal “Mic Tribute” tune. On this same garage (not grime) track Gift reproduced all the garage MCs lyrical trademarks back to back. Even back then the trademark flow was core to an MCs status.

B-Live, an MC from the old garage guard, has recently and quite successfully tried to muscle into the grime hype by making “Merkers.” This dubplate uses Wiley’s minimal “Fire Hydrant” to merk MCs. But B-Live is very careful only to merk undefined and anonymous wannabe MCs, while name checking and therefore praising the current big boy grime MCs. To call out that many grime MCs names on one tune in a negative way would surely have caused untold hassles for him.

Dubplates like “Merkers” quickly achieve MCs aims: to be acknowledged and to gain status. In reality only a small percentage of MCs will ever gain major record deals but it’s misguided to even suggest this is their primary aim. Working out how to sell to the masses is very much a secondary phase in their careers (note how different Roll Deep’s street vinyl output (tough/grimey) is versus the tracks they claim on radio are destined for the Roll Deep album (hookey, r&b-lead)). Most MCs simply want the respect of their peers.

A final unanswered question remains: how much can be quantitatively ascertained about the London community in which grime MCs live, from their lyrics? Because if those lyrics are to believed, everyone in the community is angry and sees themselves at war with the people around them. Why?

Friday, November 26, 2004

Currently feeling...

Target's new mixtape. No I've not heard it but the radio advert is messy.

DJ PINCH "Quawwali"
Minimal Purposemaker/dubstep drums meet some gloriously intimate melancholic vibes from new Bristol dubsteppa.

BURIAL [the two tracks Kode 9's playing on Rinse]
Mad electronica/Pole/Domu fusions.

SUNSHIP "Almighty Father (Skreamz Half Bar mix)"
Standing at Digital Mystikz' DubSessions in Croydon, Skreamz says to me he wants to remix this tune. One phone call later...

ROLL DEEP "unknown"
Danny Weed produced mad bhangra loop vocal tune. "Energy I'm supplying it..." spits Wiley.

Horsepower and Goldspot are BACK and on the same 12". Droney sinodub niceness.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Sway thoughts part 1

Last night I interviewed Sway, a hot new MC, producer and artist from Hornsey, north London. He’s from the UK hip hop scene but has bucket loads of personality. He likes grime, MCed with Kano on 1Xtra recently, but isn’t aggi. And, frankly, after a year of “IIIIIIIII’LL CRACK YOUR SKULL” it’s a breath of fresh air. He’s funny, descriptive and engaging. Below are some extracts of the interview, interspersed with the ideas they triggered …

Sway: "British hip hop has a grey stigma over it. I’ve come out of that scene and I wont even lie, it was lacking quality a few years ago. I didn’t blame people for not wanting to listen to it. It was doing what New York was doing ages ago. It was like we were ten years behind."

"Then UKG came out with mans doing their own thing, inspired by ragga and drum & bass. It was a new UK sound, and it was UK hip hop but they had to distance themselves from that grey term. It was UK hip hop but everyone was in denial. The underground rap cats that weren’t making no money were too proud to say that ‘look, that’s hip hop’ were like ‘fuck that garage shit.’ The garage acts were like ‘fuck that backpacker shit.’ So no one was collaborating."

"Then this word ‘urban’ came out. And a lot of people were like ‘awh this word ‘urban’ has made all black music pigeon holed together.’ They don’t know what it’s done for the scene. But by putting all them catagories: r&b, hip hop, UKG, drum & bass, they’re making it one music. And I like that cos now I can do tunes with Wonder or Terror Danjah without having to call it a grime-UK hip hop collaboration. So that word was a really good thing for the scene. I don’t think people will see it until 2005, because there’s a new wave coming through which is merged both of them."

I witnessed Ras Kwame’s State of the UK show being broadcast last Sunday and no subject made we want to leap the mixing desk, smash the soundproof glass and shout my 2p worth than the issue of the word “urban.” There was a great deal of debate about it, but the sentiment that made my blood boil was expressed by a journalist from New Nation newspaper. Her point was that “urban” was taking black music away from the black community, or at least diluting the blackness of the music.

I suspect debate around the words “black music” and “urban” wont go away in a hurry. Only this week I was reading more fraff on Drum & Bass Arena about 1Xtra calling it “black music,” and white fans feeling excluded.

A great deal of the debate’s confusion seems relates to whether we’re talking about music or culture, about music of black origin or made for the black community. But whatever, my 2p is twofold…

Firstly I think the term “urban” works, literally, because this music does appeal to people in urban areas. Where the pirates tail off around London, so does grime’s appeal. When I go to small Devon rural villages I don’t experience people with the same multicultural perspectives as when I go to the centre of Bristol.

Secondly Ms New Nation’s view seems almost isolationist. And if there’s one thing I can guess London’s black communities don’t need more of, it’s less contact with other communities. If this country is to survive in any kind of cohesive form, without the kind of rural “passive apartheid” effect the commissioner for racial equality was talking about recently, surely multiculturalism is the way forward.

No one’s telling Scratchy he can’t be in Roll Deep, or Jeff Mills he can’t make techno, so why can’t “urban” music involve white people? Stanza from Skandalous Unlimited was at this debate and he’s Asian and from Watford, where does racial purism leave him?

Purism in music is futile anyway. Blues musicians using classical western instruments with African song, gospel artist using European choral traditions, it’s always been about dialog, or at least degrees of dialog. Why stop now?

Why can’t “urban” mean a lose collection of music forms that derive from common musical roots that appeal to a geographically similar community? Now that is a bit of a mouthful. Let’s just call it “urban”…

Much more Sway to follow when my eyes aren’t falling out with tiredness…

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Eski etymology

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?”

I didn’t.

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…

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Where is dubstep?

If grime is the voice of angry urban London, dubstep is its primary echo, the sound of dread bass reflecting off decaying walls.

To feel it, leave the sterile cleanliness of London’s centre. Follow the carrier wave as it heads for the margins, travelling south through Elephant & Castle, via Norwood and Thornton Heath to Croydon: the home of dubstep.

It’s not easy to catch the dubstep vibrations of Digital Mystikz’ Mala and Coki, Loefah and Kode 9. It’s a very precise wavelength, found in the riddim spectrum past drum & bass’ caustic anger, miles from house’s ecstatic warmth and a step from grime’s lyrical fury.

You can hear it in mesmerising Hatcha and Crazy D sets at Forward>>, in skunked-out Youngsta sets on Rinse 100.3 and on vinyl at the Big Apple Records shop in Croydon - where Benga, Plasticman, Skreamz or Horsepower are likely to pass through.

Tune your ear right and you’ll detect the secondary echo’s of King Tubby’s dub excursions, Wiley’s and Jammers’ “sinogrime” experiments, strange b-movies, Metalheadz at it’s peak, Zed Bias and El-B’s dark swing, Basic Channel’s decay and Detroit’s mournful machinefunk.

But most of all you’ll hear the echoes of modern multicultural London, of Jamaican, African, Chinese, Indian, American, Cockney and even Scottish accents. Reflections come off crumbling warehouses, dirty towerblocks, endless row terraces, unhinged nightbus rides, skunked-out cars and clattering overland trains. London: this is the defining influence on dubstep; that which gives it its tempered, edgy, compressed character. These are the echoes of a tense, intense city. This is mystical margin music. This is London, 2004.

The Wonder of Kano...

Wonder and Kano’s Lately has stuck out of 2004 like a sore thumb. It’s not that there wasn’t dissonance in grime before it, but never has it been so mesmerising. When you first hear it, it’s unpleasant. Your ears scream “how can it be so out of key?” But the more you hear it, the more it grows on you. And that’s the beauty of it.

Is a discordant tune more pleasurable because it takes effort to find the pleasure? You’ve worked for your buzz. Certainly they’re pleasurable because there’s a kind of deceptive subversion about them. They’re popular yet underground, the kind of glorious balance, a best of both worlds only Timbaland or The Neptunes (pointy snare in one hand, Britney in the other) can usually reach.

Seeing a tune like this become big in grime is pleasurable for another reason. Maybe it’s just me, but watching people being spoonfed shit music makes me deeply angry. Or depressed. Every time a crowd go mad to Robbie Williams/Abba/McFly it makes me want to give it all up. Extreme perhaps, but seeing people responding to Lately, to shit they’ve not been shovelled is heartening. We are clever. We are alive. You can’t tell us what to like. And maybe this is the liberation Coltrane, Ayler et al felt during the ‘60s free jazz/racial struggles.

Just highlighting Wonder’s twisted melodies understates Kano’s flow. Kano’s a great MC, but in this case however it’s not what he’s saying, it’s that he’s saying it at all, that adds to dynamic balance of Lately. Harsh as some grime voices are, Kano’s familiar vocals eases the blow of Wonder’s instrumental. Look at Trim over Wiley’s minimal anthem, “Fire Hydrant.” A flow can cover a multitude of underproduction sins.

If you’re into dubstep this asks serious questions. Dubstep is often dissonant and instrumental (the “dub” in dubstep isn’t just a dub reggae reference, but dub as instrumental). But without the voice to pull it back, isn’t the magic balance overturned? Surely then you're just being "wilfully obscure," a phrase dizzee's manager once used repeatedly in a conversation about Dizzee’s “Happy Talk.” And who wants to be “wilfully obscure” when you can engage with people? And actually say something?

Answers for dubstep, perhaps, are either use of occasional melody or vocals. The balance is found elsewhere, between light and dark, in-key and discordant. Another answer is to use progression ( copyright Digital Mystikz), so the tune develops and engages the ear. But love dubstep as I do, few tracks hit that magic balance in the quite way Lately does.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Currently feeling...

Crazy Titch "Gype Riddim"
orchestral grime? Crazy Tim on production

Kode 9 "All Dem Fuckin People (Subkon/Daddi Gee vocal)"
post-Timbaland shizzle

Trim "Bogey Man"
"I sleep in hooded jim jams"

Wiley "Fire Hydrant remix"
ghetto post-dancehall Robert Hood?

Digital Mystikz - "Forgive"
like the first time you heard Strings of Life, except more LDN.

Digital Mystikz "Give Jah Glory"
can't wait for parts 2 & 3

Kele Le Roc "Frontline"
guilty sing-a-long vox grime pleasures

Run the Road comp
plug plug shameless plug

Kano "Ps&Qs"
contains hitlines and kicklines

clipped. angry. "come to the endz and leave you gutless!"

Blackdown "Opium Choke"
plug plug shamless plug

impulse blog creation...

... is there no better way to get one?