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?