“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?
i don't think we can read too much into it; the lyrics are an integral part of the scene in the same way as that weird glass bottle echo-bass sound used to be (still is?) and will be difficult to shift in the short term as grime is still attempting (before our eyes) to define itself. Perhaps the passive grime equivalent of De La Soul's 3 ft high and rising is somewhere out there, waiting for it's moment to strike? For now, the aggression is part of the flavour and we can only assume that the MCs are playing their roles accordingly and then going home to search for bad news on the net...
"It’s like a permanently mentally militarised community, continually expecting attack and delivering internal pre-emptive strikes"
Yeah, I think that's a key qualitative difference from US hip hop. If in doubt, shout 'em down, whereas the US artist will remain aloof, retain their poise for as long as possible. It's like "mobilisation" is the constant state for the grimey MC.
As for what this tells us about London- hard to say. The beefs in grime seem to exist, primarily, on record- the battles are about styles, and exist only in styles. It's like an alternate reality, so what that tells about reality itself is a moot point.
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