Saturday, May 03, 2008

The flow dan

Greenwich foot tunnel

Photos by Alex sturrock

It goes without saying how much I love grime MCs but there’s something unique about the delivery, the local information in the encoded in the tone, nuances and flow of grime MC bars, that – in my experience – often get lost if you try and write them down on “paper.”

Recently I noticed Trim’s bars are an exception to the rule: playful, coded and layered. So here’s a breakdown of “The Low Dan” a “talking ting” aka spoken dis-dub that is the highlight of his recent “Soulfood vol 3” mixtape…

"The Low Dan"
(Soulfood Vol 3)

Alright, lemme tell you the Low Dan, haha…

Trim sets out his stall on this dis-dub by taking the classic grime route of attacking an opponents’ identity by abusing his (brand) name. Hence “Low Dan” is a play on both the explanatory term “the low down” and Roll Deep’s MC Flowdan’s name, the crew Trim is now an ex-member of, which this dis-track is aimed at. The fallout of Trim’s exit from Roll Deep dominates this track and many others on his recent mixtapes.

Lemme tell you the saga,
I’m ape-looking and marga,

Marga is Jamaican slang for skinny, Spaceape explained to me once. I found it funny, given there was an MC called Marga Man and another called Skinnyman.

Trim’s also has an odd obsession with monkeys and adorns the Soulfood artwork series with artwork that apes (sic) the film “12 Monkeys.” Oddly, he regularly talks about monkey business and various ape analogies, despite the historical use of this metaphor (i.e. looking like a monkey) by racists.

Came in this game for a laughter
I’m a monkey that will split your banana

Here he replaces the word “laugh” for “laughter” for rhyming sake, before using a variation on the monkey theme and twist on the usual MC boasting-as-pre-emptive-threat bars, which together make comical bedfellows.


Grime MCing isn’t that profitable. It’s pretty risky too. It is however, all about peer group visibility.

Lemme tell you the Low Dan,
They should have called me Flowdan

Grime MCs are obsessed with status through identity and vice versa. Trim promises to tell the truth but re-appropriates Flowdan’s name: a direct attack on the MC’s identity, suggesting that his bars (flow) - and by inference not Flowdans - are so good they should have called him a don, a term that’s often altered in urban slang to “dan.”

Look! Talking ting.

Grime MCs “spit bars,” but sometimes the anger on dis-dubplates overwhelms them, such that they speak. Sometimes people involved with the scene but who aren’t MCs need to visibly, make that audibly, retaliate to war that concerns them. The upshot is a “talking dub,” a spoken word diss-dubplate.

Volume 3. I am Trimothy.

In a scene dominated by identity-based status, Trim plays with his name: Trim, Trimbale, Trimothy, Trevan, Shank-van … bouncing his name, bending his brand, expanding its worth with each transformation.

You’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
The wrong person: I ain’t him.
All this talk about… like… all this talkin’
Wrong end of the stick, wrong person, I ain’t him.
All this talk about slappin’ like I’m scared to clench my fist…

Much of MC bars are advanced bravado. I had this explained to me in the early days of grime by the Dizzee’s manager, yet I’ve always found it hard to qualify how much to believe, how much to take literally.

When I find myself wandering dark parts of London trying, as I have recently, climbing into places where I don’t belong to try and locate Trim (long story, will tell you later...), I hear these words again. People with me, who haven’t listened to as much grime as I have over the years, don’t seem so as affected. How much is bravado, and how much is … real?

…and tump someone in the face.
Listen, I got magic tricks,
Like: now you see ‘em, now you don’t
No matter how small the hat the rabbit fits.

Nice magic metaphor from Trim.
“Tump” is a corruption of “thump.”

Isle of Dogs

I smoke weed.
I’m from E14

Almost more prevalent than status-related identity, are location-related identity bars. In grime, disputes over tiny disparities of turf are the be-all and end all. Roll Deep got angry at me once when a sub changed an intro to say that their Baring House/West Ferry/Lime House aka “Whilehouse” (“because it gets so wild”)” was “proper east end like the Isle of Dogs.” I.o.D is where Trim, now ex-Roll Deep, is from, and it’s little more than a mile or two down the road: yet it made all the difference.

I slip.
You got a squeeze on Vol 1 & 2.
About you telling police about what I did.
But I ain’t Flowdan:
I ain’t gonna hold my mouth while you’re hyping.

This in essence is the root of the dispute between Trim and Roll Deep, and why he’s no longer a member: that when things got serious (“hype”) between him and the owner of a certain other crew in Napa, he wasn’t stood by.

Look. Listen.
You can only talk so much Vol 3: Soulfood, Soulfood.

Trim calls his mixtape “Soulfood,” because “because there’s drugs out there that fuck with people’s souls.”

It’s me, Trimbale,
And I’m on the streets, in the area.
Aks for Trim, aks for Trimothy

Trim’s got an amazing way of pronouncing “ask” like its written “aks” or “azk”.

Between his corruption of pronounciation, his road slang and wordplay, Trim’s got an amazing grasp of the Queen’s English. It makes me think of all those stuffy, establishment grumpy bastards like John Humphrys, who use their expensive educations to write books bemoaning the demise and diversity of the English language.

I don’t buy it.

No one complains as business dullards invent and distribute Corporate Inc-speak or countless meaningless acronyms. And these establishment guys are the ones who celebrate those that recite past variants of the language like Chaucer or Shakespeare. Yet when young people use text speak or their own slang, it’s an attack on the Queen’s finest, not a celebration of diversity. Sure I appreciate the value of one, standard common language, to promote common understanding, but meaning is so easily conveyed by nuance or inference, why should we accept that language is static or centrally owned, by the Queen or those mistakenly defending her. I’d prefer to aks for Trim.

And what’s worse about the establishment claiming definitive ownership of the English language is that grime so clearly cherishes it too. Look at how expressions are overtly created and propagated by its key players through mediums like mixtapes or pirate radio. Take Flowdan’s use of “NASA” last year or the current row over “it’s a lot”.

And you know when you used to look up to certain man, doe?
And you just… y’get me.
But I don’t look up to no one, in that term
But I just thought certain man were real, get’me?

Grime’s always had an obsession with reality, with being “real,” despite much of it being bravado or an over emphasis on aggression. In many ways that’s what set it apart from both the escapist, dance-focused UK garage scene and the hyper-surreal riches of this decade’s US rap.

Within this real aggression, the currency of war is reputation. Slewing, clashing, parring: they’re all methods of damaging an opponent’s most important asset, their standing within a peer group. And while this is something Trim specialises in, it’s still not to be taken lightly, hence the culture of the “indirect” bar where an opponent is alluded to but not directly named. “Call out me name/call out me name…” spits Trim elsewhere on “Soulfood Vol 3,” daring other MCs to abandon indirects.

He’s on his last legs,
He ain’t got a leg to stand on, he’s past dead.
I can’t wait to hear the album,
You should have called it “Past Tense”
Big for nothing, some say coward,
You’re having a bubble bath about shower.

This final bar is the most incredible line on the whole of “Soulfood 3.” It’s proof that Trim’s bars are absolutely leaden with complex meaning and delicious wordplay.

Trim’s from east London, where the white working class stereotypes of Cockney’s come from. By legend, real Cockneys are born within the sound of Bow Bells church and they too have their own twist of language. Here Trim uses Cockney rhyming slang, to swap “laugh” for “bubble bath.”

“Shower,” like Flowdan’s “NASA,” is an expression propagated by Roll Deep (primarily Riko) circa 2004/5. In the first instance it comes from the legendary Jamaican gang the Shower Posse, but comes to mean “good” in the way anything in street culture with strength, power or a fearless reputation is equated with good.

By neatly pairing “bubble bath” with “shower” in a washing metaphor, Trim says

You’re having a bubble bath about shower.

Which in the Queen’s (yawn) English means:

You’re joking if you think Flowdan has a reputation for being hard.

He continues…

And I’ve always said that Jamakabi’s better,
Riko’s the best,
But now Killa P is better than you,
You’re pissed.

Here he groups all the grime MCs who, like Flowdan, have a Jamaican “Yardie” twist to their flow, and ranks them, naturally with Flowdan coming out worst. Note also the US use of the term “pissed.” Whereas in conventional UK slang, “pissed” means drunk, the pervasive influence of US rap and cinema means Trim’s fans will recognise this as meaning “annoyed.”

And Killa P ain’t in Roll Deep for them same reasons
I’ve noticed.

But you ain’t told him,
He just thinks…
Why don’t you tell him certain man don’t want him in it?

The use of “certain” to mean someone undefined is signature grime parlance. It stems from the severity of calling someone’s name out and from knowing that by calling that name out, the person will be duty bound to retaliate. In this case we can speculate that Trim’s avoiding involving members of Roll Deep he doesn’t have a direct issue with.

…FlowDan’s a big guy, a big man, like.
I’m only 23, he’s 28, 29.
I’m just lookin’ up to him and talking to him in certain ways.

More use of the word certain, this time used to hide how he used to act with respect around Flowdan.

And cause his parents are from the same place, getme,
We socialise, but…
He does certain tings to make me think, like,
He ain’t really out for me, getme.

This seems to suggest some of their past respect was based on shared cultural roots (Trim’s parents are from St Lucia), but now present local politics have over-ridden them.

So, he could be one of the reasons why I aint in Roll Deep right now.
He could be.

Because he’s chatting shit,
And we know he is,
Can’t pull the wool over,
You’ve been Rowing since 1990,
So let me have a go at it.

The “Rowing” reference, Trim explained to me after he used it in “The Bits,” is a coded reference to Roll Deep. The age dis is another grime feature. Grime MCs are often kept on their toes by “youngers,” members of sub crews that rank lower in the pecking order but are often more eager to prove themselves and hence, more unhinged. The age concern is present in bars like Jammer’s “I’m a big man/ but I’m not 30…” as reaching that age would be the end of the world, an idea possible only if you’re 15 and 30 seems an un-imaginable horizon.

They should have called me Flowdan,
What’s he flowing with?
He’s doing drive by shootings with no van,
He’s full of shit,
And daddy’s a badman,
Ask daddy about Lee Van Cleef,
I’ m Lee Van Spit!
Your belly went when Marcus turned into He-Man and switched...

Aye, there’s the rub.


Anonymous said...

Nice post.

But when you say "No one complains as business dullards invent and distribute Corporate Inc-speak or countless meaningless acronyms" .. that's not really true. Don Watson, author of "Death Sentences", has complained about exactly that, very eloquently:

Anonymous said...

Damn. Blogger cut off the link.

Here's a shorter one to the same book:

Blackdown said...

"Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language (Hardcover)"

Weasel Words!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Trims flow is so slow,skipping round riddim, hidden gems that aint hidden!!!!hehe hoho

Anonymous said...

Not really just Trim who pronounces 'ask' as 'aks'. Pretty standard element of some forms of Black London English.

Anonymous said...

pretty good breakdown, the tune is overrated though, the whole talking concept just doesnt bear up to repeated listens.

one point though, when you comment on the line "hes pissed", the use of american slang could be another jab at flowdan because didnt trim say in a previous interview that flowdan thought he was american or something in relation to playing basketball...maybe just reading too much into it though...

Blackdown said...

"doesnt bear up to repeated listens."

Really? As you might expect from a line by line breakdown, I had to listen to the tune a lot ("it's alot! it's alot!") and it still amazes me.

In fact think if he had just spat normally, it wouldnt have been such a remarkable tune, given how wonky the beat is.

Unknown said...

Wicked article. Nice wan!

cólz said...

great post!

cólz said...

great post!

Anonymous said...

wicked article... but I've got an issue with your comment about John Humphrys' "expensive education"

He actually grew up in a Welsh mining village and left school at 15 without any qualifications.

Interesting how assumptions on people's backgrounds/education/intelligence can cut both ways...

Anonymous said...

bare menstruality blood.

Rodwellian said...

Amazing post. I would like to know how many times you had to listen to the track. Can you point me to where I can hear it?