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Grime is vivid and varied, just like the people who make it and listen to it. The sound hit east London’s high rise council blocks in the early 2000s with a furious intensity, speaking directly to many young black people who felt lost in a society that didn’t get them. Many of the MCs in the scene projected the maddest, toughest, and fiercest versions of themselves, with bravado that directly addressed murky street politics that run through quarters of some black communities in the U.K. But that was just one side of the genre — moments of reflection were also key to the lyricism of many first generation grime artists. So while Dizzee Rascal had a breakout hit with the braggadocious “Fix Up Look Sharp,” he showed the flipside on a track like Boy In Da Corner opener “Sittin’ Here,” with the lyrics: “I try to pull myself together, tell myself “Fix Up”/ And keep myself from bawlin’ but my eyes, they erupt.”
Studying the genre’s relationship with masculinity was a two-year undertaking for London-based author, teacher, and grime fanatic Jeffrey Boakye. His new book Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & The Meaning of Grime traces the genre’s origins through black British music from the 1960s to the present, zeroing in on 55 tracks spanning jungle, ragga, 2-step, U.K. garage, and grime itself. As well as providing insightful historical context, Boakye gives sharp analysis of how black masculinity was depicted in the music, dissecting lyrics, styles, and aesthetics of the culture of the time.
“It’s easy to ignore other aspects of black masculinity because the louder stuff is so loud,” Boakye explained in a phone conversation with The FADER this May. “The stuff that’s louder is the violence and that’s what people listen to, but if you look at [MCs] as artists and craftspeople, there’s another aspect of blackness that is not being led with.” Hold Tight recognizes nuances to black masculinity that, in its author’s words, “teach us a lot about what it’s like to grow up in the 21st century and be marginalized, disenfranchized, and ultimately triumphant.” Below, Boakye highlights nine classic anthems that show the true complexity of masculinity in grime.
“What was so interesting about this song is just how mundane it is. Mike Skinner sets up a very realistic, almost boring existence of getting through and watching [life]. It’s almost as if he undid a lot of the masculine stereotypes, because he just wasn’t it. He more or less says he’s not that person, he’s just Mike. In a way, this song is a bit of an antidote to the big stereotypes [of being tough and a ‘roadman’]. There’s a sense of realism to it. A lot of the songs at the time didn’t seem to be hyper-realistic, and then we start to see more realism in songs over the years.”
“Titch is an example of when masculinity kind of boils over. His biography has gone into quite tragic territory, but there is a reality behind the posturing sometimes; some artists are putting on a persona, but equally others are living through some stuff. ‘I Can C U’ is more about the energy of the music and it’s not trying to make you stop and reflect about the tough time. His life was tough and he’s in prison now, and that’s the reality of life for some people in that community. He even says in [Hattie Collins’s 2016 book] This Is Grime that violence is such an easy thing to do, but it doesn’t actually go anywhere. That’s really telling because it’s so easy to play up to stereotypes and be the aggressive person that they say you are — but in reality, it’s harder to be vulnerable.”
“Shystie was an early example of a female grime MC confidently proving her worth, and you can’t doubt her. Using [Dizzee Rascal’s] ‘I Luv U’ can maybe be seen as a small political move in this regard, a deliberate female response to male aggression. One of the big ideas with this song is that young women couldn’t be as hyper or volatile as men, which is nonsense. When you get female grime MCs proving that they can shell it down just like any other guy, that’s a statement in itself.”
“JME wasn’t creating a persona that would alienate your average listener. He talked about really normal stuff, like going to university, not having a lot of money in your pocket etc. That’s quite a big thing because a lot of the music and artists at the time were portraying superhero personalities when they were jumping on the mic. [But] when you do that, you’re not a person anymore. JME was doing that but being normal at the same time, and he’s kept it so real. You get the sense that JME is just Jamie, and there’s no filter. He’s not hiding anything.”
“Artist beef is very important to grime’s [sense of] masculinity, because the genre can be so pugilistic. That’s where a lot of the energy comes from: the idea of having a sound clash where you’re pitting your skills against someone else, and you either kill or be killed. [On “Extra Extra”] Devlin was going for Wiley’s head out of pure anger and conflict. But despite that, they could still work together in the future [on Wiley’s “Holy Grime/Bring Them All”], which shows that beef isn’t always the be all and end all. The track is so incendiary, and you get a kick out of the white hot energy that comes out of it.”
“I love this one because it’s sober, reflective, and purely positive — Bashy [now better known as actor Ashley Thomas] is explicitly stating that we have something to celebrate. He’s giving props to his peers, people doing stuff in other genres and other areas of the world, and recognizing the worth of other people. It proves that [grime] doesn’t always have to be about proving yourself and your skills. The song is a love letter to black masculinity and the wider black community — one of the few popular songs to say that these are the people we should be recognizing.”
“When Giggs talks about his life, you know that it’s been tough. But he comes across as introverted at the same time, which is such a delicious combination to hear. He’s not gassed up or anything but you can tell there is a hard core to him, and the way he confidently explains it on ‘Talking Da Hardest’ makes it so addictive.”
“Tempa T is playing with the idea of masculinity. There’s so much of that in society — if you watch violent movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fast and Furious, masculinity is way over the top and we love it because it is superhero stuff. That was what Tempa T was doing — he turned himself into a superhero. ‘Next Hype’ was an over the top, big video with stupid violence that you just have to laugh at, because it’s cartoon violence. He was crafting something that was enjoyable, and maybe even lampooning masculinity. It was an example of how masculine tropes can be tweaked into something really enjoyable but interrogative — he’s asking questions about what it takes to be a tough guy.”
“This is a modern grime classic. It’s an anthem and a real statement of grime — Skepta‘s saying, ‘We are here now, in the mainstream, on our own terms.’ It represents a huge moment, and there’s no apology for it. It’s about being authentic and shouting it out. It’s saying young black men are empowered now, which is important for youth culture to be able to do — to be able to say they know who they are.”