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Hip-hop is perhaps one of America’s greatest exports. It inspired a cultural revolution that travelled across borders, from the streets of New York City to council estates in London.
The worldwide phenomenon didn’t always resonate with me. It didn’t reflect the experiences of black British youth. It didn’t reflect our slang, the jokes we made, our frustrations with the system, the community we had built. We could bop our heads to it, but the sound wasn’t something we could call our own.
During the early 2000s, something distinctly British was born—grime. The UK’s homegrown response to Hip Hop. A darker, unrelenting sound with a 140bpm backbone. It always packed a punch. And though the two music scenes shared some similarities, grime was born from reggae, dancehall and garage.
It was gripping and we were hungry for more. We weren’t going to hear this sound on the BBC, so we turned to pirate radio and would quickly try to record the earth shattering radio sets on cassette tapes, which Rinse FM aired—the pirate radio that towered above the rest. During these late night sets we were introduced to grime legends Wiley, Dizzie Rascal, and many more.
Grime was thrust onto the mainstream when Dizzie Rascal released his groundbreaking debut album, Boy in da Corner. The album won a Mercury Prize, which awards the very best of British music, in 2003. Dizzie Rascal became the first rapper to win the prestigious prize, beating favorites Coldplay and Radiohead.
Grime was finally an established British music genre. The air was full of anticipation of what would happen next. The scene that emerged from the East London tower block where I grew up in was finally ready to take over the country, and—we’d brag—the world.
The world had other plans.
The scene that felt unstoppable suddenly, well, stopped. Grime didn’t have much of an impact on the charts. It didn’t travel past Britain, or even London for that matter. Then came the decline of pirate radio, coupled with the scene’s inability to adapt, and the relentless pursuit to shut down grime shows and club nights. It’s no wonder some believed grime to be dead. Our favorite artists were making pop songs instead, and who can blame them?
Eventually the godfathers of the genre returned to their roots. England is now gripped with the so-called second coming of grime, which is reflecting a new form of political disillusionment.
At a music festival in East London I came to fully appreciate how far the scene has developed. Rinse FM, now no longer relegated the pirate radio circuit, co-hosted “Rinse | Born & Bred Festival.” I found myself nostalgic for the early days and excited for the future, as the festival paid homage to grime veterans like P Money and to put the spotlight on new, exciting talent.
Those of us who grew up with DJ Slimzee, who co-founded Rinse FM, were treated to his amazing headlining act on the main stage during the festival. The man who once banned from every roof in Tower Hamlets, was now playing to thousands of fans, a few miles from where it all began.
Azealia Banks was meant to headline the festival, but was unceremoniously dropped after her bizarre, racist meltdown on Twitter. Banks hit back, describing grime as a “disgrace.” “The UK really can’t rap though. UK rap is just a disgrace to rap culture in general,” she tweeted. “UK rappers never have swag. It’s always forced.”
Grime’s response was swift and succinct.
The revival of the genre has now included hip-hop and American rappers. Kanye West brought what seemed like half of the UK grime scene on stage with him last year during his performance of “All Day.” Drake is having a love affair with grime too, signing up to Skepta’s record label Boy Better Know.
Chris Price, the head of music at BBC Radio 1, is predicting grime could be Britain’s next “big cultural export.” Will the rest of the world finally welcome it? Here’s a small taster.
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A brief, personal history of grime: UK's homegrown answer to hip-hop – Quartz