Intimate photos that capture the early days of grime – Dazed

Photographer Simon Wheatley has been documenting the grime world since the genre’s inception. After moving to East London in the early 2000s, he found himself thrown into the centre of the then-burgeoning scene. “I’d started doing assignments for RWD magazine but that wasn’t really enough for me,” Wheatley explains. “I was so fascinated by that sound and energy. I could feel its power but I didn’t know where it would go or that it would become so monumental.”
Through maintaining a subtle presence around the council estate blocks and grotty bedroom studios which incubated grime’s founding figures, Wheatley slowly but surely gained the trust of artists like Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and Wiley. His intimate access would eventually lead him to publish a photo book, Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime, in 2010. He’s also set to publish a second grime-related book Lost Dreams which focuses on 2005-2007 next week (April 5), and has plans for a third, more exhaustive anthology of the scene from its beginnings through to the present day.
In 2020, Wheatley took a position at Abbey Road as the iconic recording studio’s photographer-in-residence, where he now works to capture the next generation of trailblazing musicians on film. Given his experience documenting the rise of what is perhaps the UK’s most significant musical subculture since punk, Wheatley was a logical choice for cognac brand Hennessy when it came time to select judges for its Championing Scenes category at the Music Photography Awards, in partnership with Abbey Road.
Ahead of the submission deadline for entries in the category, which is specifically for photographers who document subcultural music scenes around the world, we caught up with Wheatley to delve into his own back catalogue. 
“This was a hype time for Ms Dynamite; she was signed to Polydor. This was an RWD assignment too, somewhere around Stratford. I had to wait for an hour for her to come out of her trailer – nothing to do with her, it was the label people – then they gave me five minutes to get the shot. I sometimes find the people around the stars behave as if they are the stars. 
“She came out and was very sweet and friendly. I didn’t talk much to her. When you’ve got five minutes, there’s no time for chitchat. I felt the warm tone of the light corresponded visually with her jacket and her skin tone. I got lucky, you see in the background how it says ‘Boo!’?
“She’s like a foundation stone: I’d say garage was part of the cultural foundations of grime. In my new anthology book, she’ll be in it at the start, in the same way that there’ll be pictures of drill at the end of the book. They’re two sides of the same cultural expression.”
“Jammer told me about this studio session in Greenwich. I went and everyone was there: Ruff Sqwad, Roll Deep, Maximum, Skepta, Logan Sama. It’s amazing Trim’s in the same room as Wiley as they went on to have a falling out. I just sat next to Tinchy and took some pictures without realising I was capturing an important moment in grime history. 
“I feel very sorry about what’s happened to Wiley [the allegations of antisemitism]. I don’t think he meant to hurt anyone. It’s a shame because he did so much for so many people. The tragedy for the scene is that he’s not just an important figure in grime: he is grime. You’re talking about one of the most important people in 21st-century British music, now some kind of pariah. If he wants to work with people, they have to think about whether it will tarnish their career. That shouldn’t be the case; it should be an honour. I don’t know how he’s going to come back from it, however good the music is. 
“Grime was a reflection of a certain individualism. Very few people were community-minded in grime, but he was. Obviously, he shouldn’t have said what he did… Something went wrong that day, I don’t know what. I was following him, just digging his hole deeper and deeper, thinking ‘Please, stop this. Just extricate yourself out of the situation.’ He really didn’t mean [what he said]. I don’t know man, it makes me feel really sad.”
“Kano was different from other people I met in grime; he always had that sense of stardom. It’s interesting in that I shot him this way rather than on the blocks. He’s the one example of somebody who can dress up for a shoot. People say this picture doesn’t fit in with my work in Don’t Call Me Urban, but given the trajectory of his acting career, I’m pleased I shot him like that. 
“Grime was bubbling underground then. There was a lot of hype around it, but the police were closing down anything grime related. This was a cover shoot for RWD. He wanted to look like the Scarface DVD. I didn’t think the styling was very good, there was no jewellery, but that was the concept. The cover line of the magazine said: ‘2005 Belongs to You’. I remember Kano saying to Matt Mason (editor of RWD): ‘… Do you really think so?’ So, I think he was quietly quite excited.
“When I saw him in Abbey Road in 2019 his energy was similar; a little bit detached and removed from things, just as he had been in 2004.”
“Skepta met me outside White Hart Lane football grounds on this day and took me around the back of the Meridian estate. I asked him to take me somewhere that was part of his world and he took me to this place. I think the hat was his actually. While we were there he said: ‘We can’t hang around for long, someone might come by and shoot me.’ I don’t know if that really was going to happen but he did say that.
“The Boy Better Know label was just getting started at that time, so I suspect this was a pretty big opportunity for him and JME to get BBK out there.
“There was an innocence to him in those days. I’ve only seen him a couple of times since then, once in 2016 and he’d obviously blown up. He was quite removed and detached from everything. He definitely evolved into someone else and that’s fully understandable. If you’re at the level he went to, obviously you’re gonna have a lot of people around you, and people wanting to get pictures of you to put on their Instagram, so it’s only natural that you become a bit circumspect.”
“By 2007, I’d photographed a lot of music in east London, and I thought: ‘OK, what’s going on in South?’ There was this guy called Giggs people were talking about. I was fortunate to meet a producer who worked with him and eventually met him. Giggs was a very interesting phenomenon; although he collaborated with grime artists, he really wasn’t into grime. He rapped with a different tempo and his popularity took the culture in a different direction. 
“He harboured reservations towards me. In those days, for him and his crew, anyone from outside was potentially an undercover policeman. I think they wondered why I was hanging around with a camera. This was 2007, there weren’t many people photographing stuff like I was. In the end, it got a bit too hot for me. I was tired. I was in a very high period in my career, and I just didn’t need the aggro which was coming from people around his crew. They were quite hostile towards me.  
“When I met him again years later for this he said: ‘Oh, so you really were a photographer? Sorry about that.’ He’s an interesting guy, Giggs. He’s easy to photograph, doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s got natural humility. 
“This [particular] picture was taken in January 2010, and it was cold. He had just got signed and was recording in a studio in Shoreditch on Arnold Circus. RWD were covering so I met him there. Even despite his reservations back in 2007, he had this boyish smile that hasn’t changed. He’s got this kind of hardcore street talk but he’s actually a very friendly guy.”
The quotes in this interview have been edited and condensed
Lost Dreams by Simon Wheatley will be released on April 5. Learn more about his work, and get updates about the project, on his Instagram