'You can't escape its inspiration': inside the true history of grime – The Guardian

Grime historians Dan Hancox and DJ Target have both written books about the genre. They discuss its development, glory and legacy – from Wiley and Dizzee to Stormzy and Skepta

Since emerging from London as a harsh, lyrically dextrous, hybrid rap music in the early 00s, grime has had the three-act narrative of a Hollywood movie: the plucky underdog who gets to the top, blows it, and is then redeemed. But from its garage- and jungle-inspired gestation to the breakthroughs of rapper-producers Wiley and Skepta, and on to the Brit-award winning majesty of Stormzy, it is easy to forget how it all actually happened.
Two people who have been reimmersing themselves in grime’s story are Dan Hancox, a journalist and die-hard fan with hundreds of hours of interviews with those in the scene, and BBC 1Xtra’s DJ Target, AKA Darren Joseph, whose Pay As U Go crew pointed the way from garage to grime, and whose Roll Deep crew later went to the top of the charts. Both are publishing grime history books this summer, and in conversation, they explore the genre’s real story.
Dan Hancox: When I tell people that my passion is grime, if they’re from outside that world their response is still: that’s British rap music, right?
Darren Joseph: That’s the simplest way of explaining what grime is, a super-shorthand way. But then trying to take them into what 140bpm is, what clashing is …
DH: Talking to your auntie at a wedding: “You’ve got your quick sixteens, but you’ve got your eights as your reload bars …” It’s complex!
DJ: The early influences were Jamaican in particular, even if not everyone was Jamaican – a lot of MCs and DJs were influenced by soundsystem culture, plus we would listen to jungle and UK garage, and hip-hop and R&B from America.
DH: There’s such a strong British African-Caribbean heritage there. Even fast chat reggae from the 80s, people like Smiley Culture, seems to be so important. According to Geeneus [DJ who founded key radio station Rinse FM] grime was junglists trying to make garage and getting it wrong. They fucked it up and accidentally created grime.
DJ: It was accidental. We never said: “right, we’re going to start making songs that are not like UK garage so we can separate”. It was bringing the high energy of jungle mixed with a garage tempo, but now you’re getting street reporting over these beats.
DH: I wonder if that corresponds with the history of hip-hop, where MCing was originally just the voice as an instrument, and over time, becomes something that’s a great communication vehicle.
DJ: There’s loads of similarity. Hip-hop started to reflect the lives of the streets in America, and that’s what grime was doing as well. And hip-hop was also originally DJ-led – the MCs would just rap “my DJ is the best!” Same thing in garage: the word DJ got said about 1,000 times in a set. Whereas with grime you’ve got to properly listen out to hear who’s on the decks – you’re not even going to see them behind 30 MCs!
DH: It wasn’t until 2005 that people were accepting this was a genre: 140 bpm tracks, with a particular emphasis on sub-bass from that reggae or jungle tradition, with quickfire MCing over it. But in 2003, you’ve got a lot of MCs saying: Why would you call it grime? Why would you tarnish us with that dirty word?
DJ: Jungle didn’t get named jungle by the artists either – there were some dodgy connotations. As soon as we had this new genre, journalists coined the name – first it was “grimy” then cut down to “grime”, and we were like: What are they trying to say? That we’re dirty? Then we realised they were talking about the sound of the music, and we just let it go.
DH: I found an interview with the rapper Nasty Jack from 2004, and he’s owning it – he’s saying most grime is made on a grimy council estate, there are social problems, and his part of London is not a nice place to be. He was happy to be called grime, because it was a grimy music talking about grimy goings-on: “Shottas, plotters and HMP,” in the words of Dizzee Rascal. Dizzee’s album Boy in Da Corner is probably unrivalled as a document of how a teenage lad feels about the area he was growing up in and the lack of opportunities he had.
DJ: You hadn’t had harsh reality over music from the UK in such a current, relatable way before. The UK rap scene just wasn’t connecting to our world; a lot of it was Americanisms. There was nothing that was directly drawing us in. Jungle did that, musically, but there hadn’t been that real reporting on what is really going on in the streets; grime MCs were telling you what was going on that week.
DH: There’s a Tinchy Stryder song from his first mixtape where he just describes a day walking round Bow with his mates. One of the things I did in my book was compare Bow E3 by Wiley with Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z – in Empire State of Mind, they’re talking about Yankee Stadium, Broadway, all these places you’ve heard of wherever you live in the world. And then in Bow E3, Wiley’s referencing a takeaway called Moon Lee. It has 2.2 stars on Google – maybe it’s not the best. But these are the places that are important in Wiley’s world.
DJ: There’s no one even close to deserving the title of godfather of grime than Wiley. Anybody who argues otherwise, you have other motives behind your argument. I might be seen as biased [Wiley was a member of Pay As U Go and Roll Deep], but ask anyone in the scene. There’s no one more prolific, no one with a better ear; for him, there’s no day when making music is out of the question.
DH: [Journalist] Chantelle Fiddy told me he called her up on Christmas Day morning, and was like “Oh it’s Christmas? Sorry, I was going to send you some tunes”.
His importance is impossible to underplay. As well as his influence as an artist, producer and MC, I don’t think people realise how much support he has given to other musicians: paying for people’s studio time, paying for Skepta to be flown out to Australia to tour with him, bringing through every young talent he sees as an MC, when no one asked him to.
DJ: Another important part of grime was clashing, where MCs would battle with each other back and forth on the mic. It was a great way of MCs testing each other, having a bit of sport, proving they were really good. If it’s a pirate radio set and someone is saying bars about how bad your trainers are, you had to be ready!
DH: You realise now how constructed a lot of the beef was. Take Wiley and Lethal Bizzle: their beef is hilarious. Wiley said “Your mum’s got athlete’s foot”; Lethal B’s response was dissing Wiley over Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Wiley’s middle name being Kylea. But they’re grinning, finishing each other’s bars that are supposed to be criticising them. It’s a performance.
DJ: Grime’s beefs started in music and usually stayed in music, whereas the current beefs around drill [a more recent London rap style, the videos of which YouTube has been removing], some are a bit out of hand, and the back and forths are real life situations with real friction. But drill has become a scapegoat – you can’t just blame a music genre. If these guys weren’t rappers, they’d be having these problems anyway.
DH: Come 2007, people are starting to drift off to funky house and dubstep; grime seems like it’s had its chance and that has passed.
DJ: Around 2008 people would say: “You’re still doing grime? Isn’t that a silly kids thing?” And a few of us were having big chart hits with dance tracks, so people were looking at that and thinking: Hang on, what if I do one of those tunes?
DH: Skepta, who later went back to grime, had a defence of that pop period – he said that was music he didn’t have to make, but it was part of who he is, because he’s British. It’s the Ibiza thing, of going to the club and smashing it.
DJ: Exactly. We grew up listening to this kind of music. People weren’t doing stuff they hated.
DH: Wiley would always make pop, too – he would chop Roisin Murphy vocals up and make them into grimy pop tunes, although they’ve never seen the light of day.
DJ: But some people were definitely jumping on the bandwagon, because it looked like it would take you to the promised land. And that’s when grime was left unattended.
DH: Abandoned in the shopping centre.
DJ: Meanwhile pirate radio was still going, but not the vibe of 2004 when it was super exciting, and form 696 was introduced by the Met police, which was killing the clubs.
DH: The original wording of form 696 – which you had to fill in if you wanted to put on a rave – included two really dodgy questions: what ethnic group is attending, and what kind of music are you planning to play. It then listed four different types of black music as examples – there was no “oboe solos”. So instead, you had grime fans building their own infrastructure, with Grime Forum or Grimepedia – devoting their time to this music they are so passionate about, and that is drifting away from mainstream attention.
DJ: While London was all over the place, Birmingham had a real scene, and pirate radio – they kept the lights on for that energy. Skepta, meanwhile, was planning to go and stay in the US. He was sick of it here – he was like: I’ve had enough of it, there’s nothing left. And then, in 2013, German Whip by Meridian Dan dropped.
DH: He was someone only grime fans would have known about – you had to ask the nerds about him.
DJ: It was a grime record, and it had all the energy of a grime record. And it just blew up, reaching No 13 in the charts, and the rest of the scene was like: “Oh shit, we can be ourselves again!” It was an epiphany.
DH: The track That’s Not Me is the culmination of Skepta’s own epiphany, made on the same Korg Triton keyboard that all his classic early beats are made on. He rang up Jammer, who told him he’d given it away to a kid on the estate, but they tracked it down. It’s like something from a movie: go and find the holy golden tablet that is hidden in the mountain, and you can reclaim the crown.
DJ: There was also a new wave of MCs – Stormzy, AJ Tracey – who grew up on the first wave of Roll Deep and Dizzee. They’re the first set of grime artists who actually grew up on grime. They’re pure!
DH: Stormzy’s got that line: “I was on the roads when Dizzee made I Luv U.” I did some maths around that and was like: you were seven, in a sandpit. But the principal is correct, this was the music he heard when he was a kid.
DJ: So in 2014, it really started surging again: German Whip, That’s Not Me, Stormzy’s freestyles, it felt like the energy of grime was back. And when the grime reset button got hit, it didn’t just get hit in grime. It was like: we want the truth now, be your real person, whatever music you’re doing. People aren’t just going to be jumping on pop records like they did eight years ago.
DH: That’s the great victory of the grime resurgence: to make young British artists realise that they can be true to themselves, and succeed. The message of self confidence and believing in yourself, but also that you can build something yourself, is incredibly inspirational.
DJ: If you took grime out of the equation, I don’t think these current black British musical genres – drill, Afro bashment – would have been able to flourish. Whether you make grime or not, if you didn’t see Dizzee or Skepta or Stormzy, you wouldn’t want to go to the studio and make an Afrobeats song. Grime has opened the door for you to be able to do any of this.
DH: I’ve got the new EP by Yizzy and the title track on that is called SOS, standing for Save Our Sound. It’s kind of interesting that a young MC thinks grime needs saving.
DJ: Well, I don’t think people should be worried that there’s too many artists who are making non-grime music. The whole culture has progressed.
DH: There are kids who are 12 and listening to Stormzy and Skepta, who going to be 18-year-old grime MCs coming through in five years time.
DJ: And there’ll be more of them, too. Kids are now turning on the Brit awards on TV, and the best male and best album is grime, is Stormzy. You can’t escape the inspiration – it’s everywhere.
Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime by Dan Hancox is out now, published by William Collins. Grime Kids by DJ Target is out 14 June, published by Trapeze. Both books are available at The Guardian Bookshop.