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One Take

One Take: July's Grime Reviewed by Tomas Fraser
Tomas Fraser , July 29th, 2015 07:25

Tomas Fraser reviews new music from Edgem, Merky Ace, AJ Tracey and Novelist as well as casting some light onto brilliant young DJ Riz La Teef. All photographs courtesy of George Quann Barnett/ Wot Do You Call It

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Novelist

The image of Drake bringing Skepta out to perform ‘Shutdown’ live on stage with him at Wireless Festival earlier this month was certainly a moment. But why exactly? And who for?

After months of speculation perpetuated by coded social media posts and then via Kanye West’s decision to invite the crop of UK grime MCs to perform ‘All Day’ with him live on stage at The Brits, grime has been surfing on a wave of optimism. Whether or not grime as a scene needs a relationship with contemporaries in the US in order to feel ‘proper’ at an international level is a different matter entirely, but for me, Drake’s enthusiasm has proved that grime’s contemporary DIY mentality - manifested in the bullishness of the music of the last 12 months in particular - is reaping its rewards.

I argued in my last column that grime artists taking back ownership of the music was a big part of it, but I also think that the political environment has helped the content of the music connect in ways that in the past, would have fallen on deaf ears. At a time of governmental austerity policy-pushing, listen to Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ and you can’t help feeling empowered by what he’s saying: “They tried to steal my vision, this ain’t a culture, it’s my religion... Me and my Gs aren’t scared of police and we don’t listen to no politicians.” Listen to JME’s ‘Man Don’t Care’ and you’ll find similar references: “How can a man with a uni degree be bussin’ up mic and chatting this greaze? ‘Coz the music originated and will always remain in the streets.”

I’ve read before that grime often reminds people of the punk movement of the late 1970s in the sense that it challenges the status quo and to a point that’s true - but grime’s beef with the establishment transcends political climates. Few grime artists would write music in response to a particular government or political figure, but the genre’s very existence - and the artists’ determination to see it succeed on their own terms - is an omnipresent two fingers to society in itself. “A bunch of young men all dressed in black dancing in extremely aggressively on stage … it made me feel so intimidated and it’s just not what I expect to see on primetime TV” says one viewer in a complaint made to the BBC over Kanye West’s Brits performance - a skit Skepta includes between verses on ‘Shutdown’.

Circling back to Wireless then, it’s difficult to decipher what Drake’s performance actually symbolised. The image itself was powerful, but should we be be celebrating the fact that grime acts are now performing alongside international megastars on their own merit? Or should we be questioning why London’s biggest grime act needed to be brought out as a special guest by a Canadian rapper to perform in his own backyard? Both are interesting questions to consider.

Merky Ace

Edgem - 'Terror Fortress'

To put it mildly, Edgem (JT The Goon, Dullah Beatz & Boylan) are a producer trio with venom flowing through their fingertips. Veteran Slew Dem producer JT The Goon, an artist reborn by way of 2013 track ‘The Grime Orchestra’ and follow up debut EP ‘Garden Of Eden’ is relentless in his work ethic - so much so that Boxed co-founder Oil Gang regularly plays sets entirely comprised of original JT material. Dullah Beatz is prolific by his own accord too. Having first made a name for himself as an MC under his Typah moniker, his production work has snowballed since putting out free EP ‘Dullah Refix’ in 2014, while newcomer Boylan brings an unconventional, mystery element to the group dynamic. All context aside though, their collective sound borders on barbaric - in the best possible sense.

‘Terror Fortress’, their second EP as a trio, follows their incredible debut ‘Secret Garden’ - the title-track to which already feels like one of the unofficial tracks of the year - and builds on the same, hard-as-nails aesthetic. Make no mistake, JT’s sweet, delicate melodies aside, this is a body of tracks that go straight for the neck. On ‘The Crypt’ for example, long, winding synth lines and pan-flute interludes might give a 90s platform game feel to proceedings momentarily, but gun-cocking FX soon signal the start of a barrage of militant bass stabs that perhaps define Edgem best - one part cinema to three parts Armageddon. The shrill, icy opening to title track ‘Terror Fortress’ is my tip but across all four tracks, the trio hammer home their sound definitively, even nodding to the tear-out explosiveness of Circus Records-esque dubstep on ‘I See Everything’.

It might hard to comprehend through a pair of headphones on a Sunday night, but then again I don’t think ‘Terror Fortress’ was designed to do anything else other than turn clubs upside down. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in my book.

Merky Ace - 'Cuss Match'

Merky Ace has always had the talent and the guts to take his gritty, uncompromising brand of grime to new heights but as an artist, his conscientiousness - matched by a fierce dedication to his in-house crew of producers and fellow MCs, Family Tree - has seen him take the independent road throughout his career so far. Two full-length CDs for No Hats No Hoods checked his progress in 2013, an extraordinary level of output given how much of himself he invested in both ‘Play Your Position’ and ‘All Or Nothing’, but neither were received with enough gusto for him to really benefit long-term and as such, new EP ‘Peak Levels’ listens like a fresh start.

The EP, his first for Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee Stank label hub, is fully produced by Footsie, who excels himself on the beat for greazy lead track ‘Cuss Match’. The official video, directed by and also featuring Dizzee Rascal, is shot in the pitch black and presents Merky back with the bit firmly between his teeth. For one, he looks visibly more comfortable from the outset, with his angry, fast-paced flow feeling instantly more accessible and relatable. “I ain’t inna no cuss match” he says defiantly, projecting an image of an artist finally comfortable with the scene he’s operating in. While it might come across less volatile and confrontational than some of his previous records, ‘Cuss Match’ still doesn’t compromise any of Merky’s integrity - the one side to his music he always delivers on.

Novelist - 'War'

For all instrumental grime’s notions of futurism, space and ambience in 2015, sometimes it’s good to take stock of how good some of the early instrumentalists were. Novelist would have been only six years old when Jon E Cash released ‘War’ on his ‘Black Ops’ label back in 2003, but in a nod to grime’s roots, Novelist recorded his own vocal version - also entitled ‘War’ - earlier this month.

Interestingly, much of Novelist’s recent output - and social media communication for that matter - has seemed politically-motivated, particularly in light of the Conservative Party winning the recent general election. ‘War’ feels like an extension of Novelist’s own discontent with the outcome, feeding into the same mindset that saw him stand to become Lewisham’s Young Mayor back in 2012 - for all his smiling, bubbly energy, this is a young MC with a firm understanding of the socio-political climate he’s growing up in.

On Ignorant And Wot, another track he uploaded to his Soundcloud account earlier this year, he addresses his discontent with the system directly. And via his Twitter account, he recently stated: “I say the mandem run up on Parliament and chief up the MPs then make David Cameron come Lewisham MC Deez.” It might be phrased in colloquial slang but Novelist’s points are real - and again he references them on ‘War’. “I don’t like sirens ‘coz in my ends that means violence” he says at one point before continuing, “I do like kindness but people are living in blindness."

Bars aside, both his energy and the raucous, crackling sound of the recording feel like a nod to pirate radio and the studios MCs would have recorded in back in 2003 - whether intentional or not, Novelist certainly knows how to keep the hype surrounding him both consistent and justified.

Riz La Teef

South London DJ Riz La Teef is a bit of a maverick by all accounts. Scrolling through his Soundcloud page at the time of writing, he has a mammoth 25 different mixes to stream from 2015 alone - the majority grime, with some also tapping into his flair for mixing UK funky and garage.

Although fully immersed in the worldwide Boxed-driven network of producers making waves at an independent level, Riz’s grime mixes also demonstrate a deeper, contextual understanding of how certain records - new and old - work together. Each one is treated like a product, each with a different theme and a different story - take Lovers, Roots, Dub & Digi and recent, summer-themed mix simply entitled WARMIN as two cases in point.

What’s more, he remains one of the only grime DJs in London to regularly cut his own dubs to wax and he mixes solely with vinyl. For many producers, particularly those newer and up-and-coming, Riz’s mixes are the first port of call to get new tracks heard and listened to. In the same way Slackk’s early monthly mixes broke numerous young grime producers on the net, Riz’s mixes immortalise them on wax - giving them a physical reference point that only labels could provide otherwise. As trivial as it might seem, he’s made a crucial addition to the landscape - and he’s a fucking brilliant DJ too.

AJ Tracey - 'Spirit Bomb'

Given how many MCs have broken through in 2015, to stand out amid the hustle and bustle, you’ve got to be pretty special. Step forward West London’s AJ Tracey.

A serious lyricist with remarkable clarity on mic and a relentless appetite to spray - as evidenced by how much pirate and internet radio he commits to - his latest, self-released single ‘Spirit Bomb’ is a culmination of all his hard work to date. Produced by young, little-known producer Ezro, it listens like a single proper - bullish flow, witty bars and well-crafted hooks - but will only serve as a pre-cursor to his forthcoming second self-released EP. His first, ’The Front’, has already cemented his reputation as an MC with a penchant for football-related bars too, as ‘Champions League’ and ‘The Lane’ (in reference to Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane) both testify.

Aside from ‘Spirit Bomb’, he’s also been making headlines at Boiler Room’s recent Eskimo Dance event at The ICA in London where he got his first Eskimo reload proper, as well as recently featuring on a BBC 1Xtra grime orchestra session, recorded live at Maida Vale alongside fellow artists Jammz, Mez, Mic Ty and Boy Better Know vet Jammer.

In next month's 'One Take', I'll be taking a look at South East London's new streaming platform Balamii, cherry-picking the month's best releases and discussing why competition is vital to grime's infrastructure

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