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One Take

One Take: A Grime Column For November By Tomas Fraser
Tomas Fraser , November 2nd, 2015 12:38

Tomas Fraser is back with all of November's crucial grime releases and shows. Stormzy photo by Blaow. Dread D photo by Vicky Grout

Hearing the melody to XTC’s early instrumental classic 'Functions On The Low' chime in to soundtrack a segment on the SNP’s annual conference in Aberdeen on BBC 2’s Newsnight earlier this month got me thinking. According to an article Dan Hancox penned for The Guardian in 2012, ‘Functions On The Low’ was the only track that producer XTC ever finished (until resurfacing in 2013), more of a shot in the dark at making beats than anything concrete or mapped out. Better still, until grime label No Hats No Hoods took it upon themselves to re-master Ruff Sqwad’s (the East London collective with whom XTC was affiliated) most iconic beats as part of a retrospective full-length in 2012, the instrumental itself was only ever released as part of a white label run in 2004. How then, had this tune managed to get this far?

Much of the answer seems to lie with grime’s continued DIY assault on mainstream music culture, the culmination of which saw Stormzy enter the official UK singles chart at #18 with a no-hook, no-chorus freestyle in September - an incredible feat for any artist. The track in question, 'WickedSkengMan 4' - part of a freestyle series that was first filmed in car parks and uploaded to YouTube - sees Stormzy vocal a JME beat produced in 2007. (Incidentally this was the fodder for one of JME’s most iconic early hits, 'Serious'). The significance? Grime’s brightest young things are increasingly looking backwards to go forward, rehashing old beats and bringing them back to life. Incidentally, Stormzy also took ‘Functions On The Low’ to task on 'Shut Up' - a tongue-in-cheek riposte to MCs taking shots at him on social media that’s since amassed over 10 million views on YouTube.

This surge in popularity of classic instrumentals doesn’t solely lie with Stormzy however. Rebound X (like XTC, a producer who never really kicked on) was the architect behind Rhythm ’N Gash, a track used countless times by various MCs over the years, but became one of the most talked about grime tracks of the past summer. Instrumentals like Ruff Sqwad’s Xtra, the beat for More Fire Crew’s Oi! and Youngstar’s 2002 classic Pulse X, the latter of which was reworked by Midlands grime producer Mystry to feature on JME’s latest album Integrity, have all found favour with new audiences too.

There is of course a danger for it all to become too nostalgic, as pointed out in an interview I did with Visionist around his debut album Safe back in September. “I actually feel that it’s all a bit too safe at the moment,” he explained. “There’s a lot of music going back to the past and a lot of people referencing the past, without really trying to go forward with their music.” Although more resonant within grime’s underground club landscape, it’s still an important point that raises questions about the wider scene as a whole. Is the latest boom a genuine step forward? Or, in the eyes of a future-facing, conceptual artist like Visionist, has grime just been repackaged? Has grime gone back to the future?

As ‘Functions On The Low’ started to fade out amidst images of teenagers throwing stones into the sea while the sun set on Aberdeen’s beachfront on Newsnight, there was part of me that felt the whole thing was just really odd. Why now, after 11 years, was grime getting some shine on one of the BBC’s leading political debate shows? Are we that far behind, or on the flip side, does ‘Functions On The Low’ really hold that much of a timeless, emotional pull? Whatever the answer, at least mainstream audiences are finally getting a feel for what grime really is, and really sounds like, as opposed to the pop records (dressed as grime) that so many artists felt compelled to make. Finally.

Dread D - ‘Siege 1’

In light of all the talk of classic instrumentals, one side to grime’s early production make-up rarely referenced is ‘sub-low’. A loose definition for the darker garage-grime sound pioneered by beat-maker Jon E Cash and his Black Ops movement, sub-low was defined by specific beat patterns, sounds and most pertinently, a heavy-set emphasis on sub. Beats like War, Spanish Fly and Kettle - as well as Dread D’s full-tilt club anthem Invasion - were all legendary instrumentals of their day, but unlike beats like ‘Pulse X’, have remained largely untouched, their producer guises confined to near mythical status on internet forums and Discogs pages. Until now.

After Novelist decided to record over Jon E Cash’s ‘War’ late in the summer - a track I’ve looked at in previous columns - Black Ops material was inadvertently given a new arena, a chance to be absorbed and fully digested by the modern grime fan. T Williams has been waiting to resurrect his Dread D alias since I first met him in 2011, so what better time than now?

Siege, scheduled for release via Local Action (the label who incidentally released his first EP proper back in 2010), is the title cut of a four-track EP designed to introduce listeners to the Black Ops remit. For those not accustomed to its style - relentless, bludgeoning and coarse - ‘Siege’ might sound overly sinister, a melee of spiky, clattering sound. The more you listen though, the more it becomes apparent just how influential the Black Ops sound really is, especially when you compare it to what grime club sets from producers like Trends and even Slimzee sound like in the club in 2015. A testament to the enduring influence of a hyper-specific, micro grime sound spawned by a handful of crucial producers, the full EP is a time capsule well worth digging up.

SNY - The Instrumentals 6 EP

In 2013, grime’s unofficial war dub fortnight cast the light onto the gap between producers who make beats exclusively for MCs and those who make beats as instrumental artists in their own right - more often than not, the instrumental artists came out on top, mainly due to a greater grasp of creating atmosphere and mood in their music. As one of the Midlands’ top tier of impressive young producers, SNY has often fallen into the category of a former - as evidenced by the SNY beat used by Wiley as part of his ‘Steps’ freestyle series - although it’d be unfair to review his new EP, the sixth to be released from a series simply titled ‘The instrumentals’, in that light.

Comprised of seven beats, there is a tendency for each to lean towards the trapped-out, hip hop style that has felt at times, tailor-made for MCs, although what shines through across the EP is just how clean and crystalline SNY’s sound design is. On opener ‘Eclipse’, a track littered with moody bass rumbles and jittery snare rolls, he sets the tone impressively, with following tracks ’Sinister’ - a booming blur of 808 bass noise and string samples - and ‘X Men’ taking up the baton with aplomb. It’s clear there isn’t much by way of conceptualism, but the production value more than makes up for it.

Horror-score synths, cannon-like sub and more hazy, trap swagger underpins the remaining four tracks, including ‘Metal Gear Solid’ - a track that feels like it probably blew a few monitors in the lab - while the down-tempo, hammer blow of final track ‘Dead People’ really does carry some weight. It might not be particularly exhilarating, but SNY is clearly a producer with ample potential.

Big Zuu - ‘Trying’

There aren’t many MCs who embody the spirit of independent, grass-roots level grime better than 20 year-old Big Zuu. An artist on the upswing alongside a host of hungry, new-breed MCs, his power and presence on the mic is at stark contrast to his humble, thoughtful persona off it - a favourable trait also true of veteran spitter P Money.

If he’s not putting in the hours on the radio - he’s prolific across internet stations like Radar and NTS - then chances are Zuu will be recording somewhere, anywhere. New single ‘Trying’, produced by newcomer Potentz, is the latest to crop up on his Soundcloud account, a hardy, steadfast track that sees him firing on all cylinders right from the off. His vocal style may seem a little harsh at first, but don’t let that fool you - the lyricism is impassioned and heartfelt. “I ain’t gonna lie, I’m just tryna try”, he concedes on the hook, “Keep on doing this ’til the day I die."

Even without analysing his mindset and ambitions, it’s hard not to feel impressed by Zuu’s work on ‘Trying’, in more general terms. It’s angry, volatile and real; it tackles issues and emotions, but crucially it does it all at his own pace. Often, MCs are only as good as the beat they’ve chosen, but Zuu seems to reverse that trend every time he picks up the mic as a sort of self-generating energy source, dictating the pace and flow of whatever beat he’s lacing like a conductor. He's a proper character to boot, if he carries on at this level of recording, it won’t be long before labels start looking to harness that energy and passion for their own.

Maxsta, Maniac & Boothroyd - ‘100 Problems’ EP

In Maxsta, Maniac and Boothroyd, Rinse have united three artists who couldn’t sit further from one another in terms of their own backgrounds - and made it work. Maxsta, an MC still finding his feet after an indifferent spell working in major label circles following storming breakthrough anthem ‘East London Is Back’, carries the sort of flow and quick-fire lyricism to take on most producers, but just seeing Maniac and Boothroyd sharing production credits here feels inspired.

North London’s Maniac, arguably one of grime’s greatest ever producers, has spent a good amount of time off the grid, but for anyone thinking his return to music would be tentative, this is emphatic. Tri-Angle Records’ Boothroyd on the other hand - every bit the mystery element to this whole release project - is an artist with a firm handle on abstract, futuristic sound design. Together on the ‘100 Problems’ EP, they tread plenty of new and unchartered ground.

On the title track for example, Maniac’s trademark sci-fi zaps and pulses fizz around a snarling, low-end beat with Maxsta attacking every bar, while following track ‘No Retreat’ sees Boothroyd come to the fore amidst a slew of wildly off-beat, atmospheric haze and sharp, cosmic blasts that allow Maxsta’s lyricism the space to shine. Third track ‘Green Light’ then seems to join the dots between the two producers’ disparate styles - a track that proves that, when done properly in instrumental form, grime can be as fluid and exciting as any dance genre out there.

The brilliantly titled ‘Mare Street Dick Head’ is another highlight. Effectively beatless, it’s minimalism allows Maxsta to impress with deeper, more sorrowful lyricism, while ‘Hood Pharmacist’ sees the young MC up the tempo over jittery, fractured 160bpm weightlessness. Final track ‘Local Spitter’ then sees the trio flip the script for a final time, with Maxsta’s words cutting through swirling, HD melodies and fuzzy bass lean at ease.

For a label that can sometimes rest on their laurels, it’s an EP that proves Rinse still have the mettle to signpost the way forward. For the artists involved - and the wider scene more generally - it has the scope to be crucial.