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Grime Scene Investigation: Dan Hancox On Inner City Pressure
Robert Barry , June 16th, 2018 08:54

tQ meets Dan Hancox, author of Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime, in a Peckham Rye pub to talk about grime's phenomenal resurgence and the increasingly bleak state of London

“Ok, so, say, Slimzee lived here, five minutes from Roman Road. Rhythm Division on Roman Road was there. Wiley’s flat where he grew up was there…” On a pub table in Peckham, Dan Hancox is mapping out for me the hyper-local interconnectedness of the early grime scene, prodding his fingers down on the bare planks to mark out points of historical interest within an imaginary cartography of East London.

“The Three Flats,” he continues, “was a mile down the road, which is where Dizzee and Tinchy grew up and where Rinse was for a year and a half during the critical grime period. Here’s the canal by Vicky Park where they used to do night fishing when they were teenagers. Here’s Limehouse basketball court where Roll Deep would hang out and some of their videos were shot…”

In an era of proliferating cloud-based micro-genres blooming without geographical centre on Bandcamp and Soundcloud before withering in the blink of a tweet, grime’s ‘neighbourhood nationalism’ (to borrow the phrase Hancox adopts from sociologist Les Back), its loyal, almost parochial ‘endzism’ – not to mention its dogged persistence – are amongst its most salient features. From Wiley’s ‘Bow E3’ to The Square’s affectionate tribute to hanging out at ‘Lewisham McDeez’, London has been catalogued and traversed by grime lyrics as thoroughly as by the A-Z. In Hancox’s hands, the story of grime is not just a thrilling narrative of fall and rise with a heroic collective protagonist. It is also a prism through which to tell the history of modern London; its streets and its tower blocks, its politics and its policing, its diversity and its bigotry.

The particular style of dark and distorted 140 bpm garage with double-time spitting and sparse futuristic arrangements may be the most exciting and innovative genre of British music to emerge hitherto in the twenty-first century. But if so, it remains, as Hancox aptly demonstrates, very much a product of the social institutions and media networks of the twentieth century. Social clubs. School music rooms. Council housing. FM radio. Swapped cassette tapes. White labels and dub plates. Camcorders and DVDs. Almost all of these things are now either obsolete or under threat. But grime persists, seemingly stronger than ever, yet inescapably marked by the conditions of its emergence and the loss of those conditions today.

Inner City Pressure, then, is inevitably a story about disappearance.

Quoted in the book, Tim Smith, the music teacher that allowed a young Dylan Mills (the soon to be Dizzee Rascal) sit at the back of his classroom after he’d been expelled from every other, tells a story about Mills quickly building up a “complex rhythmic pattern” and then slowly, over the course of a week or more, “refining and editing” it, creating holes in the beats, space in the tracks, “sometimes just dropping out to nothing”. Grime grew up in an East End being eaten from within, with public land turning private, former social spaces vanishing – first around Canary Wharf in the Isle of Dogs, its new glass and steel structures emerging visibly from Mills’s home in the Three Flats blocks of Bow, later in Stratford, on what had been the home of Deja Vu FM, one of the key pirate stations to support grime in the early days, and later became the Olympic site. Grime grew up in these gaps. It danced, as Steve Goodman (aka Kode9) would suggest “to the gaps”.

Sitting on the edge of Peckham Rye, opposite a branch of Voodoo Rays, the pizza by the slice chain that has come to South London via Dalston then Shoreditch Boxpark, this question of the disapearing city is particularly pressing. Peckham still a few of what Hancox calls “low-key, tongue-in-cheek, unshowy” venues, “but I don’t know,” he sighs, “if Dalston is a guide, whether they will still be here in ten years time.” Many of the clubs which once gave succour to the emerging grime scene in London – Plastic People in Shoreditch, home of FWD>>, Palace Pavilion in Hackney, Imperial Garden in Camberwell – have long closed down. And the declining state of London’s club life, especially exacerbated for the MCs and DJs of the grime scene by the highly prejudicial wording of the notorious Form 696, left its scars on the sound and form of the music.

Hancox quotes his own interview with Lethal Bizzle from 2012: “This used to be club music and it hasn’t been for so long. We haven’t been allowed to party in clubs because of basic institutional racism.” For a long time, in the late 00s, grime was bifurcated between big stars like Dizzee and Wiley making Ibiza-friendly dance pop, remote from the original grime sound, and an increasingly underground scene of what Hancox calls “iPod-headphones-in-your-flat-listening-on-your-own music, not a music for collective enjoyment and celebration.”

Today, even after the scrapping of Form 696, grime is scarcely a club music at all. “They now do concerts,” Hancox tells me, “like, I’m going to come out and do an hour to an hour-and-a-half-long set of my songs with a clear demarcation between each one.”

Hancox himself grew up a few miles west of here in Balham, a neighbourhood which, he is the first to admit, “doesn’t really have a rich grime history, particularly” (although Neutrino from So Solid Crew was in the year below him at school). He grew up listening to “really schmindie indie but also 70s punk, grunge, American hip hop, and stuff like trip hop.” By the time, he heard Dizzee’s ‘I Luv U’ and Boy in da Corner upon returning to London from university, he was into the post-rock of anti-folk, Clouddead, and Digital Hardcore. Somewhere between the low production values of the former and the “furious energy” of the latter, something chimed. “But the thing that really hooked me in,” he tells me, was a mixtape made by close friend Alex Sushon (now better known as Bok Bok from Night Slugs), featuring “all of his favourite more obscure grime tunes that he’d downloaded off Limewire.”

Since then, from conducting interviews with MCs outside clubs at 2 am for Sushon’s Lower End Spasm blog in the early 00s to later articles for The Guardian and The Fader and finally this book itself, Hancox has been as dogged in his faith to the genre as have the MCs themselves. Some of the interviews cited in the book go back to the very beginning of that period.

Inner City Pressure could have had a very different narrative arc. Hancox first pitched the book to Verso back in 2012, in the aftermath of the London riots. “At that point,” he says, “I felt like there was a long durée narrative, of pirate radio origins onto the flash of mainstream interest and excitement in 2003/4/5, and then going back underground and also spawning this kind of pop side product with Tinchy Stryder and Roll Deep going to number one.” The original book, he says, would have closed in “a bleak place.”

In the end Verso persuaded Hancox to pursue a different project that he had already been thinking of: a story about a village in Spain called Marinaleda that had become a “communist utopia”. That book became The Village Against the World. Since then, the story of grime has been granted a surprising additional chapter: Skepta entering the charts and winning first MOBOs for ‘That’s Not Me’ then the Mercury Prize for Konnichiwa, Boy Better Know taking over and selling out the O2, Stormzy at the Brits and the tremendous success of Gang Signs & Prayer. In the last five years, grime seems to have come back – and on its own terms, actually sounding like grime.

Putting the book off, back in 2012, Hancox now recognises as “a real blessing, because there was this phenomenal resurgence and suddenly you have this redemption story in which all the protagonists return to the source. I mean, it’s really almost like a cheesy Hollywood film. They had the key to greatness within them the whole time! They just had to go on a journey into the wilderness, making shitty electro Ibiza dance music, to then realise that the only thing that was going to make them happy was to put on their tracksuits and make 140 bpm grime using the exact same old keyboard that they’d used in Jammer’s basement in 2003.” It’s an extraordinary story. And, though Hancox leaves the book with London in a pretty bleak place itself, there’s something about the ultimate success of the crew behind Boy Better Know – JME, Skepta, Wiley, Jammer et al – this vindication of their lasting faith, that can’t help but leave you feeling uplifted at the end of the book.

After I left Hancox in the pub in Peckham, dashing off for a train to meet a friend who I had made myself late for, so caught up in Hancox’s enthusiasm for talking about the book and the music that inspired it, I kept thinking about this “phenomenal resurgence”, grime’s unlikely return against all the odds and all the doubters – and also about Marinaleda, the “communist utopia” in Spain that Hancox wrote about back in 2012.

In their book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams had criticised the social democratic project in Marinaleda as a species of “folk politics”, doomed to remain local, particularist, and ultimately regressive. “The limits of such an approach for transforming capitalism are quickly revealed,” they write, “housing materials are provided by the regional government, agrictultural subsidies come from the European Union, jobs are sustained by the rejection of labour-saving devices, income still comes from selling goods on wider capitalist markets, and businesses remain subjected to capitalist competition and the global financial crisis.”

But while Marinaleda had remained small and relatively insular and grime was blowing up worldwide, could Hancox, I wondered (and eventually wrote in an email), still see a connection between the two?

A few days later, he emailed me back.

“I do, and it's something that's really come into focus now that I've finished writing. Ostensibly, communist Spanish farm labourers living in a tiny village miles from anywhere, and teenage MCs and DJs growing up in council estates in Tower Hamlets and Newham don’t have a great deal in common – the soundtrack is certainly different (though flamenco gives voice to similar kinds of pain, and is similarly a deeply emotive folk art with little interest in refinement or sophisticated equipment).

“But more importantly, these are both hemmed-in, marginalised communities living in poverty, while surrounded by obscene wealth – for the poor farm labourers of Marinaleda it's the Duque del Infantado, the aristocrat who owns all the land around the village, and for the grime scene it's the bankers in Canary Wharf, and the middle-class professionals New Labour are inducing to come back and gentrify the inner city.

“And in both cases, the communities I write about flatly refused to accept the position they were in, and through incredible defiance and persistence, over many years, overcame insanely unfair odds, and won stunning victories.

“The difference in their types of victory I suppose is, as you say, the grime scene was able to bring its radical approach to a wider audience, and achieve a kind of national (pop cultural) hegemony, whereas Marinaleda’s utopia is contained largely within the confines of the village (although they did provide some inspiration for the indignados movement, and Podemos).

“After The Village Against the World came out, leftists and activists would ask me, what’s the one thing we can learn from Marinaleda’s remarkable story, that we can use in our own struggles and campaigns? It’s a really easy question to answer: sheer, bloody-minded perseverance; never, ever giving up, and keeping that solidarity strong in good times and bad.

“And I think you can apply that to the grime scene too.”

Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime by Dan Hancox is out now published by William Collins