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A History Of Grime In Three Objects: Music, Memories And Everyday Life
The Quietus , December 22nd, 2021 10:14

In this month's subscriber only essay, academic and author Joy White uncovers the forgotten stories and continuing vitality of grime through a deep delve into her personal archive

Joy White

Over the last two decades, I have amassed and collated flyers, promotional material, film, photographs, interviews and merchandise that relate to the story of the grime music scene in London, the UK and beyond. In 2007, I began interviewing young people who were involved in grime in some way: MCs, DJs, producers, event promoters, and videographers, among others. Probably the most unusual item in my collection is the flyer for a London barber who had relocated to Ayia Napa in Cyprus for the summer of 2009.

Grime music originated in east London at the turn of the 21st century. We can trace the genealogy of grime back to the Jamaican sound systems and their UK counterparts, filtered through hip hop, reggae, dancehall, jungle and UK garage. It is a sonic representation of its origins: the council estates and street corners of inner-city east London.

Within the urban spaces of the east London streetscape, it is possible to see the residual marks of many previous communities. From the French Huguenots who came to Spitalfields in the 17th century to the 1920s Coloured Men’s Institute in Canning Town, the east London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham have been sites of continuing movement and migration. Postwar communities from the Commonwealth, the Windrush generation, have also left a significant mark on the social, economic and cultural landscape of the UK.

Despite recent gentrification, these areas still contain multicultural communities who draw on diverse cultural legacies. Grime is a musical form that comes out of the convivial endeavours of young people of Caribbean, African and English heritage. It is now an internationally recognised musical genre. With a foothold in Europe, and in North America, it has been suggested that it is the most exciting musical genre to have emerged from the UK since punk in the 1970s.

As a 21st-century Black British musical form, grime draws from an eclectic mix of sounds structured around 140 beats per minute. Grime beats disturb and disrupt, forming a sonic representation of the alien spaces that its creators occupy – listen to Danny Weed’s classic instrumental 'Creeper' as an early example. In contrast to UK rap, for example, grime lyrics are delivered at a rapid-fire pace. Grime’s sonic landscape anchors it in its origins in inner-city east London. The early days of the grime scene housed the creative outpourings of young people who refused to conform to the highly polished, aspirational aesthetic of the UK garage scene.

Pirate radio stations such as Rinse FM, Deja Vu and Freeze had a central role in showcasing and sharing grime. While in the early days, the vibe, energy and content of those stations were admired and emulated by licensed radio, at the same time the Metropolitan Police and Ofcom saw pirate radio simply as a criminal nuisance that jeopardised and disrupted the emergency services. An Asbo issued in 2003 banned DJ Slimzee from Rinse FM, AKA Dean Fullman, from entering any building over four storeys high without permission. Other control measures included Form 696, introduced by the Metropolitan Police in 2005 and abolished in 2017. This event risk-assessment form, supposedly intended to reduce serious crime, asked event promoters to provide the name, date of birth and contact details of every artist performing at an event.

What sets grime apart is its DIY nature. Talent alone can get you started, and perhaps for the first time, it was possible to sustain a musical career without the input of an intermediary such as a record company. For Black youth in particular, the grime scene is a site of emancipatory disruption where it is possible to step into new identities as artists, performers, or entrepreneurs. In a socio-economic landscape that is beset by racism and inequality, this emancipatory aspect cannot be ignored.

Inside a pirate radio station, 2009

As with any real-life tale, there is no single story of grime. It is layered, nuanced and complex. The moment where one genre ends and another begins is not clear-cut; the edges are blurred. As memories fade, or play tricks, conversations continue about what was the first grime track, or where the genre started. In the 2015 book UK Hip-Hop, Grime And The City Richard Bramwell notes the south London contribution to the emerging grime scene (2015), and while discussion continues regarding the geographical location of the origins of grime, there is little disagreement that Newham and Tower Hamlets played a significant role. At first, the genre had no name, hence Wiley’s quizzical references in his track 'Wot Do U Call it?' where he runs through various suggestions of what this new genre might be called. Prior to acquiring the grime tag, the new sound was also known as 8-bar, sublow or eskibeat.

For Black youth, from the early years of the 21st century, the grime music scene has been a key feature of London life. Grime draws on a cultural, political and economic history of having parents and grandparents from the Black diaspora. Its practitioners assert Black urban identities that are hyper-localised, and rooted in areas such as Plaistow or Bow rather than, or as well as, Africa or the Caribbean. Grime allows an artist to stake a claim to the lived experience of a specific and particular place, and the thriving scenes in cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, and Nottingham are testament to this. For fans and performers, it also contributes to a sense of belonging. The grime scene offered a liminal space for young men and women with limited resources to create music that spoke to and of their immediate surroundings while at the same time reaching back into their Afro-diasporic heritage.

I have been writing about contemporary Black British musical forms – mainly grime – for 14 years. I write and research on Black British contemporary music, sometimes with a focus on entrepreneurship, sometimes looking at themes such as identity, belonging, and care. I explore the sonic connections within Black British contemporary music. My collection, however, is older and has material dating from the turn of the century. Writing about grime also means recording personal histories through interviews, photographs and film. As I did not always document where the early material came from – assuming that it would be self-explanatory – my memories of the source of some items are hazy. At the start, I was an accidental collector, picking things up along the way: flyers from events, merchandise, photographs, film, CDs, USBs, T-shirts, caps, and more. Now, it is a more deliberate act. In our digital age, often there is no lasting hard copy, so documenting becomes even more important. At the same time, the story behind the object also interests me. This process of collecting and archiving is always ongoing and incomplete. Through the archive, I can explore how the past is in conversation with the present.

As a long-time resident of east London, my entry into the grime scene at the turn of the millennium came via the young people in my life. It was an everyday soundscape in Newham, heard on mobile phone ringtones , on pirate radio and on Channel U (a digital TV station). This was a time of illicit file-sharing services such as LimeWire and BearShare, as well as nascent messaging and social media platforms MSN and MySpace.

In the 18 years since a teenage Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury Music Prize with Boy In Da Corner, grime has come into the view of the general music-buying public. It has shifted from a genre that was viewed with fear – explicit links were made in the media to suggest a connection between escalating violence and gang membership and grime – to one that is heard on TV ads for Swedish furniture stores, estate agents, and mobile phones.

Although by the early 2000s, grime was the sonic backdrop to inner London, it was still largely an underground phenomenon. While it was perceived to be a taste acquired by young people from marginalised communities, it had little value as a mainstream creative practice until it found a broader audience. After that, between 2007 and 2010, the music industry went on a spree, signing a steady number of grime MCs. Grime artists made their mark on the UK charts – in 2009 Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal, and Chipmunk (now Chip), all had No 1 hits. By 2010, the Sunday Times called grime the "new face of British pop music".

Grime artists at No 1 In the UK charts, 2008-2010

2008 'Dance Wiv Me' – Dizzee Rascal (12 July)

2009 'Number 1' - Tinchy Stryder ft NDubz (2 May)
'Bonkers' – Dizzee Rascal (30 May)
'Oopsy Daisy' – Chipmunk [now Chip] (17 October)
'Never Leave You' – Tinchy Stryder ft Amelle (15 August)
'Holiday' – Dizzee Rascal (5 September)

2010 'Good Times' – Roll Deep (8 May)
'Green Light' – Roll Deep (28 August)

For the most part though, these arrangements were short-lived, and many grime MCs were shelved after a perceived lack of commercial success. What that does to you as an artist and as an individual is explored to some extent by Sally-Anne Gross and George Musgrave in their book Can Music Make you Sick?. When I interviewed independent recording artists in the early days of my research, most just wanted to make music and for it to be heard. As one DJ/producer said: “It’s all good, being good, but if no one hears you it doesn’t matter." Everything else that came with it – making a living, merchandise, recognition and branding – was, for the most part, incidental. But that was a long time ago, and now commodification is an embedded practice, particularly with the advent of all-encompassing social media platforms.

As with many creative forms, contemporary Black British music has benefited from the technological advances of the last decade. During the second decade of the 21st century, the internet, combined with easy availability of social media, allowed artists in this sector to transcend distance and reach large audiences without the intervention of major record labels. A space has been created where it is possible for UK music artists to achieve creative acclaim and maybe financial success. Stormzy is a recent high-profile example. Artists create and share online personas in exchange for recognition, responses, and remuneration. It is common practice for independent recording artists to establish a fanbase and build a platform through having an online presence.

For my research in east London, I went to nightclubs, music video shoots, fashion shows, and pirate radio stations, conducting interviews, having conversations, observing process, practice and the dynamics of what was at that time an under-researched scene. (There was also a brief, late-night visit to Grays in Essex for a club event that was cancelled by the police at the last minute). By 2009, my research took me out of east London to Ayia Napa in Cyprus, at that time a popular site for artists in the grime scene. As 2009 was a turning point for the primary phase of my research. I have selected our first artefact for consideration from that year.

The grime calendar 2009 was commissioned by Dirty Canvas and photographed by Will Robson-Scott, and was released in a limited edition of 500. It was available in clothing stores and record shops as well as online at a recommended price of £11.99. There is still a 50-second ad for the calendar on YouTube.

The calendar features a grime MC for each month. There is also a final page that is a collage of five artists, crews and producers. The selected locations are standard in the grime scene: garage, in front of a wall, the barber's and the chicken shop.

Griminal – standing in front of a wall
D Double E – in the barber's
JME – with Timmy Mallet (a 1980s children’s TV presenter)
Frisco – outside Chick King in Tottenham, wearing a blue Boy Better Know T-shirt
Badness and Jammer – on Wanstead Flats, an east London corner of Epping Forest. I write about this area in more depth in Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City. Fred Wigg Tower can be seen in the distance
TInchy Styder – in a stairwell of a block of flats
Trim – Smoothies, 257 Wick Road, E9 (in front of a glass cabinet of hot patties). This address is now an estate agent in a very gentrified area of Hackney
Wiley – standing against a wall next to an exit 'keep clear' sign. He is wearing a Grime Wave cassette around his neck
Ghetto – standing in front of garages
Skepta – his brother JME is included in the shot but he is facing away from the camera
Chip – indoors, shot with a phone in his hand. Smartphones are not in common use at this point
Ice Kid – outside, leaning against a wall

The final page is a collage consisting of five pictures:

Rude Kid and Lil Nasty
Double S
Tempa T
P Money
Roll Deep

All are shot inside except for P Money.

Looking at the calendar again in 2021 brings back memories of doing those early interviews, talking to young people who were just trying to do something, full of enthusiasm for the work that they were undertaking. In 2009, social media did not yet have a firm hold in this scene and was used as a platform for visibility rather than a driver for content. For young people in disadvantaged areas, an EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance, a means-tested benefit of up to £30 for 16-18 year olds in full time education, scrapped by the Coalition government in 2011) provided a vital resource for the creation of grime music.

There are no female MCs in the calendar, which speaks to grime as a male dominated space at that time. Women such as Lioness, Nolay and Shystie were present in the scene but their contribution was muted or rendered invisible. That has changed now with more women taking their place centre stage.

Will Robson-Scott, the photographer, described how he started out taking photos at pirate radio stations, then backstage at venues such as 93 Feet East, taking photos for artists that they could then use for press shots. The calendar was not a commission as such but came about via an organic turn of events.

“I either met Robin or Magic from Dirty Canvas," he said. "Magic was really why I got access to so many people, he just introduced me to a load of people from the scene and a few of them, like JME and Skepta , I just shot when I was out and about at nights.

"I wanted to do a series of portraits. As I shot more, Magic proposed the idea of doing a calendar. The people that were included were the ones who wanted to be shot. There wasn’t a clear objective of who to get but we just wanted the main people from the scene at that time. To be honest, if I was doing it now, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do a calendar, or if I did I would be all over the design and paper stock. We just did it as quickly as possible with minimal attention to detail, but maybe that’s the charm of it.”

Joy, JME and make-up artist Simone, 2011 on the set of 'Leave It Yeah' video

A decade on, all of the artists featured in the calendar are still making music to a greater or lesser extent. Ghetto is now Ghetts, and his Conflict Of Interest album was nominated for the Mercury Prize this year. In 2016, Skepta, a member of Boy Better Know (BBK) as well as an individual artist, won the Mercury Prize for his self-released album Konnichiwa. But the social, economic and cultural landscape that grime emerged from has shifted and changed considerably.

After 2008, the UK was hit by the global financial crash, and the austerity agenda began to bite. Welfare cuts meant the widespread closure of youth clubs (Newham, for example, cut almost all of its youth provision), Education Maintenance Allowances (EMA) were withdrawn, and university fees tripled. There was increased control, regulation and surveillance of young, Black inner city life, through Asbos and Public Spaces Protection Orders, and for Black music specifically, increasing use of Form 696 to monitor and control events.

Now grime is seen as a popular music genre with a wide fanbase. Grime allows us to see and imagine new types of association and can be seen as a cultural intermezzo where it is possible to form a new identity, maybe as an artist, producer, event manager, or film-maker. Its DIY endeavours and soundscapes act as a precursor to other musical forms such as UK drill. Although Form 696 has gone, other iterations of surveillance mechanisms (including via social media) have taken its place.

Form 696 may have been revoked, but increased surveillance, a hostile environment and new forms of racism mean that for many Black youths, access to Black cultural forms such as grime is restricted. A recent report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee shows that it is still difficult to put on live performance or club events that include grime. The report says that "persisting prejudice" against artists from grime, rap and hip hop risks "the future of one of the UK's most exciting musical exports".

Despite the resistance and the restrictive practices of the regulating authorities, grime changed the sonic, cultural and economic landscape of the UK. It provides a powerful medium for young people, particularly those from marginalised communities, to articulate their concerns, joys and struggles. To even speak of grime is to know its importance. It provides an anchor and an entry point into a contemporary Black British history that is often rendered invisible.

Shifting from its underground beginnings, grime is now a commercial product. State of Play, Ticketmaster's industry report on the genre, revealed an increasing appetite for music and live events for the year between 2016 and 2017, when album sales for grime also grew faster than the total UK market. However, despite the genre's ubiquity, streaming services have diminished the capacity for artists of any genre to make a living from their work. In the grime scene, live events and merchandise therefore form an increasingly significant possibility for income.

Another source of income is merchandise: tracksuits, caps, beanies, snapbacks, trainers, socks, even sim cards and watches. However, the white T is an all-encompassing industry standard.

Watch any grime music video from the early days (2005-2012), and it was not uncommon to see grime artists sporting the logos of well-known sportswear brands. In the later years, if an artist is seen in an established brand it is usually the outcome of a sponsorship deal (see Stormzy and Adidas or Skepta and Nike for example). In 2012 , I happened across some Danish grime MCs – Zultan, Magnum97, and B-Grillzz, who were wearing T-shirts from an east London grime crew – Slew Dem.

For everyday artists, well-known or not – a T-shirt bearing your name and logo seemed to be a requirement. I have selected two – one from east London’s D Double E – a Newham veteran of the grime scene, and FFSYTHO [For Fuck's Sake Why Though] an up-and-coming artist from Northampton. Both T-shirts and artists locate us at different points in grime – and allow us to tell a story of the twists and turns of the journey that grime has taken.

D Double E is a grime original. His artistic output can be traced back to the early years of the 21st century when he was a member of Nasty Crew, and then as one-third of Newham Generals. Although grime came of age in the YouTube era, from 2005 onwards, its prime terrain was the UK pirate radio network. D Double E hails from pirate radio days, when MCS had to differentiate themselves sonically for the listeners, and his ‘"ooer, ooer" calling card is immediately recognisable. The 2019 Ikea Christmas ad made good use of his artistic expression.

In 2016, FFSYTHO recorded a 30-second freestyle from her windowsill and shared it on Twitter. Since then she has built up a solid fanbase. After performing primarily online, this year she was on stage for the first time at Reading Festival. She has also appeared on BBC 1Xtra Introducing Northampton. A mural of her face in her home town points to the impact that she has made.

Newham is an outer east London borough, often hailed as one of the original birthplaces of grime. A historically poor area, Newham, like many London boroughs, has pockets of wealth. It is predominantly young, with an average age of about 30. Even with recent demographic changes, 73% of the population claim a black or ethnic minority background, so it remains, for now at least, very multicultural.

By contrast, Northampton is a small market town in the east Midlands. Although it has a predominantly White population, there are small communities with an Afro-diasporic heritage. In some ways it shares a history with Newham in terms of its socio-economic challenges. As a post-industrial location, the shoe factories that were major employers are long gone, replaced or redeveloped into offices. There are issues with high unemployment, and at one point leading to the town being declared effectively bankrupt.

It is accepted that Newham is one of the birthplaces of grime. Arguably, the kingpins from Newham with the most influence were Nasty Crew, a fluid collection of approximately a dozen young male artists. Nasty, an acronym for Natural Artistic Sounds Touching You emerged at the turn of the 21st century with Marcus Nasty (Marcus Ramsay), D Double E (Darren Dixon) and Jammer (Jahmek Power) at the helm. An acrimonious split saw D Double E, Jammer and Footsie (Daniel Carnegie) transform themselves into the Newham Generals and eventually sign to Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee Stank label. All three continue to perform as individual artists.

Joy White with Lethal B, 2011 on the set of the 'Leave It Yeah' video

Police crackdowns on live grime events and pirate radio in London meant that performance locations for this creative expression spread outwards away from inner London to areas such as Northampton. which continued to host a thriving grime scene. A club night called Sidewinder started in 2004 as a UK garage event and then progressed into live grime performances in Northampton, Swindon and Bristol.

Seventeen years ago, journalist Chris Campion was writing about an event in Croydon where D Double E took his turn on the mic. At the end of the piece, D Double E reflects: "I wanna be an artist, man," and in a way that is one of the less articulated stories of grime, the opportunity to step into another identity. What makes D Double so interesting is his longevity; to still be in the game after almost two decades speaks to his resilience and evolution as an artist. Relative newcomer FFSYTHO continues to embody a familiar grime DIY spirit – start from where you are, with what you have, and see where your talent takes you.

Over the years, I have built up a large collection of T-shirts. In the past, I would have seen a musician wearing an item and followed up on it, probably online. Now, most of my awareness comes from what is promoted on social media, and that is how I became aware of both of these. I pre ordered the D Double shirt in late 2019 and received it in December in time for the Ikea campaign. The FFSYTHO one was purchased a couple of months later in February 2020, and it arrived with a handwritten note from the MC. Both shirts are made of good quality cotton, with a round neck.

Whereas FFSYTHO simply displays her name in a red, white and blue logo, D Double’s T tells a more nuanced story. The links to the Ikea ad are evident in the font style. It also shows some constituent parts of the MCs persona – a mic, an Afro comb, and a speaker box. Both Ts form part of a larger collection of promotional material for each respective artist.

A history of grime is embedded in these two white Ts. Generational differences in terms of social media presence and activity show how the scene has evolved over the years. FFSYTHO is a regular on social media, showing us various aspects of her life: friends, family and pets, as well as details on new work and latest merchandise. D Double came up by a more analog route, steeped in pirate radio and vinyl, and his use of social media is more targeted – he posts when he has something specific to promote.

From Newham to Northampton is a journey of 75 miles. The two white Ts that come from each location provide us with a partial glimpse into how grime has evolved over the last two decades. The easy and lazy link between grime and violence may remain, but at the same time, grime has become part of the popular music canon. It continues to provide opportunities to make a living, and offers young people a route into different identities as artists. Merchandise in various forms offers a way for a musician to promote themselves and their work.

In many ways, grime has come of age, with niche blogs and social media accounts that promote nostalgia for the old days. At the same time, an increasing number of social media platforms mean that musicians have direct access to their audiences and can make use of these platforms to build their fanbase. Without downplaying the sexism that runs through the music industry as a whole, it is not so easy now to erase the contributions that young women make, or mask their talent. Twenty years in, it appears that the grime scene continues to encompass the broadest of communities.

Joy White's Terraformed: Young Black Lives In The Inner City is available via Repeater