Grime figure: East London's Dizzee Rascal. Photo Dean Chalkley. Courtesy Beggars Group Canada.
Grime is a music that was born in East London, lives in East London... and maybe only makes sense in East London. It is a mutt genre, a bastard blend of street English, Jamaican dancehall reggae and two kinds of rave music: (1) drum ’n’ bass, an electronic party monster built from breakbeats, or loops fashioned from the percussive “breakdown” sections of other songs; (2) a U.K. delicacy called garage, which rhymes with carriage and feels like R&B running a fever. The sum is a fast clatter of syncopated claps, alien chirps and machine bursts. Grime vocalists resemble turbo-charged rappers, racing to match backing tracks that thump about 130 times per minute — near your target heart rate for vigorous physical activity.
Wiley, the musician and party promoter credited with inventing grime, calls it “eski” — short for eskimo, short-hand for emotional coldness. Grime is clean and steely but filthy and ragged, all at once, like battlefield surgery. It is young, rebel music, with more songs about survival than love. Many popular grime artists are teenagers raised in East London’s low-income council estates. Sometimes their performances end in ultraviolence, a tradition carried forward from the garage scene. Grime lyrics are laced with taunts directed at rival MCs; grime concerts are organized as contests, or clashes, between competing crews. On nights with bad voodoo in the air, the clashes can turn to riots.
Lethal Bizzle’s Pow (Forward), grime’s unofficial anthem of 2004, packs 10 vocalists into three-and-a-half minutes of mayhem. One verse, by Neeko, goes like this:
Killa, killa, real, real
N----- know the deal, deal
Don’t care how you feel
I will be cocking back my steel
Straight bullets, bullets
Run, run, fire, fire burn
If you don’t like killa, killa
N---- you can suck your mom
At home, grime spreads via London’s network of illegal pirate radio stations. The music is championed by the U.K.’s hippest magazines and bloggers. In North America, it has shaken the collars of myriad music critics, generally to positive effect. The media attention, though, has yet to incite a dash to cash registers.
Grime is an underground curiosity in North America, but remains a foreign language to this continent’s mainstream. And that might never change: grime is faster than hip hop, darker than pop and nowhere close to rock. So far only one grime star, Dizzee Rascal — government name Dylan Mills, b. 1985 in East London’s Bow estates — has managed a ripple of retail attention on this side of the Atlantic.
“Music is a living, breathing thing, innit?” the 20-year-old MC/producer/savant says, lounging in his luxury tourbus hours before a Toronto concert that is among the final stops of a North American jaunt that began in Vancouver. Dizzee speaks with a quick, clipped East London accent, hands playing at the upturned hood of a sweater emblazoned with his name and silhouette. “Garage got to the point where it was almost bourgie — suits, shoes. A kid like me couldn’t get into garage raves. So a new wave of music came in. The scene turned really, really lawless. People definitely get shot, stabbed. London, especially right now, is a town where there’s a lot of mad s--- goin’ on.”
In his teenage years, Dizzee was detained for stealing cars and robbing a pizza deliveryman. He was booted from four high schools, but, aided by a supportive teacher, held on at one long enough to learn how to make music on a classroom computer. He soon graduated to pirate radio. Two summers ago, Dizzee was attacked — reportedly by a rival music crew — and stabbed five times at Ayia Napa, a resort on Cyprus that is popular with London clubbers. He made a full, 50 Cent-like recovery. (In London this March, Dizzee was charged with possession of pepper spray. A court battle awaits him at home.)
The Cyprus assault preceded the release of Dizzee’s debut album, Boy In Da Corner, a brilliant, brutal battle cry that went on to win Britain’s 2003 Mercury Prize (for album of the year). His sophomore record, Showtime, followed last September. The former is sharper on the ears than the latter, but it’s like the difference between barbed wire and steel wool. Those albums, along with Wiley’s Treddin’ On Thin Ice (2004) and Run the Road, a grime-star compilation released in North America earlier this year, form the vanguard of this budding genre.
Grime, though, has begun to parallel another, older U.K. export: punk. Rabid fans of both will argue that their music’s best moments passed in obscurity, and that major-label attention — and with it the inevitable pressure to please mainstream audiences — signals the doom of their musicians’ most daring ideas.
Dizzee Rascal. Photo Dean Chalkley. Courtesy Beggars Group Canada.
Dizzee, for one, says he has outgrown grime’s street scene. He signed an endorsement deal with urban clothier Ecko Unltd. last year, and recently worked with Nike to design a limited-edition Dizzee Rascal running shoe. (He lifts an unworn pair from the tour bus floor: “See, that’s where I grew up,” he says, pointing to the London Underground map printed on the insoles.) He now prefers headlining his own concerts to attending communal clashes, happy to avoid skirmishes with lesser-known competitors: “I’ve stepped out of that world. I’ve got two gold albums in England. I always saw [clashing] as counterproductive anyways. I figure you can get more done working with someone, producing new songs together.”
To that end, Dizzee has refocused his attention on Dirtee Stank, a boutique label he launched before recording Boy In Da Corner. He has signed a handful of U.K. acts he respects — some grime, others merely related — and plans to include them on the soundtrack he is preparing for Rollin’ With the Nines, an action movie currently in post-production. (“It’s the first black British gangster film, like Snatch or one of those — but a bit more serious,” says Dizzee, who has a small acting role as a crack dealer.) “Before I got a record deal, before I was on pirate radio or anything, I used to make tapes and have MCs come around for the fun of it,” he says. “[Running Dirtee Stank] feels like going back to that. I like the idea of finding good music and showing it to the world.”
In East London the typical grime crowd is young, black and male. Dizzee’s Toronto audience is older, whiter and of mixed gender. Most look like hip-hop heads, though a handful of drum ’n’ bass enthusiasts hang near the back — a mix that represents grime’s target audience for North America. The venue (capacity 850) is full but not crammed. DJ Wonder, a former member of Dizzee’s Roll Deep Crew (he was reportedly turfed for fighting with Wiley, the group’s leader), has prepared the room with a 30-minute mega-mix titled History of Grime. It’s a tour mainstay, intended to introduce foreign crowds to Dizzee’s milieu: Kano, D Double E, Lady Sovereign, the More Deep Crew.
The lights drop. A thin, plucking beat begins. Dizzee and a hype man (someone who performs backing vocals and pumps the crowd with suggestions like “Put your motherf---ing middle finger in the air!”) bound onto the stage, red lights bobbing on the bottoms of their wireless microphones. They tag-team Sittin’ Here, the opening song on Boy In Da Corner, and one of the album’s rare slow moments:
Cause it’s the same old story, crazy boys keep getting on my nerves
And it’s the same old story, police don’t give me no peace
Yeah, it’s the same old story, friends slowly drifting from the ends
Yeah, it’s the same old story, I’ve sussed, there’s nobody I can trust
Lights up. The music skids to a stop. Dizzee, a cappella, unleashes a torrent of rhymes. His accent makes him hard to follow at the best of times. Here, in a gloomy room with underwhelming acoustics, his voice sounds like a buzz saw.
After that, Dizzee et al. launch into an hour-long set of pounding rhythms. He skips between albums, throwing himself into renditions of Learn (“I come direct when I inject and I’m expecting your respect”), Jus’ a Rascal (“Definitely know I’m real, definitely know you ain’t / So don’t try being no devil, cause I definitely ain’t no saint”) and Stop Dat (“Bad boy forever like Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs / Inside, outside, runnin’ all zones / Set trend, get girls like Tom Jones”). The crowd sings along when it can, though the effort feels like placing a bucket under a waterfall.
Towards the end of the show, DJ Wonder begins cutting in beats from American rap hits: 50 Cent’s Wanksta, dead prez’s Hip-Hop, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Juicy. The audience, back on familiar turf, greets each with a bigger cheer than the last. Dizzee, wrapping his encore, shouts a thank-you and dashes offstage.
Some minutes later, waiting for transit outside the show, one concert-goer turns to another: “Did you like that?”
“DID YOU LIKE THAT?”
“Oh. Yeah! But probably more if I understood a single f---ing word.”
Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.
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