The Problem with Grime

“The ting goes skrrrahh!
Pap, pap, ka-ka-ka!
And a pu-pu-drrrr-boom!
Poom, poom”
– Roadman Shaq

London is a grey place. There is clearly an abundance of colour in this city but I think when most people see ‘London’ in their mind’s eye, the picture they paint is one dominated by grey; the place is drenched in smog, fog, fumes, concrete, cigarette smoke and good old-fashioned year-round cloud. It’s fitting, then, that London’s liveliest music scene is called “grime” – a name that sounds much like how all that grey looks.

Grime emerged around the turn of the century in the bedrooms and garages of creative East-enders. Now, in the middle of a grime revival, it is everywhere: its biggest hits play in Saucy; it sparks huge memes; its stars fill venues and festivals across the country; it nearly became 2015’s Christmas number one (it beat that year’s X Factor single); it helped the Labour Party win votes in this year’s election. That’s all impressive stuff, and it makes grime something London and the UK as a whole can be proud of.

But if we’re being honest, grime is failing us. Despite its multitude of successes, it lacks the ambition and quality to make this revival anything more than a brief explosion. We deserve a golden age but we’re getting a flash in the pan.

To see why, let’s turn our eyes to a true golden age: that which US hip-hop experienced in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Between 1988 and 1995, the following happened: NWA released both their albums; Public Enemy released “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet”; the Wu-Tang Clan released their debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and its members Raekwon, GZA and Ghostface Killah all released classic solo efforts; Nas released Illmatic; the Notorious B.I.G. released Ready to Die; A Tribe Called Quest released a trilogy of phenomenal records; Dr Dre released The Chronic; Outkast released Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik… I could go on. And on. These years are brimming with music that either perfected or changed the game: Nas’s Illmatic still has the most consistently flawless flow of any rap album; A Tribe Called Quest showed brilliantly how diverse hip-hop’s sound could be. It is music of its time, but it is also timeless in its excellence, its knowledge and its power.

In that regard, grime is severely lacking. I can count the number of classic grime albums on one hand – actually, on one finger: it’s Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut Boy in Da Corner. With its harsh realities, stark introspection, authentic insight and singular sound it is the only grime album which can be called a masterpiece. As a Brit, I am pained to say it is the only grime album which can hold a candle to the works of US hip-hop, or of nearly any fully-formed genre I can think of.

Grime is stuck: it’s trapped in terrible “Fire in the Booth” ‘freestyles’ enjoyable only for a source of memes (need I mention Roadman Shaq?); in self-satisfied crews thinking they’re making good music because Drake finds them amusing; in recycled beats (Stormzy’s 2015 hit “Shut Up” uses a beat from 2004) and stupid lyrics (you can thank D Double E for the ‘gem’ “sucking up MCs like a Dyson”). Ambition is scant as MCs are suddenly finding themselves bigger than ever and are happy to ride out their popularity without pushing themselves or their art.

In fairness, young Stormzy had a go with this year’s “Gang Signs and Prayer”, including an impressive variety of styles, but the fact is his album just wasn’t that good – too many of its tracks fell flat (his singing voice is earnest but leaves much to be desired). Skepta won a Mercury Prize with his “Konnichiwa”, but it never went deep enough and only a year later seems a largely forgotten record (I can only guess that the terrible Drake pastiche “Ladies Hit Squad” was included to appeal to US audiences). If grime is to fulfil its potential as a genre for the ages, it needs the masterpieces which define other similarly-formed genres like jazz, punk rock and hip-hop. “Boy in Da Corner” was grime’s Illmatic; now it needs a “Kind of Blue”, a “London Calling” and a “Straight Outta Compton”.

Grime can be a true artistic force in the world. In its finest moments its power is staggering. It is a quintessentially British creation which needs ambitious young Brits to carry it to greatness rather than keep it in a rut. London might have a dull colour, but there is beauty to be carved out of all that grey. I hope we get to see it all.


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  1. His being a comedian is actually irrelevant. The point made regarding him and Fire in the Booth still stands: it is a more powerful force in the world of memes than in the world of music, and that shouldn’t be the case.

    But yes, you are correct, not knowing he is a comedian is mildly embarrassing. Still, I don’t think it changes anything I’ve said.

  2. This article is a joke. Using “recycled beats” as a criticism of a GRIME artist shows you no nothing about the culture, and calling Boy in da corner the only classic grime album is laughable. Not to mention that Big Shaq’s fire in the booth is quite clearly a parody. If you know nothing about the culture or the music don’t write an article about it. Wasteman.

  3. Maybe learn something about a culture. and a genre before commenting on it. It would surprise me if you knew what a reload is

  4. You are a moron. Comparing Grime to US Hip Hop is completely redundant because the two genres are nothing alike youlittle cretin.

    Grime music is not about releasing albums which is why there are so few of them. You’d know that if you weren’t an uneducated uni student writing articles on genres of music that you clearly know nothing about. Grime music is about shelling down pirate radio sets it has never been about producing chart topping singles so all of your points are completely irrelevant. Do some research next time you massive clown, you know nothing about the roots and culture of Grime music.

    “shut up uses a beat from 2004” you clearly have never listened to a radio set before you mug. Reusing instrumentals and staying true to the genre is what keeps grime authentic. Why have guidelines if you’re just going to try to make Hip Hop? The fact that you mention Stormzy and Roadman Shaq shows that you found out about grime this year after the roadman shaq meme and by the way, Sheriff of Retardville,did you know that Roadman Shaq is a satirical character making fun of Drill music, yes that’s right DRILL MUSIC not Grime music you naive and simple child.

    In conclusion, go back to your economics classes and leave UK culture alone. Cheers matey.

    1. Wow, you’re very riled. I must have struck a nerve.

      I’m not misunderstanding the culture. I’m saying that the culture has problems with it. I’m saying that it’d be a better culture if the artists made music with some replay value (not to top the charts, which I never suggested). I have as much right to comment on “UK culture” as you.

      Also, “Sheriff of Retardville” is probably the dumbest name I’ve ever been called. But apparently I’m the “simple child”…

      1. I think the biggest issue here starts early on. Grime isn’t an album genre based around home listening. Grime follows the lineage of UK dance music in being a 12″ genre.

        Grime is designed to be played out in clubs and on radio sets. This point negates the criticism you have attempted through deriding the memetic nature of the lyrics. This is traditional for MCs in electronic genres as, really, they aren’t the focal point. Grime’s cultural context also explains the re-use of bars and re-use of insrrumentals that can be traced back to Toasting at soundsystem events.

        Just from the above your article does read as ignorant of Grime, you’re not engaging in the cultural or social context of the music but mapping your own ideas of how music should be consumed onto it.

        1. I think you’re right about your descriptions of grime, and you’re also right that I’m mapping a different idea of how music can be consumed onto it. But I am not ignorant of the culture; I am critical of it. There is no reason why grime cannot be music designed for clubs and radio sets whilst also being music to last (with fresh beats and good lyrics). I would argue that other forms of music designed for clubs, like house, techno, jungle and dubstep, are much more thoughtfully created, and as a result have more longevity.

          I know where grime’s tropes come from. I am not ignorant. My point is that these tropes need to be broken for grime to start producing better music.

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