Last March, the news that Dizzee Rascal was going to perform his classic grime debut album Boy In Da Corner in full for the first time was, for long-term fans, slightly surreal. First, the realization that a genre predicated on the spontaneity and unpredictable energy of pirate radio clashes and freestyles had gone heritage: The practice of performing albums in order and in full had been popularized by All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Don’t Look Back series from 2005 onwards, and had so far seemed the domain of classic rock or staid indie acts. Secondly, there was the surprising choice of location: This event, billed as a milestone for grime, was happening not in London, the city of its birth, but in the Music Hall venue in Williamsburg, New York.
Fifteen years after British music journalists first started writing about it as London’s hottest new underground genre, and eight years after an attempt to create an American crossover (via collaborations between Dizzee and UGK) had sputtered out, grime’s time has come. These days, young American tastemakers are all over it. In a review of that New York show, Noisey described “the genre’s unrelenting rise in the US.” Hip-hop megastars such as Drake, whose transatlantic alliance with London MC Skepta has been key, act as conduits. Meanwhile, at home grime has become pop: Stormzy rode the classic grime instrumental “Functions On The Low” into the Christmas Top 10 on “Shut Up,” and provincial student unions — traditionally the kind of basic-before-there-was-a-word-for-it venues where white British teenagers learn to drink, then vomit, their own body weight in bad lager to the soundtrack of cheesy pop — now turn up to past and present grime classics.
The keenness with which fans had embraced the heritage trappings of the Boy In Da Corner show, which would come home in October to the Copper Box Arena in London’s former Olympic park, is neither nostalgia — which implies that the scene died off — nor the kind of easy establishment trappings of a sound whose canon status was ossified with the inevitability of acclaimed white, male indie. Rather, it was born from years of frustration that the genre’s growth was continually stymied. The unstoppable grime wave over the past few years has been dubbed a renaissance, but that term ignores how its long history informs its current flourishing present. Just call it unfinished business.
The Early Years
As with so many developments in British dance music, grime sprouted unintentionally from the seeds of another genre. “We thought we were making garage,” Geeneus, founder of Rinse FM, the former pirate radio station that incubated grime, dubstep, UK funky and more has said about the tendency to foreground MCs over UK garage beats. As the staccato beats and irresistible melodies of UK garage itself began to run out of steam, the darker production that defined grime began to take over. Garage was a legitimate chart force in the UK around the turn of the century, and it faltered partly because of its artists signing to major labels who lacked the cultural knowledge to take them further.