Americans are enjoying grime as a fascinating musical subculture from across the pond
The London rapper’s ascent, and the buzz surrounding his new album Konnichiwa, is a big reason why grime music is generating a buzz in the U.S. for the first time in a decade. Drake gavea shout-out to Skepta on last year’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and quotedthe British rapper’s “That’s Not Me” on his “Used To” track with Lil Wayne. (Skepta returned the favor bysampling Drake on “Shutdown.”)Concurrently,[Kanye West’s performance at the 2015 BRIT Awards found him surrounded by numerous top grime rappers](http://www.mtv.com/news/2091189/kanye-west-all-day-debut-uk-rappers/) like Skepta, Novelist, Stormzy, Jammer, and Krept & Konan. Then there were those liquid flows and #hashtag punchlines that we heard on a[Samsung Galaxy phone commercial last fall](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgmhi0Vi9oo), thanks to the enthralling performance of Lady Leshurr on her “Queen’s Speech 4” freestyle.
Many critics are now claiming thatgrime is undergoing a second renaissance. In addition to Skepta’s Konnichiwa, some of the rappers poised to take advantage include Kano, who dropped Made in the Manor in March, and Tinchy Stryder, who released 360/The Cloud 9 LP at the end of April. It’s unlikely these albums will conquer the Billboard charts, but at the very least, Americans are increasingly enjoying grime as a fascinating musical subculture from across the pond, and conferring a buzz that hasn’t surrounded it in years.
The Emergence of Grime
Historically, grime has been one of those British peculiarities that American audiences struggled to translate. The form is full of whirring, accented London voices chopping up slang and idioms over stark yet dubby electronic rhythms, making for tracks that can seem alternately exotic and impenetrable. The lyrics describe racial and economic situations that are similar to our own problems, yet qualitatively different, such as the crime and poverty centered in public housing complexes known as “council estates,” and the Caribbean-inspired sound system culture that breeds intensely competitive rap crews like Skepta and his brother JME’s Boy Better Know label.
The songs can be political yet still get played on U.K. pop radio — a phenomenon that hasn’t existed in America for decades
Grime is not synonymous with British hip-hop. Although it’s arguably the most popular U.K. rap style, there are more orthodox rappers, including Speech Debelle (who won the 2009 Mercury Prize for best U.K. album of the year), Estelle (best known for her soul tracks like the 2008 hit “American Boy”), Professor Green, Roots Manuva, and many others.
Grime songs can be sharply political yet still make their way onto U.K. pop radio, a phenomenon that hasn’t existed in America for decades (or,if you believe Ice Cube, is actively suppressed).
For example, Skepta’s “Shutdown” reached No. 39 on the U.K.’s Official Charts Company singles chart and was named by the Guardian as the best track of 2015 despite lyrics such as “Listen, me and my Gs ain’t scared of police.” By comparison, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” received similar acclaim, and was named the fourth best single of the year in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics poll, but it didn’t get widespread radio airplay due to his controversial raps about black pride and police brutality.
The best-known grime album is Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 album Boy in da Corner, which won rapturous praise when it was released a year later in the U.S. It was the tipping point for a new form of British rap that emerged from the U.K. garage house scene, the dying embers of drum-and-bass (though the style has made a comeback), and the subsequent emergence of dubstep. For several months in the mid-Aughts, grime trended as a delicacy in tastemakers’ diets alongside other cultish styles like disco-house, Texas rap and freak folk.
There was the 2005 compilation Run the Road, which featured classic tracks like Lady Sovereign’s “Ch-Ching,” and Kano’s “P’s & Q’s.” Jay Z signed Lady Sovereign to a Def Jam deal and her subsequent 2006 hit, “Love Me or Hate Me,” more closely resembled Missy Elliott’s pop-raps.
A second Run the Road comp in 2006 included Plan B’s “Sick 2 Death,” where he promised to “slice off their ear.” He went on to direct a crime movie, 2012’s Ill Manors. It bore a lower class, kitchen sink aesthetic that has been a part of British culture since films like 1959’s Look Back in Anger. The soundtrack debuted at No. 1 on the British album charts, but largely went unnoticed in America.
Today, a random search on YouTube will uncover numerous grime clips that have been viewed millions of times, whether it’s the hooded visages and bow-waving of JME and Giggs on “Man Don’t Care,” or the sight of Stormzy rhyming “Shut Up” as he’s surrounded by dozens of his North London boys. It all makes the sound of grime seem ascendant once again.