The History of Grime Music: A Bristol Perspective

Where does Grime come from? This question has been posed to Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, So-Solid or Heartless Crew and many others. DJ Target from Pay As You Go Cartel has recently begun an interview series on BBC One Xtra to address this very question. With UK artists such as Skepta and Stormzy breaking into American markets, and international newcomers introduced to the rawness of Grime Music, there has been an emergence of interest into the roots of this raw, underground sound. This blog will offer a Bristolian perspective on the roots of Grime – Bristol being an hour and a half drive away from London, and my hometown. This blog will discuss various, interrelated factors that caused Grime to emerge. The most significant include: cultural and musical influences, advancing technologies, tensions between social classes and the establishment, and shifts in levels of wealth and prosperity.

To understand how Grime Music evolved it is important to understand the social and political atmosphere within which Grime emerged. In most accounts of the emergence of Grime these factors are easily overlooked. The most crucial factor, I feel, was Nine-Eleven (9/11) terrorist attacks across America in 2001.  From the perspective of a young, working-class youngster, particularly young black youngsters, it seemed that 9/11 gave Tony Blair and George Bush a green light to conspire, declare an ‘Axis of Evil’ and send troops and bombs into the Middle East. The Global War on Terrorism also enabled national leaders to activate police forces against urban youths on the streets. Operation Trident, new stop and search laws handed to the police, and the introduction of Anti-Social Behavior laws, seemed to target and victimize urban youngsters of lower-income households, particularly of African, Muslim or Afro-Caribbean decent. In Bristol I remember a row of around ten police helicopters flying in a straight line over ‘ghetto’ districts of Bristol City. Residents were told that the police were scanning these city areas using infrared cameras to identify council houses where crops of marijuana were being grown. Rightly or wrongly, for those growing weed to earn an alternative income, the state-system was clamping down on any potential earnings.

Tighter government control, authoritarian at times, generated an atmosphere and feelings of tension at a street level. If Tony Blair and George Bush were prepared to lead the UK into an oil ‘War on Iraq’, considered by many demonstrators an act of daylight robbery, then at a street level, gang warfare, robberies, stabbings and even killings were somewhat justified – if the ruling powers are doing it, why shouldn’t we? Since the police are targeting us, criminalizing us, then what commitment do we owe to the state or acting according to ‘civilized’ or socially acceptable rules? The political and state-system was hypocritical every time it told gang members to back down or disarm. Different cultures of violence emerged: gang culture, knife culture and gun culture. There is a famous video online of a clash between Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch (Titch, later imprisoned for 30 years for murdering a ‘disrespectful’ MC with Mach 10 machine gun).

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The Dizzee vs. Titch clash is still a tense video to watch. Looking back it is easy to see how hostile things were at that time. Undeniably, this was a clash of egos; a fierce lyrical battle between competing MCs that got out of hand. At the same time, gang wars; international war and police hostility would have amplified tensions within this pirate radio studio in East London. For those living in deprived areas during this time, targeted by a hypocritical state system (‘Islamophobia’), then it did feel as if the UK was reduced to a ‘dog eat dog’ culture. This provided the background for the aggressive sound and violent content of Grime Music; ‘grime simply gave East London’s disenfranchised youth a platform; it was the Fight Club of London’s underground youth subculture’.

Another factor in the emergence of Grime was technological, a shift from analogue to digital media formats. Vinyl records, cassette tapes or Technics 1210 turntables were being slowly replaced by CDs, mini-disks and MP3s. Whereas pirate radio stations were once the main outlet for underground music, gradually digital cable channels such as Channel-U became another outlet for unsigned urban talent. Underground acts such as So-Solid Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel that who blew up on cable network channels, were signed and pushed into mainstream markets, eventually performing on BBC Radio or Top of the Pops. Later on, MySpace offered music producers and MCs a free forum for connecting with fans, promoting events and distributing music. Throughout this transition, no longer was an MC or group of MCs a host to the DJ as the main act, but MCs started to become musical artists and the main act over the DJs. Ravers would go to events to see Baseman, Skibadee or Shabba D as much, if not more, as the DJs they were performing with.

In the analogue era of decks and vinyl records, listeners and fans typically stuck to one genre of music, had a favorite music shop or a favorite radio station. Youth culture was separated into clicks of ‘Hip Hop Heads’, ‘Junglists’ or ‘R&B Fans’ with their own languages and fashions. Sound systems and DJs began to change this. From a Bristol perspective, London sound systems such as Boogie Bunch, Rampage Sound or Heartless Crew were more popular because they mixed of genres of urban music. I remember Boogie Bunch’s DJ Swing playing a Ragga track at an R&B night and considering that groundbreaking and revolutionary – normally dancehall music was played in the ghetto areas of the city alone. No longer did urban music fans need to go to a strictly R&B night but you could hear a sound system spin Jungle, Garage, R&B, Hip Hop, Dancehall and Soca. Were the DJs becoming more selective, and setting new musical trends, or were the crowds becoming more picky, wanting more variety from DJs? As analogue culture slowly transformed into digital culture, it was more likely a mixture of the two (supply and demand).

In the digital era and the Internet, made music free and more accessible and merged cultures and sounds. Like music fans, MCs did not want to be restricted to one pirate radio station or one specific genre of music. MCs wanted to diversify and embrace a wider range of musical tastes, as well as tap into and make money from different musical markets. General Levi was an early example of a lyricist able to perform across genres, embracing Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga music. Multi-genre music went in two creative directions. On the one hand, MCs such as General Levi became mixed-genre artists, performing on Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga tracks. On the other hand Grime Music began to mix and amalgamate different genres into one distinct sound. As I remember, East Connection, Heartless Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel were some of the first distinguishable example of Grime Music to hit Bristol, Swindon or Cardiff. Later down the line, Nasty Crew or Roll Deep with DJ Slimzee, Dizzee Rascal and MC Wiley were to develop that raw and dark sound we know today as Grime Music.

The emergence and evolution of Garage Music played a fundamental role in setting the foundations for Grime Music. Deriving from Soulful House, borrowing baseline elements from Jungle and Drum & Bass music, Garage Music radically transformed the R&B, Dancehall and Hip Hop nightclub scene. The Garage Scene was all about wearing expensive designer shoes, dapper suits, looking intelligent, wearing crisply ironed shirts whilst drinking champagne (‘champagne bubbly’). What came with Garage Music was a real feeling of emancipation, liberation, freedom and joy. Night clubbers felt set free and empowered by this celebratory sounds of Garage. Any aggression associated with badman-Dancehall music (e.g. Bounty Killer’s “Anytime” or “Can’t Believe Me Eye” (1998)) or New York Hip Hop (e.g. The Lox ” We Are The Streets” (2000), DMX “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” (1998)), was momentarily suspended by the smooth vocals and skipping beats of UK Garage (e.g. Roy Davis Jr ft Peven Everett – Gabriel (1996), Tina Moore – Never Gonna Let You Go (1997), MJ Cole – Sincere (2000)). UK Garage or Speed Garage was a motivational music. People would work hard, save hard, dress up ‘stush’, travel long distances and spend hard-earned money in order to enjoy a Garage rave. The clientele was sophisticated, upbeat and intelligent, with less chance of outbreaks of trouble associated with Dancehall or D&B music scenes.

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Gradually UK Garage Music got darker as it evolved from its Soulful House roots to what has become Grime Music today. It merged a lot more with the darker elements of Drum & Bass music. MC Bushkin of Heartless crew recently made an interesting point of how Garage DJs began to reduce the vocals on garage tracks, and extend the break beats; amplify the baselines, to allow Ragga, Jungle and D&B MCs to spit vocals on over the tracks. This allowed a greater integration between D&B and Garage. But the mixing, merging and integration was as much social as cultural and musical. In several interviews Wiley or Dizzee, mention being that the tracksuit wearing, under-class, street-youth they represented were often barred from entering the black-middle-class Garage raves by nightclub bouncers. Essentially, in the eyes of the Garage Music scene these Drum & Bass MCs and their fan base represented trouble. Both Wiley and Dizzee would be the first to admit to that.

Gradually, Garage Music became darker, more aggressive, more troublesome, and later evolved into Grime Music. Wiley’s anthem “Wot U Call It?” (2004) is the most noticeable point in the transition from Garage (2-Step, UK Garage or Speed Garage) to Grime. With people speculating about names for the new genre, such as “Eski Music” or “Sub-Low”, it was eventually termed “Grime” by either music journalists or industry employees. Heartless Crews’ MC Bushkin mentioned that nigh clubbers would say to him: “Your music sounds Grimy!” That was a popular term at that time with N.O.R.E.’s thug-life anthem “Grimy” (2001) or Dillinja’s ultra-dark Drub & Bass anthem: “Grimey”.

Whereas UK Garage seemed to represent a cultural celebration of new wave of wealth and middle-class prosperity entering into black communities within the UK (from mid-1990s to 2001), post-9/11 Grime Music signified marginalization, despair, anger and rage against the establishment, as the title of Dizzee Rascal’s cornerstone LP “Boy in the Corner” suggests.

Grime can be considered a by-product of political and military Blairism. Grime has now become a sell-out scene, not as in watered-down, but sell-out as in commercially successful. Not only are Grime MCs making their mark around the world, but selling out huge stadiums within the UK – for example, Red Bull’s Culture Clash or Dizzee Rascal’s opening of the British Olympics. Any anger, rage and despair embedded within the sound has evolved into mainstream sound; a part of British national consciousness. The fury that Grime expressed, which stemmed from poverty, class and racial tensions, aimed at the corporate and social state-system, is paradoxically vented and celebrated at a national-level.

The views in this blog are mainly my own. Please a comment below if you see the emergence of Grime from another perspective. Thanks for reading.

A Sociological Interpretation of the Bobby Shmurda Case

Sociologically, the recent arrest of overnight musical sensation Bobby Shmurda highlights a whole new set of interrelated social issues caused by social networking media, whilst also drawing our attention to a more historical set of race and class issues that seem as prevalent today as they during in the industrial revolution and the British Imperialist epoch.

Still photo from Bobby Shmurda's viral video Hot Nigga
Still photo from Bobby Shmurda’s viral video Hot Nigga

The opening lyric of Shmurda’s viral hit Hot Nigga (2014) – as Shmurda’s opening introduction to the world – announced:

In Chewy, I’m some hot nigga
Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas
Like you seen em twirl then he drop, nigga
And We Keep them 9 milli’s on my block, nigga
And Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas
And Trigger he be wilding, he some hot nigga
Tones known to get busy with them Glocks, nigga

These were the lyrics that fans sang out all across the US and around the world. Within a matter of month he appeared on stage with Drake, had his dance performed by Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. What more could a young teenage from Brooklyn wish for?

Some translation work needs to be done here. At that time nobody actually knew who these people, “Shyste”, “Monte”, “Trigger” or “Tones” were, other than the fact that Shmurda pointed some of them out in his music video. What we did know, if we were to accept that nineteen-year old Shmurda was telling the truth and keeping it real, was that these youngsters had guns, had shot people and were prepared and threatening to shoot more people. It should not have come as much a surprise then when the police eventually arrested Shmurda’s gang with twenty handguns between them. What is strange, and what is peculiar, is that the news did come as a shock to the Hip Hop, urban and popular music communities around the world. Why does his arrest come as such a shock to us all when he was so openly real and transparent about his background and criminal activities?

Realism: the politics of keeping it real: There has always been a tension between representing reality (realism) and fiction or fantasy-fiction in hip-hop music. The general public had always gotten some level of insight into urban, ghetto life in the videos of Grandmaster Flash (The Message) or breakdancing videos such as Beat Street (1984) or Breakdance (1984). That there was some intrinsic link between the ghetto streets and the raw sound of the music being produced there became apparent. The mid-nineties is often referred to as the pinnacle era of Hip Hop. What had come before this peek in music production were several hip-hop acts that were potentially real (e.g. Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One/BDP and N.W.A.) and then another set of more commercial hip hop acts that were clearly products of the music industry (e.g. Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer). At that time there was also a third trend of organic, “hippy” hip-hop acts, such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, PM Dawn.

Two things developed from this situation in the middle of the 1990s. Firstly, whole new generations of hip hop artists came out onto the mainstream whose aim was to “keep it real”. Nas’ debut LP Illmatic (1994) is the best example of this new, artistic realism. Both in terms of the lyrical content and the gritty sound of the musical production (including samples of subway train and groups of youngsters speaking on the street corners), the album attempted to represent urban street life in Queensbridge as best as possible. Nas took onboard the title of an urban poet in his special ability to accurately represent ghetto life to a much wider, mainstream audience. In his diss song directed at Nas, Jay Z claimed that: ‘It’s only so long fake thugs can pretend Nigga, you ain’t live it
. You witnessed it from your folks’ pad
. You scribbled it in your notepad and created your life’. Nevertheless, Nas was of a generation intent on representing the real. This trend took off and other acts such as The Wu Tang Clan and The Notorious BIG also had the aim of representing the hard realities of life in inner city New York. Being able to represent reality, or “keep it real”, became a big selling point.

Wu Tang C.R.E.A.M.
Wu Tang C.R.E.A.M.

A paradoxical turn came when artists who had set out to “keep it real” about street life became successful and financially prosperous in doing so. If these artists were to keep up the promise of “representing the real” then they could no longer write about backstreets and alleyways, drug addicts and dealers, when their social environments had changed so dramatically. In order to keep it authentic, rappers then had to represent their newly found cultural environments of prosperity, lavishness, security and comfort. Rap became bourgeoisie. Therefore, keeping it real or resenting the real became a success story of champagne and caviar, Rolls Royces, D&G and Armani. To keep it real, however, the narrators had to maintain some kind of ghetto mentality in these non-ghetto environments. Being a success, as might be a norm for any well-to-do white American, was only achieved as a result of a “gangster mentality” – “criminal minded” as KRS-One called it. White people were simply successful, black men and women were forced to become successful only by being dons, or ghetto-gangsters.

Christopher Wallace aka Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls
Christopher Wallace aka Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls

There was a whole backlash against black realist rappers who tried to remain authentic in their new, upper-middle-class or elitist cultural conditions. Those left grinding on the streets argued that they were “sell outs” and had become far removed from the essence that gave hip-hop music that raw, gritty edge. These rappers were so concerned about keeping it real, representing the real, or representing the people (community members in ghetto neighborhoods) that they swore never to sell out on the streets. This movement morphed into a new black “left-wing” mentality in hip-hop culture.

The most monuments political and ideological turn in the hip hop movement – I believe – was when Tupac Shakur announced his “Thug Life” legacy. This was the idea that as young, entrepreneurial black men, and gangsters, living in an oppressive, white capitalist social system, then power could be claimed and wielded to support black people and black communities. Being successful; being a success, meant empowering black people in an ongoing race war, this was the new ethos of “keeping it real”. This philosophy did not just mean: “to make a change, you need to get involved”, but rather do not just get involved but take power and dominate. “Get Money”.

2Pac
2Pac

This economic and cultural philosophy and set of values was where the white, “capitalist-carnivores” of Wall Street and the black drug dealers of US ghettos could – eventually – see eye to eye. This philosophy and ethos solidified even more when 50 Cent released his LP Get Rich of Die Trying after being shot nine times in a drug-related gang war. The obvious difference between white America and black America’s social Darwinism was that for the majority of white people the struggle for financial success and power would not include being shot or shooting at opposing gang rivals.

Networks and viruses: In the year of 1995 the Hip Hop Top 10 was dominated by a few groups: namely, Mobb Deep, KRS-One, Show & A.G. (D.I.T.C.), Wu Tang (Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Genius/GZA, Method Man, Chef Raekwon), Gangstarr (Guru and DJ Premier), 2Pac, Cypress Hill and Goodie Mob. With the slow rate of mastering, record pressing and vinyl distribution it was possible to count the successful artists in a year on two hands. It is much more apparent that in the age of the Internet and digital music production and consumption, newcomers spring onto the hip-hop seen and claim some level of success on an almost weekly basis. It is almost impossible to keep up with not only the amount of new artists in the US, but also now in local areas (e.g. East London, Toronto), and also the various sub-genres of Hip Hop (Trap, Southern, Crunk, etc.).

Vibe Magazine's cover for 2014 displays the new up and comers.
Vibe Magazine’s cover for 2014 displays the new up and comers.

Bobby Shmurda burst onto the hip-hop scene, literally spreading his video, song and dance like wildfire. He went viral. In the following six months of his YouTube video, fans and industry celebrities produced vine videos in homage to his success. The way in which his video was produced – low cost production with the instrumental downloaded from YouTube – and consumed – by consumers on the Internet or using mobile phones – and the viral nature of its distribution was entirely symptomatic of computerised society or The Network Society. In such a vertically organised market supply and demand are almost real time phenomena. It was clear to everyone that Shmurda, with his distinctive Shmoney Dance, was exactly what the music industry wanted and needed. He was immediately made “hot on the block”. The most interesting sociological question, I feel, is what made him so hot in the first place?

Charisma, bureaucracy and The Golden Ticket(s): One way to understand Bobby Shmurda’s hotness is in terms of the sociological concept of ‘charisma’. This was an idea and framework developed by German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) in trying to distinguish different ‘factor’ that exist between ‘specialized types’ on the one hand, and ‘neutral undifferentiated species-type’ on the other hand (1964: 105). Shmurda stood out as a charismatic, “special type”.

Before trying to understand his charismatic qualities, lets understand first the music scene that he appeared onto in terms of bureaucracy. Many have complained that fake gangsters and frauds have saturated the hip-hop scene. These are people who have appropriated the symbols and actions of non-bureaucratic, charismatic leaders of the past (N.W.A., Biggie Smalls, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Diplomats, etc.) but do so only to formally replicate the rules set in place by their charismatic authority and leadership. However, it is not so much the “fake rappers” themselves as the record industry, which has its own rules, conventions, norms and procedures, that have extended different levels of bureaucratic control over the artists that the industry has recently been signing and promoting. What these bureaucrats desire is artist that can enact the different rules set in place by former charismatic leaders, but without the radicalism. In terms of fake gangsters then Rick Ross was exposed by 50 Cent as an ex-correctional officer. Radio DJs complained the Canadian rapper Drake was representing a thug-life but at the same time producing smooth R&B songs for the radio. More recently the controversy turned to a white, female and Australian rapper Iggy Azalea or white, lower middle-class rapper Riff Raff’s appropriate of ghetto-fabulous or ghetto-flamboyance in the construction of his postmodern identity and pursuit of money and “fun”. The sentiment put about by mainly radio DJs on the radio in the US is that while these rappers are entertaining, the original black hip-hop culture has lost its substance, depth, direction and purpose. There are implications here in terms of class struggle also. There is a threat that these “well-to-do” artists might extinguish the voices of ghetto America in expressing the deplorable living conditions of urban, ghettoized America. These different sociological factors set the background and conditions for Shmurda’s eventual emergence.

Iggy Azalea: real or fake?
Iggy Azalea: real or fake?

“Charisma”, as a term, is defined by Weber as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at lease specifically exceptional powers or qualities’. Charisma is ‘sharply opposed both to rational, and particularly bureaucratic, authority’. There were several factors that set Shmurda apart from other hip hop acts on the scene when his video Hot Nigga went viral. Firstly, his age and youthfulness gave him enough energy and vitality to appear as fresh and vibrant as he actually was. Secondly, his multi-cultural background gave him the hip-hop knowledge requires to enter the game legitimately as a legitimate, street-wise, black American teenage. However, his family roots in Miami and Jamaica not only gave him appeal in Southern and Caribbean markets, but also added to his charisma within the cultural environment of New York. Elephant Man’s reggae-dancehall remix of the Shmoney dance helped to leak the immerging trend to foreign, non-US markets. Although comparisons have been made between his Shmoney dance and Puff Daddy’s dance in the 1990s, many have overlooked the fact that it is also based around a Jamaican wine and skank developed in the 1980s – as still occasionally performed by English reggae DJ, David Rodigan. Then, there is his expression of frustration; this was most apparent in his aggressive facial expressions in the Hot Nigga video; what Shmurda possessed and expressed was the same level of rage that 2Pac expressed in the mainstream media limelight. Lastly, and more sadly, the main distinguishing factor in his charisma and appeal was his unique quality of “realness”. In reference to Iggy Azalea, Power FM’s DJ Charlamagne made the claim that: ‘when you talk about people that are fake, and are not representing the culture, this is how you know that 95% of rappers aren’t doing any of the tings they say they do in their raps. Because if they were, they would be in the same situation that Bobby Shmurda is in now: prison!What contributed to his charisma, what mad him stand out from the fake rappers (the bureaucrats), was his conviction, his honesty, and his realness. When he said: “Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas”, his audience – and the police – were convinced that he was keeping it so real that this meant that his friend had actually murdered someone. In an interview Shmurda was asked: “Now a days rap is like the WWF, people throw up gang signs was mention a whole lot of other stuff, but there is a lot of truth to your raps… what’s probably the realest lyric you’ve said?” To which he smiled into the camera and answered: “Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas” (4:13). It is difficult not to make judgments on this, but the aim of the sociologist for Weber is to ‘abstain from value judgments’ but recognise that ‘according to conventional judgments’ of whatever community this charismatic leader is recognised as ‘the ‘greatest’ heroes’ (1964: 358; 361; 359).

Conclusion: This blog in no way presents a formal analysis of the Bobby Shmurda case. Many have expressed their sorrow about the situation concerning Shmurda. It is an unfortunate case because it highlights several problems with the current hip-hop scene in American popular culture and subcultures. Firstly, the politics of realism has been shifting between “art representing life” and “life imitating art”. The benefits of realism in hip hop has been that it has given a platform to socially and economically deprived classes to speak directly to general audiences in American about class and racial tensions. In turn, the power struggle for fame and prosperity has managed to economically empower black Americans from impoverished backgrounds so that they can help to reinvest into America providing a proactive and capitalist form of charitable aid. However, realism has pushed its limits and there is now a fundamental difference between rapping about killers and rapping about killing. The problem is that the last, more direct form of realism has gained greater value as a form of legitimacy and cultural capital on the market.

When asked: “What’s a typical day like in New York?” Shmurda responded: “(It’s) a jungle man! (I’m) a lion in the jungle; king of the jungle baby”. This is the sad state of affairs. While developmental issues such as social welfare, social and food security, are discussed by the power elites of societies around the world, we are constantly reminded about the underprivileged underbelly of modern society. While it has often be considered the case that giving underprovided a platform to express the unfairness of this situation, the only way for them to take the stand and speak to the majority by proving – beyond all reasonable doubt – that they are legitimate enough to represent the hood, the ghetto, or the crime-world. To access this cultural capital, proving their “realness” as authentic, charismatic leaders, then these young, black, gang-members are already guilty by association.

Weber M. (1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, New York: The Free Press.