How British urbanism shaped Grime

I remember being a skinny eleven year old, strutting around in my local area with my white LA Lakers New Era Cap and my oversized Nike tracksuit. It was the summer of 2004 and Arsenal had just won the Premier League without losing a single game. Everyone idolised Thierry Henry (even I did despite being a Spurs fan), and me and my friends wanted to replicate so many of the great goals he scored that season in the estate. But that summer we also found new idols and not only did they look, speak and dress like us, but they were US. They lived and breathed our working class, inner-city experiences, and rather than being distant, largely inaccessible heroes from our television screens, they literally lived only twenty minutes away. Our newfound idols were Grime MCs.

Grime had encapsulated life in inner city London in the early 2000s, and epitomised the complexities and difficulties of our lived realities in Britain like no other music genre had done before it. Grime intertwined the speed of UK Garage and the sharp tones of Jungle, with a grittiness that centred around our quintessentially urban, post-millennial, British experience through 140bpm synth-led instrumentals and fast paced lyrics and rhymes that spoke directly to the very fabric of our communities. That summer both Dizzee Rascal and Wiley had already released solo albums, but the real watershed moment for Grime was when ‘Forward Riddim (Pow)’ was released by Lethal Bizzle, which laid the foundations for placing Grime at the forefront of our culture and propelled the genre to wider audiences.

Tinchy Stryder and Ruff Sqwad in Bow, 2003

Everyone – and I mean everyone, knew the lyrics to ‘Pow’ word for word and on a regular basis at least one of my friends would shout “I’llllllllllllll crack your skull” in a fit of imagined rage. Over the next few months there seemed to be a conveyer belt of new music from the fledging Grime scene, from Kano’s ‘Ps and Qs,’ and Crazy Titch’s ‘I Can C U,’ to my personal favourite as a young child Ruff Sqwad’s ‘Anna,’ all of which contributed to the establishment of Grime as the music for urban Britain. Without a doubt, at the time a lot of our cultural references came from United States through Hip Hop and the likes of Jay Z, 50 Cent and Kanye West, but Grime gave us a domestic rhythmic route that correlated and connected with our daily experiences like life in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago could never.

But an often neglected facet of the emergence of Grime is the significant impact of British urban architecture and neighbourhoods in shaping the rise of the genre in the early 2000s. In my previous blog I spoke in detail about the often negative connotations of East London’s brutalist housing estates on local communities, but it was the structural design and composition of post-war council housing in Britain that moulded the individuals who would go on to create one of the most innovative musical movements in recent history. The term “Grime,” is a reflection of the often rough, rugged and raw physical and socio-economic environment that surrounded the early pioneers of Grime, and played a decisive role in stimulating and reinforcing the cultural norms that became synonymous with the lyrics and the musical compositions within genre.

An incredibly important part of the history of Grime is rooted in pirate radio and sound clashing, which revolved around the use of council estates. Pirate radio stations like Rinse FM and Deja Vu (what ever happened to DJ Frisky?) introduced Grime to young audiences across London and beyond through the use of makeshift transmitters on top of dilapidated tower blocks and balconies, with the stations themselves residing in sub-let council flats or abandoned homes in bedrooms and kitchens. The sheer size and scale, and the gradual lack of care and support framework that national and local authorities offered to these declining council estates made them ideal locations for pirate radio stations. But pirate radio also gave Grime the platform to expand its horizons right in the epicentre of its cultural foundation and away from the lofty heights of the mainstream music industry. In the evenings my big brother would switch the radio dial to 92.3FM to hear what MCs were clashing, and he would always have a tape cassette ready to record the latest tunes. What a time to be alive.

When I became old enough, I wanted to be a Grime MC and a producer just like the musicians I saw on the radio and on Channel U. Everyone did. I even joined a crew called Corrosive Camp in Hackney way back in 2006 and spat on a few tracks – like this track I recorded here (I’m Skullzy MC by the way). But it was British urbanism and the way in which our environments were designed that made our endeavours into Grime possible. We were all young men and women, of all colours, religions, and dispositions, connected by our shared experienced of poverty and lack of opportunity, surrounded by run-down housing estates, territorial beef and general daily struggles. But we had Grime. Grime allowed us and so many others to channel our aggressions, animosities and anxieties through music. Everyone played their part in the genre’s evolution. Some people made beats on Fruity Loops from their desktop computers or had makeshift studios in their bedrooms with a mic dangling from their wardrobe, while others played the role of the DJ and played instrumentals on their phones so everyone could MC when we clashed in the streets or at school. Grime was ours.

One of the central pioneers of Grime Dizzee Rascal in 2003 after the release of his debut album ‘Boy in Da Corner’

Most of all, Grime is a by-product of British urbanism itself. Grime materialised because life was so unpleasant for so many in places like Bow, Forest Gate and Walthamstow. It was the epitomisation of the young urban experience in Britain in the early 2000s through music in a way that truly reflected and connected with the diverse nature of working class British communities. Grime felt like a backlash not only against the challenges and adversity of daily living, but a reflection of the growing resentment towards the establishment (both musically and politically). Grime was movement centred around the concept of ‘us vs them’ that went on to stretch beyond the origins of E3 and the dichotomy between Bow Cross Estate and Canary Wharf to places across the country. Grime became a cultural phenomenon for urban Britain and provided a voice to our communities that at the time had only subtly been expressed through UK Garage and Hip Hop.

Long live Grime.

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