Tempa T with a baseball bat. Photo by James Pearson-Howes
All of this happened, more or less. I discovered grime on the top deck of the 134 bus on my way to school one dreary morning. The Northern Line was suspended along my desired route, as is often the case with the Tube when you’re in a rush, so I found myself travelling on a bus full of kids from the local Catholic school, St Aloysius (my mum opted to enrol me elsewhere after hearing a harrowing tale of an attempted Chelsea smile from the worried parents of a pupil).
On the back row of the upper deck, a gaggle of teenagers were huddled around a pair of headphones extolling something they were calling “Eskimo Riddim”. This was in the days before mobile phones had the capability to blast out tinny, inner ear-grating mp3s, so it was only after searching online record shops when I got home in the evening that I discovered they were talking about Wiley’s archetypal white label 12-inch.
Over the next few years I grew obsessed with grime. I loved the peculiar-sounding beats, the solemn lyrics punctuated with humour and the unparalleled energy of live radio sets. While in my late teens, I started a blog called Prancehall (the silliest name for an imaginary genre I could think of), where I exalted grime’s most vivid characters and poked fun at MCs I didn’t like. At the time I was studying for a degree in chemistry, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Thatcher and Ashton Kutcher, so I needed an escape from the inane daily drudge.
Mr Wong’s parents’ shop. Photo by Ben Rayner
After a few months of blogging I got an email from VICE inviting me to take over their Grimewatch column (previously written by RWD magazine editor Matt Mason, who had departed for the US). The majority of early coverage of grime in other publications and online was astonishingly high-brow (stuff like essays about how Dizzee Rascal and Wiley both drinking cartons of Ribena in the epochal Conflict DVD – the one where Dizzee and Crazy Titch almost have a fight – was a subconscious display of visceral, unblemished fraternité). So as a dig at the people who partook in this practice, I came up with a ridiculously grand alias, Clarence Stately-Holmes, hoping to paint a picture of a Brian Sewell-type broadsheet arts critic.
Of course, Grimewatch was written much more in the style of a tabloid celebrity gossip column. It was throwaway and stupid, which was fitting since, at the time, grime was nothing more than a bunch of kids in east London messing about and having fun. Kano was still sharing a bunk bed with his kid brother, Scorcher was living with his mum out in the suburbs and Chipmunk was in secondary school (I waited for him at his school gates in Tottenham before our first interview). I’m pretty sure Jammer still lives with his parents.
In true tabloid style, Grimewatch was full of sensationalist bullshit, inane gossip and lies. I even took bribes. Just like News International journalists (allegedly) met police officers at the McDonald’s in Wapping to hand over brown envelopes of cash, I once met Riko’s girlfriend at the McDonald’s on Seven Sisters Road where she handed me a CD of dubplates by the Roll Deep member, who had taken a liking to me after some favourable coverage.
I tried to make the column as immersionist as possible. I spent a day smoking weed and playing pool with Trim in the Isle of Dogs. I went on a spoof date to the Natural History Museum with MC Shystie (and bought her a plastic dinosaur). I got a guided tour of Bow by Maniac a short while before he was convicted of conspiring to murder a 15-year-old girl who was carrying his baby. I flew to Barcelona to DJ at a festival with Jammer and watched him chase dogs through the street and screech at locals like an autistic hyena, and I made the pilgrimage to south London to check out the porn DVD collection at the newsagents run by Mr Wong’s parents. I’m not sure how much of my life I wasted waiting at Tube stations for MCs to show up.
My one big regret is that Twitter wasn’t around while the column was still going because it would have made it a lot easier to write. A day’s worth of Wiley’s funniest tweets alone would have been enough to fill the page each month.
My Riko dubplates. Photo by the author
Despite all the rubbish I wrote, I only got called out on stuff a few times. Skepta told me to “suck my mum” on Rinse after I claimed he didn’t write his most famous lyric. S.K.I.T.Z Beatz phoned me and told me to “know the levels” after I penned a eulogy for his dead cat, and I became Tinchy Stryder’s bête noire for about two weeks after writing that he sounded like Kermit the Frog. The diminutive squealer wrote blog posts on his website revealing my identity (I had always written the column anonymously) and made my face his MySpace profile picture, complete with the caption “Angry Man”, sparking scores of comments from his confused nine-year-old fans along the lines of “wy iz dis man so angry lol?”
As much fun as this all no doubt sounds, I had to eventually kill off the column. Grime became stale. The best MCs lacked the conviction to truly make it (it pains me slightly that Trim and Sharky Major will never earn a living from their music), while the rest were gripped by a degrading desperation to become famous: MCs starting making up dance routines, Skepta got Timmy Mallett to appear in one of his videos and MC Narstie sampled James Blunt. The moment I knew grime was no longer for me, though, was when Kano released a song with Kate Nash, bless ’er cotton socks. I’d like to thank her for that – she saved me from one day becoming one of those 40-year-old guys you see at jungle raves in a spliffemblazoned hoodie, clinging desperately to faint memories of what once was.
Shystie having fun at the Natural History Museum. Photo by the author
TOP SEVEN MOST RIDICULOUS LIES I MADE UP
Skepta was spotted at Stansted airport on the way to Tel Aviv with a My Pet Monster toy, strawberry-flavoured condoms, a leopardprint thong and 14 packets of Jaffa Cakes in his hand luggage.
Bruza was going to give up MCing to become a chicken farmer.
I infiltrated south London’s burgeoning funky house scene by going undercover as a hairdresser called Paul.
Lord of the Mics signed up Scorcher’s kitten to appear in an MC battle DVD.
Sniper E sold hot dogs out of a stranger’s front garden during Notting Hill Carnival.
Tempa T had reservations about becoming a postman (a job he once held) because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to fit the Postman Pat-style hat on his head due to his high-top haircut.
Roll Deep were caught partaking in some roasting action in a leaked sex tape in which Manga, the group’s young, bookish-looking member, kept his glasses on throughout.
Skepta on the Stansted Express. Photo by Alex Sturrock
TOP FIVE FUNNIEST GRIME LYRICS
“I know the skengman that do obea, voodoo and witchcraft/ Roll with the nine-month-old baby so they can pull out the mash from the Winnie the Pooh scarf”—Skepta
“Think you’re a big boy ’cos you got a beard/ Bullets’ll make your face look weird”—D Double E
“So I jumped out when it was still moving/ Somewhere random in Chingford/ Back then I was a little Linford/ But not as ugly as Linford”—Lethal Bizzle
“I make cash money flow like water/ So let me say I’m a Labour supporter”—Shifty Rydos
“There ain’t a club that you won’t see me at/ ’Cos I’m a street star/ There’s no set time I have my tea at”—Wiley
TOP TEN MOST PECULIAR THINGS WILEY HAS SAID ON TWITTER
“If i went down on mz bratt her toes would curl up trust me”
“Big up cliff Richards. i wonder if cliff will release a xmas song this year”
“RADIO 1 in the house royal wedding style mistajam and nihal having a chat whilst eating pigs in blankets on a tooth pick”
“if you dissed me while i was in jail i wiil run up to ya old gran in the super market and say boo so loud she will shit her codweb knickers”
“and hitler fuck you too even tho you had good mics to record with neumans still fuck you bro”
“I wish Liverpool and London was one place liverdon or londerpool”
“i will throw Bombay potatoes on you”
“im tryna invent the 1st flying car and airmotorway so there wont be accidents”
“I’m more reckless than your mums African shoes at the bottom of the stairs”
“If you a big fellow take care on jet ski’s”
Bruza feeding a chicken. Photo by James Pearson-Howes
ALL-TIME GRIME PLAYLIST DJ
Oddz & Eastwood “Champion”
XTC “Functions on the Low”
Gemma Fox “Girlfriend’s Story (Statik remix feat. Tinchy Stryder)”
Danny Weed “Creeper”
Low Deep “Straight Flush”
Dizzee Rascal “I Luv U”
Wiley “Where’s My Brother?”
Jammer “Murkle Man”
Musical Mob “Pulse X”
Jon E Cash “Do It”
Wiley “16 Bar Rally”
Skepta “Tingles (instrumental version)”
Target & Riko “Chosen One”
Kano “P’s & Q’s”
Sharky Major “This Ain’t a Game”
Tinchy Stryder “Move”
Wonder feat. Kano “What Have You Done”
Doctor & DaVinche “Gotta Man”
Mizz Beats “Saw It Coming”
DJ Virus “Rude Sting”
Roll Deep “When I’m ’Ere”
Crazy Titch “Sing Along”
Lethal Bizzle “Forward”
D Double E “Birds In the Sky”
Follow John on Twitter: @thewebsiteyep