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How UK's Grime Scene Went From Criminal To Commercial

The Fight Club of London’s underground youth subculture got whitewashed and commercialized.
March 10, 2011, 9:55pm

In the beginning, MCs clashed on rooftops at illegal pirate radio stations in East London. Lyrics about violence and sex crackled over dark, edgy 140bpm bedroom beats that no one really had a name for yet. Fast forward ten years, and the underground hip-hop movement that eventually came to be known as "grime," has suddenly become a huge mainstream success. Although now household names, artists such as Chipmunk, Skepta, Devlin and Dizzee Rascal were once criticized by the mainstream. Many of these formerly outsider MCs have turned into award winning “urban artists” as they spit socially acceptable lyrics over what some would call “watered down grime.”


So how did grime go from being a vilified sub-genre of the disenfranchised to the celebrated international phenomenon it is today? Well, it certainly didn’t happen overnight. Grime’s ascent can be traced back to 2001 when So Solid Crew‘s "21 Seconds" climbed to number one in the UK charts. Granted, So Solid was a UK garage act long before the term "grime" was even coined, but grime, having grown out of UK garage, was in many ways the byproduct of events set in motion by So Solid’s initial success.

So Solid followed up with a few hits, then seemed to slip into decline. Around the same time, the artists who would come to form the foundation of the grime scene—Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, DJ Target, and Maxwell D—formed a rap supergroup by combining the rap crews The Hit Squad and Pay as U Go in a bid to strike it lucky in the mainstream. Pay as U Go seemed sure to blow up with their top 40 hit "Champagne Dance." Sadly though, they quickly fell apart, and with So Solid getting arrested for possession of firearms, raves becoming violent, and the Master of Ceremonies feeling less "wicked" by the day, the mainstream success of UK garage slowly died out.

Garage retreated back into the underground and started to change in the process. The youth couldn't relate to champagne dances, oversized watch faces and diamond rings, but the genre's earlier bubbly beats influenced a darker uprising in the UK "urban" scene. Grittier beats known as "sublow" became popular—their edgy rhythms and deep bass influenced grime and were arguably dubstep's early beginnings. After a barrage of raves, sets, and pirate radio clashes, a beat called Pulse X by DJ Youngstar was released in 2002. Some consider this to be the first ever grime beat. The description of the genre feeling "grimey" eventually spawned the term "grime" and from here on out, the scene exploded.


Grime first hit the mainstream for all the wrong reasons. National newspapers claimed that the violent lyrics were spawning a generation of thoughtless murderers and glorifying criminal culture. They weren't entirely wrong. Sure, MCs like D Double E, Sharky Major and All in One often rhymed about criminal acts, but it also seemed the press was looking for a scapegoat. It wasn't the unemployment and poverty that made the youth angry—according to the headlines, it was grime. In reality, grime simply gave East London’s disenfranchised youth a platform; it was the Fight Club of London's underground youth subculture.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, record labels had dollar signs in their eyes. In 2003, XL Recordings signed two of the leading MCs at the time, Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, formerly of Roll Deep. Months after winning the Mercury Prize for best newcomer, Dizzee (or Dylan Mills to his mom), and Wiley flew out to Ayia Napa, where Dizzee Rascal was stabbed six times, supposedly due to an altercation surrounding the So Solid Crew. Legend has it that Dizzee grabbed Lisa Mafia’s bum, aggravating Megaman, who in turn cut him to ribbons. No charges were brought on anyone, but Dizzee's tune "Respect Me" on his second album Showtime pretty much confirms the incident. Despite the near death experience, the controversy seemed to help Dizzee's debut album Boy in Da Corner sell surprisingly well, peaking at number 23 on the UK charts.

The following year, Wiley released his debut album Treddin' on Thin Ice, which wasn't quite as successful, leaving Wiley without a label and Dizzee rethinking his next move. In 2005—after winning the NME Award for Innovation—Dizzee Rascal released his second album Showtime. Long time fans were disillusioned with the album, a mixture of softer sounding, almost diluted grime, but Dizzee knew what he was doing. The toned down lyrics and more familiar beats were all part of the plan. Showtime peaked at number 8 and gained Dizzee a more respectable standing in the media, where he spoke about leaving his life as a criminal behind.

Whilst Dizzee Rascal honed his business skills, other artists spawned of grime slowly came out of the wood work. In 2006, N-Dubz appeared on our screens, releasing their first video on Channel U. Serious grime fans laughed them almost out of the scene, but in the end it was N-Dubz who had the last laugh, as they paved the way to stardom. Their grime-turned-pop like beats sat under catchy commercial hooks and simple lyrics, which seemed to strike a chord with teenagers all over the UK, and led to N-Dubz' debut album Uncle B to peak at number 11 in 2007. The album later went platinum and N-Dubz hysteria ensued, annoyingly exposing us to more Dappy than anyone can handle. It's almost as if by toning down the aggression in grime, adding in some less threatening beats and turning the artists into caricatures, this new form of urban music became suddenly socially acceptable.

In the present day, grime is currently sitting pretty. Forgers of the scene are finally being commercially recognized—Skepta now has a tune with P. Diddy, Devlin has an advertising deal with Adidas, Chipmunk's new single features Chris Brown, and Tinie Tempah has gone from one success to the next. Even die-hard grime artists—still firmly located on the underground side of things—feel the mainstream look is a good thing.

In the span of a decade, grime was conceived, grew up and, ultimately, got exploited, much like many other underground music genres—from punk to grunge to hip-hop—have in the past. In some ways, by losing its gritty, “street” integrity, it became a huge success—but at what price? Thankfully, the underground scene seems to be flourishing. So who's to say that the road from criminal to celebrity was such a bad thing? If anything, grime pulled a great swindle, selling a watered down version of its original incarnation to the children of its middle class critics of yesteryear, before cranking the quality control back up again. Despite finding itself in the spotlight, the grime scene continues to come into its own as the social trend of music changes. What seemed underground a few years ago is starting to become the norm, and with this, the genre will surely prosper.

Images from left to right: So Solid Crew, Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Chipmunk, N-Dubz, Skepta, and Tinie Tempah