On the cover of Risky Roadz Presents The Lost Tapes, the latest instalment of the long-running grime DVD series released last year, is a lone hand clawing its way out from a grave, surrounded by VHS tapes which similarly appear to be forcing their way to the surface. This is the dawn of the dead media, an obsolete format coming back to life: “miss at your peril” reads the tagline.
It's a fitting image for what is a collection of archive grime footage, quite literally old recordings given a new lease of life. It’s intended, as the back cover teases, to bridge the gap between a full-fledged sequel to Risky Roadz 2, which producer Rooney Keefe is currently working on.
By now, the horror-inspired font and visuals of Risky Roadz will be familiar to most grime fans. “It worked well with the whole image of grime which was a darker take on garage at the time,” explains Keefe. If hip-hop is, in the oft-quoted words of Chuck D, “black America’s CNN” then Keefe must be one of the earliest reporters of the UK’s homegrown street music, grime. But in some ways grime has realised Chuck D’s analogy in a more literal sense. While the music itself is often akin to a news report from the roads, from its culture emerged a grassroots media industry of its own.
For Keefe, the desire to capture everything on camera came naturally. “When I use to listen to MCs on radio, I wanted to know what they look like and if I wanted to know then other people must have too,” he reasons. Fresh out of secondary school, Keefe landed a job at Bow record store Rhythm Division, the since-closed hub of East London’s grime scene, which holds as iconic a place in the mythology of grime as Jammer’s basement or the rooftop studio of Deja Vu. It’s wall-to-wall stacks of garage and grime white labels will be familiar to many who never even visited the store as the backdrop to Risky Roadz freestyles. Keefe often recorded right in the middle of the shop floor, with a camera his nan gave him.
But Rhythm Division wasn’t the only setting for Risky Roadz. Much of the footage was filmed out and about in E3 – tower blocks, car parks, basketball courts, and studios – giving the series the point-of-view perspective of reality television. In one clip from Risky Roadz 2, Kano freestyles in a Adidas bathrobe, a cup of tea in one hand, outside of his house late at night. Keefe’s interviews are often as infamous as the freestyles, capturing a young Dizzee reflecting on his recent success or Wiley philosophising about the scene. “Everyone we approached about it we knew already,” he explains. “That’s why I get good interviews out of people, I’m not just a journalist speaking to them, I’m also a friend and they can be honest.”
Risky Roadz is just one of many long-running grime DVD series, others include Practice Hours, Aim High, Conflict and perhaps the most renowned of all, Lord of the Mics. Troy Miller, producer of Practice Hours, and, together with DJ Target, Aim High, started filming artists after his girlfriend gave him a camera for his birthday. “Everyday I walked round with friends, at studios, raves, and on the road, and in general took it for granted,’ Miller told Electronic Beats back in 2005. “Then I thought other people might want to see what’s happening, cause it is quite interesting on a day to day basis.”
Keefe had similar pedagogic ambitions for his own series. “We tried to make it educational by getting producers to show people how to make a beat. We wanted to make an encyclopedia of grime, so people could look back 20 or 30 years later and understand the scene.” Certainly, they proved of educational value to successive generations of grime fans and MCs alike. “I remember it begin a huge deal seeing MCs for the first time,” says Rinse FM presenter Julie Adenuga. “It’s undeniable that the DVDs took things to a new level. I still watch YouTube old school videos now and watch clips for hours of what the scene used to look and sound like.” For Adenuga the DVDs were a supplement for her own firsthand experiences, having grown up watching her two older siblings, JME and Skepta. Now, uploaded online, the DVDs are nostalgia trip for some. But for those outside of London or too young to have attended the raves, they offer a way to vicariously experience grime’s heyday.
Those behind the camera have become influential in their own right. Producers like Miller, Keefe, Jammer, Ratty and Cappo established a legacy for grime, ensuring that it continues to be a highly visual medium. While some series like Lord of the Mics, have never gone away, there are newcomers all the time. “The people who are documenting today’s scene are the same people who were a part of or watched those original DVDs.” says Adenuga. The foremost example of which is Jamal Edwards, founder of SB.TV, a pioneer who built a media empire from the culture of grime. Edwards, followed in the footsteps of Keefe and Miller, their series are still listed in the movie section of the faux-MySpace profile design of his Tumblr page. “I was in Year 11 doing Information and Communication Technologies and watching the same freestyles, taken from the DVDs Practice Hours and Risky Roadz on YouTube, over and over again,” he told Red Bull Music Academy in 2010.
Edwards wasn’t the only one to see the possibilities presented by online video and social media. Former Kiss FM DJ Logan Sama, exasperated by what he calls “a risk-adverse” culture within radio broadcasting, recruited Edwards to produce videos for his show. “One of the strongest things about grime is the energy and excitement of the live performance, be that on the pirates or stage performance. Even on DVD that energy is there. I think grime really lends itself to the visual medium. US hip hop was embracing the video content and so was Westwood in the early days, so I thought let me see who can come do videos for Kiss. Thankfully, Jamal contacted me and offered to the filming and we set up the KeepingItGrimy YouTube channel in 2008,” says Sama.
Earlier this year, Kiss made a number of changes to the scheduling of the station’s specialist shows with the launch of their digital channel KissFresh, prompting Sama to leave the station. “I felt like I needed a new challenge away from that platform,” he explains. For Sama the future of grime media is digital: “the pirate radio spirit, in providing alternative broadcasting and content for music that you’re passionate about, has lived on online.” When Sama expands KeepItGrimy to a bigger web offering in January, he will face some stiff competition: GRM Daily and Grime Report, two news sites dedicated to both grime and hip hop with 70,000 and 45,000 YouTube subscribers respectively.
Mainstream radio has also been expanding its digital content, just last week BBC Radio 1 launched its own iPlayer channel. Lethal Bizzle’s performance at 1Xtra’s Live in Birmingham was one of the first videos made available to watch on the channel. Rinse FM, which has operated on a community FM license since 2010, has also focused more of its programming around video over the past few years. Sir Spyro, who presents the stations’s flagship grime show, unwittingly became the face of Rinse after his shows were first uploaded online last year. “When I went to Fabric after we started filming the show, I was suddenly getting all these photo requests from people in the crowd and I couldn’t work out why,” he says.
Next year marks Spyro’s tenth year at the helm of The Grime Show, making him one of the longest serving DJs on the station. When he started back in 2005, Rinse was still a pirate and the idea of filming performances in the studio was unthinkable. “When Rinse went legit I think that proved that you can come from nothing and actually do this. I was doing my show the other day and when someone came through the door, I turned around quick because I thought it was the DTI raiding us,” says Spy laughing. “I’m from the era that DTI could bust a door at any moment, I’m still worrying about having all my records confiscated.”
Grime DVDs were a document of the day-to-day lives of a tight-knit coterie of MCs and producers. As Adenuga suggests, the DVDs remain the most authentic representations of the scene, something that would be difficult to replicate now with a grime diaspora that’s spread over the UK’s cities and further abroad. “Grime happened in people’s houses, on pirate radio stations and on the street. Anyone that was a part of it or that was growing up with it could instantly relate.”
But one thing the web can offer which DVDs can't, spontaneity. Livestreams can reach an audience instantly. No one will forget those 48 hours when Wiley broadcast his life onto the internet for all to see. As ever the godfather of grime has led the way, experimenting with a medium that’s yet to be perfected but perhaps spells the future for grime media. Streaming video is perhaps the perfect compromise: combining the immediacy and liveness of radio with visuals that satisfy our voyeuristic inclinations. It’s this format that Tim & Barry have been pushing for some time now with their Don’t Watch That TV platform. Their livestreams are carefully choreographed productions, filmed in front of a green-screen; the absurd YouTube found footage and kaleidoscopic visuals that play out in the background removing grime from it’s real world signifiers, the studio and tower block, into a placeless cyberspace.
On the opposite side of the spectrum to the digital surrealism of Tim & Barry, are a recent crop of videos marking a return to grime realism. Wiley’s “On A Level”, directed by Skepta, is filmed at the MC's home and features an all-star cast including cameos from newcomers Novelist and Stormzy; seemingly a throwback to the crew interviews of grime DVDs. The video for Skepta’s “It Ain’t Safe” makes this allusion explicit by enlisting Rooney Keefe to direct a distinctly old school video.
While these videos are not indicative of the scene as a whole (Dizzee has been making a cinematic B-movie inspired comeback) they seem to reflect a widespread desire to reconnect with grime’s roots which found its fullest expression in Skepta and JME’s “That’s Not Me”. In the track’s video, the pair perform in front of a green screen with archive footage of Meridian estate, where the two grew up, playing out in the background: the logical extreme of grime’s current reflexivity. The video very effectively echoes the sentiment of the track title: rejecting music industry spectacle in favour of a back-to-basics aesthetic.
“It does feel like the old days again, everyone’s got their hunger back,” says Keefe. “We went back to Meridian estate for “It Ain’t Safe” and Skepta wanted it filmed on the old Risky Roadz camera. I haven’t picked that camera up for 10 years now. But to me that camera, and the footage which it captures, epitomises grime because of all those years of viewing grime through it. That camera’s captured a lot of stars.”
Logan and Spyro are DJing at Boxfresh25 presents Where Were You? November 29th at iCan Studios in Hackney Wick.