If you’ve never gazed at a copy of Don’t Call Me Urban, then you need to fix that asap, because it’s probably the most famous documentation of the original London grime scene and the culture that birthed it. It’s basically like grime’s Old Testament, but instead of the Tower of Babel and the ten plagues, it’s gritty photos of Skepta in a chip shop and Crazy Titch posing with a pitbull.
The photographer behind it, Simon Wheatley, originally hit the streets in the late 90s to take some photos of the architecture around East London, but he became way more fascinated with the music that was booming from the bedroom windows in the tower blocks and high-rises, and the people who were mutilating their PC speakers just to play it. In the years that followed, he shot the scene religiously.
Don’t Call Me Urban was the physical fruit of that labour, a photo book that was originally released back in 2011, when grime had stagnated slightly, but is now being viewed with greater perspective as the genre rejuvenates. Now, Simon is releasing the book in digital form, packed with tonnes of new shit, like video content - including documentaries on scene stalwarts Chronik and Merky Ace - and an exclusive soundtrack from Novelist and The Square.
To make a song and dance out of all this, we caught up with Simon and asked him to roll his eyes back in his head and dig out the stories behind nine of his favourite photos from back in the day, from Jammer’s basement to Poplar youth clubs and everything in between.
Havoc at a Pirate Radio Station in Bow (2005)
With grime becoming so popular, it’s easy to forget where it came from and just how raw it once was. This was shot in a pirate radio station in Bow in the early hours of the morning. As the session ended, a couple of youths suddenly took knives out from their rucksacks. Scratchy from Roll Deep is in the background, but this guy went by the name of Havoc and he lived on the Isle of Dogs.
Jammer and crew (2004)
This was shot on the staircase of the legendary basement where they obviously went on to film all the Lord of the Mics. Looking back, and knowing how many people Jammer has worked with, the basement seemed like some kind of mad grime laboratory. I was working for Rewind magazine at the time, and they wanted a picture of all of the producers together, so I tried different arrangements. Earz started out at the top of the staircase at the beginning of the roll and ended up at the bottom. Jammer told us Earz was going to be the next Dizzee. He was one of the nicest guys I came across in grime, so hopefully there’s still time.
Crazy Titch (2004)
Titch was waiting for me near some typical Stratford blocks on a bench with his dog for this one. He warned me that the dog didn’t like people who talked too much. Indeed it soon took exception to me.
I wanted to make a dramatic picture with the dog leaping up at the camera so measured the distance between us, so it would be just short of the lens. I’d make the exposure, jump back, wind on the film and wait for the next leap whilst shouting to Titch telling him for god’s sake do not to let go of the lead. Then we went inside the block and sat on the staircase, where he was lecturing the obedient pitbull. He was smoking his spliff but I knew Rewind magazine could never run a shot of that, but I hated wasting film. He took a drag and I shot what I thought was something I’d never use before rolling out the film.
My assistant Marlon took a drag on Titch’s spliff after we’d put the camera away and I don’t know what he was smoking because an hour later Marlon, an experienced Jamaican who had grown up around weed, was wandering around Elephant and Castle tunnels like a lost child.
Chrisp Street Youth Club (2005)
I used to go to MCing sessions at youth clubs with Bomb Squad and The Wile Out Onez, who were the ‘youngerz’ of Roll Deep. This one was run by Wiley’s dad, a calm and soft-spoken Caribbean chap, but the sessions were not calm at all and this picture captures the frenzy of youths grappling for the mic for the chance to spit their bars. In the end it got closed down at this club because it got too violent. There was a guy from E3 who was at school in the neighbouring postcode of E14 and brought his mates here, where they clashed with the E3 boys. It was the time when the madness of postcode warfare was becoming a real phenomenon across London.
Roll Deep (2005)
There was this ice cream van in front of me and a load of guys on my left and it felt a bit like having to pick teams for football in the park. Scratchy’s hair jumped out at me and I just decided to put him on the roof. Breeze had a shiny white top so it made sense to stick him in the front seat in a darker area. But by the time I had placed a couple of the other guys he had disappeared and was round the back of the van rolling a spliff. As the shot warmed up Riko started to express himself and that’s what made the picture in the end. Trim was clowning around a lot, I seem to remember, and couldn’t keep still. So I asked him to go sunbathe on the edge of the van.
A Bedroom Studio in Isle of Dogs (2005)
This digital age of mass distraction and hype may well have undermined concentration levels, but otherwise scatterbrained youths could be incredibly focused if there was an instrumental playing on a loop and everyone had a pad of paper and pen. The boy in the headphones was the youngest in the crew, he was only 14 and had been kicked out of school, and he had probably begun to see music as his way out.
Ruff Sqwad (2005)
I had already started photographing quite a bit in E3 but would rarely see these guys around since they were too busy making music and not really on the roads much I guess. I asked them to take me to three locations that were important to them growing up. We started at the 3 Flats in Devons Road, then went to a couple of places in Mile End. For the book I chose the image that showed Canary Wharf, because it seemed to offers a social comment about the changing landscape of East London. (This image went on to be used on the cover of Ruff Sqwad’s White Label Classics CD when it was released in 2012)
Marcus Nasty (2005)
When I first shot Nasty crew in Plaistow on a Rewind assignment, the pictures were not very good. I remember the day mostly for an incident in the car when Chewy from Rewind and I were driving back to the station with Stormin’ and Nasty Jack. Suddenly another car drove up in front of us, blocking the road. The two emcees moved really fast and Chewy, who was with me in the back seat, told me to get down and get out of the car. Suddenly I was lying on the road behind another car, having expected a hail of bullets through the windscreen, but it was just a near-collision. Chewy later said that Stormin’ and Nasty Jack had reached for their straps but I never saw any weapons.
After that, in the early autumn of 2005, I spent a bit of time with some of the Nasty crew in Stratford, aware that they were already an important crew as grime was beginning to create its early history. I’d heard of Marcus Nasty and said I wanted to photograph him. So they called him and he turned up one evening for this portrait, and then after a few minutes he was gone.
Skepta in a Chip Shop (2007)
I went up to Tottenham and met Skepta near White Hart Lane. We shot a roll on a basketball court but it was around the middle of the day and the overhead light was a bit strong. I can’t remember how the idea for the chip shop location came about, whether it was his or mine. I do certainly remember him being in a hurry. He kept telling me that we couldn’t hang around too long in there, because someone might drive by and shoot him. I’ve never felt this was one of my better shots, but he's a major MC and that T-shirt was very important for my book in documenting the phenomena associated with the time of grime.
Assasin's bedroom, Aberfeldy Road E14 (2005)
Although there are no people in this picture it's one of the images that touches me most. I've met a lot of youths who were close to making the grade as professional footballers, many of them hustling on the street and seeking opportunities to MC. I became fascinated with the very fine line that can separate a path out of the hood from being stuck there, and the picture has a poignancy that symbolises this, I feel. That fine line applies to music as much as football.
Find more out about the Don't Call Me Urban digital edition right here.