How Grime Grew From London into a Thriving International Entity
Worldwide scenes have been popping up for years. Now, with some weight behind them, they’re gaining a cultural foothold in their areas.
Press shot of PAKIN credit: DJ Datwun from House Not House
Back in November, The Grime Report posted clips on Twitter of live radio and PA sets in Australia, Korea and Japan. They received a mixed reception, ranging from ignorance bled confusion – “I never thought people in Japan knew what grime is!” – to interest, like “people need to stop hating, grime has come a long way from being local to global”. However, opposing views aside, one thing was clear: grime had spread overseas and its original UK fans were intrigued. Here was an audience that weren’t only spectating but participating also, and often in ways linking back with original, UK based grime. So what’s happening in these places, and who are the main players?
I guess the first place to start with is Japan, since they’ve been home to some of the most genre-bending and experimental rap for years – producers like Nujabes, for example. The homegrown grime scene in Japan however is a relatively new development, kicking off somewhere around 2011 and predominantly in Tokyo and Osaka. While the focus in the UK is often placed on the MCs, in Japan, it’s the DJs who are widely seen as the figures pushing its scene forward – people like Chelsea JP, Prettybwoy and Double Clapperz. Unlike British MCs who are typically working class, one Japanese MC, PAKIN, revealed in a 2014 interview with VICE that Japanese grime acts are often students with disposable income.
For many of Japan’s MCs their entry point into grime was YouTube, learning about the earliest days of the scene through the likes of Risky Roadz, Tim & Barry and of course, SBTV – some of the first places to showcase grime outside of its local postcodes. “I started to frantically watch videos and study the flows of grime MCs I found. When I found my favourite MCs, I copied their flows and turned them into Japanese to create my own style,” said Japanese MC, PAKIN speaking to Mixmag. You only need to listen to “Dark Elements” with Devilman from 2013, where they mirror each other’s cadence, and it’s undeniably clear that the source of PAKIN’s inspiration comes from the UK grime general, D Double E.
Over in Korea, despite there being an obvious language barrier, two MCs in particular, Damndef and Moldy, have carved out a space for themselves, employing the characteristics of modern grime in both style and production. On Damndef’s “Do It Remix,” he linked up with the UK’s J-mal and Catarrh Nisin. The track being multilingual has its significance as well – Korean artists aren’t looking to conform linguistically and they’ve shown that flow, pacing and cadence take precedence over language in grime. But this sound is also combined with other club-ready stuff, such as house and trance, leaning far more into the electronic side of the sound than anything coming out of the UK right now.
As for Australia, last year proved to be a breakout moment for its young but growing scene. In November especially, a set featuring the likes of Alex Jones (not the conspiracy theorist), Fraksha and Scotty Hinds showed some permanence to grime’s global appeal. Sonically, there is little that separates Australian and UK grime. That makes a lot of sense, considering Australia’s historical relationship with the UK and how close they are culturally. Fraksha is often seen as an OG within Australia’s minute scene and his UK roots were the spark for a grime movement taking place down under. Instead, what makes Australian grime unique is that the core creators aren’t of a minority group.
Still, no matter how many co-signs from Drake and shout outs from Kanye the genre might get, grime still has an uphill challenge in the States, especially when it comes to converting audiences into fans. The sheer size and regionality that divided hip-hop and rap culture in its early days makes it difficult for a cross-the-pond rap scene to gain a foothold, and grime hasn’t been widely received – or at least not far beyond the Skepta-fronted wave of 2016. That said, Miami-based label American Grime has since taken on the charge. Despite maybe not being many people’s first choice for a US grime hub, their city has such a thriving party culture that you can imagine it being a fitting location for the pure energy of live grime.
The label already has a sizeable roster of MCs, producers and DJs – including Jumanji, Rilla and Bookz – who all recently performed at Art Basel and A3C Festival. In terms of how they sound, a freestyle featuring Jumanji and uploaded by The Grime Report gives a good feel. There are moments where the energy in the riddim by Fill Spectre had such a grime DNA, Jumanji was so caught up, the Americanness in his accent became less pronounced, suggesting that grime is something you eventually assimilate into. It’s not an intentional change either. Typically that type of BPM is unusual for American rappers, even more so for someone from Miami. And as an MC, this is a skill that’s developed on radio sets and at live events –– something American Grime, the label, has been developing into a mainstay within a city known for Rick Ross, Trick Daddy and Trina, in such a short time. “We did our best to pool the collective of artists and DJs that were already doing their thing to show that there was a community here. Some of the artists had been pushing grime for 10 years or more when they linked with us,” says Jumanji.
“The wordplay was smart and they could break rules that rap in America couldn't, like using the same word to end bars, but in different contexts,”he adds, of what he initially found interesting about the British sound. “Grime offered the challenge of finding complex flow patterns over beats that hit hard and loud, so it was perfect for me because it required the intensity I had. It was a way to push myself lyrically and technically.”
Elijah, co-founder, DJ and producer of UK grime label Butterz, believes the underground nature of the scene over there to be a good thing, as MCs and producers overseas can be adventurous and experimental with what they create. Here, in the UK, a lot of grime fans are traditionalists since both sonically and culturally, its roots lie here and even though you’ll struggle to find a 140 BPM record –– we haven’t necessarily needed to look further afield. But over in the US, ironically, there are no rules and regulations.
“DJs just enjoy grime as part of their musical diet like anything else and mix it with loads of other stuff they like, which didn't really happen in clubs for ages as the music was mixtape based and not as club friendly as it's been for the past few years,” Elijah says. In grime’s early days, mixtapes were one of the only ways you would be able to get your music heard, and while that’s an option for MCs overseas, being able to perform in clubs and having your music played in a mix opens up your audiences, rather than refining them to just a core grime fanbase.
All of this makes sense. Though it was initially born online, grime came about at an awkward time in history – one in which we were beginning to understand and use the internet, but not to the degree that we do now. Social media and online music distribution online was still in its infancy, but it was through ingenuity that grime was able develop as a homegrown, grassroots scene. Now though, it’s become a culture that you no longer need to be British to experience. As the past few years have shown it’s moved far, far beyond that. It was the internet that took grime overseas, but what has kept it there and allowed it to develop is curiosity and appetite – the same things that inspired us with hip-hop all those years ago.
You can find Jesse on Twitter.