Ewen Spencer: The Man Who Shot the Origins of Grime
The photographer was there to capture the London scene in its earliest years.
Ghetto and Kano, Ministry of Sound 2004. Photos by Ewen Spencer
First came garage, then came grime. First came the garage revival, now comes the grime revival. Or is it a revival? Whatever the reason for the increased profile of grime in the last year or so, the scene's place in the annals of British popular culture is perhaps only now being truly appreciated. The cultural cognoscenti have realised that the movement stretches way beyond the Mercury-approved, ground-floor entry point of "Boy in da Corner", and the heads have learnt to forgive that strange Ed Sheeran phase.
From Novelist and Mumdance's storming collabs, to "German Whip", to Rollo Jackson's excellent Slimzee documentary and the Royal Rumble-esque "On A Level", to Stormzy using the phrase "wicked skengman" on Jools Holland and Noisey programming their own special Grime Week, grime is very much back in the popular consciousness. The City Of London Police aside, everyone's riding that greezy wave into the future.
So when Ewen Spencer, a renowned pop culture photographer who's worked with everyone from So Solid to New Order, said he wanted to talk about his new documentary and reader-book (both called Open Mic), as well as share some exclusive photos of some of grime's biggest names in their halcyon days, I jumped at the chance to hear his unique insight into the scene.
VICE: Hi Ewen. You'd been documenting the garage scene for some time before you started what became Open Mic. How did you first come across grime?
Ewen Spencer: Well, grime wasn't called "grime" when I first I heard about it, it didn't really have a name, which is often the case with any kind of subculture or genre like this. I actually heard about it through Mike Skinner, who I was working with at the time, having already shot the sleeve photos for Original Pirate Material.
By the time of Mike's second album in 2003, I'd finished with the garage project, and was working on one about British teenagers. It was really well received but it was a bit more generic; it was missing something specific, a bit more fresh, and Mike said to me, "I'm working with some quite interesting people at the moment," which turned out to be Tinchy, Kano and a couple of others. He said there was these young guys in East London making these sounds, and I should go see what's going on. I just became quite invested in it from then on, really.
What was your first proper interaction with the scene? Did you go along to nights and raves?
Raves and what have you weren't that accessible at the time; they were quite small and infrequent. They weren't really distinguished as "grime raves" then either, they were just "raves". You'd get a lot of garage being played, and I'd really given up on garage at that time because it'd become a bit lairy and overground.
So I kind of came at it from a different angle, which was through Ratty and Capo who were making these amazing DVDs called Lord Of The Mics. They were just a couple of guys going around filming a lot of clashes: pirate radio, meeting various crews around East London. Eventually they agreed to meet me, and I'd just get into the car and we'd go to Jammer's basement, or some pirate radio station and just make pictures while they were shooting the DVDs.
How did they react to an older, white guy from Newcastle hanging about with a camera?
At first they were reluctant and a bit suspicious. I mean, they're a lot younger than me. They were a lot younger in their outlook, too and it was clear that I was a bit of a nuisance. But I don't really believe in the kind of folk-devil way of looking at things; I don't believe in the fearful stories that you hear. I'd been on the garage scene, I'd been on the northern soul scene, and before that I'd just been a kid in Newcastle doing things that were comparable to what was going on in their world. It wasn't really a massive departure for me, and I don't really subscribe to a massively bourgeois existence in my day-to-day life. It didn't scare me, basically.
And what about the Lord Of The Mics guys, were they coming from a similar place to you?
They were normal kids, very normal kids. They could very much hold their own wherever they went; they were young, black kids from East London who were just using what they had available to them, with no real further education or college course rammed down them, or even the specifics of how to handle a camera. They were literally just pressing record and "go", but that was what was so exciting about it.
How did you earn your right to be there, as it were?
Well as soon as the pictures were done I'd print them up, so I could show them. It was like, "This is how I'm working," and the MCs began to see what I was doing and word got around. They'd be like, "Fuck, I look good. Let's get him back," and from then on we had this kind of unspoken agreement. Very soon after that if I called Ratty he'd pick up his phone, but it took a lot of time, being this unlikely co-conspirator, if you will.
So it was kind of about gaining trust, in some way?
Yeah, and I'd go anywhere with them. I had to lie down on the backseats of the car sometimes, because if the police saw a guy like me with two young black lads they'd pull us over. So it was a lot of things like that really; you move slowly, you're careful.
How much aggro was there at the early battles?
Of course. They're young, excitable men, so you'll see moments of posturing, bravado and all that kind stuff. I mean, that was part and parcel of the scene really. You'd see it all the time, but it depends on whether or not you wanna let it permeate what you're doing, because a lot of it is just bullshit, really.
So it never spilled over into anything too nasty?
No, because if you've got any sense and you've seen that happen before you know to get out quickly. Usually you can see it coming, so I'd leave. There were a few occasions when people would mention that someone's got a gun, some bullets and I'd be like, "I'm not gonna hang around for very long, then." It wasn't what I was there for.
A lot of photographers would want the shot of the gun in the dance though. Is that decision to get out partly ethical?
I don't like guns, and thank god we don't have too many of them in this country, but as soon as you start taking pictures of them everyone gets trapped in that state of "Oh Dearism", as Adam Curtis would say. A lot of people like to labour that negative point, and that's not really part of my vision. I'm not interested in doing that, I'm interested in young people, people making interesting music and style and what have you.
Talking of style, there's always been a strong theme of fashion and style in your work. What kind of looks were you seeing in the early days? I remember from being a teenager around that time it was all powder blue Air Force Ones, and fitted caps had just started to take off.
Well, it was comfortable sportswear – "streetwear", if you like. Fresh trainers, Akademiks, Ecko Unltd was absolutely massive. Avirex leather jackets and bombers were all over London, Nike TNs were still knocking about in the early days. Adidas was really huge on the grime scene as well.
That look is much less dressy than the garage look, which was all about Versace shirts, Gucci loafers, etc. Why do you think that is?
It's a much softer silhouette. It's about turning up stoned, MCing, making music but then being on the move and going places. It's a kind of a combination of those two things. There wasn't really a rigid "I'm getting ready to go out" mindset like there was with garage, it was more, "I've been in these clothes most of the day, but now I'm at the rave, sweating, MCing to loads of kids who are leaping around." It was definitely a more relaxed approach.
That's interesting. Were people actually having a good time at these kinds of things, because you look back at Lord Of The Mics and Channel U, and everyone's screw-facing pretty much constantly. How much of that was show? Did the camera go off and everyone's laughing, smoking, chirpsing and what have you or were they as aggressive as they seem in the vids?
Most places I went there were a lot of jokes. In Jammer's basement people would rib each other and have a laugh. Jammer's a very affable, charming sort of man who spends a lot of time taking the piss, so it was a lot of fun. There were one or two places that felt a bit aggy, but on the whole it were a right hoot.
Among the MCs, which ones stood out?
Kano was hugely talented, he really stood out. He was young, he had a face for Hollywood and he really could MC; he had a really expansive vocabulary. You could tell he had something about him when he was performing, or on radio, or even just being with him. You could see it from miles away.
There was another guy called Earz who I really liked, but I don't remember much happening for him. He was always around in Jammer's basement, he was really, really good.
You worked with Crazy Titch, who's currently doing a life sentence for murder. What was he like?
He was a real character. Sometimes he could be a bit mean, sometimes he could be absolutely hilarious. I was only around him on a couple of occasions, and he was pretty unpredictable. You see, lots of these guys are very, very creative and that often comes with a big character, quite an unusual and different way of doing things. They're quite brave, really.
Did you get the impression that Titch was capable of doing what he did?
Well, I don't know if he did that or not, that still remains a little bit of a question. But, no. I went to school with a lot of people who've since been convicted of doing similar things, and you just don't know what's gone through their head. A lot of people at the time were saying that he'd taken the rap for something, but I really don't know. The sad thing is that somebody died.
You also photographed Wiley, who's held up not just as one of the most eccentric and difficult characters in grime, but in the whole of British culture really. What was he like to work with?
Again, I only worked with him once or twice. He was elusive and didn't really like to be photographed too much. He'd be awkward, and at times a little bit obtuse and difficult. But again, he was a huge character, he never felt pretentious but he'd do quite odd and peculiar things. If I was taking a photo he'd try and avoid the frame, and do things like putting his watch up in the middle of the frame. Was he making a comment about time? I'm not sure, really.
How long did you spend shooting the scene, as a whole?
From 2003 to 2005, so about two years and a little bit after that as well.
Were there any pivotal moments when you started to notice the mainstream creeping in?
Yeah, of course, people were getting signed to major labels, A&Rs were getting in touch a lot more. People started making proper videos, it became less about Channel U, and more about making something which would be comparable to something coming out of the US. You heard people discussing what videos were going to cost, there was a lot of excitement and anticipation about things moving to a higher level in terms of support and finance.
But they wanted that; these were young guys from working-class situations, they're not going to turn down these tens of thousands of pounds.
Do you think most MCs and producers planned on making a lot of money out of grime, or was it more like something they couldn't say no to?
I think it was probably a mix of both. I think most people probably weren't thinking about it as some kind of fiscal end product. I think they were just thinking about creating something.
Initially, the excitement was probably more seductive; the anarchy, the music, the noise, the lifestyle around that scene. It was people having the opportunity to make music, people having more of a sense of association and belonging, giving them some kind of worth. They were communicating with their own people if you like, and I don't think that'd really happened since punk or rave; that's what really enticed people.
But when money comes knocking, a lot of people got enticed, whereas others weren't really that bothered. Often, those who weren't too bothered were persuaded into things when they got managers and what have you.
Can you see any parallels with what happened to garage?
Well, garage became mainstream much quicker, because it was always for the dancefloor, it was always being played in clubs. Garage had to go through changes to become something else, but I don't think it survived them very well. What came out of it that was more interesting, I think, was grime.
Grime's still kind of existing now, it's just gonna keep changing and becoming something new and hopefully getting more exciting as time goes on. My son's 16 now, and he's interested in aspects of grime and grime artists, but you have people from the grime scene in Top Boy now, so it's not just about the music, it's a total lifestyle, and garage never had that. It was always just about the dancefloor.
How do you think grime will be remembered in a few decades' time?
Well, hopefully, in the early days as a fun, creative time. But I don't think we should talk about it being "remembered", because it's probably experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment. Hopefully Open Mic has kind of crystallised that early moment from when it went from pirate radio to something a bit more mainstream, but I don't think we can be that retrospective about it yet. It still seems to be forming and becoming something else.
So you'd say it's more like a genre of music that can keep evolving – like rap or rock, as opposed to a short-lived scene?
Absolutely. If you think about it, the big sounds this year have been "That's Not Me" and Meridian Dan, they've been huge. Grime's still bringing up some pretty exciting sounds and moving forward.
More widely, do you think there was a kind of sociological shift in the years when garage became grime? It seems to me that garage came of age in a time of optimism, New Labour and Cool Britannia and what have you, whereas grime was birthed in an era of disillusionment, and perhaps is gaining traction again in a time of even greater social ill-feeling?
Yeah, absolutely, that's what happens. People feel a little bit left out, put to one side, and you get civil unrest. People aren't going to be utterly and completely placated by their iPhones and staying indoors watching shit telly, people are always going to want to go out and do something different with their lives. It wakes people up, people think, 'I don't wanna stay in any more, I wanna write lyrics, I wanna clash.' Dizzee talks about it in the film actually, the problem of the youth clubs being closed down recently.
I also think there was a lot of bad press about those communities at the time, a lot of very negative attention, with the death of Damilola Taylor and all sorts of horrible things. That definitely contributed to the feeling that came with grime.
Do you think that played into the territorial nature of early grime, the repping your ends, shouting out postcodes and what have you? A sense of, "Fuck this, we're from the ghetto and we're proud of it."
Yeah, I think there was a kind of celebration of being from the 'hood, but the territorial thing has always been in existence in Britain, just look at football. It's just how much you buy into it, really.