Grime, as a movement, seems inextricable from the flows and personalities of Wiley, Dizzee, JME et al. But before MCs ruled the roost, sublow growls and dark, sparse rhythms were the vertebrae of the genre. In the early days of grime, the music was identified as much for its sublow frequencies and ADHD 8-bar switch ups as its MCs. Riddims like "Pulse X" and Jon E Cash's "Kettle" became open-source backdrops for UK garage MCs who wanted a bigger challenge than shouting "DANGER" over thumb pianos.
Eventually, the grime MC became the heart of UK underground music. A motley bunch who had a unique ability to spit vitriol about each other’s next of kin in between punchlines about mixed doner. There was an MC for everybody; from the triple layer metaphors of a pre-“Traktor” Wretch 32 through to the all-out SFX blathering of Flirta D. These fresh voices, paired with the rugged nature of the instrumentals, made it an awesomely exciting listen.
Being born in Tower Hamlets, I would have been a bit of a loser to miss out on all the fun. Wiley supposedly lived around the corner from the house I was born in and Dizzee loitered atop walls on Bow Road. Eski is probably my 34th cousin being Caribbean and all. What kid wouldn’t be enticed by the concept of filtering riddims out of their Playstation between bouts of Crash Bandicoot? The first time I got laid, Tinie Tempah’s “Wifey Riddim” sheepishly blared out of my Sony Ericsson W3210i. Times were good.
But it couldn't last, and a year or two later the whole mainstream thing happened. I don't want to get bogged down in grime's dalliances with the mainstream. Sure, Tinchy could have swerved the trancey lure of 2009’s eurofrat style and carried on making tunes with subclauses. Dizzee could have thought twice about covering The Ting Tings at the behest of Jo Whiley. Whatever, it happened, and as more former grime stars started to appear on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, words of the genre’s death started to emerge.
I was fine though. During this grime lull, funky house had a little fling with the limelight (Funky Dee LOL) and I got low to one too many Gracious K skanks. But I’d still prefer to bask in the archives of my hard drive, living through grime's glory days, nostalgic before my time.
Now it seems things have gone full circle. In the last two years or so, it has once again been grime producers that have been navigating the genre's course. Only this time round there's , more glossy production and some new, innovative beatsmiths taking charge. Producers like Swindle, Dusk & Blackdown, Preditah and Slackk cropped up offering a fertile set of 140BPM beds. The era of 8-bar verses about weed and girls getting ragsed out over DJ Spooky's “Joyride” is over; this new breed of production is dispensing with the need for MCs at all.
Preditah's Gears Of Grime EP, released at the end of last year, promised to rework the genre's functioning parts, bringing the ragtag spirit of early grime beats to darker, deeper production. The release of Swindle's new album Long Live The Jazz last month pushed production even further, reworking blues and be-bop licks into fertile grime beds. Both records feel like the pinnacle of a long-term project, moving beyond the immediacy and disposability of mixtapes, to create production that deserves repeat listens.
Rinse FM DJs Elijah and Skilliam realised this movement early on and championed it, setting up the Butterz label and night to bring on more talent. Their radio show has become an assault of gunshot production and new production talents. But according to grime producer, Mr. Mitch, this new generation of grime producers aren't just flourishing because there's new outlets for their work. They're taking over because mic-yielding MCs suffered from an identity crisis.
“One of the things that I believe kept people so entertained in the Age of the MC' was that they each had their own personality that they created and brought to the table. Many of the MCs that I see trying to come through now all blend into each other and I can't tell them apart. There's a good reason that guys like D Double can get away with spitting bars that are years old, there's no fresh competition.”
While trying to avoid sounding like some archaic nostalgia machine, apart from a few standouts like Merky Ace and Scrufizzer, too many MCs sound alike these days. I’d be hard-pushed to name over ten easily noticeable spitters. But while MCs are on the wane, producers are becoming stars.
I’m still very much in love with grime. Genres evolve, and this fresh breed of producers have shown grime has life beyond being a talent pool for Universal's next signing. But I also hope that at some point I’ll be blessed with a grime MC resurgence, giving grime a sense of humour again.
"The way back is different from how we're looking upon it. I think we have to start from scratch, turning up to the dance and it's a long haul," says Terror Danjah, if not grime's godfather then definitely its uncle once-removed. "A lot of people are chasing the glitz and glamour, but when that door shuts and people get saturated and bored of the style, people will start to realise it's back over here. The instrumentation of grime is back to the basics, so one the MCs get back on the sound I'm sure the rest will follow. There's a way back if people figure it out".
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