This year has seen an explosion of 140BPM instrumentals, creating chaos in a scene that has often relied on the same group of twenty or so classic tracks. This much-discussed new wave of grime has formed around hostile, weaponised deconstructions of familiar sounds. At nights like London’s Boxed, you can expect to be totally assaulted by gunfingers and bass, with figures like Logos and Slackk completely obliterating and rebuilding their DJ sets with deranged intensity.
But everything has been going on behind the decks, its key figures in grime’s new wave only revealed by the blue backlight of CDJs. What’s been missing is the charisma of fresh-faced MCs who would rob your girl's phone number with little more than a knowing grin. Grime has stopped being flirty.
South London crew The Square, led by MC and producer Novelist, set out to change that; bringing chat-up and punch lines back to the genre. The group, who are aged between 15 and 20 and are mostly still at school, made their intentions clear with debut single. “Pengaleng” declares: “that girl is a pengaleng and I might move to her frienaleng,” and continues chirpsing its way through batty-slapping high-hats and thrusting basslines.
“We get down with the females!” says 18-year-old MC DeeJillz when I meet the crew on the “Pengaleng” video shoot. “With the grime scene now, we’re just hearing bare rough tunes, but we ain’t heard no babe tunes, no girl tunes.”
It’s a scorching summer afternoon, but we’re chilling in the basement of Birthdays where the boys are sitting on the bar and cracking each other up. While we’re talking, a slow trickle of girls peek in through the doorway. When one young lady he knows catches DeeJillz’s eye. He flashes a smile and calls to her, “Here’s a pengaleng!” There’s way more girls coming down for the video, they assure me.
Musically, Boxed is one of the best club nights you can go to in London, but it’s also a sausage fest, attracting a lot of head-nodding guys who spend most of the night tweeting the DJs “Track ID?” So, I ask, are these guys out to bring the girls back into the club? The room erupts with yells of “yeah!”
DeeJillz is one of seven official members of the crew, but there’s more here today, drifting around Birthdays. “We’ve got bare members,” says Novelist, who adds that he recruits by just asking other teenagers on the streets around south London, “do you spit?” Centred around Lewisham (by way of Brockley, Deptford, Sydenham and elsewhere in SE postcodes), the core is made up of four MCs, one producer, and two guys who do both. The group’s debut mixtape, The Formula, is reminiscent of that first Boy Better Know mixtape, when beats and bars take equal presidence - all underscored by last-orders humour and can’t-tell-if-you’re-joking threats.
17-year-old Novelist is plainly, though unofficially, the ringleader. He made waves earlier this year as an MC with his feature on Mumdance’s spiky and spacious tune “Take Time” on Rinse, as well as the release of his own instrumentals on an EP for Oil Gang. The whole group somehow clicks when he strolls in (he’s just been up the road getting a haircut), forming a circle around him and hushing up when he speaks. Check The Square’s cyphers from the last couple of years on YouTube, and see how Nov is ever-present and ever-commanding, making good on the promise “you’ll never see a shit video with me in.”
But Novelist is far from the only reason to get excited about The Sqaure. 17-year-old Streema, who calls himself the “tallest younger,” is a deadpan lothario (check his video for “I’m That Guy” where he raps about the dimples in his cheeks and hints “no I ain’t got a wifey, but I know that a lot of them do like me”). Elf Kid will take your girl for a Nandos. DeeJillz has the slickest style of the crew in his “Spray Out Freestyle” video (where he’s also got girls on his mind, obviously), and 20 year old producer Lolingo is as much at home flipping Amerie samples for the Boxed collective as he is moulding new eski templates for The Square to go in on.
The Square’s appeal isn’t in YouTube commenters dissecting the elaborate mechanics of their flows, but in the generational disjunction that’s embodied in particular by Lolingo and Novelist: they’re young MCs who came up on Flex FM, who look up to the likes of Crazy Titch, Kano and Chipmunk, but they’re not just parroting or paying homage. They’re bringing their generational homegrown humour to a scene that’s morphed into something alien and, in many ways, more chin-scratchy; bringing the sound of where they’ve come from to the sound of where we’re at.
What grime needs in 2014 is MCs under 20 - Lewisham High Street’s golden boys - who grin while they yell “I’ll make your mum climax” over the crunch and smash of a Sir Spyro set.
“You see like, the Boxed stuff, I personally thought, do you know what, these guys haven’t got an MC that’s working with them,” says Novelist. “And they’re all sick producers. What’s going on here? It’s like, there’s two sides of grime, the instrumental side and the MCs, and to me it’s like all the MCs were oblivious to what was going on with this side, with Boxed, and Mumdance, those guys. I thought, yeah, let’s make some different sounding stuff, let’s go with that. And I’m trying to bring my crew down that avenue as well.”
Lolingo tells me that he feels at home in the Boxed crew because they embody something about the “authentic sounds of grime” as much as The Square do. “Everyone who has been listening to grime during its early stages knows that music production wise the instrumentals were very gritty and mostly dark. But what sets me apart from the Boxed crew is that my productions are bubbly and fun.”
“You know what,” says Elf Kid, “grime needs a batch of new faces, and that’s us right now. We’re not trying to follow anyone, we’re doing our own thing.” The Square are young, and they don’t try to hide it (“GCSEs stress me out,” says Streema on the group’s 2013 cypher). Their rhymes focus around girls, school, image and all the other things that teenage boys think about: but there’s also tougher realities they’re able to speak to from their south London upbringing. Violent crime looms large in the crew’s background, and they’re vocal about it. Just last year, Lewisham was named the most unsafe place to live in the UK, with a homicide rate at twice the national average.
Novelist’s voice takes on a frank tone. He speaks with his hands a lot. “We’re just a product of the area we come from,” he says. “We’re smarter than the people older than us - we’ve seen what they’ve done, and what they’ve done wrong, and done it better. We’re not getting in jail, we’re not getting arrested.” And yet, he says, they have had to live with violence in their daily lives. “Some of us have been stabbed, some of us have dodged bullets. This is actually happening. It’s not a myth. You hear about these things on the news and you think oh, sounds controversial. Nah, it’s real man. I lost how many of my friends this year. I lost four or five of my bredrins.”
With scarcely a prompt, the crew are quick to explain how they see the relationship between violence and their music. It’s something they’re prepared to defend, as a streak of aggression runs through much of what they do. Novelist declares, “Put it this way yeah: you go into a museum, and you see a picture of a woman naked, painted. You don’t look at the artist and say he’s a pervert. You say he’s an artist who’s depicted something, shown it to the public how he sees it. That’s how people go in and view it. The same way as when we make music, we’re not trying to glorify it, we’re trying to show you what we see, how we see it.”
“Really and truly, what we’re doing, it’s almost not even like grime,” he adds, on a sudden tangent. And it’s almost as if he could be speaking for any of the warped experimental factions of grime that have sprung up in the last couple of years, as he pinpoints exactly how weird and non-traditional yet cohesive their sound is. “We’re not trying to be in anyone’s crew, we’re just trying to release our energy. Some of our tunes are not even 140, but it still has that grime energy to it, that people would think it’s grime, naturally, even though it’s not. The way the beats are patterned, it’s not grime, but that’s just our thing.”
What grime is today is beyond beats that are programmed a certain way - instead, the thread that runs through it all is a sense of tension and uprising, a pushing of sound to brittle and bold points that haven’t been explored before. The Square are out there on the brink of those sounds: they’re there with pirate radio ringing in their ears, a wink on their faces and always a different girl on their arm.
Follow Aimee on Twitter: @AimeeCliff