The benefit of youth centres is impossible to quantify. They can be a home away from home; a space for meeting role models and friends; a safety valve for kids with nothing to do and nowhere to be; and even an incubator for musical talent.
Recently, Britain's youth centres had £260m cut from their budgets, affecting thousands of teenagers and causing hundreds of job losses. This austerity move risks making it harder for kids to break into the music industry – a potential career that requires institutional support and encouragement.
"It can be really fucking hard to get kids going and want to commit time outside of school," says a twenty-five-year-old youth centre worker from Kilburn. "They've grown up feeling like they've got a government that doesn't give a shit about them, and they've got no home life and they come and they start trouble at [youth] clubs. It's hard but I feel for them. Building relationships with these kids, getting through to them, is incredibly rewarding. I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather be doing."
Dizzee Rascal may now spend most of his time palling about with James Corden and Robbie Williams but his early commercial success and critical acclaim set the path for a generation of kids to follow. He dedicates a lot of his success to the guiding influence of youth centres around East London that he frequently visited when he was barely into his teens.
"Just put some money in the youth clubs, man," Dizzee told the Evening Standard last year. "[For] some kids, being in that youth club is keeping them away from a whole lot of fuckery. Some kids might not want to go home, their home's not a great situation, so that little youth club community there is a good thing."
One local centre Dizzee visited (along with pioneers like Rapid, Tinchy, and other members of Ruff Sqwad) was the Linc Centre in Bow, Tower Hamlets: a London borough that's seen its youth activity funding cut by well over 65% in last half a decade and is set to shut 18 out of its current 26 centres over the next couple of years.
Some centres have been closed amid claims of irregularity and corruption, but is it any wonder some of these places might have become hotbeds for playing fuck-about when the people inside feel like they've been jettisoned from society?
The answer isn't to simply get rid of all these facilities – that's like moving house because your lights have fused. In a borough that has 49% of under-16s living in poverty, the highest in the UK, and the second highest rate of unemployment in London, these centres can be crucial.
"A lot of people are coming from single-parent households, families that can't afford music lessons or instruments," says Tobi Oke, music writer at Complex. "With our parents working long hours, youth clubs doubled up as places of supervision, keeping us out of trouble and giving us an early entry into a creative, DIY culture that we could finally call our own."
SBTV's Aniefiok Ekpoudom agrees. "Before you're old enough to go clubbing or trek across the city, youth clubs are one of the few local, safe spaces for teenagers to come together and express themselves."
"For us," says Jamal, a seventeen-year-old from Haringey, "music is a way out, you know? Gotta do something. I ain't trying to work for minimum wage."
In the early 2000s, before the influx of Olympic money that tried to wash the slate clean, Bow was economically deprived and grime's epicentre, producing some of the architects of the genre. Since its inception, the sound has been a massive beneficiary of these centres.
While we know that software to record and produce music on is never more than a cracked Fruity Loops torrent away, we take for granted that kids even have access to laptops. Youth centres provide a safe base where kids can switch off from whatever else is going on and do something they never usually get a chance to do.
"I used to go to a centre in Streatham," says rising star Loyle Carner. "Music is a massive thing in these facilities. When I was there, everyone would be in the little studio recording tunes back to back to back. They took it seriously because, besides that, a lot of them didn't have any opportunity to record. They wanted to make it happen and they made the most of it."
Skepta, Little Simz, and Stormzy all acknowledge the powerful effect youth clubs in north and east London had on them growing up, providing them with the (sometimes literal) stage on which to start rapping.
"For me, they were vital," says Mikill Pane, another advocate, who grew up in Hackney. "Youth clubs helped me cut my teeth as an MC by helping me pluck up the courage to perform my lyrics in front of my peers. People from different postcodes came together in a way that they never would've done if it wasn't for this space to do so, not to mention the support from the mentors."
"I didn't have any real male role models at the time," adds Loyle, "but you go there and you get almost like, these big brothers. You can go and meet mates, people in your community, play football and basketball and just spit bars. You get the chance to be yourself and be free."
The ability to really pick what you want to do with your time helps kids get a stronger sense of who they are as a person – vital as more and more children are dissuaded from pursuing creative arts subjects regardless of enjoyment or talent. It's a shame, because studies show that as kids' sense of themselves improves, it reduces their vulnerability to negative influences like failing in school, drugs, alcohol, and crime.
"Stuff would be popping off outside but you had these spaces to duck out," says Loyle. "Even people that was in trouble could come in there and find someone to talk to. It was the first port of call for a lot of people, growing up."
As it became popular, mainstream media played up the links between grime and violence. When Crazy Titch was sent to prison for murder in 2005 and producers Maniac and Snoopy Montana for attempted murder in 2009, the media cycle seemed set to keep crime and the music linked forever. But the media was guilty of overhyping the effect without the cause, all but ignoring the social and economic factors that lead so many young kids – musician or not – into trouble.
"Councils are under huge financial pressure, and for some years now services for young people have become increasingly targeted, and unavailable to all many," says Maralyn Smith of the National Youth Agency.
Young people need places to go to, spaces in which to congregate. When you have a bunch of young kids hanging around with nothing to do, the chance of trouble becomes really high. And while a simple after-school drop-in centre might placate over anxious parents terrified at the thought of kids hanging around outside some bike sheds, there's a lot more to it than just four walls and a roof.
"To be honest, sometimes centres are just the tip of the iceberg," says Jamie Cutteridge, editor of Premier Youthwork, a publication aimed at youth workers. "The real work is done through the connections made there: the mentoring, coaching, sexual health advice and careers and education help is genuinely transformative."
"Neglecting youth centres leaves more kids on the street where they can be vulnerable. When young people get into trouble," adds Maralyn, "the cost far outweighs the savings made by closing youth provision."
In the end, there are simply very few places in society that young people can really feel any sense of ownership over. In a generation when youth disenfranchisement feels at an all time high, closing down centres only "makes young people feel like outsiders in their own communities", according to Jamie.
"Youth clubs are an anchor in these areas," says Tameeka Smith of Caius House Youth Centre in Battersea. "They're an important way for kids to get a sense of what they're interested in. They want to do creative arts they just can't do in school, and it's a real shame."
Cuts have forced kids to get more creative, fostering communities and collectives online, but – much like a large part of the university experience is meeting new people – nothing can beat the inspiration and influence of real-life meetings with those who share your interests (and it doesn't charge you fifteen grand a year for the privilege either).
"The biggest problem is that there's no plan to replace these facilities," says Jamie. "So while you lose the week-by-week stuff, you also lose the ability to be reactive. There doesn't really seem to be a commitment to young people [in the UK] – that tells them something about what, and who, society values."
As part of the Levi's Music Project, Levi's and Skepta have partnered to establish a community youth music space in the heart of Skepta's hometown of Tottenham, North London. Track the progress of the project at levi.com or through #SupportMusic'