It's been one hell of a ride for grime. From its beginnings in East London's tower blocks, it's travelled to dizzying heights of the UK charts and shone at glitzy award shows. Its founding father, Wiley, has even got an MBE. An accolade that would've been far from his thoughts when he was flogging vinyl from the boot of his car to get this whole thing started. It's had to deal with unfair opposition from the police and the government and been told it was dead when some of its biggest stars (Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and Wiley) opted for major labels. But here we are now: Stormzy just picked up an Ivor Novello and there's a Wiley biopic in the works.
Journalist Dan Hancox has been writing about the genre from early and he recently released his book Inner City Pressure: The Story Of Grime, exploring its incredible journey. Here, he tells the history of grime in 10 tracks.
Pay As U Go 'Know We' (2000)
Understanding grime means understanding where it came from – run-down inner London council estates, in the anxious atmosphere of a new millennium, with UK garage's bottle of Cristal champagne shattering into a million pieces on the pavement. The mafia-sit-down-style UK garage committee meetings saw rising tensions between the old guard and a younger, hungrier generation. Gatekeepers like the Dreem Team wanted to maintain an air of class and refinement (smart and sexy, dress to impress!), and were increasingly wary of the aggy groups of teenage boys in hoodies clamouring for the mic. Rinse FM and PAUG's head honcho Geeneus claims this as the first ever grime track: there had been other dark garage tunes, but this was a paradigm shift – built with clearly demarcated space for MCs to fill with complex rhymes; to tell stories and to dominate proceedings. Almost two decades later, it still sounds like the future.
Wiley 'Eskimo' (2002)
Breaking free from UK garage meant building something new, “an even colder sound” than So Solid had managed, as Wiley put it. In the first years of the 2000s, he created a whole sound-world, ‘eskibeat’ or ‘eskimo’, characterised by sparse arrangements, sci-fi synths, devastating basslines and awkward, off-kilter rhythms: with track names like Ice Rink, Igloo, Ice Pole, Blizzard, Ice Cream Man, Snowman, Frostbite, Freeze, Colder and Morgue. Asked to explain eskibeat, Wiley pegged the alienation, emotional dislocation and rage of his and his peers’ music to the city around them: ‘The music reflects what’s going on in society. Everyone’s so angry at the world and each other. And they don’t know why,’ he told American magazine Spin in 2005. ‘Eskimo’ was the first of his eski-oeuvre, and the most enduring: a genuine game-changer, built from a few minimal drum skirmishes, some artificial synth stabs, and the sound of a hollow metal pole rolling around a construction yard. He sold over 10,000 copies on vinyl, with no label, no manager, no publicist – all out of the boot of a Vauxhall Corsa.
Dizzee Rascal 'Imagine' (2004)
On his classic first two albums, 'Boy in da Corner' and 'Showtime', Dizzee shows himself to be not just a genius lyricist and beat-maker – while still a teenager, no less – but a kind of frontline reporter, on overlooked lives and untold stories from the troubled world around him: paranoid, marginalised, and scapegoated by cops, politicians and the media, precarious and yet trapped. Dizzee watches, depressed, as his peers defend “a couple square metres of pavement”, sometimes with their lives, just for some crappy drug money, or worse, just for pride. “Imagine if I showed you one day I was leaving the hood, would you call me a sell-out?” the impossibly poignant 'Imagine' begins, with Dylan Mills standing at the crossroads, looking beyond Bow and the pirate radio scene – very soon, he did leave, literally and spiritually. And given everything he describes in those early records, who can blame him?
Lethal Bizzle 'Pow! (Forward)'(2004)
Where to start with a tune so raucous it was banned from clubs across London and Essex? ‘All Lethal B tracks are banned from this venue (including instrumentals)’ read one such sign, a testament to the power of Dexplicit’s 'Forward' riddim: even the instrumental alone was too liable to start a riot. Tim Westwood once complained, ‘You can’t play a hip hop tune after 'Pow!' It’s like a volcano erupting.’ When it played on Notting Hill Carnival’s Rampage soundsystem, it led to trees snapping, as revellers who had positioned themselves in their branches responded to its energy. Five years later, it was a soundtrack to an actual riot, as thousands of students and sixth formers fought lines of riot police and tried to use metal fencing to break into HM Treasury, in the protests in Parliament Square over the Coalition government's tripling of tuition fees and scrapping of EMA. Grime's political power has rarely been so blatant.
Southside Allstars 'Southside Riddim' (2005)
Nikki S and Nyke’s ‘Southside Allstars’ is perhaps the most ostentatious example of grime's neighbourhood pride: a legendary all-star track featuring a staggering fifteen different MCs from across south London, each repping their crew, their neighbourhood, their postcode, or all three. It's both deadly serious and also a ludicrous, hilarious tune, and the only grime track to feature the glamorous parts of London I grew up in: Balham, Tooting Bec, Wandsworth Common – it also reflected the south v. east tensions of the early 2000s. Alias, the respected early grime producer who made the ‘Southside Riddim’ instrumental, deliberately neglected to stamp his ‘Alias’ audio-logo on the track, as he usually would. ‘He was worried that his tunes would get shut down by Slimzee and Geeneus,’ Nyke told me as we sat in the back of his cab. The very last line of ‘Southside Allstars’, after almost six exhausting minutes of chest-beating and relentless hype, is the devastating mic-drop of, ‘You can roll deep but not around here.’ Did they mean ‘roll deep’ or ‘Roll Deep’? Almost certainly both.
Tinchy Stryder 'Mainstream Money' (2007)
After grime's thrilling early momentum and bravado propelled Dizzee, Wiley, Kano, Bizzle, Shystie and Roll Deep to proper record deals, it seemed like mainstream success had arrived, but for the most part, the major labels, press and radio playlist-ers didn't know what to do with this fast and furious sound, and the gold-rush quickly crumbled to dust, and grime went back underground, and back to DIY. Tinchy was the only MC to get signed during grime’s doldrums: by two Norfolk teenagers, Jack Foster and Archie Lamb, with a £10,000 loan from Archie’s dad, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb. They released Tinchy’s first proper studio album, Star in the Hood, an underrated grime record with pop sensibilities, and a pointer of what was to come. The video for the single ‘Mainstream Money’ cut between the origin and the destination of the journey he was embarking on – posing with Ruff Sqwad in front of the Crossways Estate in Bow, and laying down vocals in a high-end recording studio. ‘This ain’t the days of run up on the ends,’ he spat, ‘nah that’s dem man, that’s the old E3.’ It was time to leave childish things, and the manor, behind. And it worked. Following Wiley's 'Wearing My Rolex' electro-urban-pop template, Tinchy would score six top 10 singles in just a couple of years, including two number 1s. As pop, it was pretty damn good – but it wasn't grime.
Trim 'Inside Looking Out' (2008)
With the scene back underground in the late 2000s, some of its greatest talents stopped pretending world domination was around the corner. Trim’s mixtape track ‘Inside Looking Out’ is barely known beyond the cult MC’s small but vocal cohort of cheerleaders, but it’s up there with the most beautiful and introspective moments in grime’s history – using a startling instrumental by Geeneus’s younger brother Jerzey, a tragic synthesised violin, alternately picked and bowed, that builds and builds until the dam bursts and the sonic tears all flood out. Spitting his bars at confessional, conversation-level volume, Trim acknowledges the wearying challenges that would drag numerous MCs away from their creative aspirations, and issued a challenge to the world at large: ‘I’m willing to stand on my own and face the scene, run my mouth until the cows come home, and make tea. But if Monkey Features ain’t me, by volume six, I’m out: I’ve got yutes to feed. And if one day you see Trim, let me know how the scene’s getting on.’ It was an ultimatum that sounded like a farewell; fortunately, Trim stuck around.
Skepta ft. JME 'That's Not Me' (2014)
Written off and left for dead, grime would enjoy a renaissance of truly startling proportions, eclipsing all of its achievements in the early- and mid-2000s, and leading the scene's huge collective epiphany is perfectly encapsulated in this three-minute Skepta single. It was a disavowal of his past mistakes and a return to the roots of grime, with Skepta recanting his sins and triumphantly distancing himself from the trappings of the jet-setter life. Like a true prodigal son returning home, after years wandering lost in a gaudy electro wilderness, Skepta needed to locate the talisman that had given him his powers in the first place: specifically, Jammer’s old Korg Trinity keyboard; responsible for countless classic early grime instrumentals made in Jammer’s basement, not just by him, but by Wiley and Skepta too – and, lending the keyboard an even more Holy Grail-like quality, it was pre-loaded with ‘all the old grime sounds’, as Skepta put it, obscure software plug-ins not available anywhere else, unique building blocks that had long vanished from the internet.
Stormzy 'Shut Up' (2015)
Grime’s canon of cult classics is full of sensational music made by producers who made barely a handful of tracks, burned brightly for six months, and disappeared altogether. One such classic instrumental, ‘Functions On The Low’ by Ruff Sqwad's XTC, took him half an hour to write, on FruityLoops, one morning before college, while the rest of his family were still asleep. He used the computer keyboard in place of an actual keyboard, never got it mastered, rendered the audio file, burned a CD, and took it straight to the vinyl pressing plant for release on white label. A full 11 years after its release, a hotly-tipped young MC called Stormzy used it as the instrumental for a freestyle in his local park. ‘Shut Up’, a glorious example of Stormzy's effervescent personality, and perfect balance of devastating lyrical merkage and irrepressible humour, would go on to take the Christmas charts by storm, rack up tens of millions of YouTube views, and propel him to pop superstardom.
Yizzy 'S.O.S.' (2018)
With Stormzy's astonishing performance at the 2018 Brits – commended by Grenfell's new MP Emma Dent Coad as the nation's true poet laureate – Skepta picking up a Mercury prize, Wiley getting an MBE, and every brand in the world clamouring for a bit of grimy cool, the genre's mainstream resurgence has far exceeded what anyone could ever have imagined. But with teenagers in London more inclined towards drill rap and the hybrid genre people are calling afroswing or afrobashment, some fans are speculating that grime's ascendency to the pinnacle of pop culture is also the moment it dies. Well, not if teenage sensation Yizzy has anything to do with it. On the title track of his adrenaline-packed new EP S.O.S. – short for Save Our Sound – he makes the case for the genre he loves, and it's as thrilling as ever: epic, ambitious, and firing on all cylinders. Grime's not done yet, not by a long shot.
Dan Hancox is the author of Inner City Pressure, The Story of Grime, grab the book here