With a year that has festivals up and down the country with grime acts on the main stage, what does this mean for the genre?
Grime music had an ultimate resurgence in 2014/15 and this was reflected in the annual festival season. Lovebox hosted Skepta and Novelist, Reading and Leeds had Boy Better Know and Tempa T and Sundown had a line up consisting of Lethal Bizzle, Maverick Sabre and Tinie Tempah. In NME’s article How Grime Became The Unlikely Sound Of Festival Season 2015, Ian McQuaid suggested that the time had come for UK artists to realise their home advantage; “grime artists have been discovering that they have an unlikely natural home performing in the loose party atmosphere a festival thrives on. Now they can’t wait for more“. When the time came for this year’s acts to be revealed, it came as no surprise when the likes of Skepta, Chip, Big Narstie, P Money, Kano and Ghetts all got slots. UK Music reported that in 2015 around 3.7 million people attended festivals up and down the country and it seems that grime is steadily gaining a larger audience and with it, more fans. So with a surging popularity, has the time come to have grime shine on the main stage full time or is this simply a passing phase?
Dizzee Rascal was the first “grime act” to really transition into a mainstream artist. In 2003, he won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for his breakthrough debut album Boy In Da Corner, beating the likes of Coldplay, The Darkness and Radiohead and from there went on to create music with the likes of Calvin Harris, Bun B and Armand Van Halden. In the six years that followed, he had three top 10 albums [Showtime, Maths + English, Tongue N’ Cheek] and scored three #1 singles in a row. He had shown his versatility as an artist and as a mark of his achievements, he performed at the famous Pyramid Stage and the biggest UK festival of the year, Glastonbury in 2009. The event marked a long journey for the East London star who is seen as one of the forefathers of the grime scene and showed that Grime is not a genre to be ignored. Yes, it’s true that tracks like ‘Bonkers’ and ‘Dance wiv Me’ resonated better with the Glasto crowd and his set was never really inherently grime but it showed the organic progress and development of the UK scene. But things haven’t always been so easy.
Back in 2008, Lethal Bizzle was booked to play a slot at Download Festival. Four years previously, his infamous riotous anthem ‘Pow (Forward)‘ had been banned from playing on various mainstream stations and as a result, was refused to play at many venues. The track was part of a case that had grime acquire a reputation for violence that would see the police develop Form 696 – a risk assessment form that required promoters to specify audience ethnicity (at least initially), plus names and addresses of performers – and use it to close down nights where the genre was being performed. But then, one of the genre’s leading frontmen went on to perform at Download, a predominantly rock and heavy metal festival and had attracted criticism in the weeks before the event. The event saw bottles of liquid and even a Muller Rice thrown at Bizzle and just went to show how grime was being under-represented and somewhat rejected on the mainstream festival circuit.
In 2013, the Godfather of Grime Wiley went off on a Twitter rant against Glastonbury Festival, even refusing to play his scheduled set. In a series of tweets [that he has since deleted], the rapper tweeted frustration over having to perform at that year’s festival; “Soon as I land …Rain ffs,” he began, before adding several tweets later: “Fuck it life goes on but I am pissed. Glastonbury ain’t paying me enough to leave my comfort zone …tight bastards.” Later in his tirade, Wiley began tweeting at the official Glastonbury Festival Twitter account, @GlastoFest. “please cancel me I do not want to play for you ever again,” he urged. Even a year after the infamous incident, Wiley called Glastonbury organiser Michael Eavis a racist and compared him to shamed NBA team LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The whole Wiley saga was just yet another reminder that grime wasn’t quite ready to be accepted on the main stage and was again pushed back underground.
This “time away” in essence was grime’s saviour. While the spotlight was moved away from the grime scene, it took a movement to ensure that it could once again shine on the main stage. Yes, the acts were there but the infrastructure of the genre needed work and this required a better understanding of the scene as a whole. People understood as well as a good artist, you need effective PR, precise management and people who are willing to work day and night in order to see success. Jon Mac, head booker of Reading & Leeds festival spoke to GRM Daily earlier this year and noted that one of the main reasons we are saw the rise of grime on mainstream platforms was the efforts of the scene as a whole;
“I think that when grime first tried to break through, the artists weren’t ready…Then over a period of years, these people fine-tuned their craft. The producers got better, the writers got better, the managers and the labels got better. So when the spotlight moved back on to them again, not only did you have Skepta and Jme, you had a whole bunch of people ready to go. You have Stormzy, everybody ready, putting out amazing music, putting on great club nights. Managers that know what they’re doing now, because they’ve been doing it for years on a ground level. It just needed that time, the world to look away for a bit, and now the spotlight’s back on the music and the people are ready. It feels like now is the time“.
Grime has been more popular than anyone would ever have imagined, or even believed. For the first time since Dizzee Rascal and Roll Deep earned initial major label success, people outside of the immediate grime community actually took notice. Skepta has been selling out shows all over the UK and beyond, Wiley got his own paving stone in Bow and Stormzy got to #8 in the UK Christmas charts. Stormzy even picked up two MOBOs for Best Male and Best Grime Act at last year’s awards and yes, Kanye West invited Krept & Konan, Skepta, Jammer and Novelist on stage at the beginning of 2015. The heavy presence of grime acts on the mainstream circuit and the efforts of people like Jammer and Wiley – MCs who have always been outspoken about the underrepresentation of grime – have truly influenced and pushed towards the birth of a new grime generation.
As David Byrne of Urban Nerds says, grime is no longer a “dirty word anymore”; “[people] want to be affiliated with the scene across the board. Producers want to make grime beats, DJs want to spin grime tracks, lyricists want to spit bars at 140 bpm & ultimately promoters want to book these guys. I think that the musicians in the scene are more aware of their own sound these days as well. They’ve learnt from the paths forged by those before them. It also helps that many of the pioneers have stayed true to the scene for 15 or so years. That, coupled with the re-emergence of events like Eskimo Dance & the surfacing of newer nights like The Den has shone a positive light on the scene in the live event space. Authorities have begun to realise fans aren’t causing trouble but are there to enjoy the sounds of a sub-culture the UK should be proud of”.
Fast forward to 2016 and things look a whole lot different. Wireless festival, which has had a storied past with putting on a variety of urban acts, published their 2016 line up and the inclusion of names such as Yungen, Bugzy Malone, Lady Leshurr, Rude Kid, Fekky and Elf Kid has shown how far we have come. Last year’s Wireless Festival saw headliner Drake bring out hometown hero Skepta for a performance of ‘Shutdown‘ and the crowd went mental [literally!]. While the moment was celebrated by many and marked a landmark moment for the North London rapper, it raised questions about “why wasn’t he there on his own terms” and begged the argument that Skepta deserved his own headline slot, not a cameo role to Drizzy. But this year, Wireless took note and on Sunday, has booked Boy Better Know to headline Sunday’s proceedings. As VICE put it earlier this year, “It’s a big move from a major festival to finally start making some effort to mould the British headliners of the future, rather than booking the exact same acts that have been closing stages since 2008“. Seeing the surge of home grown UK grime acts being put on across festivals in the UK, it seems that they are finally being respected for their talent and success. Alexandra Ampofo, a founder of Acoustic Live UK says that grime is becoming accepted and the time has come for mainstream festivals to accept that;
“Grime is a culture. And soon, mainstream festivals will have to accept it for what it is; grime can be as contemporary as any other genre of music, as we’ve all seen. I think it is happening because it’s inevitable, the way grime makes us feel? That can’t be replicated anywhere else, there’s no choice but to now appreciate it. The organisers at the top are now witnessing how well grime does at these mainstream festivals, so they’re coming round to the idea of booking the Stormzy’s & the Lethal B’s, they’d be silly not to. Although people may argue that the people being booked aren’t performing authentic grime, we can’t deny that the origins of their music lie in grime”.
This also leads into many people’s feelings that while grime will be heard at this year’s major festivals, is there a threat to the grime scene and in parts, its ethos? Grime as a genre has been borne out of an anti-establishment mentality, with young men and women using the medium of music to talk about their lives and frustrations with society. The initial surge in grime was reflected by its underground roots and passion to remain gritty and real. With regulations put in place by many of the major festivals, will this be lost and is it considered a sacrifice that needs to be made in order for the genre to evolve? Eklipse, a rapper and MC from East London suggests that even if a change is required, the grime scene will need to remain resilient in its attempts to remain authentic; “The possible downside could be that it [grime] will be diluted in order to make it “more universal”. I personally hope that never happens as it would be a poor representation of the culture of grime. Grime was made almost as a defiance so that element should always be retained above all“.
The strength and power of the UK grime scene was made all the more credible last month when Born & Bred, a collaborative festival put on by Rinse FM and Found Series, cancelled the performance of Azealia Banks after she made racist comments and publicly mocked the grime scene via social media. In a series of tweets, Banks said she hated grime and the grime scene came out in force to show their support. DJ Target, Manga St Hilaire and Shystie were among those who responded to Banks and defended grime and the UK as a whole. In the following days, Born & Bred announced that Azealia Banks had been cancelled and it showed that the grime and urban scene can no longer be marginalised, discredited and forgotten, but will stand up for itself and be respected.
But what about the future? Will this rise in grime at mainstream festivals be gone before it has even started or will this mark a new trend that will improve and develop over years to come? It can’t be denied that in a cutthroat industry such as the music industry, there could be a fear of grime being rejected before it has time to blossom. Grime veteran Saskilla poses the question himself and asks if grime should just go it alone;
“It’s a very positive look if it continues, as grime has been overlooked for a decade, but if the intentions of these festivals is to purely use grime to have a cool edge for a year or two and discard the artists and crews once they have hit their goals of a new audience then I believe they should leave the scene alone. But either way grime getting more exposure can never be a bad thing and to be fair some of the major artists of grime could emulate the Americans and put on our own festivals with Boy Better Know, Lethal B, Dizzee Rascal and Kano funding it. Otherwise what have we really achieved in 10 years?”
The answer is not the clearest but that shouldn’t take away from all the monumental progress we have seen so far. Long gone are the days of Wiley expressing his frustration via social media [well sort of!] and Lethal Bizzle getting bottled on stage, now we have Skepta and BBK performing as headliners at Wireless and over 75 grime acts, both new and old performing all over the UK and Europe, sharing the genre they love. As a grime fan, I hope it never ends but hey, I’m happy while it lasts.