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Grime Original

Discover Open Mic, a series of articles that celebrates Hennessy’s cultural richness and the passions of our communities.

This month, British music journalist and historian Lloyd Bradley unveils the origin story of ultimate British pop music: Grime.

Open Mic

If I had to name the ultimate British pop music it would be grime. No contemporary music style has so accurately reflected life as it is lived in the UK’s cities as grime does. Nothing else has so cleverly drawn from across the nation’s modern music heritage – punk, electro, drum ‘n’ bass, jungle and so on. And, probably most crucially, grime is the first British black music genre to be so obviously, almost obnoxiously, homegrown, rather than a reworking of something else such as funk or reggae or hip hop.

Indeed, grime could only have been born in Britain and created by British kids snatching anything they could from their environments, like UK TV dialogue, traffic sounds, railway station announcers, Playstation bleeps, and mixing them with rudimentary music software. It was never going to sound all that sophisticated when put against the mainstream music of the day, but that was sort of the point. Grime was created out of a DIY ethic, with no conventional music industry filters or input, and its beats and backing tracks became an authentic soundtrack, constructed to bring the best out of local accents and patois which in turn told tales that celebrated those environments, sometimes: bleak, sometimes mundane, frequently hilarious, but always instantly relatable in a way so much music wasn’t.

Like rock ‘n roll in the 1950s or punk in the 1970s, grime didn’t make any sense to the older generation, which proved it was doing something right and, entirely understandably, a generation of British youth embraced it as the most appropriate expression of how they were living.

Open Mic  in a club

Of course, grime would never have happened if it hadn’t been for reggae and the sound system culture that arrived with it from Jamaica in the 1950s and 1960s. These powerful, bass-heavy, massive-speaker's mobile set ups allowed reggae to develop and thrive away from the restraints of the British music establishment, simply because they gave the music financial independence.  Sound system operators put on their own dances in hired halls, spaces above pubs or somebody’s living room –- once the carpet had been rolled back, obviously – and publicized them in sympathetic local businesses like record shops, cafes or barbers. Then, on the day of, they’d set up their equipment, charge admission and sell food and drinks.

Open Mic mix  in a club

It was lucrative as the UK’s cities offered up a huge potential audience from the black population, an audience that was so often made to feel unwelcome in conventional dance halls, those who were more discerning about their music or simply wanted to socialize with people that looked like them. To stay ahead of their competition, sound system owners would engage musicians to cut records exclusively for their use, experimenting with the music, rhythms and beats to give themselves the edge. If a tune went down well, it would be pressed up for sale, and “distributed” out of the back of the sound system owner’s car to independent record shops, cafes, barbers … like the dances that were publicized, anywhere black people congregated. With records regularly selling into the tens of thousands, this became a hugely lucrative business.

IT’S ALL IN THE MIX

As important as providing an income, this under-the-radar approach meant black music turned over sounds and styles far quicker than the conventional record industry. Firstly because there was nobody to tell the producers “No” – there weren’t A&R meetings or video budget considerations or marketing department input, just somebody who thought “That seems like a good idea, I’m going to try it.”  Then secondly, when a record producer’s audience was two metres away from them when they were operating their sound system at a dance, the crowd would immediately let them know if they were not happy. Thus when a sound system operator made records he or she had to keep moving forward because their competition would be and they’d lose their audience otherwise. 

In the 1970s and 1980s lovers rock, a uniquely British version of reggae, thrived on the sound systems, then during the 1990s and into the 21st Century things really began to heat up. Rave culture took over, with sound systems at the heart of it pushing British black music to constantly evolve. Jungle developed out of dancehall reggae, with emcees such as the Ragga Twins, Shy FX and DJ Zinc never straying too far from their raucous reggae roots. This led to drum n’ bass, a slightly better mannered version that conquered the mainstream thanks to artists like Goldie and 4Hero.

Open Mic

In the 1970s and 1980s lovers rock, a uniquely British version of reggae, thrived on the sound systems, then during the 1990s and into the 21st Century things really began to heat up. Rave culture took over, with sound systems at the heart of it pushing British black music to constantly evolve. Jungle developed out of dancehall reggae, with emcees such as the Ragga Twins, Shy FX and DJ Zinc never straying too far from their raucous reggae roots. This led to drum n’ bass, a slightly better mannered version that conquered the mainstream thanks to artists like Goldie and 4Hero.

UK Garage was another sub-culture that began on sound systems and in underground clubs, but thanks to its upmarket aspirations and imagery it soon crossed over as the likes of So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite and Craig David scored Top Ten hits. Likewise dubstep, emerging out of UK garage by incorporating dub reggae technique and catching mainstream attention, allowed formerly underground producers like Benga and Skream to make it into the mainstream charts in collaboration with Rihanna, Katy B and even Britney Spears.
Grime came about as a street level reaction to UK garage’s apparent expensive exclusivity – designer labels and champagne were pretty much regulated – and approached what it did with innocence and insolence. Grime had no rules. Producers and artists “borrowed” from all of the styles mentioned above and anywhere else they fancied. Dizzee Rascal once told me “Grime isn’t made by people who don’t know how to make music, but by people who don’t care how to make music.”

Open Mic Flat

DIY IS THE WAY FORWARD

It’s because grime has never strayed too far from its sound system and rave culture roots that it has sustained itself for over twenty years. So many of the grime kids are from sound system backgrounds, with dad’s, uncles, mums or older siblings immersed in that world during the 1970s and 1980s which led them to understand the importance of keeping things “in house.” which is a spirit they’ve taken even further by embracing technology and social media. In the beginning grime could present itself exactly how it saw itself, recording on Playstations with rudimentary music software, making videos on smartphones, putting tracks on YouTube while publicity came courtesy of Instagram. Pirate and Internet radio operated in the same way as sound systems, but the underground stations were breaking tunes to a much wider audience. Grime came to grips with the download a long time before the mainstream industry. As personal technology evolved it was snapped up as a means to more sophisticated recording and filming but still within a DIY culture.

These days, when grime artists sign with major labels they deliver finished music and visuals at a very high standard, remaining in total control of their output with the company acting as a glorified distributor of a physical product. By continuing to operate like this grime hasn’t stood still and continues to play by its own rules. Most recently this has shown itself in the offshoots of the genre, such as drill and rap, and created the DIY environment for afrobeats to become one of the biggest genres on the British music scene as it had a template to develop itself away from the mainstream. More importantly though, in the audience-led traditions of the sound system, staying in touch with what music lovers actually feel and want, it has increasingly become a part of mainstream pop. As grime stays true to its primary audience – the streets – it has been embraced by kids for whom multiculturalism is a way of life. It has united a seemingly diverse community around a passion for this music that speaks to so many in a way that makes sense of their lives.

  • Lloyd Bradley

    About Lloyd Bradley
     
    British music journalist and historian Lloyd Bradley dove into the Jamaican music scene in North-London during adolescence. Years later, he released one of the most important books on reggae music, Bass culture. More of his works can be found in NME, Black Music magazine, The Guardian and Mojo. He has also worked with Hennessy on an exhibition exploring the origins and influence of the UK’s most provocative genre, Grime, contributing to the Maison’s strong link to music culture. 
     

  • Simon Wheatley

    About Simon Wheatley 
     
    Photographer Simon Wheatley spent twelve years documenting grime culture. With his name beginning to spread through the community, he started shooting for music magazine RWD, which earned him his street credibility. His book  Don’t Call me Urban! The Time of Grime, a visual testimony of Britain’s most important subculture shot between 1998 and 2010, chronicles the grime scene's foundations and emergence, and he has continued to document the genre since then with films as well as photography.