Grime: The Counter-Culture Waiting to Explode

Gareth Cattermole

IN THE WAKE of the 2011 England riots, an entire nation swept its problems under the carpet. After three thousand arrests and over a thousand criminal charges, we condemned the rioters as opportunistic thieves, products of a generation that quite literally believed in taking what you wanted rather than earning it. Prime Minister David Cameron warned rioters, “You will feel the full force of the law. And if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face punishment”. Such ominous messages were echoed across the country, particularly by London Mayor Boris Johnson, and as we cleaned away the broken glass and rebuilt the burned-down buildings, we managed to trick ourselves into thinking the problem had gone away.

No one – in the mainstream media and political circles anyway – dared to ask why people were rioting. No one wondered what it must be like to live on a council estate, to have your entire community written-off as slackers who can’t be bothered to help themselves. No one ever wondered how it felt to see your entire way of life desecrated on your TV screen without anyone to fight in your corner.

And because no one asked, Grime has burst up and screamed the answers to those questions we all fear so much. Not only has this reinvigorated the UK music scene, it’s put ‘chavs’ at the forefront of our culture. Artists have taken the stereotype of the tracksuit and trainers, for so long a cheap joke, and made a fashion statement. Grime doesn’t shy away from its origins; instead they are at the forefront of its identity.

Many people, including a number of high-profile critics (and indeed the entirety of the Brit Awards panel, by the looks of things), have struggled to ‘get’ Grime. Admittedly, some of its most successful artists seem to be nothing more than arrogant musicians, but this sense of arrogance is vital to the identity of the music. Take Stormzy’s most successful single ‘Shut Up’, where he openly boasts “Yeah, I’m the best, I’m so cocky… I set trends, them man copy”. He is not simply celebrating his own brilliance, but the cultural significance of a black musician from Croydon – a marginalised race and a marginalised community – breaking their way into a UK chart that is cluttered with sickly-sweet pop music written primarily by white artists from privileged backgrounds.

The inherent pride embedded within the grime movement is most prevalent in the music of Skepta, whose independent label recently signed Canadian megastar Drake. In the music video for ‘Shut Down’, models are shown wearing tracksuits. While there are fair arguments on objectification to be made here, it is a positive portrayal of a culture that was once the subject of intense mockery – just look at a certain Matt Lucas character in Little Britain. This pride is reflected in Skepta’s lyrics, “Wanna know how I did it with no label, no A-list songs, and I told them/ Blud, I just shut down”. Grime is not simply a genre of music, it is living evidence that music can sell without succumbing to the mechanical monster that is the mainstream music industry.

Grime is at the heart of modern culture. Its artists prefer colloquialisms and everyday language to empty poetics of constructed indie artists like James Bay. Because of this, it has a sense of modernity to it that no other genre in British music does. This awareness of modern culture that so many grime artists have creates opportunity for fantastic pieces of wordplay (look no further than Stormzy’s ‘Know Me From’, “I come to a team and I fuck shit up, I’m David Moyes) and again it is this style of writing that sets Grime apart from the drivel of much of modern music.

It is for this reason that the omission of Grime at the recent Brit Awards is such a disgrace and, frankly, an embarrassment. To put it simply, the establishment is scared of Grime; it doesn’t like the idea of a genre made up mostly of independent black artists taking it on and winning. The last Brit Awards was an attempt to take Grime out of the game after Kanye West allowed it to steal the show during his 2015 performance. Luckily it failed miserably, but the Grime counter-culture must continue to flourish. For the first time since the eighties, there is a fresh and original musical voice that can speak for modern Britain. It is our duty as music fans to encourage this voice.