In June 2015, I attended the Wild Life festival in Shoreham-by-Sea, in the UK. I, and everyone over 25 there, went to see the Wu-Tang Clan. Wu-Tang was the iconic breakthrough New York underground hip hop supergroup of the 1990s. However, everyone under 25 was there to see somebody else. The act on before Wu Tang were a couple of London Grime MCs, Skepta and JME, from the Boy Better Know collective, acts that I (and my fellow over-25s) had vaguely heard of but always had down as minor UK rappers warming things up for the main event.
An hour before Wu Tang were due to start, a London MC (I later identified as Skepta) began acapella rapping over the main stage sound system, and suddenly thousands of under-25s came running from all over the festival site, leaving the other stages quiet. The kids packed to the front and then started to form circled off areas within the crowd where they could throw themselves about. Siblings JME and Skepta and their Boy Better Know stablemates ran the show, with energy and crowd participation, directing the big screen cameras to zone in on balaclava wearing youths in the mob. This was my introduction to British Grime. They opened with Skeptas’ 2014 hit ThatsNotMe and proceeded to blow the place apart for an hour. I was 35 and didn’t understand it, but the kids were going crazy and that’s exactly when I knew it was good, really good.
Going back 20 years, urban electronic music emanating from London estates has given a creative output for young people to represent their views in their own way. The Wild Life experience echoed my own teenage awakenings to jungle and drum and bass in the mid-90s. However, back then and until recently I and the artists themselves relied on mainstream media and mostly major record labels to get the word out beyond their local London scenes. Artists such as Goldie in the 1990s (my major teenage reference point), Dizzee Rascal (2003) and Tinie Tempah (2011) could only champion the sound and genre they represented via Mercury prizes, conventional press and required endorsement from major record labels. The ‘majors’ were the essential channels for the work to thrive and reach a wider audience via traditional distribution networks.
In the past five years, new media platforms have matured to a point that allows Grime artists to set up their own labels and media outlets independently of mainstream record labels and mainstream media support. Mirroring the evolution of vloggers, established new media platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Spotify enable Grime artists and scene supporters to get their music and message out to audiences beyond their local London base and across the globe. From its humble beginnings in West London, self-made, under-30, media millionaire Jamal Edwards’ SBTV YouTube channel that initially specialised in Grime music has rocketed in global success and value. New media also permits getting work out in a far more rapid fashion than ever before and, most importantly, the artists and protagonists within the scene are running it.
Penetrating the USA has always been a target for the majority of UK musicians, which traditionally required the support of a major label for access, whereas the Grime scene has shown this is no longer the case. In his 2015 BRIT awards performance, American hip hop superstar Kanye West invited UK Grime artists including Skepta, JME and Stormzy (prior to any record deal) to join him on stage. Skepta, JME and their fellow artists were visible to the US hip hop elite without major label involvement. Skepta and JME’s successful 2014 ThatsNotMe track and accompanying YouTube video (shot for a budget of £80) put their work onto the global stage and at present has more than 3 million views. US hip hop and RnB superstar Drake performed with the Boy Better Know collective in 2016 and has been rumoured to be in negotiations to be on the roster for a forthcoming Boy Better Know international record label.
The Grime MCs have also managed to broaden their influence beyond music. They have had an impact on their own terms at a political, social and cultural level. Artists including JME, Stormzy and Novelist have all urged their twitter followers to register to vote and back Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 UK general election. The recent #Grime4Corbyn campaign offered people the opportunity to win tickets to a secret Grime concert if they registered to vote, notably not telling people how to vote, merely to just do so.