Starting in London in the early 00s grime was a genre that was initially spread through pirate radio stations and the underground scene before gaining prominence through artists such as Wiley and Dizzee Rascal. It was in fact Dizzee Rascal's debut album Boy in Da Corner winning the Mercury Prize in 2003 that was considered a turning point for the genre. Here writer Jesse Bernard explores the transmutation of grime and how it is finding new audiences in an ever more connected world.
Cover illustration by Caramurú Baumgartner
Light travels faster than the speed of sound. But music, one of the many vessels through which sound travels, moves in unorthodox, non-linear trajectories. Before I started my career as a music writer, I was always buoyed by the ways in which a sound, or genre, from the farthest corners of the world, found its way to the otherside.
Before the internet, music moved around the world at a much slower rate. Big hits and albums would often be released months or even a year later in the US and Europe, and vice versa. Underground scenes would rely on tastemakers to purvey the sounds across the world but even then, music was still far more localised than it exists today. We have platforms such as MySpace and YouTube to thank for the homogenising of music and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These are the platforms that helped a homegrown Black British sound such as grime grow wings and fly the coop.
To witness grime grow from being a sound no one knew what to call to being present in various cultures and countries across the world is much like watching a younger sibling grow through adolescence into maturity. Relatively speaking, it’s only about 15 years old and in that time, grime has taken many forms as well as morphing into hybrid sounds in other parts of the world.
I’ll admit, it was difficult to find specific nights dedicated to grime alone — even hip-hop often shares space with reggaeton and baile funk. However, there are a few places in the world, besides the Caribbean, where grime naturally belongs and Brazil is a ready-made ecosystem for the sound and culture. The BPM of baile funk sits roughly around the 130 mark, ten shy of the traditional 140 BPM in grime, which is difficult to find these days. In all of the hidden pockets and back alleys of Rio de Janeiro, where street parties on corners sound clash against one another, I eventually stumbled across a DJ playing grime instrumentals and riddims that I was familiar with in the UK. And much like the UK, there was an MC on the mic, setting the pace and vibe of the dance for a crowd who were just as exhilarated as the MC himself.
At that point, I began to ask myself, how had grime arrived here? Even though, I knew deep down that it was via the internet, there was further intrigue into how it was able to maintain a small presence in a city known for its samba, forró and bossa nova. The online platform, Brasil Grime Show, isn’t too dissimilar to the likes of NTS and the now-defunct Radar Radio where a host of MCs and DJs appear on air, such as Thai Flow, Diniboy, Juju Rude, Antco and Scarlett Wolf — to name a few — each with their own unique take on what they consider to be grime. You’ll see gunfingers, hear the occasional ‘brap’ and with the country’s political nature and the state violence that has affected the Black population for decades, grime feels right where it belongs in Brazil.
The scene in Brazil, much like the one in the US, Japan, Australia and Korea is made up of but a handful of MCs, DJs and producers. Not quite enough to shift and disrupt the local youth cultures but just the right amount to spark a growing movement. Politically, Brazil and the US make for the kind of incubators that would allow anti-establishment, street sounds to thrive. Especially in Brazil where as of May, over 500 people have been killed by police — a number that will continue to grow this year. The same can be said of the US — almost 400 people have been killed by police violence this year — but with hip-hop historically being the protest music of the youth for generations, grime hasn’t been able to gain as much of a foothold within marginalised communities there. However, with their own respective homegrown sounds, grime is another import but a significant one, particularly due to the fact that both hip-hop and baile funk derive from Caribbean sound system culture like their British sonical cousin.
The significance in grime being exported isn’t necessarily in how much of a presence it has elsewhere, but the ways in which the original sounds transmute and take on new shapes depending on the environment it lands in. In the non-Anglophone regions such as Brazil and Korea, sampling of classic beats, or riddims, is one of the ways in which grime has been reinvented. For Brazilian MCs, the style of MCing is very much the same as you’d hear in baile funk or rap, the BPMs are quite similar, therefore there’s little manoeuvring to be done. They may not have always called it grime but with similar cultural elements such as freestyles and dubplates, it could be suggested that a derivative of grime has always existed there.
However, in the US, the story is far more complicated and grime isn’t quite experiencing the breakthrough that it is elsewhere. The irony is that both grime and hip-hop were born from toasting, where the selector would sing and toast over a riddim, but they simply took very different sonical paths. It can be easy to assume grime is a derivative of rap in that sense but that also erases the Caribbean reggae influence over hip-hop. In this practice, sampling and the transmutation of sound was key for music to survive generation gaps. Miami-based label American Grime, does exactly what it says on the tin. The label most definitely are the odd children within predominantly Black American music, but speaking with MC Jumanji earlier this year for Noisey, one of the things that attracted him to the scene was the level of rule breaking, he felt was lost in rap. “The wordplay was smart and they could break rules that rap in America couldn't, like using the same word to end bars,” he said, “Grime offered the challenge of finding complex flow patterns over beats that hit hard and loud, so it was perfect for me because it required the intensity I had. It was a way to push myself lyrically and technically.”
Authenticity becomes a concern for purists and before the rise of the internet, there were perhaps valid arguments that cultures adopting an imported music form could be seen as inauthentic — which was very much the perception of early UK hip-hop in the late eighties and nineties. Even dancehall musicians were skeptical of this new form, garage, that was growing ever more popular in the nineties which would later mutate into grime. In Korea, many of the youth cultures have been imported due to country’s history of being culturally distant from the West. Yet, MCs such as Damndef, seeks to authenticate his own status within Korean grime by collaborating with the UK’s J-mal and Catarhh Nisin, on the remix for his hit “Do It.” While there’s a clear language barrier with the likes of Damndef and MCs in Brazil and Japan, their hope is that the flow, cadence and energy of the riddim is what will win people over. After all, if you can achieve a reload despite the audience not understanding what is being said, that speaks to the universal nature of grime.
Grime, in its purest form, is a hybrid genre born out of other sounds. Therefore it raises questions as to what is authentic when local environments impact the sounds that is produced from them. In an interview with FACT Mag in 2013, Lisbon-based label Principe Discos’ Pedro Gomes once said that the Angolan kuduro, kizomba combined with techno and house was their idea of grime. It’s clear that, internationally at least, grime has grown beyond the clear definition and boundaries we are typically used to in the UK.
We watch our children grow, stumble as they begin to walk, fall over and get back up again. Then comes a time when they’re ready to fly the nest and take on new experiences, maybe even travel the world. But when they come back home, not only do they return with a newfound maturity but with sprinklings of the cultures those children found themselves in. That has been the story of hip-hop since it left the US and now for us, it’s time to watch grime spread its wings and fly across the world.