Britain’s most innovative musical export since punk rock is grime

Breaking through.
Breaking through.
Image: Reuters/Mary Turner
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Punk burst into the British music scene in the late 1970s. The loud, anti-establishment sound, with its outlandish fashion, tapped into youth discontent at a time of high unemployment and widespread antipathy to the British government. It was a powerful and at times crude rejection of the rules that long dictated music and it emerged as the defining musical force of the era.

Forty years later, grime—the UK’s homegrown answer to hip-hop, is having a similar impact.

That’s the conclusion of the first academic study into grime. Mykaell Riley, director of the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster, describes grime as “the most disruptive cultural transformation of the British music industry since punk.” Grime, which has its roots in reggae, dancehall and garage, as well as hip hop, was born in working class estates in East London in the early 2000s. Young people tuned into pirate radio (as Grime wasn’t being played on mainstream stations) to hear more of the dark, unrelenting sound, with the 140-beats-per-minute backbone that has come to define the genre.

Grime’s transformation from an underground music genre into a pop culture juggernaut was led by the artists Wiley and Dizzie Rascal. In particular, Dizzie Rascal’s groundbreaking debut album Boy in da Corner was a turning point for the genre, making him the first rapper to win the Mercury Prize, which awards the very best of British music, in 2003. Since then, heavyweights such as Skepta, Stormzy, Giggs, and JME have continued to innovate in the genre. This year, Skepta won the Mercury Prize, beating the favorites, David Bowie and Radiohead.

Grime has until now been mostly a curiosity in the US hip hop world. The American rapper Kanye West brought an impressive crew of the genre’s most prominent artists onto the stage with him in London in 2015 during a performance of “All Day” at the Brit Awards—but while some grime fans applauded his gesture as a powerful American star opening doors for an underground movement that has been sidelined, others wondered why such innovative artists were being treated “like back-up dancers,” with no musical contribution. It’s perhaps a measure of progress that Drake’s More Life album, released this year, featured a number of grime artists—including Skepta and Giggs—as well as using British slang common in grime songs (to the confusion of some Americans).

Like punk, grime has captivated disaffected young people across Britain. But unlike punk—which channeled the rage of young white Brits—grime gives voice to anger at systemic racism and state violence against black men and women.

Riley’s study notes that grime is much more than a byproduct of a disaffected youth. “It’s not a side issue, it’s the creative output of Black Britain’s youth,” he writes. “Most youths creating music talk about their experiences and that is what’s happening in grime. The experiences are a bit dark and a bit risqué but they’re not doing anything different than any other young creative.”

One study participant describes grime as “raw and real” and loves that it originated in the UK, while another is proud that the genre blossomed “from a generation that came from nothing—and persevered and changed the game entirely.”

This year, grime galvanized a grassroots political movement that helped deny UK prime minister Theresa May the overwhelming majority she was seeking in parliament. In the run-up to the British election, grime artists rallied around the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a 68-year-old socialist, with a movement dubbed “grime4Corbyn.” The movement was key to getting the youth vote out, giving Corbyn’s Labour party some unexpected wins throughout the country.

While generations of black Brits grew up listening to hip-hop and other American music, grime gave young people an outlet that reflected their own slang and accents, as well of speaking to the problems affecting young people in Britain today.

British rapper Tinie Tempah (born Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu), who came up as a grime artist before moving into grime-inflected pop, says the genre is starting to get the recognition it deserves because black British people are finally comfortable with their own identity.

“We’re the most ourselves we’ve ever been,” he told Quartz at the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia last month. “I feel over the past ten or fifteen years, we’ve basically found our own voice. We’ve found what makes us us, we found what we love about our culture and what we love about I guess being black British.”

Some are predicting that grime will be Britain’s next big cultural export. But Grime has a ways to go before it dominates global music charts or stages another “British invasion” on the American music scene. Still, its success story so far shows how innovative, groundbreaking, and tenacious the genre is.

For an introduction to some of the best artists in the genre, check out this playlist on Spotify.