A grime primer

By Aaron Mendelson

In the mid to early-sixties, it must have been quite a shock for Americans to discover that Americaƒ?TMs greatest exportƒ?”rock and roll musicƒ?”had been appropriated by the British, and had mutated into something recognizable but distinctly different. This transmogrification quickly came to dominate the charts, even in America. And rightfully so: it may even have been better than its American counterpart. Flash forward to this decade. Americaƒ?TMs second greatest exportƒ?”hip-hop musicƒ?”has been appropriated by the British. It has mutated into something familiar but distinct. It may even be better than its American counterpart. The only difference is that grimeƒ?”as this strain of British hip-hop has come to be calledƒ?”has yet to catch on with the American mainstream.

This newspaper article is not positioned to change grimeƒ?TMs fortunes in America. Grime, which depends on obscure club shows, mp3s, and pirate radio as means of dissemination, is hard enough to keep up with if you live in East London, and significantly harder if you live in the Midwest. Thankfully, Vice Records has released two volumes of its Run the Road compilations, which collect grimeƒ?TMs finest; the most recent of these came out in February. Run the Road Volumes 1 and 2 showcase a fascinating and expansive genre. But because of the sprawling (and yet local) nature of grime, any attempt to capture it in words is destined to fail. Nevertheless, grimeƒ?TMs dramatis personae:

Dizzee Rascal
Dizzee is grimeƒ?TMs most prominent exponent. His Mercury Prize-winning 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner is as good an album as grime has produced. When Dizzee decided to make the record, however, he was presented with a problem: American hip-hop simply did not fit his hyperkinetic flow. Not the kind to be put off by such trifling matters, he forged his own brand of hip-hop, one replete with video game blips (according to legend, he crafted much of Boy In Da Corner on a PS2) and drum tracks owing as much to electronica as to hip-hop. The album met near-unanimous critical praise on both sides of the Atlantic, introducing grime to American ears. He followed it up in 2004 with the equally good Showtime, which curiously failed to attract the kind of attention its predecessor did, but Dizzee isnƒ?TMt going anywhere: he maintains, ƒ?oeitƒ?TMs probable theyƒ?TMll stop me probably never.ƒ??

Lady Sovereign
Lady Sov is the most exciting female MC on either side of the Atlantic. Her miniscule size (5ƒ?TM1ƒ?? and well under 100 pounds) is not reflected in her music. In fact, she may be the most tenacious MC in grime: her ƒ?oeCha Chingƒ?? practically stole the first Run the Road and her single, ƒ?oeRandom,ƒ?? a hilarious parody of American hip-hop (ƒ?oeGet off your churrƒ?”I mean chairƒ??), appeared on numerous best-of-2005 lists. 2005 also saw the release of Lady Sovƒ?TMs Vertically Challenged EP, which found an eager listener in Jay-Z, who liked what he heard enough to sign her to his Island/Def Jam imprint.

Kano
Kano appears a full seven timesƒ?”three times in his own songs, four times as a guest MCƒ?”on the two Run the Road albums. This summer he also found time to release Home Sweet Home an album that didnƒ?TMt, as some had predicted, catapult him to superstardom. The album canƒ?TMt be faulted for lack of quality, though. Kanoƒ?TMs flow isnƒ?TMt as thickly British as most of his colleagues, which makes for easier listening, even if it sacrifices a bit of charm. Better still are his beats: the Diplo-produced ƒ?oeReload Itƒ?? is one of the few grime songs to incorporate a sample so masterfully (HSH also features a loop from Black Sabbathƒ?TMs ƒ?oeWar Pigsƒ??). Kano works closely with DaVinche.

DaVinche
Sometime rapper, full-time production wizard, DaVinche produced nearly a fifth of the songs on the Run the Road compilations. His production is dense and punishing with synthesized horns all over the placeƒ?”DaVincheƒ?TMs tracks come as close as any in grime to gangsta rap.

Wiley
One of grimeƒ?TMs elder statesman, Wiley mentored a 16-year-old pre-fame Dizzee and today still features prominently as a producer, releasing an album of his own beats and rhymes in 2004 with Treedinƒ?TM On Thin Ice. His personal take on grime, which blends in elements of UK Garage, is called Eski.

Plan B
A guitar-strumming MC who came out of nowhere to steal Run the Road Vol. 2 with his bizarro ƒ?oeSick 2 Def.ƒ?? The song stands out for the unusual backing track, a stark, unaccompanied acoustic guitar. Lyrically, itƒ?TMs ingeniousƒ?”the last verse features a Reservoir Dogs-inspired act of violence told in reverse.

Roll Deep Crew
Dizzeeƒ?TMs original cohorts, this 21-member rap collective features notables Wiley, Riko, JME, and (a different) Jet Li. Roll Deep remain pirate radio stalwarts, but their stab at a full-length with In At The Deep End occasioned cries of ƒ?oesell-out.ƒ??

The Streets
Itƒ?TMs difficult to classify Mike Skinner, the bloke who calls himself The Streets, as a grime artist, but heƒ?TMs on both Run the Roads as a rapper and producer, and his glitchy beats and laconic flow are simply too good to ignore. His most recent effort was a concept album about losing a box of money, his third album, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living comes out this spring.

M.I.A.

Unlike The Streets, to classify M.I.A.ƒ?TMs music as grime would be simply wrong. Her vision is more global than grimeƒ?TMs rather parochial outlook, but the sonic murkiness of songs like ƒ?oeFire Fireƒ?? on her electro-funk masterpiece Arular bear grimeƒ?TMs imprint. She, likewise, is simply too good to be left off this list.