Grime & The Avant-Garde

At the turn of the millennium, the Western world began wrapping up the revivalist explosion of the 1990s, an echo from the past that produced a brief spurt of innovation no longer really there. Culture was already dead, we just didn’t know it until the clock struck 12 and the Millenium Dome opened its doors. The capitalist realism of Mark Fisher’s nightmares consumed all. 

Pop was dead and we’d killed it. It seemed almost crazy to anyone born after 1995 that new ideas were once not only present in the Top 40 but the whole point of the charts themselves. For the first 2 decades of this century, the bulk of mainstream culture has been stuck in a feedback loop of resurrected sounds and visuals, each one weaker than its predecessor. 

Scrap Heap Indie in the early 00s saw English bands attempt to revive something only a few years old at the time, all desperately angling to be the next Stone Roses or Oasis. The key missing component was authenticity — these bands weren’t raised around the crumbling mills of Manchester, nor were they the snobbish cosmopolitan taste makers of Carnaby Street and so a string of middle class, often privately-educated men (almost exclusively) put on trilbys and winklepickers and began attempting to resuscitate the 90s (which was grave-robbing the 60s). 

From Bombay Bicycle Club to the Maccabees, bands sprung up in all the major universities. Everyone listened, it was all there was to listen to, no one really liked it; its only innovation was the introduction of the hooty posh-boy voice shared by many of the singers. 

This short-lived (although not short enough) scene ran parallel with the further commodification of Hip-Hop, which has continued to this day. Hip-Hop is the dominant global genre, not just in its purest form but in how it has been absorbed into commercialised pop music. 

The unusual thing about Hip-Hops continued domination is the fact it’s now over 40 years old. It’s hard to imagine Disco, which arose around the same time as Hip-Hop, still dominating all the charts. Perhaps its Hauntological quality keeps it alive, its ability to deceive people that it’s new, possibly because of its often graphic content, Hip-Hop & Rap feel very much the music of young people, despite its originators now being old men. 

I often wonder why there’s a persistent requirement for the elderley to do “raps” for comedic value, the joke presumably a juxtaposition between young culture and old people, when DJ Kool Herc is now himself 65. 

It would seem that, based on the above, there is no light escaping from this black hole. Yet when you look past the event horizon, there is Grime. In my opinion, the only legitimate cultural phenomena of the past 20 years and one of the most underestimated musical movements in history. Too often Grime is maligned as merely a vulgar English version of US Hip-Hop or a “primitive electronica.”

These things are both true and untrue. Hip-Hop’s influence on Grime is undeniable, but the extent to which it influenced its actual sound is far less than is popularly believed. Grime MCing, often compared to American rapping, is based on the stylistic origins of Jamaican Toasting and soundsystem culture, drum n bass and garage MCing. 

Coxsone International Sound System – Clement Dodd with the microphone

Toasting was of course a source of inspiration for the birth of Hip-Hop in the Bronx, but it’s important to recognise these sounds developed separately, and were fashioned into different tools: Hip-Hop became the chronicler and conscience of the US ghetto, whilst in the UK the MC remained largely a genuine “master of ceremonies” leading the dancehall. Despite this, American Hip-Hop certainly influenced the aesthetic and lyrical content. 

In terms of “Primitive Electronica” whilst the technology, techniques and production used is significantly less sophisticated than other electronic genres, this unsophistication only extends as far as method; in creativity, experimentation and artistic merit it far surpasses its contemporaries. 

When Pulse X By Youngstar came out in 2002, it symbolised a distinct shift from Grime’s origins in 2-Step Garage. This instrumentals stripped-back, raw sound captured imaginations. Where dance music had been associated with complex, layered rhythms, Youngstar removed all the unnecessary accompaniments and left only a distorted bass-cum-kick drum and a shuffling clap, solidifying the genres golden rule “less is more.”

Grime was now officially born, and throughout its history, experimentation has been weaved into the fabric, leaving a great deal of extremely undervalued, avant-garde sounds. 

Wiley’s “Eskimo” riddim is also claimed to have sparked the genre, and sounds nothing like anything that came before it. The distorted square wave bass takes centre stage whilst a delay-ridden synth chimes a 4 note melody, the unusual percussion sounds became the archetype for the “EskiBeat” subgenre. 

Experimentation continued with Wileys prodigy Dizzee Rascal. Songs like “Round We Go” pushed the sound in unusual directions with its heavily syncopated drum pattern; it is neither 4×4 or the 2-Step shuffle found in Garage. A simple, minor key melody chimes in intermittently, ladened with a detuned white noise provided by what sounds like a wind simulator. Dizzee’s production was “primitive,” having been largely made on Playstation’s Music 2000, but the ideas were advanced.

Producers like Danny Weed pushed the boundaries further on tracks like “Heat Up” & “When I’m Here” combining reversed guitar samples, synthesised wind instruments, a rapid kick drum pattern and a single hit per bar of the genre defining snare sound.

Later artists like Low Deep, DaVinche & Merlin worked on incorporating more melodic elements, often sampling vocals, and composing impressive string arrangements with synthesised plugins. 

Dot Rotten (Zeph Ellis) also carved out a particularly ambient sound, steaming ahead with a vast quantity of instrumental releases, comparative in principle to painter and musician Billy Childish, who values output and creative spirit over perfection. Some of these gems, that in more commercialised genres would have been cast out as dissonant, unaccessible or even esoteric remain works of deep artistic merit. 

Rotten Riddims Vol. 6 by Dot Rotten (Compilation, Grime): Reviews ...

Prince Rapid of Ruff Sqwad took influence more directly from 2-step, with its 2/4 snare patterns but he replaced the emphatic melody with lofi samples of urban ambiance, often including sirens, bird sounds and distant conversations.

The intensity of these riddims were only broken by the lyrical flurries of MCs, who pushed genres vocal boundaries in quick succession, from the deep lyrical content of Wretch 32 to the ultraviolence of Crazy Titch, each MC had to develop distinct manner of their own to be recognised on London’s pirate radio scene. 

Flirta D, D Double E & Scratchy carved out a name for themselves by making unique vocal sound effects, Flirta with an ability to mimic other voices and MC in reverse, D Double E with his array of catchy phrases and Scratchy with his high pitched sound effect called the “Warrior Charge.” 

As well as this, Grime MCs used and often influenced a huge vocabulary of slang, combining elements of Cockney, Jamaican Patois and regional colloquialisms, Grime has almost developed a language in its own right. 

With certain phrases and words only entering the general consciousness through MCs, something that might have been only used by a small group of people, is now used by entire cities and featuring in the lyrics of hundreds of songs. 

As Grime has had a resurgence in the last few years, the avant-garde elements of Grime have persisted. Mumdance, The Bug and Commodo with their reverb-laden, sparse, dub influenced sound. Novelist, whose use of soundfonts, old synthesisers and often upbeat melodies create a bridge between Grime and vaporwave. Boothroyd with his Eski-influenced, syncopated, tuned percussion, often making the brave decision to go without kick or snare drums, leaving a minimalist soundscape for MCs to experiment with vocal patterns and wordplay.

At the front end of each significant artist movement, critics and punters turn their nose up, making comparisons to their preferred movement of the past, each being summarily proved wrong when the influence is fully calculated. Much like Post-Punk, with its experimental, genre-bending, esotericism now understood, it is my wish that 20 years after the birth of Grime, the genre gains the plaudits it deserves and finally becomes recognised as the artistic phenomenon of our time.

– Harry Dobson

0161 have curated a playlist, featuring the artists listed and examples of Grime’s avant-garde side.

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