British Grime Was Great Before Kanye, And It Will Be Great After Kanye


This week at the Brit Awards, Kanye West performed a new song called “All Day.” It was an unequivocal banger, and the excited tension of hearing a new Yeezy track was amplified by the performance, which featured a giant entourage of mostly black men bopping and even getting low (on cue!) behind him. There was also the issue of that flamethrower!

The presentation was deeply minimalist, and my first thoughts about the presentation were: 1. damn, Kanye is taking the “billion-dude posse onstage at a rap show” trope to new heights; 2. damn, Kanye is finding new, super innovative ways to present his love of minimalism, especially because you don’t automatically think “minimal” when you imagine a hundred dudes on a stage with a fountain of flame; 3. damn, this set is mad symmetrical.

I did not immediately notice that several of the billion-dude posse members were prominent rappers and producers from the UK grime scene, including Skepta, Jammer, and Novelist, the latter two of whom have been a part since its inception over 15 years ago (and the last time US audiences were suddenly interested, which was circa 2003-2004). Here’s an old track in which Skepta and Jammer murk out an icy beat talking about getting money, new money.

I also want to mention Skepta’s brother JME, who didn’t seem to be in the Kanye posse but is hands down my favorite grime MC and also, fun anecdote, a devoted vegan. Here is a fire JME song called “If You Don’t Know,” about how if you don’t know who JME is and what he’s done for the culture, he’ll tell you and all—but he’ll probably think you’re a bit of a chump.

Kanye bringing British grime artists onstage to the Brit Awards was a nice, savvy way for him to rep Londontowne, especially because grime has been reviled in mainstream British pop culture, for various reasons: racism; the generally impoverished, often immigrant council estates from which many grime artists come; and how the combination of those things has made British cops and politicians shut down clubs and movements relating to practically every black musical subculture there for the past several decades. (Ironically, it’s a small part of why British dance music is so vibrant—it has to be nimble to evolve to evade the club shutdowns.)

Last year, Noisey made a short documentary about this phenomenon called “The Police vs. Grime Music,” hosted by JME, who doesn’t generally rap about anything that could be remotely construed as violent or troublemaking (he does have some particularly passionate views on his aforementioned veganism, but he generally confines those to Twitter). The documentary was made right after the cops cancelled a huge, hotly anticipated concert at the Barbican which featured JME as well as a fairly diverse assortment of genres, including Syrian star Omar Souleyman and British pop weirdo Sophie. The documentary shows how ultimately these types of cancellations boil down to racism, plain and simple.

So while Kanye didn’t exactly showcase grime as a genre, it was seen by some Brits as a move that validated these longtime artists’ music, if not by acceptance than if by presence—if these rappers are excluded on television well, dammit, Kanye’s gonna at least make you look at their faces. “Generally Britain has a culture where it can’t accept difference until someone outside and bigger (*cough* America) validates,” tweeted Jendella Benson, via Black Girls Talking. It also further underscores that Kanye pays attention to subcultural music (though calling grime a “subculture” seems absurd)—it will be interesting to see if any of his stage homies show up on his imminent new album, or if he has been influenced by the influx of wildly creative young (and old!) grime producers, such as Butterz’s Flava D, or Ghost House’s Spooky, or Oil Gang’s Novelist, with whom Ye shared the stage.

There are so many more talents, and in their respective genres they match that of Kanye’s, and sometimes even top it. It’s a give and take. Kanye’s last video featured his baby. The latest video from Stormzy, who was also on the “All Day” stage, features his mum.

The way that many websites in the United States went about reporting on the Kanye-grime collision did, I must admit, slightly annoy me—briefly even to an all-caps level. There were introductions and basic-level primers. There were wiki-style ” meet these guys“es and, of course, a litany of .gifs. And, man, grime is too fucking good to “break” (again) in the USA this way, if it does. These people have been grinding it out for years! Don’t call it a comeback! After I had some coffee, though, I calmed down: internet culture has made it so the USA is probably more ready to accept super-fast rappers with deep East and South London brogues, a thing that seemed like a barrier in 2004 (although in the era of Iggy Azalea, it’s interesting that the person who came the closest back then was the diminutive white rapper Lady Sovereign).

Also, several American websites are mentioning that Skepta and Jammer are in a grime supergroup entitled Boy Better Know, but not mentioning their biggest recent-ish hit, “Too Many Man,” which is also my total life anthem. (The chorus goes, “We need some more girls in here/there’s too many man.”) This is ostensibly meant to address the gender imbalance in the sacred space that is The Club, but also applies to life in general. We need some more girls in here. There’s too many man, too many many man. (Plus you can skank to it.)

So while this whole thing was a minor triumph of visibility, I bristle at the idea that these super talented grime artists, some of whom have been working for close to two decades, would need the cosign of an American hip-hop superstar to get a little shine, both on their own hometown stage and in the US media. (And I’m hoping it’s not just a blip Stateside, because I want promoters here to pour more money into getting grime artists on our stages, although at least in New York folks like the Trouble & Bass crew have been doing this for years.) Grime is as influenced and affected by American hip-hop culture as anywhere else in the world, but more so it reacts to its own history, its own riddims and flows, more akin to and influenced by what’s going on in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Western Africa than, like, French Montana’s latest tape. So where Kanye might need grime artists for inspiration and collaboration, grime doesn’t really need Kanye to thrive and grow and influence. It’s been doing that on its own for years.

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