The History of Grime
by Philip Sherburne | June 20, 2013
In the early 2000s, the glossy sound of U.K. garage began minimizing itself to a sharper point, incorporating darker beats and ragga-influenced raps. In East London, mostly from the district of Bow, a swathe of impossibly young DJs and emcees began fooling around with Frooty Loops on their high school computers, inspired by the garage that filtered through the fuzz and grit of London's copious pirate radio stations. They tore searing, post-apocalyptic beats down to their most skeletal forms, pairing them with serrated, vital, hyper-speed spitting that made most U.S. rappers sound like Grandma Moses, ordering double on the braggadocio and street scenes. It was the start of British grime, still one of the most interesting subgenres out, and most of its earliest practitioners weren't more than 15 or 16.
Wiley is grime's grandpapa; he was in his early 20s in the early 2000s, with a full past as a U.K. garage and drum 'n' bass DJ. In 2002, he began darkening his sound into brittle-sounding "Eskibeats," named after his single "Eskimo," considered one of the first grime tracks: its sproingy, mid-level bassline would prove crucial to the sound. At the same time, amid the younger set, the teenaged boys in Ruff Sqwad were developing their own seminal grime tracks, including the minimal demolisher "Tings in Boots," which featured a verse from a hungry emcee known as Tinchy Stryder, who was so young his voice hadn't yet changed into a man's.
The sounds hit pirate radio quickly. But grime stayed in the underground until Dizzee Rascal, a trouble-prone high schooler in Bow, joined up with Wiley's Roll Deep crew. Rascal, too, first started making beats on his school's crap computer, mimicking video-game sounds over the U.K. garage and bashment he heard on the pirates. XL Recordings signed the 16-year-old from his first single, 2002's "I Love You" (renamed "I Luv U"), on which he had mimeographed the beat of Memphis Bleek's "Is That Your Chick?" and drew from its themes as well. (Disgruntled/difficult romantic relations!) By 2003 he had emerged, alongside Wiley (also on XL), as grime's first significant force in the outside world, breaking the sound not just in the mainstream U.K. but also across the pond, where nerds marveled at the phenomenally progressive clicks of "I Luv U." (I watched the video obsessively; it was so pre-YouTube that whatever streaming player we used is lost to the ages.)
From then on, it was lightning. By 2004, Rascal's Boy in Da Corner garnered him a Mercury Prize, Wiley was using "Wot Do You Call It?" to mock the sudden press scramble to hem in the genre, and the British cops accused it of facilitating club violence. The mid-'00s saw ever more talented emcees in the rapid-fire grime tradition (Shystie, D Double E, Jammer, Skepta, JME) and those who played with its boundaries (see The Streets' emo garage or Lady Sovereign's Loki act, which got her signed to Jay-Z's Def Jam for a spell). Grime produced ever-bigger hits, too, and not just with Dizzee Rascal: Crucial tracks included Kano's "Ps & Qs," Jammer's "Murkle Man" and Lethal Bizzle's "Pow," over which pre-megafame Pitbull once freestyled, leading the more optimistic among us to believe he'd break grime in American mainstream hip-hop. (It didn't happen, but at least Funkmaster Flex played it on Hot 97.)
Grime has always retained its underground appeal. Inherent to the sound is a grit that doesn't necessarily translate to a radio audience, and a specifically British, dance-music-based aggression that doesn't mesh well with the boom and/or bap of even post-Timbaland hip-hop. But even as artists like Wiley and Tinie Tempah had brief flirtations with the mainstream in the late '00s (which Wiley especially will go out of his way to tell you he regrets), grime's sound remains vital and ever-evolving. Young emcees like Lady Leshurr remind us why we ever liked the spectacular speed of the raps, while inveterate producers like Darq E Freaker and Champion return to form and remind us that grime's birthday suit consists of instrumental barbs. Meanwhile, as JME's recent, awesome, URL-dropping "If You Don't Know" puts it, "People that like good music know how to hunt it down/ Any stage show I'll burn it down/ Been doing this ting since 2003 ... If you don't know by now, then rudeboy, check out the face."