Essay

Songs From the City

A poet finds inspiration in grime music.
Illustration of UK housing structure.

I am falling, falling down to the bottom, and as I fall the
rushing air is dancing in my ears, a breathless, tumbling
dance that contains everything that I ever was, and all at
once everything that I ever was is just bursting to fill out
this one moment in which, shaking deep within, I enter
the blue cave.

– DS Marriott, “Be good, save”

Grime music is catharsis delivered from a vertiginous height. Born and bred in London’s inner city housing projects in the early 2000’s, among a Black youth subculture that drew more on Jamaican reggae than American rap, grime was a product of confinement. London’s social housing tower blocks, in which many of grime’s pioneers grew up, became synonymous with the genre’s grittiness and hyperlocal roots, but they were also essential to the music’s distribution. Grime was first popularized by pirate radio stations broadcast from illegal transmitters and squatted “studios” erected on the rooftops of 20- and 30-story buildings. Up there, elevated from their impoverished upbringings, grime’s founders found space to breathe. What they created was unapologetically strange and uncompromising: music built from beats too irregular to dance to, rapping too fast to be intelligible on the radio, lyrics full of niche slang and swear words, and songs not geared around hooks and choruses. Moreover, all of this was produced by artists unwilling to play with a British music industry focused on developing homegrown guitar bands and importing rap and R&B from the United States.

Grime was never designed for crossover success, or mainstream ears, and was perhaps the last truly local youth subculture to emerge in the United Kingdom before the internet exploded such ancient geographies. And yet, since its hyperlocal heyday, when a teenage Dizzee Rascal released the genre’s urtext LP, Boy in da Corner (2003), and crews such as Roll Deep, Ruff Sqwad, and NASTY Crew ruled the pirate airways, the genre has taken over British pop culture. It has even expanded beyond London. There are thriving scenes in cities as far-flung as Tokyo and Prague. This unexpected surge into the mainstream began in 2015, due in equal parts to the technological democracy of social media, the sheer creativity and persistence of original innovators such as Wiley and Skepta, and a new generation of artists who grew up listening to them—artists like 25-year-old Stormzy, who stand on the shoulders of those giants of the underground, raking in awards and festival headline slots, chart-topping singles and albums, and an inevitable succession of brand endorsements. Even Conservative government ministers have claimed to be fans; with that cynical endorsement, grime’s pop cultural hegemony is now unquestioned.

Grime's impact beyond music began with British TV series such as Dubplate Drama and films like Kidulthood in the 2000s and exploded with the genre’s remarkable triumph in recent years. London-born writer Guy Gunaratne’s “grimy” debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City (2018), was longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Zinging with grime’s youthful mix of bright-eyed ambition and barely suppressed anger, the novel was also lauded for its rare deployment of a truly 21st century multicultural London vernacular. Last September, a grime-inspired stage play, Poet in da Corner, premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre to rave reviews. Now, the British-born, California-based poet DS Marriott has published his fourth collection of poems, Duppies (2018), inspired by grime as “the thread that links afro-pessimism to afro-futurism,” as he writes in the book’s preface. (In Caribbean folklore, duppies are malevolent spirits. And in the UK, the term is grime slang that means “to destroy an opponent.”)

In 1924, the Swiss-French architect and designer Le Corbusier wrote of the utopian possibilities of a “vertical city … a city which will pile up the cells which have for so long been crushed on the ground, and set them high above the earth, bathed in light and air … clear and radiant and sparkling.” Grime never found, let alone created, a utopia, but in its own vertical city, the tower blocks around the former London docklands, it did find space to speak clearly and freely in “the silences of the harsh, postindustrial sun,” as Marriott writes in “Information Is Nothing (After Visionist).” He goes on to capture the way that that relief is transmuted into a clamorous new beginning, as in “Murking (after Stormzy),” one of several poems that reference grime MCs in their title:

Think of a moment exploding      
as a pulse
       leads us on
                    into unaccustomed light—
          everyone astonished
               at the unerring cold
           of a thousand cellular voices.

Murking is, like duppying (or “warring” or “slewing”), a transcendent act of lyrical destruction, built from Jamaican dancehall’s “clash” culture (think US battle rap, but less corny than 8 Mile). And like duppying, murking is both a performance and an act of self-actualization. Stormzy—a relentlessly cheerful and well-liked character, even when causing political controversy, as when he called out prime minister Theresa May for not doing enough in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire that left 72 people dead—has turned murking/merking into a brand, #Merky, that stretches beyond the usual merchandising to include a record label, a festival, a scholarship for two Black students to Cambridge University, and a publishing imprint for new voices. Stormzy’s music remains fierce and emotional, in contrast with his affable celebrity persona, a paradox Marriott describes in the preface: “see these wheels, they may be brand spanking new, but under the bonnet there is fever and anguish.”

The nature of contemporary gentrification means that squalor often sits next to, and dreams of, Le Corbusier’s radiant spaces with their light, air, and monied quiet. Neighboring the desperately poor east London boroughs where grime was created, an altogether different type of high-rise construction emerged. An archetype of postindustrial urban regeneration, barely a mile from grime’s ground zero, was the new zone named Canary Wharf, built in the 1990s and 2000s on the scrappy wastes of the abandoned docklands.

As grime MCs shared the untold stories of the poverty, structural violence, and racism of their young lives, up went luxurious glass-and-steel totems to late capitalism, buildings that housed Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and many of the collateralized debt obligations and other dubious practices that spurred the global financial crash. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Canary Wharf was the source of grime’s unique incarnation of Afrofuturism, as it inspired a paradoxical mix of anger, resentment, and ambition. “Canary Wharf is like our Statue of Liberty,” Roll Deep’s DJ Target said in a 2005 interview. “It pushes me on. It’s like all the money is there and it’s an inspiration to get your own.”

But until grime’s recent mainstream crossover, those aspirations were never seen as realistic, for the most part, and grime’s pessimism was inherent to its spirit. East London’s industrial history continued to loom over the area even after all the industry was gone. Even without factories coating nearby buildings in soot, and the industrial pollution and jetsam from the docklands, east London remained associated with grime, dirt, grit, and debris, as it had been throughout history, since the Romans set up shop there in 43 AD. The connection between the word grime, the eponymous music genre, and the physical places where grime originated has always been obvious. “Most grime is made on a grimy council estate [social housing project],” MC Nasty Jack told an American documentary crew in 2006. “Mum ain’t got enough money, everyone’s just angry. You need a tension release.”

In “Poundland,” Marriott speaks to that deprivation. The title refers to a budget supermarket chain that flourishes in Britain’s grimy inner cities. It’s a byword for those struggling to get by, and for shops in which everything, or virtually everything, costs just one pound (in current Brexit-induced crisis exchange rates, about a dollar and 30 cents). In Marriott’s telling, the impoverished are adrift, buffeted by forces too powerful to control. Even place itself is destabilized. Instead of the security of home, the downtrodden find only “desolate moorings / never ours to arrive at, or own.” There’s a thread here to the ghosts that stalk the docklands, too. While some of grime’s neighbors became fantastically rich thanks to the new global political economy, the area is haunted by earlier maritime journeys into and out of London as a port city. The docks were the fulcrum of Britain’s imperial plunder, where rum, sugar, and coffee from Caribbean plantations were once unloaded, and where slave rebellions were fomented and stymied. As in Vertigo Sea (2015), the startling film triptych by British artist John Akomfrah that reflects on centuries of forced migrations, purges, and enslavements, the history contained and lost in the “international” waters flowing up the Thames gives the river an unshakable, ominous aspect. Marriott’s “Poundland” charts this maritime dispossession:

From c-aisle to counter, hauling shamelessly
whoever comes here knows the price
of exultation, the shores submerged in dross
where everything is changed to wager, and food and rent
are discovered to be counterfeit, floating free on a gigantic ocean—
like boats listing, taking in too much, voyaging out because empty.
Alas, the illusion wanes quickly,
the unearned tides are mere glass, the waters hold no vision:
a seagull flies across the bows of the familiar,
salt-stained by sewage; and when the arrow is loosed
there is neither loss, nor modesty.

Another of grime’s central paradoxes is that it expresses no concern for the weight of this history, on place or person (or music), and shares the neoliberals’ desire for a tabula rasa. Perhaps it’s a matter of age. Grime arrived in the new millennium, created largely by teenagers who were unmoored from personal and ancestral history. This has the effect of a sonically thrilling Afrofuturism: a propulsive drive expressed in the MCs’ constant ad-libbed injunctions to “push things forward,” to “elevate,” to make music—and to be—“next level.” Contrary to American hip-hop’s rootsy rhetoric about being “real” and knowing and respecting your past, grime is a year-zero sound that, in its early days at least, asked only what was next, and sought to get there first. It’s there in the sonics of grime’s instrumental “riddims” (a term borrowed from Jamaican reggae that denotes a song’s instrumental accompaniments): the stark, unfiltered minimalism of the kick drums, the interplanetary weight of the bassline, the sleek raygun zaps and zips of a synth, the way the whole edifice shines like a spacesuit—and it’s a constant referent in grime’s lyrical vocabulary, too.

The genre stands in sharp contrast to Marriott’s wide-ranging wisdom and expansive sense of place and epoch. Throughout Duppies, ghostly presences and intergenerational trauma inform present-day pain and numbness. In “In The Grey Zone,” Marriott’s speaker has “heard the music of centuries like sirens,” and yet “all I felt was beige magic and empty bandstands.”

For the young creators of grime, the only way to look was forward, and the only hope for redemption lay in trying to forge something better through sheer sonic science fictions. Take the genre’s enigmatic and chaotic “godfather,” Wiley, whose manic enthusiasm and hilarious non-sequiturs suddenly give way to moments of sublime clarity, as when he captures the bizarre and uniquely skittish practice of grime MC-ing in a legendary live-recorded set from 2002: “I’m futuristic, quantum leaping / there’s no defeating/ E3 tiger -  see me creep on the riddim like a spider / kill them with a 16-liner.”

Wiley is the E3 tiger—E3 being grime’s most famous postcode, equivalent to the American zip code—and the 16-liner refers to the arrangement of grime lyrics into sets of 8, 16, or 32 bars. The notion of “Creeping on the riddim” perfectly captures the relationship between the grime MC and the instrumental track: MCs are first and foremost answerable to that rhythm, in a club or radio context, to a track selected by a DJ with little or no forewarning. Grime’s fractious energy comes from exactly this spontaneity: it is unsettled and urgent. Marriott’s structural dynamism, as Duppies proceeds, shows some of this same restlessness of spirit: he detours from meter into long prose paragraphs, into dual-column poems, and in “The Traps,” into several pages of vertical, right-aligned stanzas.

Grime’s urgency is only compounded by its refusal of easy comprehension—in the UK, never mind in parts beyond. Even aside from their distinctive accent, idioms, and sheer speed of delivery, grime lyrics are liable to confound most American rap fans. Few grime MCs (not rappers, MCs) employ the punning or dense internal wordplay and imagery common to US rap. Instead, their lyrics are more often streams of unembellished storytelling, cathartically splurged rather than crafted, lacking the ostentatious did-you-see-what-I-did-there allusions and call-backs of rap’s most revered lyricists.

This difference in style and form stems from grime’s unique subcultural roots. Grime emerged from the largely but not exclusively Black club-based genres of UK garage and jungle (which in turn followed from the reggae sound systems of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain). These are genres in which the MC is a host, primarily required to accompany and embellish the DJ’s storytelling-via-record-selection, and not the star of the show. Grime carried some of those functional imperatives with it, even as its pioneers developed hype-generating couplets into a more complex lyrical music culture. That functionality is reflected even in the way its creators describe their practice: American rappers write “rhymes” while UK grime artists write “bars.” When grime first began to evolve, before it had taken that name, its beats were arranged not verse-chorus-verse but in functional 8-bar segments, building a steady, if restless, momentum with little variation, like Jamaican reggae instrumentals (also called “riddims”). This briefly led to “8-bar” as the designated name for this new, mutant strain of UK garage.

In some of Wiley’s early material, each line in an 8-bar lyric ended with the same word—the ostentatious repetition a hangover from that club-based host role, but also an indication of the ongoing peculiarity of his personal style. Throughout the 2000’s, Wiley developed a knack for non-sequitur that was unsettling and often funny. He captured the mundanity of being a hyperlocal hero in London with boasts that spoke to the anti-glamour of the genre, and of the country that produced grime. No palm trees or pool parties were visible, let alone accessible, from the city’s council estates. “I’m a street star: there’s no set time I have my tea at,” runs one such Wiley lyric, from the breathless and brilliant track “Crash Bandicoot.” (In idiomatic British-English, “tea” is the evening meal.)

The quotidian familiarity of urban working-class Black life has always been grime’s palette: Britain as portrayed in Marriott’s “Poundland.” As Wiley puts it in his autobiography Eskiboy (2017), “There was no champs, no profiling, no beautiful people.” His former mentee–and grime’s first major star—Dizzee Rascal, captured the apparently immutable pain and hardship of being trapped amid petty crime and social decay better than any other grime MC, on the aforementioned Boy in da Corner. On one track, the devastating “Sittin’ Here,” he intones flatly, “I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much, I just think / My eyes don’t move left or right, they just blink.” Our world-weary teenage narrator gazes straight ahead without movement, stoned and immobile, taking in everything that he’s seen in his young life, fixated by its permanence. It’s an unmatched document of innocence not just lost, but lost painfully young, written by a then-teenager who had been excluded from three schools and who was hospitalized by a stabbing just two weeks before his album’s release. Marriott's “In Memory of the Rascal" pays homage to those

born into lifetimes of wrong—
gone the runny nose, gone the skinny terraces,
gone the wilds and smart mouths,

The genre’s roots in parts of London that felt permanently grey and rough (prior to a decade of intense gentrification), a city of cold communal stairwells and brutalist postwar tower blocks, led Wiley to create his own one-man sonic empire in 2001–2002, which he called Eskimo, or Eskibeat. In “Eskimo (after Wiley),” Marriott draws out the millenarian anxiety and poverty-induced stress of that coinage into the physical world:

A hunger should be cold
cut with shards of catastrophe.
A tsunami that simply refuses to die where bush fires
go out, and tidal waves recede,
waiting for the rescuers to arrive. It’s the end of virtue;
a slag-heap of the endlessly perishable,
a lake where thought itself, neither slough nor swale,
drags us down into darkness.

The “Eskimo sound” was Wiley’s personal subgenre, branded with an arctic theme. His track titles from that era include “Ice Rink,” “Igloo,” “Ice Pole,” “Blizzard,” “Ice Cream Man,” “Snowman,” “Frostbite,” “Freeze,” “Colder,” and “Morgue.” As he explained in 2003, “Sometimes I just feel cold hearted. I felt cold at that time, towards my family, towards everyone. That’s why I used those names ... I am a nice person, but sometimes I switch off and I’m just cold. I feel angry and cold.” The MDMA-enhanced, loved-up bliss of the ’80s and ’90s British acid house scene, and the giddy utopian place-making that made (often illegal) raves “temporary autonomous zones” had been wiped off the map. Wiley offered another explanation for this frigidity in 2005, which pegged the claustrophobia, emotional dislocation, and rage of his and his peers’ music to the city around him: “The music reflects what’s going on in society. Everyone’s so angry at the world and each other. And they don’t know why,” he told Spin magazine. “As things went bad, away from music, the music’s just got darker and darker.”

***

Now recognized as one of its greatest assets, grime’s Britishness was a substantial part of what held it back for the first decade of its existence (at home, as much as overseas). The genre emerged in the teeth of global US rap hegemony, whose cultural impact in the UK was profound. While a fascination with US hip-hop culture, music, and fashion has been common for young black and white Britons alike since at least the 1990s, thanks in part to MTV, it was only with grime that the desire to mark out territory for young Black British voices found a truly popular subcultural form.

This claiming of an identity often denied to grime’s progenitors by racism took a decisive spirit. “I thought it would be heavy to sound English,” Dizzee Rascal told Sound on Sound magazine in 2004, describing his teenage thought process. “I listen to a lot of US hip-hop, but ... my influences are from jungle, and many of those artists still keep their English accent, and I respected that.”

It has become an infrequent but occasional trope for grime MCs to castigate rivals for hints of American style (“Why are you  like [US crew] D-Block? You’re from England, you batty!!” ranted Wiley in a diss track aimed at a rival crew, The Movement, in 2006), and to define themselves by their country of birth, marking an emerging if still contingent sense of belonging for second- and third-generation Black Britons. “This is something new for your ears,” runs the chorus “Something New,” Roll Deep’s 2007 track, “you ain’t heard beats or spitters like this: no American accents, straight English.”

Grime lyrics and slang—grime grammar, even—draws on a wide range of roots and influences, with Caribbean English unsurprisingly high in the mix, along with grime’s own playful neologisms, cockney rhyming slang, and other pieces of what linguists call MLE (Multicultural London English). It’s the kind of language now heard across British prime-time television, as much as in grime tracks. It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer persistence, and eventual triumph, of an uncompromising hybrid vernacular now spoken and understood across British pop culture. Marriott occasionally weaves pieces of this slang, and its accent, into standard English. “Dis is no joke, star” the narrator of “Murking (After Stormzy)” informs us, code-switching as casually as his younger peers do.

Duppies is curious in its positioning. The book explicitly asserts itself as a response to grime culture. It opens with a preface in six paragraphs (or 16 “bars”), each of which confidently begins “grime is …,” as in: “Grime is a medium of the unknown, it refuses everything but possibility: its violence is one without immunity, but its real is dispossession, and is inconsolable without knowing it. Black-owned the skin, the strut, the churches, and emcees.” But then, on the next page, somewhat hammily, follows the dictionary definition of “grime.” After that, Duppies is slight in its references to the genre—surprising given that grime’s lyrical culture is built on regular quotations, citations, paraphrases, nods, winks, and remixes. Grime is the exemplar of what Brian Eno termed “scenius,” for the collective genius that can only be produced by a scene, and its vernacular was built collaboratively. A buzzy phrasing or new slang term is coined by one MC and suddenly 10 others use it in their bars, too.

But Marriott’s use of grime as a starting point for more oblique excursions into its shadows—its duppies, perhaps—unearths new sources of light, and in doing so pulls out the genre’s best qualities. It is the evocation from the poem “Be good, save” that begins this essay that so perfectly captures the spirit of the genre and its creators. They are fiercely alive in a “breathless, tumbling dance,” precarious and voluble, but also unseen in a city of millions:

the disappeared—unrecognised,
but walking
beside you—

They are, for the most part, Britain’s dispossessed, ignored, and maligned second- or third-generation children of African and Caribbean migrants, “washed ashore like all the others.” As the grime MC and public intellectual Akala pointed out repeatedly while promoting his book Natives (2018), the postwar generation, who were encouraged to take ships from the Caribbean to help rebuild their colonial motherland after the blitz, came not as migrants but as British subjects. They were treated with considerably less warm a welcome than that might suggest, though, and even in their dotage many now see their lives ruined by British institutional racism all over again. Grime is the sound of a younger Black Britain trying to come to terms with postcoloniality, and doing so by creating a culture that claims its birthplace as its home. They are a generation who, as Marriott writes in closing his collection, have been redeemed only when they “began to dance again: manservants, hustlers, and slaves.”

Originally Published: January 21st, 2019

Dan Hancox lives in London and writes about music, politics, cities, and pop culture for the Guardian, Vice, the New York Times, Frieze, and others. His books include The Village Against The World (Verso, 2013), about a Spanish communist utopia, and Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime (HarperCollins, 2018).