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Grime Music Is Finally Infiltrating the U.S. Hip-Hop Scene

Tim & Barry Photography/Jordan Hughes
Tim & Barry Photography/Jordan Hughes

Time For That
The U.K.’s grime scene is finally infiltrating U.S. hip-hop.
Words: Dan Hancox
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the summer issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

When Drake announced earlier this year that he had signed to a British grime label called Boy Better Know, it wasn’t just Cash Money Records who must have done a double take. The London collective and record label (usually known as BBK) was founded a decade ago by fellow grime artists and brothers Joseph “Skepta” and Jamie “JME” Adenuga, and has remained, while successful in the U.K., very much an underground concern. And while Drake’s “signing” may turn out to be more symbolic than anything else, it was his show of love for U.K. grime that seems to have struck a chord with many rap fans in the U.S. and Canada.

The timing is right; grime is far from a new sound, but the last two years has seen it get an astonishing new lease of life and it’s no coincidence that it’s suddenly turning heads far beyond the shores of the U.K. The uncompromising, energetic rap style exploded from the London underground in 2003, after dominating pirate radio airwaves in the poorer parts of the British capital and thriving as a vinyl culture—with its roots in the reggae-loving Jamaican diaspora and predecessors in U.K. clubs like Garage, Ragga and Jungle. This time around, a new generation of MCs like Stormzy and Novelist, as well as older veterans from its first wave like Skepta, Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, are using the Internet to make a once hyper-local scene get global attention.

If the U.K.’s grime sound is blowing up in the States all of a sudden, it’s not that there haven’t been near misses before. Dizzee Rascal has hooked up with the Grit Boys and Bun B for collaborations on several occasions. Def Jam signed diminutive grime MC Lady Sovereign in 2005 but without much success. Diddy and Skepta hooked up on a “Hello Good Morning (Grime Remix)” in 2010 but the record flopped. Grime in the U.S. has faced obstacles—poor label judgment, bad luck and often has just been lost in translation. When grime’s greatest success (and export) Dizzee Rascal toured the U.S. for the first time in 2004, appearing on Los Angeles’ Power 106 with Felli Fel, he was already a sensation in the U.K. Dizzee’s alternately incendiary and somber debut album, Boy in Da Corner—written when he was still a teenager—earned critical acclaim, awards and made him a star. Visiting Los Angeles, he spat his yelping, double-time flow over classic U.S. rap beats from the likes of Brooklyn’s M.O.P. At the end of the slot, chatting with Fel on air, came a telling obstacle: the DJ could literally not understand the young Brit’s accent. He asked Dizzee to repeat the name of his album no fewer than three times and eventually Dizzee patiently just spelled it out: “B-O-Y…” It’s not the only time the U.S. and the U.K. have felt like two countries divided by a common language.

Tim and Barry Photography
Tim and Barry Photography

So, what’s different this time? In Skepta’s case, it’s been a concerted effort to make links in the States, not just with Drake, A$AP Mob and Kanye, all of whom have repped for him in the last year and in the case of A$AP Bari, joined forces on the track, “It Ain’t Safe,” but at grassroots level. From the beginning, the grime scene’s strongest characters have been self-motivated, pushing their music without much industry support. “Instead of spending a grand [£1,000] on a bottle of Grey Goose in a club, I use that money to go and buy a ticket to New York,” Skepta, 33, says. “Just to go and freestyle on radios, put the work in, make links for myself.” It’s this ethos which has led to collaborations with Ratking’s Wiki on a remix of the track that defined Skepta’s new spirit, 2014’s “That’s Not Me,” a feature on Flatbush Zombies’ “Red Eye to Paris,” as well as numerous interviews and guest spots on American radio.

Grime may be a uniquely U.K. sound, but for Skepta, growing up and hustling on the roads (think: the streets) in London meant big dreams inspired by U.S. hip-hop culture, music and movies, but situated in the narrow horizons of one neighborhood in London. “It’s crazy that all these places we used to imagine, from music we listened to and films we watched growing up, are in big American cities. So, people were emulating the lifestyle but the ends [hood] is so small,” Skepta explains. “It’s exactly this mixture of global rap energy and locally-ingrained London neighborhood claustrophobia that is unmissable in grime’s relentless double-time spittin’ and rapid-fire beats.”

Rob Ball
Rob Ball

The music seems to be garnering industry interest too. New York radio station Hot 97’s Ebro in The Morning co-host Peter Rosenberg has become one of the U.S.’s leading advocates for grime, making several trips to the U.K. and interviewing big-name MCs and giving Skepta’s 2015 single, “Shutdown” regular radio and club play. “The Skepta album, Konnichiwa is making more of an impact [in the U.S.] than any other grime album I can recall since [Dizzee Rascal’s], Boy in Da Corner,” Rosenberg tells.

Skepta himself has been mostly cagey about where that possible collaboration might go although he did say it almost happened on his biggest song to date. “When ‘Shutdown’ came out, Drake texted me straight away, he was like, ‘Yo, I want to get on that remix, give me the beat.’ I had to tell him, ‘Man, people are waiting for that Drake and Skepta collab, like we don’t need to do a remix as the first time people hear us, so let’s just hold back.’”

When Skepta’s long-awaited new album, Konnichiwa was released in May, it featured a track with Pharrell but no other American features. “It makes more sense for me to be on a tune of his,” Skepta explains.

Where has this upsurge in American interest come from, apart from via Drake and Kanye’s co-signs? Rosenberg thinks that some of the changes in U.S. rap may have opened the ears of listeners to grime’s often avant-garde, experimental beats and the MCs’ lickety-split flows and accents: “It’s totally possible that as beats have evolved and are less sample driven, and as you have a lot more artists rhyming in really weird patterns and cadences, and at much more high speeds, like the Migos flow, well then, there are a lot of British artists who have been doing that really well for a really long time, so maybe people are ready for that. It makes sense.”

Karl Rosenberg
Karl Rosenberg

Jamal Edwards has seen the relationship develop on both sides of the channel. Edwards is the young founder of British music channel SB.TV, which started out filming grime cyphers with a handheld camera a decade ago and has since grown into a global media brand. This year saw SB.TV put on SXSW’s first ever official grime showcase and the response from the U.S. industry was huge. “In previous years at SXSW there has been no British urban music, this really felt like a significant moment,” Edwards says. “We had 500 people, a full house and next year we just want to do it bigger.” Appearing were popular grime artists Stormzy, Section Boyz, Ghetts, Elf Kid and Blakie. “All the feedback has been great from the industry, some big agencies and labels and the fans were seriously excited too,” Edwards continues. “It’s just the start, I think. The whole culture and the scene is growing. Grime is only new as a mainstream genre and it’s really picking up global recognition this time.”

One of those young MCs on the bill, Elf Kid, was asked in a SXSW documentary whether Americans would understand the grime accent, slang or lyrics. He thought about it for a moment. “Nah, but I don’t think they have to,” Elf Kid answered, smiling. “We don’t understand what Young Thug says but we still vibe.”

Edwards agrees, “Of course grime’s got that accent and slang and that localized experience—Americans have an accent to us too, but that hasn’t stopped hip-hop from becoming a global phenomenon.”

For too long, U.K. rappers have tried to imitate U.S. style. In some cases, even seeming to adopt an American accent but this time around, it’s exactly the refusal to compromise that is seeing grime thrive, on both sides of the Atlantic. “The Americans have their way of talking, their way of dressing, their way of doing things and we have ours,” says new generation grime artist, Stormzy. “That’s why this whole U.K. underground thing has become sick because everyone from the ends has finally said, ‘Hang on, what we’re doing is sick. Drake is sick but we’re sick as well.’ It’s not even a competitive thing; it’s literally just about confidence. And when you have that self-confidence and that belief, it just oozes onto people. The energy’s right.”

Jordan Hughes
Jordan Hughes

Check out more from XXL’s Summer 2016 issue including our 2015 XXL Freshman year-end report card; Joey Badass, Raury and Dizzy Wright talk about The Four Agreements, Madeintyo‘s Show & Prove interview, Bump J speaking straight from prison, Cardi B’s rising rap career, Le’Veon Bell‘s rap skills, Zoey Dollaz’s Show & Prove interview, Eye Candy Jess Taras, five of the most infamous murder-related cases in hip-hop, PnB Rock‘s journey from a cell to the stage and more.

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