A B-boy’s recollection of stumbling on and falling in love with U.K. Garage and eventually Grime (part 2)
Before I was a House Head, before Jazz became my favorite if-you-had-to-take-one-music-to-the-island music, I was a B-boy.
I ain’t know or care anything about bars, song structure, hooks, choruses, bridges, none of that.
You ever listened to “Beat Bop”…from beginning to end…and then ran it back? That’s what I’m talking about. Rocking out to a playlist of 1980s rap with songs that average eight minutes in length. Savoring static-filled, Radio Shack mic sounding recordings because they’re rare.
And that’s just talking about music.
What I loved about rap was that hunger. The first time you heard Run, LL, or even the calm as shit Rakim, that hunger was more than palpable.
As rap became mainstream that hunger turned into something else…something that reeked of desperation. Rappers weren’t rapping to be the best but instead, making music to afford a lifestyle that only commercial success could provide.
This is where my disconnect started and this is what started my search for the spirit that once lived in Hip-Hop.
In part 1, I discussed my love for Garage, coming in late to the genre, and watching it morph before my distant eyes. We ended with the influence of So Solid Crew and how they began a rush of MCs who weren’t at raves to be hype men for the DJs and didn’t want the backseat role.
While that was going on, there was the rise of three-man group, the Heartless Crew, that was bringing the spirit of Sound Systems to the raves. DJ Fonti didn’t just play Garage. He played Dancehall (Bashment), American Rap, and other popular tunes.
But the music was just the backdrop. The essence of Heartless Crew was the MCs, Bushkin and Mighty Moe. Those two were real MCs with memorable lyrics and routines that influenced the younger generation that would go on to be the first wave of Grime MCs. They also unknowingly ushered that genre into fruition.
Although DJ Zinc’s “138 Trek” brought forth a “Dark Garage” sound, the sound was still that — Garage.
Over in East London, a producer named Youngstar constructed a track with an early version of the music making program Reason (called ReBirth RB 338). Knowing it was something special, he cut a dubplate and got it into the hands of the Heartless Crew.
Heartless broke “Pulse X” in Aiya Napa, July 2001. Youngstar’s song was so popular in the inner-garage community of Pirate radio and tape packs that he had some vinyls pressed in January of 2002. The song exploded and Youngstar landed a distribution deal where over 6,000 copies of “Pulse X” were sold at 10 pounds (which is $12, post Brexit dollars) a pop…the first week. You do the math.
Also around that time, a song produced by Platinum 45 originated on Pirate radio and became an instant classic. The first pressings of the single were labled to emphasize the importance of the producer — “Platinum 45 presents Mo Fire Crew ‘Oi’” — but as “Oi”crossed the threshold into hood anthem, it was recast simply as Mo Fire Crew’s “Oi” (for the second pressing).
This was the end of 2001. And if one event could be presented as a changing of the guard it took place around this time; 16 December 2001 to be exact.
If you listen to Heartless Crew vs Pay As You Go Cartel, which can easily be found online via Soundcloud or YouTube, it seems to be pretty clear — the crowd is with Heartless Crew. When Bushkin yells, “When I say Pay As You Go, you say Dead…Pay As You Go,” the crowd comes back with a resounding “DEAD!” He does that one more time and after getting the crowd’s loving support, Bushkin matter-a-factly states, “Ok, argument done.”
The interesting thing is, most of the things that are in heavy circulation online now were first popular on Limewire. In fact, outside of the things that one could find then, nothing new has found it’s way to the innerwebs. Heartless vs Pay As You Go had Limewire buzzing around the time that I was looking for my first home and that 1 hr and 14 minute set was in heavy rotation.
But Heartless Crew and Garage links began dwindling on Limewire. If they were there, few people were sharing them. Apparently, there was a new game in town.
I don’t know what it’s like for most people, but for me, buying my first house was a hectic and trying time. Partially because — like I said, it was my first time, but also because me and my wife at the time were relocating from NYC to Philadelphia. I would take the two hour train ride down and Isma’il Latif, already in Philly, would help in scouting possible locations. So my downloading was at an all-time low.
Plus, it was more difficult now. Without having names or parties or radio stations to enter into the search engine, it was all futile.
Finally, in February of 2002 we settled on our first home in Mt. Airy, PA and right up Germantown at the edge of Chestnut Hill was a Borders Books.
While it didn’t have as an extensive collection as the Union Square Barnes & Nobles in Manhattan, they still had a decent amount of foreign magazines and that’s where I first read of Dizzee Rascal.
It was no more than a little column, probably less than 256 words, but the article included these key words: Dizzee Rascal, “I Luv U,” new sound, Mentor, Wiley. Whatever else was in that article was of no importance. I wrote those words down in my tablet and took it to the computer.
There were tons of hits for “I Luv U.” Some of those were instrumentals. Same with Wiley. Lots of hits for his name also, but most of them were instrumentals. The name Wiley also produced the name Roll Deep. More often than not, there would be no name for the song. Occasionally I would hit the motherlode of a 30 minute set labeled “Wiley Ice FM.”
But this was nothing like finding Garage. When I looked up Garage, those shows would come whole, most likely from the highly distributed tape packs that were produced after each rave. We’re talking an hour, hour and a half shows. Whatever this music was, it had no name, I would be lucky to get a two minute freestyle from someone like Tinchy Stryder.
Mostly though, it was just a trickle of songs.
Spring of 2003. It was big news that Dizzee Rascal’s debut album, Boy in Da Corner, would be released as well as the stateside release of Ms. Dynamite’s A Little Deeper. And to top it all off, Radiohead announced a summer release (which ended up being Hail to the Thief). I was having my own personal British Invasion.
Sadly, I was mostly disappointed.
Ms. Dynamite pulled a Lauryn Hill on a brotha. A Little Deeper was less “Boo,” less “Danger” and more “Dy-Na-Mi-Tee.” Translation — she was singing, not rapping. Not that I minded. I thought she could hold a note and like I said here, if they had of released “Anyway U Want It,” Ms. Dynamite may have made more noise in the U.S. But alas…not what I was looking for.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Dizzee Rascal. Maybe the energy of those spare tracks and throwaway songs that I was downloading from Limewire. Maybe the tracks were too clean. I don’t know. But I can honestly say that, while people call Boy in Da Corner a classic, I only liked a couple of songs…three tops.
Thankfully, Radiohead never disappoints.
But one thing did come out of that Dizzee release — the amount of songs posted to Limewire that were similar to “I Luv U” and the amount of Wiley, Roll Deep songs increased ten-fold. By the time 2004 rolled around, that trickle turned into a torrential downpour.
A snowstorm hit Philadelphia on 23 January 2004. I remember that day like it was yesterday despite it being 13 years ago. On 27 January I typed in Wiley and the yet to be named Grime heavens opened up with one word — Deja Vu92.3 (it often appeared as one word and without that decimal point.) Other words were attached to Deja Vu: N.A.S.T.Y Crew, Meridian Crew, Ruff Squad, Young Man Standing, etc.
I wore my poor sister’s computer out and went through TONS of CDRs. I had at least 35 hours of music, a few GBs worth, so you can only imagine the amount of CDs. Like in my early days of recording rap music off the radio, some songs were downloaded four or five times, every song wasn’t complete. Some radio shows were full of static. I ain’t care.
This is when Kano and Wiley became my favorite artists of the bunch. Followed by, in no particular order: D Double E, JME, Crazy Titch, Tinchy Stryder, & Sharkey Major. I mention this because I had consolidated all of those hours of music onto one CD, 20 tracks that were my heavy rotation songs. I curated that CD frequently when new songs came out and would burn copies and give them to friends trying to win fans. I never did.
I remember the dates and the snowstorm so clearly because on 25 January of that year, my beautiful daughter was born…but that, dear reader, is an entirely different article.
The way I found out about Wiley is the media calling him Dizzee Rascal’s mentor. And, while I’m sure there’s some validity to that, Wiley being at least six years Dizzee’s senior, it’s become more clear over the years that Dizzee always had an idea about what he wanted to do.
The only one really, that was approaching music that way (making proper songs) was someone who knew what he wanted to do from the beginning. Like when I look back at it, “like, yeah he had a plan.” That was Dizzee. He was the only one I saw with a plan. Kano, Rhythm & Cash Podcast
And Dizzee had a mentor at Langdon Park School. Having been in a lot of trouble, Dizzee’s reputation preceded him. But he was always musically inclined and he had a teacher, Tim Smith, who let his students explore what they were good at. Smith set Dizzee up on Cubase and even Smith says, “He knew what he wanted to achieve and he worked quickly.” So Dizzee spent his time recording his album…in school.
Once Dizzee dropped Boy in Da Corner, he was OFF. I don’t even think of Dizzee when I think of Grime. Neither does he.
To understand Grime, you have to understand Wiley.
Wiley grew up with the music. As early as eleven, he was a part of a musical group and by the time he was 18, Wiley had been sneaking into Jungle raves for years.
He continued rolling with the same group of friends and the only thing that changed over the years was the groups’ name — from Cross Colours to Silver Storm, from Ladies Hit Squad to the final name of Pay As You Go — with the of the core of the group remaining, Wiley, Maxwell D, & Target.
It’s important to recognize this because as Garage came of age, so too did this group. Wiley was 21 when the MC began taking over the raves and he was 23 when he branched out on his own.
“They kept telling me I couldn’t have a tune with just a kick and a snare, and I was like ‘why can’t I?’”
He concluded, “I left because they kept telling me I couldn’t do stuff.’”
And Roll Deep was born…which essentially translates into Grime was born. But it wasn’t named that yet. Wiley called his music Eskibeat after the series of instrumentals he put out beginning in the summer of 02 with “Eskimo.” That’s also around the same time that Dizzee Rascal’s “I Luv U” was introduced and a few months after Mo Fire Crew’s “Oi” pierced the top ten of the the UK Singles Charts.
Wiley was signed to XL when Dizzee was, but his album, Treddin’ On Thin Ice, didn’t come out until a year later and I don’t remember it getting the same type of promotion and hype.
Listening to it then, it felt like Wiley was seeking out a hit. Songs like “Pick Ur Self Up” didn’t ring true to me and like Boy, I may have liked three songs. Like most albums that I listen to later, out of the context of its time, I enjoy it now.
Wiley rarely speaks well of any of his past albums. He’s known for bad mouthing a project (or label…or festival) in real time, cutting off his own nose despite his face, if you will.
He did all of this while shepharding the careers of others. Wiley may not call himself a mentor but he’s helped along a plethora of artist, most notably Kano, Chip (formerly known as Chipmunk), and everyone’s (current) fave, Skepta, who Wiley brought from behind the DJ decks and out of the obscure producer world, and encouraged to rap.
As a result, Wiley watched as artist after artist blossomed while he still tried to find his grounding. After having a daughter, he felt the appropriate thing to do was to acquiesce to the demands of the industry. Songs like “Wearing My Rolex” and “Reload” followed and Wiley was “rewarded” with top 10 UK Singles Charting status. In that same period Skepta dropped “Amnesia” & “Rescue Me.”
These songs were “hits.” But none of this is what I wanted. And that was my problem with almost every Grime album. To be fair, none of these artists owe me or anyone anything. It’s just that as far as the genre goes, no album in my estimation, represented Grime without a vast majority of the songs either imitating US rap or pandering to the ever popular dance music that runs the EDM raves nowadays.
But if you’re reading this, you know all of this has changed.
I won’t go as far as saying I’m not a fan of Pop Music. That would be a lie. Growing up, I loved plenty of music that ended up up being Pop. So that’s what it is. I don’t like when people AIM to be Pop. That music always seems contrived and lacks authenticity. And that was what Grime had become.
A plethora of outlets for Grime have surfaced since those early days of Limewire and I checked them often. Finding the music wasn’t the problem. I would go to the album well time after time, but at best, I would still end up only liking individual songs.
I wasn’t alone in my frustration with the evolution…or devolution of the genre. Many artists began feeling a similar frustration. Skepta released the mixtape Black Listed in response to that frustration which didn’t have the typical one for me, three for them formula and lacked any radio-friendly songs. It was cool. But what Black Listed really displayed was a road map back to the original spirit of Grime.
Because soon after, Meridian Dan released “German Whips,” an unapologetic Grime song that was almost like a call to arms. “German Whips” was popular in the underground and even played on commercial radio. It was okay to make Grime again. Skepta released “That’s Not Me” a few months later. A song that denounced all of the commercial wears he once wore over a track that could have been produced in the days before Grime had a name…and it was a success.
This is what ushered in the new interest in Grime and Skepta and the up-and-coming Stormzy have rode that wave to a recognition that I doubt could have ever been achieved by making those Pop tunes.
2016 was a great year for the Grime album. You had Kano’s Made on Manor, Cadell’s 3 is the New 6, Skepta’s Konnichiwa, and my personal favorite…I would even go as far as calling it a classic, Frisco’s System Killer. These were the first albums in the history of Grime that I could listen to from start to finish.
I’ve learned what to expect from Kano. He’s an artist who does Grime. (Not a Grime artist) Still one of the best lyricist in the UK, Kano’s consistent. Cadell is Wiley’s brother and has been working hard to climb from behind his brother’s shadow. I think he’s done a great job of it. This album shows a maturity that many artists don’t have on their debut albums. Skepta’s album is almost like a victory lap. He’s seeing more success and getting more love for this album than he ever did…at least in the US…for any of his previous albums.
And System Killer…I call it a classic for one reason — it’s Grime from “What’s Man Saying” to “Different Kind.” The argument is often that Grime has grown and it’s not as easy to say what is or what is not Grime. But to my ears, when songs crawl around 89–95 beats per minute, when beats sound like we can substitute a Brit with a Southern rapper, that ain’t Grime. System Killer may not stay in that classic 140bpm range but the music sounds like its origin is in the electronic, Cubase, FL Studios, Reason created world.
System Killer was the first Grime album that had me looking up the producers. So shot out to Swindle, Rude Kid, Ezra Ford, Davinche, Black Noise, Masro, Krunchie, & Wiley. Despite having 9 producers for 15 songs, they still put out a cohesive album.
And what of Wiley?
Just this past Friday, 13 January, Wiley released Godfather. I haven’t lived with it yet but on my first few listens it seems that Wiley’s finally been freed up to do what he’s always wanted to do — make the music that he help bring into fruition — a music that derives from UK Garage and 2 Step, a very British, very East London music. A music he called Eskibeat that the world has grown to know as Grime. It may be a little early to say, but this may be Wiley’s Masterpiece album…of course he’s talking about retiring.
No biggie. He’s been talking about doing that for years. Some things are universal, innit.
And me? So long as the music continues to stay British and maintain its identity, I’m there. But the moment the majority of the artists start sounding like they’re coming out of Ben Hill or Bankhead, I’ll be combing the earth for some new music that embodies the spirit of the music once known as Hip-Hop.
If I’m going to listen to (the overly used term) Trap (or Rap for that matter), I’ll just listen to the originators. I agree with Wiley, keep it British, ya’ll.