Sunday, 13 March 2005

Missing In Action

PPSN50427, originally uploaded by chantelle.

From the Eye Weekly. Got some nice quotes in there boy. Go and drop a message at

"Sorry, I've got like five phones ringing in front of me. Bloody hell, I'm in an interview. I'll call you back in a second."

If an artist's success can be measured by cellular activity, grime lord Jammer is living large -- in London, anyway.

So far, Dizzee Rascal is the only member of the grime nation to really blow up beyond the British Isles, but with the new major-label-backed (and Vice-approved) compilation/primer Run the Road -- and its accompanying tour with DJ/MC/producer Jammer, his protegé, Ears, and former junglist D Double E -- the innovative genre is arriving to set up a beachhead.

"Music comes around and goes back and gets recycled but grime is a whole new thing, innit?" Jammer says from his ringtone-riddled home, eager to bring the noise to North America. "I think they will be blown away by the way we express our music. It's not something you hear one day and forget the next."

Grime has been around for a few years now, longer than it's had a genre-name anyway (it still boasts alternative titles like sublow and eski-beat, the latter after Wiley's pioneering "Eskimo" track). Emerging from the UK garage scene -- though its purveyors prefer to trace roots further back to drum 'n' bass and Jamaican dancehall -- grime mashed a number of musical sources to put its own spin on American hip-hop.

"It's got some similarities in feeling but the energy of grime is much more uptempo and dancey, more similar to crunk and maybe Miami bass," Jammer says. "I've listened to reggae, hip-hop, R&B, soul and everything's incorporated. It's more of a fusion of all types of music but it's something new that's never been fusioned before."

It's likely that these protestations derive from the fact that Brit-hop (Roots Manuva notwithstanding) has generally been a pale imitation of the real thing, and what makes grime such an artistic leap forward is its localized sound and lack of adherence to established presets.

"We just done what we thought sounded good and that's what we liked," Jammer says, "and then the MCs, they started to formulate their own way without using Yankee words, straight English."

But grime's basic structure of DJ, MC and hypeman holds more connections to hip-hop than anything else, just not necessarily to today's big-business version. The current state of grime is like the early days of rap, when hungry kids from violence-prone housing projects made music for the sheer rush of it rather than the bling-buying opportunities it might provide.

The music itself is a dystopian futurescape of harsh digital beats, hip-cracking bass, gun-blast riddims and videogame bleeps with agro MCs tossing tense, often indecipherable rhymes overtop. It sounds squeezed out of broken technology and not-quite-broken dreams, reflecting the claustrophobic feelings these anxious artists developed over years of living in rough-hewn East London council estates.

"You can get killed," Jammer says. "Our culture is not to wear ice all the time because you can get shanked for it. Shanked," he pauses to explain, "is when someone pulls out a long object and pushes it into a part of your body. People are still hungry out here; you can't go pushing diamonds and gold in their face. But it's not that bad. You won't just come out your house and get shot in the face. I don't think it's as bad as the grimiest places in New York."

Jammer also notes that while there are some beefs, or as he calls them "rows" -- and he himself became involved in one after splitting from N.A.S.T.Y. Crew -- generally grime has become the biggest thing in British urban music through collaborations, an assertion backed up by all the "featuring" notes and posse cuts on Road's tracklist.

Jammer himself has worked with many in the scene, including Wiley, D Double E, Lethal and Kano, and launched a series of DVDs dubbed Lord of the Mic, which capture the impromptu battles going down in his basement studio, The Dungeon.

It's through digital video, dubplates, mixtapes and, most notably, pirate radio stations that the music has begun its slow climb out of the underground.

There's a danger to this rise, as evidenced by the failure of UK garage to maintain its identity in the hands of major labels and mainstream acceptance. But Dizzee Rascal's 2004 sophomore LP, Showtime, only sounds more accessible when compared to his first record (2003's The Boy in da Corner) and the gritty working-class MCs nipping at his heels seem hungrier for street fame than bank

"It's this generation's punk music," Dizzee told me last week, the day before he got arrested for having pepper spray in his pocket. "It's not really a black thing no more. It is, but the whole youth are into it over here. It's never been like this before. People were influenced by [American hip-hop], that was our culture. Now grime is all they know.

"It's good to be around to see it and be a major part of it. It's a big step in history, innit?"

Words: Joshua Ostroff

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