Published Sep 01, 2003Heat rises. No matter how far below the surface its source, heat pushes up inexorably, hissing through cracks, bending around obstacles and melting what cannot be pierced. Even from a distance, a fire makes itself seen, generating wispy entrails that are blown left and right at the whim of the winds.
From our shores, the clouds rising over Great Britain's music scene are always visible, ever helping to guide the tenor of North America's pop discourse. Over the last two years, the smoke hovering above London has become particularly thick with emissions from an English-specific strain of hip-hop, known variously as UK bounce, gutter garage or grime.
Melding the urban imperative of its American antecedent with intrinsically British features, garage rap is the latest manifestation of "glocalisation" in hip-hop. After 15 years spent struggling to find their own voice, UK rappers have finally asserted a distinct identity, blazing through the underground like a pack of gangsters with a score to settle.
Indeed, the gutter scene is fuelled by a ferocious rage, and its output can be read as a collective assertion of self by Britain's disenfranchised black youth. While North Americans have long dismissed the British accent as prissy and privileged, gutter garage leaves no doubt that its creators are a furious lot, out to claim their share of hip-hop's bounty.
To date, the only garage rap artists to have made an impression outside England are the relatively tame Ms. Dynamite and Mike Skinner (aka the Streets). Interviewed during his recent North American tour, the pale-skinned Skinner readily admits that he's no trailblazer, instead pointing to cliques like Roll Deep and More Fire as the true progenitors of England's new folk form.
"Those crews don't really align with me," Skinner says. "It's the other way around; to me, the ultimate goal is acceptance from that scene."
Compared to fire-breathing MCs like Roll Deep's Dizzee Rascal, Skinner's suburban rhymes seem positively lifeless, no match for Dizzee's literally sub-urban tales. Indeed, while the scene has enjoyed a healthy presence in the London underground, Rascal is destined to become the form's first international star. Expectations are high for the 18-year old's first album, Boy In Da Corner, a fascinating document of black British life in the postmillennial era. Simultaneously conscious and gangsta in its outlook, Dizzee's debut might just be the full-length statement the scene needs to break out of the gutter.
For every British invasion since Beatlemania, there have been several Anglocentric movements that never quite took hold across the Atlantic. The recent Stateside failure of two-step garage was particularly curious, for at its pre-millennial height, the scene seemed primed for a successful entry into the American market. Led by a cast of talented producers and vocalists, two-step was a sophisticated alternative to ecstatic rave fodder, its warm textures seeming to offer a broader appeal than trance's mechanically-locked grooves.
In their quest to penetrate the North American mainstream, major labels packaged two-step as England's answer to R&B, proffering singer Craig David as a British version of Usher and portraying a producer named Artful Dodger as a gangster aesthete. Despite those efforts, these artists' syrupy albums failed miserably in North America not because they were too British-sounding, but because they weren't British enough. Indeed, by the time it hit the States, two-step was a neutered form, drained of the sensuality and rhythmological quirks that had distinguished it from drum & bass and R&B, respectively.
As David and his cohorts slumped back to the Isles, garage seemed like a stillborn form, its fate foreshadowing the cultural insignificance of subsequent ghost genres like nu-school breaks and broken-beat. But in 2001, just as the pundits were assigning garage to history's dustbin, the style experienced a rebirth in the most unexpected of places: the council estates of London's decayed East End.
In Christian mythology, resurrection typically implies bliss, but the resuscitation of garage carries with it none of those glorious connotations. In fact, the second coming of garage has taken place in the darkest hours, as teenage boys have wrangled the form from their predecessors, breathing new life into it by sheer force of loathing. Weaned on a steady diet of American rap and home-grown drum & bass, East End crews like N.A.S.T.Y. and East Connection have taken the reigns of garage, adopting its stutter-step beats and discarding its musicality, crafting a psychotic new breed of folk music for these paranoid times.
Indeed, this new strain of garage seems more desperately current than any other genre at the moment; only a severe case of tinnitus could match gutter garage as an apt aural representation of claustrophobic rage. Grime is denatured music; its makers seem wholly unconcerned with reproducing traditional acoustic sounds. These beatmakers (some as young as 15 years old) know no other way that beats should sound; surrounded since birth by microwaves, pagers and mobile phones, these young Brits know only two ways to live: faster and fastest.
To these hyper-stimulated youth, guitars (and even turntables) must seem anachronistic, novelties from some distant analog age. The music they produce is virtual music, unconcerned with tonal restrictions and rhythmic consonance. While punk was based on a similar antipathy for received codes of conduct, grime is fuelled by a textural virtuosity absent from punk rock. Indeed, gutter producers are nothing if not ingenious in their defiance of sampler presets and their mastery of software sequencers.
Gutter garage derives a large part of its appeal from its brute minimalism, best evidenced on Musical Mob's 8-bar anthem, "Pulse X." As bare a tune as has been born in the gutter, 2002's "Pulse X" is nothing but beats and bass, a blank canvas upon which any and all MCs are invited to spray their rhymes. Critics may deride this as sub-music, but those complaints miss the mark. If tunes like "Pulse X" seem like unfinished experiments, that's because they are. This music is so hyper that it won't wait for a high-gloss rinse, and its entry into the marketplace is as inexorable as the rising of smoke from a fire. No matter the quibbles, grime is just too hot to ignore.
For as long as Brits have been raving, the DJ has reigned atop the scene, a faceless dictator flaying the masses with selections from his crate. In performance terms, rave reoriented the attention of the audience from the stage to the floor, making stars out of those glitter-spackled attendees who did nothing but dance. Indeed, the worth of a given party was measured not by the performance of the DJ (whose role was no doubt integral), but by the crowd's "vibe," by the ease of social interaction among attendees.
In this context, the MC played the role of facilitator, especially in the hardcore and jungle scenes. In rave culture, an MC was like the party's host, exalting his boss (the DJ) and agitating the crowd with his energetic chatter. Such was the case with first-generation two-step MCs, many of whom had emigrated to garage from the austere climes of drum & bass.
In 2001, though, the scene was flipped on its ear by a squad of South London artists going by the name So Solid Crew. SSC is a swarming mass comprised of more than 30 MCs than DJs, an outfit that uses raw garage instrumentals as a foundation for boastful assertions of self. So Solid has its antecedents in Jamaican sound system culture, in which a team of selectors and deejays roam the landscape as mobile party units. After So Solid dropped its trademark tune (2001's "Oh No"), garage MCs were no longer subservient to the DJs; with charismatic rappers in the house, the crowd's gaze was once again reoriented, from the floor back to the stage.
Like SSC, the South London three-man garage unit known as Heartless Crew started its career as teenagers in the early 1990s, hosting events at local youth clubs. Just as Bristol's Wild Bunch spawned groups like Massive Attack, so too did the members of Heartless work their way from youth clubs to raves to legal nightspots, wowing crowds with their eclectic freestyle flows.
"People think we're garage MCs, but we've always just been music-orientated," enthuses Heartless MC Bushkin. "When we started, we were doing ragga, and when that died down we jumped on the jungle bandwagon. Then garage came in and we jumped into that, but we still play ragga, soul, jungle, hip-hop and R&B. That's been our model: cover all the angles."
Rather than following in the Heartless Crew's crowd-pleasing footsteps, younger London-based outfits like Roll Deep pattern themselves after rap's model of the clan-as-corporation, a term popularised by English journalist Simon Reynolds. Like Wu-Tang or the Ruff Ryders, young black Britons derive their strength from numbers, building allegiance among pirate radio fanatics and using their crew's credibility as a springboard to solo endeavours.
One such group is the Knightz of the Round Table, a trio of teenagers currently raiding the pirates with their tag-team flows and neck-snapping beats. According to Knightz MC Luckie Luciano, crews offer a chance for disenfranchised youth to present a united front against their parental and social oppressors.
"Being in a crew gives us an identity," offers the young rapper. "Plus it gives us more flavours so that we can complement each other. That can only help you develop as an artist, but only if everyone's on the same page and fully focused."
Inevitably, rivalries have sprung up between various crews in London, usually as the result of regional spats. The most famous of these has been the beef between So Solid's Asher D and Roll Deep's Dizzee Rascal, a dispute sparked by Asher's public contention that the youngster was "not on [his] level." While that beef was thought to have concluded with an on-air freestyle battle between the two on London's Choice FM, the recent stabbing of Dizzee in the Greeks Islands is rumoured to have been carried out by a So Solid associate.
Whether or not they're responsible for Dizzee's stabbing, So Solid members are no stranger to England's judiciary system; three crewmen have been arrested for firearms possession over the last year. Unsurprisingly, SSC's reputation has sparked a sort of lyrical arms race among garage rappers, many of whom pepper their tunes with bloodlustful boasts.
In today's crime-ridden underground, even veteran hardcore crews like So Solid are dismissed as soft. Witness this comment for Diesel, a DJ for the commercially-minded East Connection clique. "Sure, we crossover to the radio, but we know where we come from and we know what time it is," he insists. "We're not silly, you get me? We're not blind and we know what's going on. We ain't like So Solid."
The Knightz' Luciano adds that some artists in the scene "are promoting street life in a way that England in general is not ready for," hinting that while Londoners may well tolerate violent lyrics, gunplay just won't fly in the Midlands.
Nowadays, London's garage rap scene bears a striking resemblance to American rap in the early 90s, when gangsta realists like NWA duelled for pre-eminence with conscious artists like De La Soul. Among younger crews, the bleak raps of outfits like Horra Squad and More Fire reflect the paranoid desperation of life on the city's streets. In contrast, older syndicates like GK Allstars and Dem Lott recall the rave era's peaceful party vibe.
"The whole meaning of the word crew has been lost," despairs Heartless Crew's Fonti, a self-avowed conscious head. "What's happened is that all the crews are trying to be number one and are trying to fight out everyone else. When there are fights at the clubs, it's not the people in the crowd bringing trouble, it's the artists and their associates who are causing most of it."
Dem Lott MC Frisky Dan picks up on the theme, contending that the scene's young artists are compromising their careers by branding themselves as incorrigible thugs. "The goal for Dem Lott is mainstream, big-time, let's go and get some MTV Cribs up in here," he says with a laugh. "I'm serious. We're older than a lot of these crews out there. Most of these guys are between 16-24. We're aged from 21 to 30, so we need to get that big dough."
The divisions plaguing the scene (old school vs. new school, gangsta vs. conscious) have become more pronounced since the killing of two innocent girls at a rave in Birmingham last year. The incident sent Britain's infamously hyperactive tabloids into overdrive, spurred on by the comments of national culture minister Kim Howells, who denounced So Solid as a band of idiots for promoting violence. As with America's gangsta artists in the mid-90s, grime acts are bearing the brunt of media criticism, thus limiting the genre's ability to succeed on the radio.
"Last year at this time, garage was the hottest thing," recalls Frisky Dan. "Now, you can't even turn your radio on and hear a garage tune no more. You might hear it on pirate stations, but that's it."
Veteran MC Bushkin concurs. "Anyone who's got anything to do with garage at the moment is looked upon as a black sheep," says the member of Heartless Crew (so named because its members claim that their "hearts are in the music"). "The whole scene has gone into itself; it's gotten smaller and dried up."
While negative media attention has certainly compromised grime's viability as a mainstream concern, large record labels must bear some of the responsibility for the scene's stunted growth. After garage rap's underground explosion in late 2001, the majors came calling, signing crews like Pay As U Go Cartel to generous deals. The trouble is, while PAUG had enjoyed success with its bubbly "Champagne Dance" single, the clique was unable to generate an album's worth of songs. Result: the Cartel was dropped by its label and has subsequently broken up; its members joined either Roll Deep or East Connection.
"As soon as the majors get involved in things over here, they always make a mess of it," says Fonti, whose Heartless cohorts were recently dropped by Warner. "They try and get the most out of a scene while it's hot, and then drop it and made it look like it was a piece of shit in the first place. When it was underground, it was much better. People were just coming out and enjoying themselves. But then the majors came and pushed it in everybody's face and people got turned off. They just tried to run before they could walk, you know?"
While many observers are saying that the garage scene is dead, the artists themselves have deftly abandoned the garage tag, whether it's Dizzee proclaiming "I ain't UK garage," or Wiley maintaining that "I don't care about garage." Indeed, a tour of London's pirate radio stations (accessible under the "radio" tab at www.uk-flava.com) demonstrates that the scene has become a clearing house for all things crunked and raggafied.
"That's England, innit?" says Sticky, the movement's premier bounce-style producer. "We've got everything, every culture here. We've got the American style, we've got Africa and West India and even our own pop styles. That's us."
Asked to assess the status of the scene, the boardsman is sanguine, contending that garage rap today is like American rap before Run-DMC's eponymous 1984 debut LP: a nascent movement waiting for one of its artists to launch a full-length volley into the mainstream.
"It's early stages yet," claims Sticky. "England hasn't really had a hip-hop scene, and this is probably the closest to it. At the moment, everyone looks at it as dark music, but if it has the right MC on it, it will be big. There needs to be an artist who will do an album that explains the English cultural side of the music, that shows people what we're like."
While drum & bass may have built its fan base on the strength of singles, personality-driven forms like grime require a few credible full-lengths before achieving mainstream recognition. Last year's Original Pirate Material by the Streets, brilliant though it may have been, failed to open doors for the black movement from which it was inspired.
"At first, those crews were like, Where is this guy coming from?'," admits Skinner. "Now, those crews respect the success I've had because garage hasn't really had a lot of it not yet anyway."
If ever the scene does pierce the North American market, Dizzee Rascal will lead the way. As a member of Roll Deep, Dizzee produced last year's most fascinating single, "I Luv You," a splenetic depiction of boy/girl spats in London's East End. In the video for that song, Dizzee is draped in apparel from the Los Angeles Lakers appropriate, given the fierce-yet-sensitive demeanour that has earned him comparisons to the deceased don of West Coast rap, Tupac Shakur.
Like Pac, the 18 year old Dizzee is impossibly charismatic, clearly besting his American predecessor in terms of both flow and lyrical content. On Boy In Da Corner, the young Brit veers nimbly from pinch-throated braggadocio to crack-voiced vulnerability, riding his self-stitched quilt of rap-meets-garage-meets-metal beats. Destined to reign atop many critics' year-end top ten lists, Boy In Da Corner is nothing short of a manifesto, a multihued flare launched from the gutter, soaring so high that even North Americans may see it but only if they keep their eyes open.
Essential Grime Wave CDs
Garage rap has produced only a handful of classic albums, a fact that may well change with forthcoming full-lengths from the likes of Heartless Crew, East Connection and Knightz of the Round Table. Until those albums hit the streets, these five CDs give the best overview of a scene still on the rise.
Various Garage Rap, Vol. 1 (Eastside Records, 2002)
An excellent compilation siphoned straight from the gutter, highlighted by Wiley's sinister "Terrible," Dem Lott's giddy "Dem Lott's Ere Now" and the GK Allstars' euphoric "Garage Feeling." Calling this music underground does it no justice the tracks collected here are positively apocalyptic, a call-to-arms for England's disenfranchised black youth.
Various Crews Control (Warner Dance UK, 2002)
A hit-and-miss collection of new- and old-school joints, most notable for grime favourites like Pay As U Go's "Champagne Dance," Heartless Crew's "Superglue," and More Fire Crew's "Oi." Despite some duff tracks, this is a two-CD compilation with one disc's worth of certifiable classics.
So Solid Crew They Don't Know (Independiente, 2001)
The title of this album epitomises gutter garage's defiant marginality, as SSC practically dares their American counterparts to get with what's next. Sadly, most people on this side of the Atlantic never heard They Don't Know, a record with "guns in abundance" and at least two timeless singles: "Oh No" and "21 Seconds."
The Streets Original Pirate Material (Warner, 2002)
Hailed as last year's finest album by England's intelligentsia, this is a vaguely conceptual album about "a day in the life of a geezer." In the tradition of British bands like the Jam and the Specials, Mike Skinner carried the flag of urban disaffection with youthful swagger. Given its shrewd depiction of a cynic's frustrations, it's no wonder that music critics loved this one so much.
Dizzee Rascal Boy In Da Corner (XL Recordings, 2003)
Dizzee is a funnier, less solipsistic version of Holden Caufield, a gifted observer translating his East End despair into one of the best albums of the decade. The Brit's productions are spare-yet-sophisticated, from rousing big-beat anthems ("Fix Up, Look Sharp") to affective avant-garde meditations ("Sitting Here"). Only 18 years of age, Dizzee's potential is boundless.