Partners in Grime UK Hip-hop Thrives On Its Own

Partners in GrimeUK Hip-hop Thrives On Its Own
Mercury Prize-winner or not, Dizzee Rascal will probably never find much of an audience in North America — not outside hipster anglophile circles, anyway. For those who think the Londoner's among the best lyricists in the game, it's depressing to think an MC as lifeless as, well, the Game will be heard by literally tens of millions more people than Dizzee will.

But never mind all that. Dizzee's doing fine, as are dozens of his partners in grime — a London-based scene churning out the most exciting music of our time. "Grime," as British critic Simon Reynolds recently noted, "is our hip-hop," a bracing rejoinder to American rap rooted in two English-born forms of rave music: drum & bass and two-step garage. Reynolds figures that London's got it over proper American hip-hop these days, and while that might be an exaggeration, he's not far off the mark. Even Anthony Wilson (the founder of Manchester's famed Factory Records) has caught the grime bug; in January, he launched his new F4 label with a single by a grime crew called Raw-T.

Wilson's latest gambit is a heartening development, for labels have thus far been reluctant to invest in grime, scared off by the genre's unabashedly alien sounds and inscrutable linguistic codes. Indeed, this is a form in a constant state of flux and redefinition, a formal restlessness that is both twofold and divergent — as if Dizzee's contrasting senses of rage and vulnerability had each birthed its own sub-movement.

As for rage, a palpable bleakness courses through the unruly sonics and malevolent threats of angry young men like Ruff Squad and Lethal Bizzle, folks for whom gunplay has become something of a necessary pastime. Just how low can grime go? Well, Bizzle's archetypal "Pow (Forward Riddim)" — a riot of preset handclaps, portentous synths and the MC's fearsome bellowing — was blamed for setting off numerous brawls at grime events last year, and was eventually banned from venues across Essex.

If 2004 was dominated by such ranting and raving, this year looks set to be a big one for rhythm & grime — grime with the testosterone turned down. As befits this oft-schizophrenic form, the definitive R&G artist — a producer named Terror Danjah — is no stranger to gunplay; his beat on last year's ferocious "Cock Back," for example, was comprised of little more than a spare synth figure and the sound of a pistol being loaded over and over again. But for all that track's menace, it's on tunes like D Double E and Shola Ama's "So Contagious" that Danjah reaches his neuromantic peak. As blogger Simon Hampson has noted on his site (www.silverdollarcircle.blogspot.com), "So Contagious" recalls Aphex Twin at his most blissful, its digital bits delicately configured as a splendid pointillist tableau.

Danjah's remix of Shystie's "One Wish" is another R&G staple, recasting the original as an unabashedly idyllic exercise in laptop orchestration. In a scene where full-length albums are scarce, Shystie's Diamond in the Dirt (from which "One Wish" is drawn) stands as one of the best; like fellow female MCs Lady Sovereign and Nolay, Shystie balances out grime's alpha males with her unsparing street tales and her dizzying triple-time flows.

This battle of the sexes is one of many subplots coursing through 679 Recordings' Run The Road, the first scene-spanning compilation widely available in North America. It's hard to overestimate the significance of this release, containing as it does the biggest tracks from most of grime's key players, including those you may already know (Dizzee and his former Roll Deep cohorts) and those you soon will (Kano, Durrty Goodz and too many others to mention).

Of all the crushing tunes packed in here, the pick of the bunch is Kano's "Ps & Qs," on which the young rapper suavely slits the throats of all comers, tossing off threats and boasts with an elegance that recalls Jay-Z at his most poised. This is only one among several appearances for Kano on Run The Road, each shading in another of his multiple guises: cheeky prankster, back alley battler, or headstrong underdog. The current issue of RWD — the scene's leading magazine — casts Kano in the role of Scarface, and while the imagery might be tired, the message is blunt: with his forthcoming full-length (also out on the 679 label) the 20-year-old is set to take over the game. If we don't acknowledge him, the loss is ours.