A month ago, while most of us were finishing up our Christmas shopping, The Independent published an essay arguing that grime's sudden popularity among middle-class students amounted to a form of cultural appropriation. Naturally, this caused a minor tweet-storm: most DJs dismissed the criticism as the product of outrage culture, while a few agreed with the general message, if not the way it was stated.
To me however, this sort of academic problematizing missed a far more interesting aspect of grime's newfound popularity: people from all walks of life are making the stuff now, and they're bringing their own influences to the table. There's been occasional grumbling: for some fans, there's a vibe to the recent wave of spaced-out, devil mix-influenced instrumentals that sets them apart from grime's usual 8-bar riddims. Comments claiming "that's not grime!" have started popping up on Twitter and, for some core fans, there's a fear that as the genre gets more popular, it'll lose sight of its roots. I don't buy it: as long as these new productions aren't taking attention away from grime's original wave, they'll prove an essential part of the genre's lasting influence. If hip-hop is big enough for Kendrick Lamar, Future, Danny Brown, Open Mike Eagle and Flying Lotus, grime can surely handle a few producers pushing the sound in new directions.
First, real talk: grime's not about to be hijacked by anybody. BBK, Stormzy, Big Narstie, Novelist and their ilk are the scene's biggest stars, and a new generation of shellers are tearing up radio on a daily basis. The facts simply don't back up claims that grime is being "whitewashed." The push and pull between emcee culture and angular instrumentals has been at the core of the genre's appeal from the jump: Geeneus and Slimzee were just as important to its foundations as Wiley, and producers like Waifer, Dread D and Rapid have always dropped beats that got love from fans of extreme music.
This sort of hand wringing over genre ownership isn't new. At the turn of the millennium, prior to dubstep cementing itself as its own thing, East London grime supporters were baffled by what they considered a suburban infringement of grime's turf, dismissing the FWD>> sound's production values and lack of emcees as proof of its inauthenticity. A few years later, when grime's original generation was chasing pop success, its audience reacted by shifting its attention to road rap and a generation of emcees unconcerned with grime's dance music lineage. You can even go back to the earliest days of rave to see how London audiences adapted and switched their loyalties to certain scenes based on changes to the vibe and audience: jungle emphasized hardcore's darkness and Jamaican roots to form its own subculture, but its original audience moved away as it transitioned to drum & bass and became techier and (in the words of many) more "whiter."
People from all walks of life are making the stuff now, and they're bringing their own influences to the table.
What's interesting about grime in 2016 is that this sort of split along audience lines isn't happening. Instead, all kinds of producers, emcees and audiences are not only co-existing under one banner, but also overlapping and collaborating. Boxed may be an instrumental club night, but pay it a visit and you'll see emcees in a cypher spitting amongst themselves and casually checking out the tunes. This new generation of rhymers have developed their own network of DJs and producers, but you'll also see them releasing music on labels like Local Action that specialize in dance music. On the flip side, it's grime's roughneck foundation that keeps some of the instrumental producers from floating off into experimental music entirely: Mumdance and Logos kill it on the noise jams as two thirds of The Sprawl, but both can also drop 8-bar riddims on a dime when the situation calls for it. Ultimately, each side of the equation is strengthened by the other, and we should be celebrating this sort of cross-pollination, not damning it as some sort of compromise.
Finally, if and when outsiders do latch on to grime... will it be that bad? British pop music's greatest strength has always been its ability to get black music wrong: The Beatles and The Stones were rubbish at rhythm n' blues, but they brought their own ideas to the table, birthing British rock. Art school kids like David Bowie and Phil Collins did the same to funk and R&B, and an entire generation of producers utterly mangled Chicago house... only to birth hardcore rave. In this light, getting grime "wrong" is a welcome course correction after three decades of indie, and the exhausted idea that white English kids need to "stick to their own" and make anemically self-referential guitar pop from now until the end of time.