Grime was never supposed to win, let alone last this long. Fresh out the gate, the elder statesmen of UK garage refused entry to our tracksuit-wearing masters of ceremonies, leaving them no other option but to create their own stage. Then there was ‘the establishment’ and mainstream press to deal with, who felt the content was “angry”, “violent” and a real cause for concern. Add to that the boldly racist (now-scrapped) Form 696—a police risk-assessment form for club promoters, created out of fear of this genre’s future greatness—and you could question how grime’s 2010s revival was ever a thing. Every bit the backbone of young, black British culture, grime has—to put it bluntly—taken a lot of crap over the years so that other rhyme-based sounds such as road rap, Afroswing, and UK drill, could flourish in unimaginable ways.
Like with most genres in their infancy, grime has hit its fair share of bumps in the road. But its biggest—and most damaging—were the “mainstream money” years. During these years, between late 2008 and the tail end of 2012, we witnessed the scene’s MVPs—Wiley, Chip, Skepta and more—veer off into the unknown territories of electro and pop (remember when Tinchy Stryder went No. 1 with N-Dubz?), using their celebrated lyrical stylings to appeal to the mainstream. For me, as a writer, club night promoter and general champion of the scene, it was hard to see what was happening to our greats; it was almost as if they’d left the scene for dead.
Luckily though, whilst this was going on, the likes of Jammer, D Double E, P Money and Jme—as well as the Birmingham scene (StayFresh, Jaykae, Lady Leshurr et al)—were hard at work, flying the flag for a sound that we could call our own. Their efforts were always appreciated by myself and others that wanted to see things back in its rightful place, but it didn’t always connect with fans on a wider scale. There was a general feeling that said MVPs no longer cared, leaving a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, and it would take for an unsuspecting MC to come in and level the playing field.
In 2013, Meridian Dan—who had made his name in Meridian Crew, alongside Skepta (and who featured on his 2005 cut “Private Caller”)—didn’t have much of a catalogue to show for himself, but on his track “German Whip”, there was something about Dan’s choppy flow and Big H and Jme’s pirate radio energy that connected with fans across the board. Bleeding with early grime juice, the HeavyTrackerz-produced banger quickly caught a flame, spreading across the ‘net and commercial radio in ways we hadn’t seen since Lethal B’s “Pow!” in 2004. “German Whip” was a wake-up call for everyone, especially the scene’s top-level spitters, and was the official start of grime’s second wave.
Skepta’s true return to form was up next, tapping his younger brother, Jme, for the Eski-tinged “That’s Not Me”, which took things back to basics; skippy flows, hungry rhymes, and one killer beat. That was in 2014, but Skep had already showed signs of his renewed brilliance across his late-2012 project, Blacklisted (see: “Ace Hood Flow” and “Castles”).
However, the emergence of Croydon’s Stormzy would catapult the genre to levels not even its originator, Wiley, had seen in his storied career. In 2015, backed by his boys in a South London park, Big Mikey (born Michael Omari) decided to pay homage to a classic riddim from the Ruff Sqwad camp—XTC’s “Functions On A Low”—by spraying lyrical venom all over it. The nostalgia “Shut Up” brought captivated millions (stats grime wasn’t used to seeing at the time), and right there and then, a star was born. This was also after gospel-loving rapper Kanye West decided to bring out Stormzy and half the grime scene to perform “All Day” at The BRITs, which was super random, but wholly appreciated: this move centred the world’s attention on us in a big way.
Not one to be outdone, a few months later, Drake, whose love for UK music and culture should never be questioned, popped up at a Section Boyz (now Smoke Boys) show in Shoreditch and, for the second time in less than a year, British lyricism was the hot topic for hip-hop globally. Around this time, and even during the hype of “German Whip”, a fraternity of young, energised emcees—such as Novelist, Jammz, AJ Tracey and Capo Lee—were making much-needed noise across online and pirate radio, injecting the stagnant scene with urgent flows and angst-laced bars that were all but gone. This lot didn’t care about the charts like the old guard; their music was made with the underground solely in mind, exciting critics like it was the first class of Deja.
Publications that would pass on my grime and UK rap pitches were now bombarding me with commissions, while, Stateside, this wrongly-dubbed ‘hip-hop subgenre’ was totally lit. It was all roadman this and roadman that (referring to how most of the artists dressed and moved); it had now become bigger than the music. And whilst grime was enjoying its time as a pop culture topic—and road rap legends such as Giggs, K Koke and Blade Brown continued to drop heat—a new UK movement, inspired by grime in its attitude and Chicago drill in its sound, was being birthed in the same blocks that housed some of the country’s biggest stars, and would receive the same exact treatment grime did in its nascent years.
“There’s been a lot of talk surrounding the cencorship of UK drill,” says Ben Wynter, Grants & Programmes Manager at PRS Foundation, who recently funded a drill rapper. “This period of UK rap reminds me of the way in which rap was received in America in the early ‘90s, censoring and banning the likes of N.W.A and Ice T due to the content of their rhymes. And whilst there is some coded language between some gangs on tracks—for the most part, these young rappers are only commenting on what they see around them. If the powers that be want the narrative to change, then it doesn’t start with censoring UK drill music—it starts with changing the socio-economic conditions that these guys are exposed to.”
One of the more publicised cases in the banning of drill came in the form of Skengdo x AM, a rap duo from Brixton, and their track “Attempted 1.0”—which the feds placed a gang injunction on in 2018. Despite this ongoing fight to silence their voice, the pair have since released one of drill’s best projects to date in Back Like We Never Left.
The arrival of Headie One, arguably UK drill’s biggest star, has been nothing short of refreshing. Switching up the formula of shank-em lyrics, clanging 808s and expected bass patterns, Headie’s latest project, Music X Road, has shown us that—while drill still has a lot of growing up to do—the sound’s future is promising. “Headie is culturally the most important out of the UK’s current crop of top rappers,” Rob Uche, Senior A&R Manager at Sony imprint Relentless, says of his signee. “I first came across Headie via the video for ‘How Many’ in 2017, and then I just looked out for the Drillers & Trappers mixtape. When I heard it, I knew he had something special about him; the diversity of his flows on the opening tracks made me an instant fan.”
While being independent is still very much celebrated, signing to a major is no longer a jab for sellouts. Since 2016, thanks to grime’s revival and culturally-conscious A&Rs replacing novices, record labels have enjoyed more success with black British talent than ever before.
For Uche, having the right people at the helm is key. “I think we have one of the most exciting music scenes right now that I can only see progress with the right guidance,” he says. “Ultimately, the industry respects success and when they see it, they are forced to acknowledge. On our side, we need to focus more on identifying top-quality talent and for them to be nurtured by talented and hungry A&R execs that are passionate about developing more rounded artists and elevating the overall quality of the music.” Akua Agyemfra, a brand and marketing exec who works closely with Stormzy and Wretch 32, strongly believes that teamwork makes the dream work. “It’s super important to have a team around you that are all thinkers and strategists,” she tells me. “Having people who have your back and think holistically is so important; a team that thinks about who, and what, an artist is going to be long-term.”
In a year that has seen Stormzy headline Glastonbury, UK drill artists level up, and sharper-than-sharp albums from the likes of Kano (Hoodies All Summer), Skepta (Ignorance Is Bliss), Wretch 32 (Upon Reflection), Dave (Psychodrama) and Little Simz (GREY Area), it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that UK lyricism—in all its forms—is the healthiest it has ever been. “If everyone understands and harnesses their power in the right way,” Akua adds, “there are no limits to what else can be achieved.”