By Cedar Pasori
It’s undeniable that grime is experiencing important yet unexpected popularity in the U.S. right now, and Skepta—a well-known, successful MC in the UK—is leading the way with crossover hits and collaborations with American artists. The excitement for his current North American Shutdown Tour is palpable; over the weekend, he began the sold-out, six-date run with a packed show at MoMA PS1’s Warm Up concert series in New York. Skepta performed old and new songs, he brought his friends on-stage, and the crowd moshed so much that dust stayed floating above the yard. It was a moment for him to prove to a crowd of newer listeners that what they’ve been hearing on the Internet is even more raw and powerful live, and he delivered.
How grime suddenly got more popular in the U.S. and why it matters are hotly debated topics in music lately, especially by new fans who want to figure out how the UK-born genre fundamentally differs from American hip-hop, and also by those who have persistently supported it for the last 15 years of grime’s existence.
And though there isn’t an easy answer to either question, Skepta’s recent hits, in addition to public cosigns of his music from Kanye West and Drake, have accelerated interest from American listeners. It goes beyond hit-making, though; Skepta’s been building bridges over the past few years that will inevitably benefit present and future generations of grime MCs.
These bridges are essentially a cross-Atlantic dialogue between grime artists and American rappers. Skepta’s “That’s Not Me,” featuring his brother, JME, got a “U.S. remix” and video in September, with the addition of a verse by Wiki from New York-based rap group, Ratking. The following month, he released “It Ain’t Safe” featuring A$AP Mob’s Young Lord, a song that, production-wise, sounds more N.W.A. than grime, but got core U.S. hip-hop fans to pay attention. He even got Young Lord to come to Birmingham to star in and co-direct the video, shot by Risky Roadz in the style of classic grime videos.
In February, Drake started Instagramming old videos of Skepta on SB.TV, Skepta appeared on-stage at the BRITS with Kanye West, and then in March, Skepta sampled a line from Drake’s Jungle mini-documentary for his biggest crossover hit yet, “Shutdown.” In May, Skepta confirmed during an RBMA lecture that he’s been in the studio with Kanye West, Earl Sweatshirt, and Playboi Carti. Earlier this month, Drake brought him on-stage at Wireless Festival in London and dedicated a moment in the set to Skepta’s friend who just died, the MC Lukey Maxwell. A week later, the world heard Skepta and Drake’s first collaboration, a remix of Nigerian artist Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba.”
All of this happened in less than a year, and it’s important to recognize that each interaction has not only been exposure for Skepta, it’s been even better exposure for grime as a whole. Though Wiki was added to the U.S. remix of “That’s Not Me,” anyone looking up the original would get to learn about JME. Young Lord and A$AP ILLZ weren’t just in a video with Skepta; they were in it with grime artists Stormzy, Shorty, and Frisco. When Drake Instagrammed Skepta, he also shouted out Wiley and Devilman. And when Kanye asked Skepta to bring a group of artists on-stage at the BRITS (to join American “All Day” rappers Theophilus London and Allan Kingdom), he brought Krept & Konan, Shorty, Novelist, Jammer, and many others.
At PS1, backed by DJ Maximum, Skepta performed after a set by grime legend DJ Slimzee. As the “godfather of grime,” Slimzee was instrumental in the birth of grime, co-founding pirate radio station Rinse FM and helping kickstart the careers of Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, before facing legal consequences that ended his show. He fought for the movement, and at PS1 (with a surprise appearance from 18-year-old MC, Novelist, who was in town to headline a Lit City Trax that night), Slimzee was also being introduced to an American audience newly interested in grime. Between Slimzee, Skepta, and Novelist, the crowd at MoMA PS1 was essentially exposed to three generations of grime, whether they knew it or not.
Instead of rushing to play his newest tracks at PS1, Skepta started with “That’s Not Me” and followed with what he was calling “mixtape shit,” mostly from his his 2012 project, Blacklisted. At one point, he rapped over Dizzee Rascal’s classic “I Luv U” instrumental, which he also did last year at PS1 during a surprise set with Jammer and support from Blood Orange (They performed their November 2013 collaboration, a more mournful song called “High Street.”) This year, Skepta also brought Novelist, A$AP Nast, and members of Queens-based rap group World’s Fair on-stage.
When Pigeons & Planes interviewed Skepta in the studio last year, he made his goal clear:
“I just want everyone to be making sick tunes, and [for] more people that are sick at making music to link up now that the Internet’s here. What me and Young Lord did, I want that to be the start of something new. We did that in two hours; that was minor. But I want much more people to connect in different ways. Like, I want JME and Eminem to make a song together.”
Skepta played his first headlining show in New York at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory on a freezing night in March 2014. There were probably 25 people in the crowd, including some New York artists and members of London grime label, Butterz. He ended the show by thanking everyone for being there and emphasizing that being able to perform in New York that night was important to him.
In the months since then, Skepta has been actively collaborating and bringing worlds together. His show at MoMA PS1 was a continuation of that. In the coming months, Skepta’s as likely to appear at OVO Fest with Drake as he is to do a surprise “Shutdown” show at a carpark in Los Angeles (like he did in Shoreditch in April). For Skepta, and grime being acknowledged in America, this is still just the beginning.
MoMA PS1’s Warm continues this weekend and every Saturday until September 5. See the calendar here.