In March 2005, Sasha Frere-Jones, then the New Yorker’s pop critic, wrote an article about grime, saying it was “increasingly clear” that the genre would take off in America. “Grime is becoming familiar,” he wrote, “a fine black mist dissolving around us.” Two years later, in another column for the New Yorker, he was forced to admit that he was wrong. “Grime never caught on here commercially. It’s a shame, since the music is thriving in England; both grime and an instrumental offshoot called dubstep have been having a strong year.”
Today, grime remains an evolving and dynamic movement in the UK. In the last year, writers have problematically defined the newly increased interest in grime as a “resurgence” or “revival,” which hasn’t been well-received by its veterans, including Elijah, co-founder of esteemed grime label, Butterz. Since its inception in the early 2000s, grime itself hasn’t gone anywhere. Tastes have changed, and most importantly listeners’ ears have become accustomed to new sounds, especially in America, where hip-hop has evolved and diversified massively since its own underground beginnings in the ‘80s.
While saying there has been a grime “resurgence” is inaccurate, 2014 was still an incredibly vibrant year for the genre and movement as a whole. While the underground continued to innovate and excite, there were also more opportunities for mainstream exposure and visibility than in previous years—the Red Bull Culture Clash, grime songs in the pop charts—and therefore greater media coverage, too. At the same time, American hip-hop production has become more electronically adventurous and sonically closer to grime, with bass-heavy trap sounds at 140 beats per minute populating rap albums and mixtapes. Maybe Sasha Frere-Jones was 10 years too early; America is now finally ready for grime.
But why? To answer this, we can take it back one step, and first ask why grime has previously not resonated with US listeners. The problem is twofold—the listener can’t understand the MC because of the accent, and they find the beats too aggressive, abrasive, and hyperactive. I’ve heard it myself, even from the most open-minded of listeners, “What’s he even saying? He’s just shouting, the lyrics suck! The beat is too fast to rap over!”
Grime and traditional, boom-bap hip-hop are distant cousins indeed, related only by the fact that an MC is speaking in rhyme over a beat. But in a post-Yeezus world, in a landscape where Young Thug and Migos are stars, grime and rap are starting to look more like brothers.
In short, grime and rap are converging. On the production side, rap and electronic music are becoming ever more intertwined, as boundary pushers like Kanye West tirelessly search for new sounds. Yeezus encouraged a whole new crop of artists to experiment with abrasive production and forced new sounds on rap listeners. Kanye has worked with Hudson Mohawke and Evian Christ, and Danny Brown, whose taste is always on point, has worked with Rustie and even grime producer Darq E. Freaker. Going past the names and nationalities of the producers, new production norms are making the US rap listener’s ear more accustomed to a grime-style sound, whether they know it or not.
The booming trap production popularized around 2010 by Lex Luger and powered on now by Metro Boomin, 808 Mafia, and many others, generally has a tempo of 140 beats per minute (BPM), which is the tempo of most of the grime instrumentals that UK MCs spit over. The heavy use of synthesizers, ominous strings, and lots of bass, not to mention the generally aggressive nature of the beats, are yet more similarities between trap and grime production. Add some triplet hi-hats to Wiley’s “Morgue” instrumental from 33 seconds onwards, and you have a beat with undeniable similarities to Metro Boomin’s “Warrior” beat for Young Thug.
It’s not just the production that has changed. Much to the disappointment of hip-hop purists, rap is no longer all about lyricism and storytelling. Flow, style, melody, and having elements that stand out from the crowd are now as important. Listeners have come to love Thug’s unintelligible lyrics on “Lifestyle” (over 100 million views on YouTube) and the varying accents and heavily coded slang of rappers from Houston, Texas to Chicago, Illinois. It makes sense, then, that they would eventually become more open to various British accents too, especially considering the Caribbean heritage shared by many US rappers and grime MCs.
US rappers and grime MCs share much more than that, however. Both hip-hop and grime were born out of struggle, created as a tool of expression and as a raw, real reflection of the lives of those who made them. Rap music and the culture that surrounds it is now big business, exploited at many levels by people who are not invested in the culture or the creators, but grime, a much younger genre, and its artists, are still largely independent and operating away from major labels and big businesses. The authentic, independent music that comes from the streets of New York and Atlanta has much more in common with the grime scene than with a high paid Flo Rida guest verse, or even Jay Z’s latest corporate tie-in.
Like Skepta says, “Grime is just a different style of rap.”
In his piece on the state of rap in 2014, DJ, producer, and Fool’s Gold boss A-Trak said, “The line between artist and A&R is forever blurred,” citing the way that Drake hopped on iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” and Travi$ Scott worked with Atlanta’s hottest properties on Days Before Rodeo. The power of big name artists to make stars has never been greater, and it’s a mutually beneficial act. Drake remixing “Tuesday” propelled iLoveMakonnen to a new level of stardom, while also allowing Drake to benefit from the buzz Makonnen had created and secure his own status as a tastemaker.
In this new environment of online tastemakers, grime hasn’t had its Makonnen moment, but it’s coming. Movements that start from the underground, organically build a fanbase, and finally blow up on a wider level have a greater chance of longevity, and the groundwork is being laid for grime in America. As the instrumental grime scene in the UK flourishes, some of the most interesting recent grime production has come from Texas-based producer Rabit, who is releasing an EP on the label Tri Angle Records this March (interestingly, Tri Angle housed Evian Christ’s first official releases, before he was snapped up by Kanye for Yeezus and signed his publishing to GOOD Music). Alongside this, Future Brown, a four person electronic project that includes New York based J-Cush, L.A. based Nguzunguzu, and Fatima Al Qadiri, are also pushing an agenda with an inclusive musical world view—their debut album (out February 24 on Warp) features grime OGs Riko Dan, Roachee, Prince Rapid, and Dirty Danger alongside Chicago’s Sicko Mobb and Kingston’s Timberlee.
Grime’s biggest US ambassador right now is Skepta, whose songs “That’s Not Me” and “It Ain’t Safe” have been well received Stateside. He is hanging out and performing with Kanye West’s creative director Virgil Abloh and protege Theophilus London one day, and chilling with Wiz Khalifa the next. He has also collaborated with A$AP Mob’s Young Lord and Wiki from Ratking, performed at MoMA PS1 in New York, and seen support coming from US tastemakers like Fools Gold.
Big name US artists have shown an interest in grime before; Dizzee Rascal was on a UGK song in 2007 and Lady Sovereign was the first non-American female to be signed to Def Jam in 2005, but this time things are different. Rather than major labels trying to mold a UK artist to fit an American template, or cherry pick someone as a potential star, US artists and rap fans are gravitating towards grime because of its authenticity and raw creativity. Going into 2015, rap is in an exciting place. Norms are being challenged, and rap fans are slowly accepting ideas that are totally foreign to traditional notions of hip-hop. There is an endless supply of creative artists thinking outside the box. Maybe now American listeners are finally ready to think outside their own borders and embrace grime.