Long before Drake was shouting out Skepta in his mixtape sleeve notes grime was making transatlantic movements. Attracted by the sonic oddity of the sound, innovative musicians from across the pond who were keeping their ears to the ground when in London had cottoned on to the new, harsher garage beats emerging from the city. One such person was Matt Schell, half of Team SHADETEK, the duo who had released a glitchy, hip-hop approximate album on Warp in 2004, Burnerism. “I was aware of some of the proto-grime garage stuff like Sticky's label Social Circles, which I loved but didn't know to call grime. I remember seeing music videos for early So Solid crew as well but not being as interested. Sticky's stuff was harder and more up my alley. Grime got my attention initially through, I think, Dizzee Rascal's early international releases, and then I discovered Wiley.”
Indeed, Dizzee Rascal’s seminal 'Boy In Da Corner', having swept to victory at the Mercury in 2003, was also garnering keen interest from the American press. Stopping off at LA’s Power 106 before a performance at the (now closed) Key Club on Sunset Boulevard, the young MC explained how his style drew influence from both sides of the Atlantic – blending the frenetic energy of drum 'n' bass with the braggadocio of rappers such as Jay-Z, to produce a powerful, unique sound, that was taking the UK underground by storm.
Only 19, his confidence was nonetheless supreme, as demonstrated by his determination not to compromise his fiercely British vocal style for an American audience, even when rhyming over some of its most parochial instrumental exports, such as MOP’s Ante Up. (His refusal to pander to foreign sensitivities is perhaps at its sharpest on that set when he raps that he’ll “do you like Osama did Bush” only a few years after 9/11). Reviews of his show later that indicate that the crowd at the Key Club reacted well to his ferocious rhymes, and there were reports of crowds already chanting back the hook of anthems such as 'Stand Up Tall'.
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A powerful, unique sound, that was taking the UK underground by storm...
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The following year Dizzee went on to Texas with DJ Wonder, where he would perform at the Engine Room in Houston, and appear on local radio station KPFT’s Damage Control show. The session saw him rhyme over a range of classic southern beats, while local crew GRIT Boys took their turn over some of Wonder’s 140 selection, including ‘Chi Flute’, off his 2006 album Welcome to Wonderland. It was immediately clear who the most talented lyricist in the room was, with the locals’ drawl no match for the precocious Londoner’s relentless staccato flows.
Having explicitly listed artists such as Lil Jon and UGK as his inspiration in numerous interviews, this experience represented something of a full circle for the MC, who, having first met Bun B the previous year, during an American tour with labelmate Mike Skinner, was able to spend time in the studio with the acclaimed rapper, an association that would later lead to two full collaborations.
2005, in fact, was somewhat of a high point in the early days of grime in the US, and the allusions to Lil Jon that pervaded discussion of the music stateside were not limited to Dizzee. Reviewing a show at Manhattan’s short lived Rothko club (which also played host to the likes of LCD Soundsystem, and soon to be famous Indie group The Killers) in Spin Magazine, Julianne Shepherd described D Double E’s signature guttural ad-libs as “Lil Jon-esque.” Alongside fellow NASTY Crew luminary Jammer, and his young protégé Ears, the MC gave the crowd an intense rendition of his intricately structured reload bars. The party, titled Bangers and Mash, had been thrown to celebrate the release of the Run the Road compilation in the US, and was partly organised by VICE, along with Trouble & Bass label head Luca Venezia (aka Drop the Lime), and the aforementioned Schell, who was becoming one of the key figures in bringing the sound overseas.
Recalling how he first met the MCs during a trip to London, he explains: “I got involved with the grime scene by travelling to London and buying records as a DJ, and I also made some deals with some local record shops in NYC and Berlin to buy vinyl for them and bring it back. In the process of doing that I connected with Capo and Ratty, the creators of the Lord Of The Mics and Lord of the Decks DVDs. They had a company distributing records out of their car at the time called Full Circle Distribution.
“I was travelling with DJ Sheen and we met with them and they took us to meet Jammer at Lewi White's studio. We explained that we were from abroad and trying to bring some light to the scene internationally and they were very cool and helpful. Jam and I built a relationship that lead to me bringing him, D Double, Ears and a bunch of their friends to New York, where we promoted a big show for them, the first large grime event in NYC at the time, besides a Dizzee Rascal concert that had happened previously.”
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We promoted a big show for them, the first large grime event in NYC at the time...
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This friendship would also lead to one of the year’s finest vocal albums, 'Heavy Meckle', now widely regarded as a classic of the genre. “Jammer gave us a CD with a bunch of un-released tracks on it which we eventually decided to use as part of our Heavy Meckle mix CD. In the process of producing it we made a deal with Jammer for him to record vocals for it and to get some of his artists on it, people like Ears and Knuckles who were part of his group Neckle Camp at the time.”
Schell describes how the relationship was strengthened in the years that followed: “We recorded some music and continued to work together, including booking a number of shows in Europe and the UK where Sheen and I would DJ and Jammer and his crew would MC. Jammer invited me to join his crew Jahmek The World which made me, I believe, the only American to be a part of any of the major London grime crews.”
It was partly through this ongoing partnership that the other SHADETEK-produced grime of that era came about. “When Jammer and Skepta came to New York later to play at Trouble & Bass we hung out and recorded some more music over my rhythms, including Jammer's tune Master Your Flow over my ‘Skynet’ instrumental, and Skepta over the ‘Reign’ instrumental.” The latter, an undulating, snare-led beat, laden with some of the Tottenham MC’s most popular bars, remains one of his most significant underground tracks. It was also during this New York visit that the two spitters, accompanied by grime and dubstep lynchpin Plastician, would stop off to freestyle on the FADER’s East Village Radio show.
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Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a music teacher by the name of PJ Geissinger, alias Starkey, and his close friend Gair Marking, aka Dev79, were making contacts of their own. “When I heard ‘I Luv U’ and some other early grime tunes, they immediately caught my attention,” the Seclusiasis Records boss remembers. “The raw brashness and somewhat equal influences from rap, electronic and dancehall scenes spoke to me. The mix of urban and electronic sounds had been something I'd been pursuing for a while and when I heard grime it clicked as what I wanted.”
Having reached out to numerous artists in the fast emerging London scene, as well as hosting the Philly stop on the Run The Road release tour, an experience which he says made “the collaborative goal even stronger,” the pair made their way to New York. Here NASTY Crew favourites Ghetto and Kano – the hottest MC in London following his infamous Lord of the Mics clash with Wiley – were in town to perform. “We recorded a segment for our Seclusiasis Radio show and freestyles for the tape right there in the hotel, raw style – and it came out great,” remembers Marking. A video of this was subsequently uploaded to YouTube.
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These recordings, over Starkey’s ‘Leak Riddim’, would appear on ‘Slit Jockey Volume One’, a mixtape intended to spread the sound down the East Coast and beyond. A digital (and limited run CD) compilation, it featured well known tracks on the London circuit such as Forward 2 (commonly referred to as Pow), in addition to specially recorded dubs the pair had gone to great lengths to secure. “When we set out to put the tape together we knew we wanted to have exclusive collabs on their with as much UK talent as possible. Some of the tracks were done the old school way by sending CDRs back in forth in the mail and I remember that’s how the Riko tracks were done.”
Perhaps one of the most significant factors enabling grime to travel beyond its core base, however, was the rapid advancement in technology that was taking place at the time, particularly in the context of cheap, readily available software like Music 2000 for Playstation 2. It was on this that some of the genre’s early, rawest productions were made, including Youngstar’s influential ‘Pulse X’. Dev79 recognises this progression as having been decisive: “Trading dubs via email was just starting to develop and change the game, as networking and trading tunes became that much easier and instantaneous. It was an exciting time.”
In light of Sony’s role in the initial growth of the genre, then, it was somewhat serendipitous that the UK launch of the Playstation 3 became another occasion heralding a high profile partnership between major American musicians and their UK counterparts. At an event organised by the now defunct hip-hop magazine Spine, in a small room in central London and surrounded by the consoles, Just Blaze built a track with Skepta, JME and Klashnekoff in front of a live audience.
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The following year, 2008, brought the release of Chicago producer J Courage’s 'Too Deep' EP on Trenchant Dubs, a beat that had received heavy airplay on London’s pirate stations thanks to DJs such as Meshack Nasty and Nu Brand Flexxx’s DJ Sketch’E, and was now vocalled by grime legend Shizzle for a full vinyl pressing. 2008 was also the year that Dizzee Rascal’s third album, 'Maths + English', was signed to Brooklyn’s preeminent independent hip-hop label Def Jux, headed by El-P, and American fans finally got to hear his collaboration with UGK on ‘Where Da Gs’. Though not strictly a grime track, it was a significant milestone for the artist, and secured his place as the leading London MC spreading the sound abroad at this point.
Furthermore, it marked somewhat of a turning point in the kind of tracks that artists from either side of the Atlantic would make together, and a departure from the purism of ‘Reign’. 2010 saw Skepta team up with Diddy for the official remix of ‘Hello Good Morning’, a glossy, orchestral production that reflected the climate in London at this point, where many MCs, with an eye on chart success, had begun to polish their style (a strategy that notably paid off for Skepta and Wiley, both of whom were to have top ten singles during this period).
Eventually, however, the core grime sound’s mainstream fortunes were resurgent, and vocalists returned to the genre, which had remained strong despite a lack of media interest, full time. This resulted in a revitalised, increasingly confident genre, asserting its primacy in UK youth culture. And so, over ten years since D Double, Ears and Jammer played in his home city of Toronto to a small crowd of dedicated listeners, rap megastar Drake is appearing onstage alongside Skepta at London clubs, and declaring his allegiance to Boy Better Know.
Whether this marks a true shift in the music’s perception Stateside, or whether it is merely another chapter in the decade-long history of the genre’s gradual ascent overseas, remains to be seen. Schell, however, is optimistic. “Jam and Skepta are both incredibly smart, charismatic people with a tonne of talent both as artists and producers, and it was a real pleasure to be able to work with them and learn from them. I'm happy to see that they're continuing to push grime forward and wish them much more success.”
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Words: Alex McFadyen