“Sometimes the most simple things are the best,” says Jammer of Lord Of The Mics, the iconic DVD battle series that’s provided the setting for some of grime’s pivotal moments over the last 10 years. “And if things aren’t broken, they don’t need fixing.”
Two emcees, a beat and a camera was the original format that the series adopted back in 2004 – and little has changed since, although the exponential growth of the LOTM brand over the last three years belies just how raw and undiluted those early exchanges were.
“We were just doing what we love and filming it,” explains LOTM’s Ratty of the first two volumes, “but they sent the benchmark for the rest.” As much a proving ground as an unofficial rite of passage for young, hungry emcees, facing off in Jammer’s basement has become a defining symbol of grime’s existence over the years, a place where the culture could thrive on its own terms and for its own purposes.
It’s not done any of the scene’s big hitters any harm either. Back in 2004, a then up-and-coming Kano took on Wiley in one of the series’ most memorable clashes. Further appearances from Skepta, Ghetts, Footsie, Scratchy and Bashy across the first two volumes all serve as excellent reference points for anyone wanting to understand a true cornerstone of grime culture.
Now run as a more commercially minded brand, the later volumes have seen the concept taken to the stage, and LOTM has even drafted in professional footballers to make it more than just a DVD series. But for all the added pomp and bravado, the magic has always lain in the art of the clash.
Following the release of LOTM volume six last month, we caught up with both Jammer and Ratty, the two brains behind the series since 2004, to talk shop and get their thoughts on the continued evolution of LOTM.
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There came a time where I just felt we needed to bring it back. People were making music for record deals, and grime really felt like it was missing something…
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You’ve now presided over six volumes in the Lord Of The Mics series. Could you pick your favourite?
Ratty: My favourite volume is still probably number three because it was a comeback and it set the levels high again – it brought it back to the raw essence of what LOTM is. The Kozzie & Sox and Lay Z & Marger clashes were obviously talking points but the whole thing had so many different elements to it.
Jammer (pictured, above): For classic’s sake it would have to be LOTM one, as it was the start of the journey.
Could you whittle the whole thing down to your favourite clash?
R: My favourite clash out of all six has to be Bradley Wright-Phillips and Yannick Bolasie – they’re not emcees by trade but they still set the bar really high and the football banter was new for us. We had an idea of what they were capable of beforehand, but stepping up to the plate in the basement was a big thing.
J: Skepta and Devilman for me, probably. The way they used each other’s lyrics and flows against each other was legendary and made it really entertaining to watch.
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Skepta vs Devilman, 2013
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How do you think LOTM has evolved since the first volume?
R: Obviously the visuals have evolved and improved but as far as emcees, it’s more about bringing in people from up and down the country, instead of just concentrating on London. We’ve spread our wings and now everyone is welcome, whether you’re from Wales or Manchester or wherever – we’ve opened doors, you know? The scene’s much bigger than just London now and even those who say that the artists involved aren’t as big as some of the original series, it’s worth remembering that Kano hadn’t been around long when he clashed Wiley.
J: I think it’s evolved primarily because of the people getting involved. We’ve got footballers on board, we’ve got our own merchandise, we’ve got the collaborations with platforms like Boiler Room. Treating it more as a brand than just a DVD compilation has really helped it grow.
Why was there such a gap between volumes two and three? What made you decide to re-launch the series when you did?
R: Basically, we were just working on other things at the time. Jammer had the ‘Are You Dumb?’ CDs and stuff and grime had gone a bit commercial, but the biggest thing was YouTube – we were massively affected by that. It just wasn’t about when we released LOTM 1, so it affected everything because people wanted everything for free. I didn’t move with the times and there was no way of selling it digitally then. People forget it costs an arm and a leg to put together too, so it just didn’t make sense to be doing it.
J: To be real, like Ratty says, I was dedicating a lot of time to LOTM and I was a solo artist in my own right so needed some time to focus on myself. Me and Ratty felt everything had become a bit distant too, because people were concentrating on different things. But there came a time where I just felt we needed to bring it back. People were making music for record deals, and grime really felt like it was missing something.
In that sense, it was a conscious decision to bring it back because I wanted to embed the brand in the culture. Don’t forget we’d already gone from Lord Of The Decks to Lord Of The Beats to LOTM, but I never foresaw it being as big as it is now. I knew there was something special about it though, because people thrived off the culture and the energy.
Clashing has been the bedrock of grime culture for years. Do you still think it carries the same resonance now?
R: It’s always going to be important because grime is all about clashing and competitiveness. Some artists feel like they can represent grime without clashing, but the bottom line is you can’t. You’ve gotta be able go defined yourself in that sort of arena and LOTM gives people that platform.
J: Yeah, definitely. A lot of the big names were wary when we brought it back because they didn’t want to make any mistakes or get shown up. The thing is though, all the greats have done it already – if you wanna be a great, you’ve got to compete on LOTM.
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P Money and Big H, LOTM 6
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It’s provided plenty of memorable moments but also vital snapshots of the moments in time that have helped define the culture, too. How would you describe what it represents?
R: I think it’s a way for emcees to prove they can do this and, essentially, it’s a place to showcase your skills. There’s still naturally that competitive edge, but if you turn up and show that you can hold your own, that says a lot – whether you win or lose, you’ll gain fans and respect.
In terms of the memorable moments, as we did it, we didn’t realise the importance – we were just doing what we loved and filming it. Time’s proven that these were key moments, though – Skepta, Kano, Devilman, they set the benchmark for what LOTM has gone on to become.
J: I think LOTM just gives MCs the opportunity to show that they’ve got the heart, without anything else considered. No fancy productions, no mix downs – you, the camera, the beat and your opponent. It’s a test of how good are you with just the core materials.
Why do you think the concept has proved to be so popular?
R: People were just missing what grime was – that raw element, that energy you can’t get anywhere else. We’ve always shot it in a way that makes the artists the focal point, too. When you’re at home watching it, it’s just you, your mates and the two emcees. That’s a key part of the concept that works for us.
J: It’s never been forced either – it has a natural vibe to it. Sometimes the most simple things are the best and if things aren’t broken, they don’t need fixing. It worked for us and we stuck with it.
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The main thing is it makes people laugh, and if you can do that then you’re on your way to winning in life…
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We touched on this before, but the more recent volumes have seen you take LOTM to the stage, connect with platforms like Boiler Room and even draft in professional footballers. Is this all part of helping to keep it fresh? Or do you think the magic still lies in the simplicity of the clash format?
R: It’s all about growth and we’ve got to move with the times. If it means bringing in professional footballers or flying people in to clash, as long as it stays true to grime and the essence is there, then that’s what we’re about. Bradley and Yanick actually did Hype Sessions verses for each other just messing about on their camera phones at the time we were filming the fifth LOTM, and that made us think they might be interested. For us, it was nice to know they were interested in the culture.
J: We needed to market it around different ideas, too, just to introduce different people to the concept. It’s all about collaborating with new people and new thinking, whether that’s through reaching out to different genres, or even the worlds of art and design or football and sport.
Would you say that LOTM has a timeless quality, in the sense that no matter what is happening in a wider context, there is always a demand from both emcees and fans to be a part of the LOTM brand?
R: Yeah, I think so. Essentially it’s just us bringing new talent to the table and the brand is strong enough now to make everyone notice. Funnily enough, our fanbase has changed over the years, too – we’ve got the people like yourself who used to watch it when they were kids, but now we’ve also got people only just discovering LOTM. Ten years from now, they’ll be 26 or 27, looking back at the clashes they used to watch, like you probably do with the first LOTM now.
J: It brings people together, too. I know people on the street, I know middle-class people, and even big musicians who will get together with their friends and watch it. It’s communal in that sense, because people discuss the clashes and debate who’s good and who isn’t. But the main thing is it makes people laugh, and if you can do that then you’re on your way to winning in life.
What does the future hold for the series? Where does it go from here?
R: We’re planning to run a battle league called Big Mic Man, that’ll be open to everybody. There’s so many people out there with talent who we don’t always have space for on the DVD, and they deserve a chance. We’re also looking into a LOTM UK Hip Hop edition because the music is popping off and we think it’ll work within a similar format.
J: Next year, I’m hoping to get some astronauts clashing…
J: Anything’s possible, bruv.
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Words: Tomas Fraser