Skepta’s triumph at the Mercury Prize last night (September 15th) marked another remarkable moment for a rapper who has specialised in providing the remarkable for some time now.
Coming of age during grime’s first wave the Tottenham don held fast to the sound when others fell by the wayside. In the joyous aftermath of Skepta’s victory noted grime scribe Dan Hancox shared a quote from an interview conducted with the grime stalwart almost a decade ago: “People are running away from grime thinking it’s not working, but they’re sell-outs man. That’s why Boy Better Know is easily going to be the best thing in grime.”
The remarkable thing is, that he was right all along. Grime has dominated the past 18 months, setting the agenda and running the game on its own terms. Skepta’s Mercury Prize winning (how good does that sound?) album ‘Konnichiwa’ was released without label support, the rapper’s close-knit team coming close to shattering Radiohead’s surprise, yet carefully scripted, return. And in this way it’s an entirely personal triumph.
Joined onstage by his family – brother Jme arguably should have gained a Mercury nod for his 2015 set ‘Integrity’ – Skepta looked like a man on top of the world, and on top of his game. It was the right decision, but also a uniquely Mercury decision. The panel peered beyond the emotional pull of David Bowie’s final album to choose an album perpetually looking towards the future. As Jarvis Cocker noted, it was a decision that would no doubt have provoked a wry smile from the Thin White Duke – himself a working class Londoner.
Indeed, the Mercury makes a habit of backing the underdog, of looking beyond the favourite. Sure, Skepta beat Radiohead last night, but so too did Dizzee Rascal when ‘Boy in da Corner’ stormed home in 2003. The year before Ms. Dynamite picked up the gong, batting away competition from a certain David Bowie. From Roni Size to Young Fathers, Speech Debelle to Benjamin Clementine, the Mercury has a lengthy history of championing artists outwith the mainstream.
After last night, though, perhaps Radiohead have begun to believe a curse hangs over their heads. The band didn’t appear at the ceremony – they sent in a video performance – and that perhaps underlines an innate pessimism in their Mercury chances. The Oxford group have been nominated, and subsequently lost, five times now – Radiohead’s Mercury record is a curious litany of failure, given their unimpeachable critical stature.
All this adds to the excitement, of course, but the ceremony did have its drawbacks. With a new sponsor – Hyundai – and a new venue, the re-jigged Mercury Prize needed to impress after a low-key 2015 installment. The whole affair felt rather dragged out, with the inclusion of both a long list and shortlist breaking the momentum. Equally, while it’s a fantastic experience to actually win the Mercury, it’s not a great feeling to lose one – you have to wonder what Kano et al felt as they were kept behind, endlessly watching re-runs while knowing they were already out of the game.
Equally, the public vote felt slightly mis-placed. In a year where the public have voted for both Brexit and Boaty McBoatFace it felt rather obvious that The 1975 – and their army of social media mobilised fans – would triumph, and also slightly churlish for the critical panel to then immediately discard this recognition. Don’t misplace our enthusiasm for the band’s second album – they appeared on the cover of Clash for a reason: it’s great! – but we can’t really see the introduction of a public vote swaying the judging panel.
Ultimately, though, it was Skepta’s night – and what a night it was. His explosive live performances underlined just why North America is falling for his music, while his graceful, humble speech recognised everything from the team around him to the culture that spawned him. Oh, and his mum became a social media star.
Congratulations to an absolute don.