The rapper and broadcaster walks us through the past, present and future of grime.
It’s a tough ask, telling the sprawling narrative of grime in four episodes of a TV show. But that’s the task that rapper and 1Xtra radio presenter A Dot set herself with her new BBC Three series A Dot’s The Story of Grime, available on iPlayer now, though she made it easier by looking at one aspect of the genre: clashing. Grime was born out of rap battles in east London, but has now become big business. Our host attempts to arrange a grime clash like it’s 2004, and the final episode culminates in the fruits of her labour. Here she explains why she embarked on a mission to reconnect grime with its roots.
What made you choose clash culture as a way of exploring the roots of grime?
“Clashing came from a hunger that MCs had because the door hadn’t been opened for them. There wasn’t 1Xtra; it was pirate radio. It was literally a battle to be heard. It’s easier to be a grime MC now because of technology and social media. I think grime has lost a little bit of its hunger; a little bit of the fire in its belly has gone. That’s why I wanted to see if we could still get MCs to clash, the same way they would jump at the chance to do so in 2004.”
Does The Story of Grime go right back to frontrunner battle rappers such as Wiley and Dizzee rascal?
“We go back to Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch on the roof. We go back to Wiley and Kano at the first Lord Of The Mics [the battle rap DVD series launched by Boy Better Know member Jammer]. There’s a lot of archive footage in there to tell the old story of grime, while we also bring it back up to date. I hope it serves as a bit of education to new wave grime fans, so that they can have full knowledge when they get caught in a grime conversation. It’s a bluffers’ guide. You watch this and then you’ll survive any grime conversation.”
What are the challenges of putting together a grime clash?
“How long have you got? Before I even attempted to put it together, I asked Jammer for advice. He told me, “It’s gonna be tough.” He was like, “Is there a cash prize? What’s the incentive? Is there a cuddly toy? What do they get out of it?” I explained that I want people to do it for the sportsmanship. He laughed and said, “There’s no place for sportsmanship in 2016, now that people are making money from grime.” The genre is still a long way from being glossy, but it’s much glossier than it was.”
You mean MCs reluctant to take part for fear of being shown up?
“In 2016 you can very easily become a meme, a recurring joke, if you don’t do well in clashing. Wiley and Kano didn’t need to worry about that when they were in the basement; they didn’t need to worry about it living on in 140 characters. It was just clashing for clashing’s sake. There’s now a much bigger infrastructure around grime. People worry more about the ramifications on their careers. It’s just easier to stay out of it because although the benefits could be huge, there’s too much to lose. Grime MCs didn’t have anything to lose in 2004.”
It must have been fun, watching people squirm
“The problem was getting people to back up their talk. It’s very easy, when there’s a camera in your face, to agree to clash. No-one wants to say, “You’re gonna have to speak to my agent.” But when the little red light stopped flashing, that’s when we got the agents’ interference: “No, no, no, he didn’t know what he was committing to!” Some of the MC show up, and some don’t. There’s one MC that a lot of people will know form one of the famous Lords of the Mic challenges and he agreed to clash, but when we travel to meet him, he doesn’t show up.”
In the series, you explore the UK grime scene beyond London. Was that something you felt was important?
“Yeah, grime was born in east London but it’s just spread like wildfire across the UK. We wanted to reflect that. If you want to tell the story of grime and you don’t go outside the M25, you’ve done grime a bit of an injustice. It’s so much bigger than that now, so we go to places like Bradford and Nottingham and Birmingham.”
Which artists should we look out for outside of London?
“There’s Radar from just outside Birmingham; he’s in the series and he really impressed me. Look at someone like Bugzy Malone and how he’s championed in Manchester. The people of Manchester absolutely love him and he’s kind of their poster boy for that region. We speak to these lads from Bradford who are completely unknown; they’re part of Rubix Cube Studios and King Ov Da Hillz Collective, and refer to themselves as Man Up North Crew. So we go from Wiley, who’s your Godfather, to these lads you’ve never heard of. Every week there’s a new grime MC and the beauty of is that the sound of Britain.”
Does not-London grime differ from London grime?
“The sound doesn’t differ, unless you’re talking accents. Grime is grime and the heart is always the same. It’s the opportunities that differ. London is like Mecca when it comes to the grime scene. It seems to MCs from outside the M25 that all the opportunities are in London: the main radio stations and the online platforms. It’s like the London MCs are the Premier League. When you look at crews like Stay Fresh, for example, out of Birmingham, they haven’t reached the heights of the London crews like Boy Better Know and Roll Deep, because the opportunities are different. As a result, there’s a different kind of hunger to the MCs from outside of London.”
There has traditionally been a lack of representation for women in grime. Is that changing now?
“There have always been very important female MCs; they just haven’t been abundant. Miss Dynamite was killing garage but she was kind of a lone female soldier at the time. The numbers are increasing. You’ve got people like Lady Leshur and NoLay. Shystie is one of the names that people often forget to mention when you’re talking about grime music. She was one of the first and she’s still doing her thing. The numbers are still small, but it is changing. There’s a long way to go. What people forget is that grime is still really a young genre – it’s difficult to really trace it over time, because it’s only about 12 years old. There’s still a lot of life in grime for more women in to come through.”
Did you discover any exciting female MCs when you explored the scene beyond London?
“No, we didn’t, but we didn’t turn over every single stone in every single region in search of new MCs. That’s not something that emerges from the series. But we speak to NoLay and if you’re talking grime and women in grime, she’s one of the important people to talk to, especially when it comes to clashes. She’s got heart and rage and rawness that a lot of male MCs struggle to match. The chat with NoLay as a female MC in the grime scene is one of the most important parts of the series.”