“It’s reached UK domination”: author Dan Hancox talks ‘Inner City Pressure’, the definitive story of grime

Want to understand grime? The new book has you covered

Author, journalist and massive grime fan Dan Hancox has stood by his favourite music genre through thick and thin. The writer witnessed its volcanic inception in early ’00s east London, the lean years that followed and the dazzling re-emergence that led to the enormous commercial success of Skepta, Stormzy and countless equally amazing artists. It’s all captured in his new book, Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime, an authoritative and impassioned account of the sound that, he argues, has become the country’s dominant musical force.

Here, he tells about NME about the ingrained spirit that makes grime so vital, the challenges the genre has faced – and what might happen next.

You grew up on punk, which led you to identify with grime. Has the link between punk and grime been overstated, though?

“I mean, I’m sometimes sceptical because, even while using the analogy myself, I feel like it’s sometimes a shorthand way of explaining a new music that’s very different in many respects. But there are links in the spirit which are very similar. There’s a similar ‘use-once-and-destroy’ culture. That manifests itself through the fact you might have a new MC with an absolutely killer tune that everybody’s falling over themselves to praise, and then they’ll just disappear the next month. The other thing is just the sheer adrenaline of the music – moshpits in the clubs because the music is just so thrilling and cathartic and energetic.”

The now-defunct Form 696, a piece of government legislation that shut down many grime nights, is kind of a thread that runs throughout the book. It re-emerges here and there and then, at the end, there’s a triumphant moment when it finally gets scrapped [in November 2017]. Is it by chance, you think, that the demise of form 696 coincided with grime becoming a commercial force?

“No. In this case, surprisingly, a Conservative government – and a Conservative culture Minister, Matt Hancock – led the charge. He had a very enthusiastic special advisor, a young man called Jonathan Badyal, who worked for Universal Music and had this passion for music. That’s where the challenge for 696 came from within the institutions. They needed the London Mayor’s office to get on side, and it was easy for them to do so was because the argument was made that it wasn’t a moral argument or defence of artistic expression, but an argument that these are young people who are making money for themselves and for London: ‘Grime is commercially viable and something that the city should be proud of.’”

It’s often the case, isn’t it, that there’s an economic rather than cultural argument?

“Yeah, that’s why it’s so frustrating. You’re like, ‘Well, actually this could be really unpopular and it still wouldn’t be okay to arbitrarily shut down these parties.’ The other ironic thing about Form 696 and live music is that its scrapping coincides with the period where grime MCs are performing gigs rather than clubs and that’s sort of an important distinction. They’re playing sold-out headline shows at traditional gig venues like the 02 Academy, KOKO and the Roundhouse. Those aren’t affected by Form 696 anyway, because Form 696 is specifically about clubs operating between 10pm and 4am. So if Wiley’s playing a headline show at Brixton Academy as numerous other grime MCs have done in the last year or two and never before that, that’s sort of separate. These artists have moved into a different realm now.”

So grime had kind of found its own way around Form 696 anyway?

“Yeah, it did, due to its commercial success.”

UK rap is often mislabelled as grime. Does that matter, particularly, or is it important to make the distinction?

“Grime fans – myself included – are sometimes at pains to point out that grime is not simply British hip-hop, or UK hip-hop; that that’s a separate and different entity that pre-dates grime and features people like Ty and Roots Manuva and so on. Grime is different in its form: it’s faster, it comes out of UK garage and dancehall, rather than the rap tradition from the US. At the moment things have got really confusing again, and I think that’s something that should be absolutely enthusiastically welcomed. If you look at the entire history of pop music, then the period in which something new is emerging goes with a period of osmosis between different genres, which is the situation in London right now. You tend to get exciting new forms emerging. At the moment we’ve got the Afrobeat-influenced sound of people like Mostack and J Hus, you’ve got the people that are following Giggs into the mainstream from what’s often called the road-rap tradition in London – which involves Krept and Konan – and there’s a whole younger generation that are coming through in that. Some are making drill, which is borrowed from Chicago and has been in the news a lot lately because of its association with violent crime in London. Musically, all of these forms are very different.”

If drill is kind of the new grime and it’s very dark and violent and nihilistic, what does that say about London in 2018?

“The level of claustrophobia that you hear in drill – the violent talk about knife crime, specifically – paints a picture of London as a really bleak place for quite a lot of young people. The news headlines recently don’t really dispel that notion. There’s been a debate recently about drill and its role in violent crime among young people in London. GB from Moscow Crew was shot dead recently. He was only 17 years old; it’s an absolutely horrendous story. It’s an age-old argument about whether music reflects or amplifies violence. If drill is young kids – mostly black kids on council estates in London – sending a message about their world-view, then it is tragic. I think those council estates that produced grime and are now producing drill music have become a lot more isolated since the city has become more gentrified. Areas around them have become so much wealthier, but the poverty hasn’t changed within the estates. So it’s not surprising that you’ve got an increasingly claustrophobic, tense and unhappy sound emerging from kids growing up in that environment.”

The question of drill glamourising or reflecting the reality of violence – where do you stand on that?

“I lean towards thinking it reflects what’s going on with the world, and what the kids are emerging from. As such, it’s a useful insight to the mentality of those young people. You probably won’t be surprised to hear me say that the necessary intervention after that is not to shut down the music, but to try and alleviate the misery of those kids’ lives, which must be having an enormous toll on their mental health with the number of people being stabbed and often killed.”

The book opens with a clash on a rooftop in Bow, east London, and concludes with the BBK Takeover, a massive show the crew played at London’s 02 last year. Where does grime have left to go now?

“Some people say that, having reached this new pinnacle of UK domination, as something in the heart of British pop culture, this is where grime dies. As a grime fan, I would be okay with that. Music genres evolve in different ways and it’s really weird when people want to sustain it in a non-natural and organic way. Having said that, there are currently 14-year-olds who, having grown up on Stormzy, will in five years start making music. So I think it’s definitely premature to say that this is a moment where grime starts to decline. Perhaps grime is at a crossroads.”

Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime is out now