It’s 1am at The Main II, a squalid room off Austin’s bustling East 6th Street that’s packed with people. Stormzy enters the room and climbs on stage to join his DJ who’s been warming up the room for the last 15 mins. Immediately, the crowd goes wild – arms are thrown in the air, bodies moving and cheers roared. ‘Shut Up’ and ‘Know Me From’ close the set a little while later, and both are yelled back at the London rapper as if he’s playing a hometown show.
The gig might be being put on by SBTV, but it’s hardly solely populated by Brits abroad. Americans shout out compliments between songs and have been doing all night, when the likes of Jay Prince, Shakka and Ghetts have been performing too. If there’s one big sound at SXSW this year, it’s grime and the scene is here to take America.
Over the coming days, Austin is full of grime events. Stormzy slays another set at the Fader Fort, while Skepta hosts his own night at the Apple Music house. During Drake’s OVO takeover of Fader Fort, his DJs drop grime’s current anthem ‘Shutdown’ as a little nod to the scene. Earlier in the week, SBTV and the British Underground hire out a boat to sail up and down Lady Bird Lake while some of the genre’s key players hang out on board. After the boat sets sail, Elf Kid and Blakie, two teenagers from south London, take to the mics, rapping out tunes for around 15 minutes. Amongst them is Elf Kid’s breakthrough track ‘Golden Boy’ and their energy is so infectious everyone’s faces light up, despite the rain and early start.
“My SXSW is sick. I saw Elf Kid and Blakie jump on the mic and do what got me excited when I was 13 years old and saw Dizzee and Wiley,” says Notting Hill singer Shakka on the boat’s upper deck. “They’re doing it across the pond, which I guess the scene hasn’t been trying to do, but they’ve definitely wanted to take over the world. To see these guys over here doing it is very surreal.”
On board, there’s definitely a feeling like something big and exciting is happening. The weather might be more like what the grime crew are used to back home, but in every other way Austin is a world away from London. There’s a consensus that it’s important that these musicians are over here and making people pay attention to them, too, and SBTV founder Jamal Edwards only plans on things getting bigger.
“SBTV’s second most viewed area is the United States so now I want to come and localise it,” he says. “I realised I need to come over here and be on the ground and for people to know what’s going on to really get attention. So that’s what I’m working on – I’ll be bringing grime over a lot more, but I also want to find artists from here as well.”
Drake recently jumping on stage at a Section Boyz gig and signing to Boy Better Know, and Kanye West inviting a ton of grime musicians to perform with him at last year’s Brit awards suggests that things are steadily heating up for the scene. Now, the mainstream media is slowly waking up to things too, but there’s some disagreement amongst the ranks about whether grime has been ignored by them in the past.
“Of course, it’s like having a girlfriend and she doesn’t like you cos of who you are before, but then she sees you with someone else and you’re doing better, and she wants to get back involved,” says east London’s Jay Prince. “That’s just life, man. Nothing’s changed on our end, it’s just the platform that’s changed.”
“I don’t think it’s been ignored,” counters Edwards. “I think it’s just been waiting for the right time. Now’s the perfect time, 100 per cent. Grime’s still a young genre – hopefully it’ll just keep on going. [Drake co-signing it] definitely helps. It’s got a lot of people aware of it that might not have been aware of it.”
Running around the boat, Elf Kid and Blakie seem oblivious to how excited everyone is about them right now. The latter bounds over to NME, asks our name and then leans towards the dictaphone, shouting “Watch out Rhian though, it’s Blakie” before legging it up the stairs. That energy and enthusiasm is palpable all week – grime’s first real big move into the US is a roaring success and a sign of even bigger things to come.