UK rap owned Friday at Glastonbury this year, and while the equivalent day at Reading Festival was perhaps not quite as grimey, it’s still undeniable that British hip-hop artists such as Giggs, Boy Better Know, Little Simz and Wiley made it their own. Here’s how they did it.
South London’s Giggs packed out the NME/Radio One stage with a set that drew heavily on new album ‘The Landlord’. “We’ll do some emotional shit and then we’ll get to the nitty gritty,” he said by way of introducing the reflective ‘Just Swervin’, before causing the crowd to skank to the brooding ‘Man Don’t Care’. Next up, the summery, tropical ‘Lock Doh’ made the most of the insanely hot weather, seeming to fleetingly transform the tent to a sweltering basement club. “Reading, you’ve been fucking sick,” he shouted as a sign off. “I love you, man.”
Grime lords Boy Better Know, the collective featuring Skepta, JME, Wiley, Frisco, Jammer and Shorty, brought a similarly frenetic atmosphere to the Main Stage. JME opened with the pounding ‘Calm’, before Frisco swept onto the stage for the bassy, squelching, synthy ‘Funny’, on which the words “They said grime was dead / I couldn’t stop laughing / Man, I found that shit so funny” have never seemed so appropriate. Skepta managed the unlikely feat of looking cool as fuck in a lime green t-shirt and trousers emblazed with a spider web print (JME winningly donned his trademark T-shirt bearing his own face), leading a chantalong to ‘It Ain’t Safe’. The response was so overwhelming he was moved to bellow, “All the Boy Better Know supporters out here – respect.”
– Skepta wearing an excellent outfit during BBK’s set
By the time Frisco took over to drop the low-riding ‘Them Man There’, this felt less like a rap show than a WWE tag-team showdown. Naturally, Skepta – the breakout star of grime in 2016 – drew the most raucous response, not least when he purred, “Man’s never been Reading Main Stage when it’s ‘Shutdown’”, introducing his massive hit from last year. Distilling Boy Better Know’s no-bullshit, fiercely independent ethos into one line, he paid tribute to anyone here with their best mates: “Fuck Celebrities – I hate them. If you with the gang… let’s go maximum.”
–JME also looked cool in his trademark selfie shirt
Later, at the Radio 1Xtra Stage, north London’s Little Simz made the absolute most of a sparse crowd by insisting, “There’s a small amount of us but that’s all right.” Truth be told, the crowd was scandalously small – but undeniably enthusiastic, responding warmly to her “Space, – yeah!” call-and-response during the muted beats of ‘Gratitude’. “This is the part were we turn it up slightly,” she said, grinning, before the whirling, looping, trap-influenced ‘Dead Body’ caused the modest crowd to bounce in unison. “There’s not a lot of people in here but we can make it feel like a fucking stadium!” she shouted of the chaos she’d unleashed.
– Wiley paid tribute to grime with his crowd-pleasing set
Grime godfather Wiley closed the same stage with a set that included guest spots from JME, Scratchy and Flowdan, the latter two MCs from Wiley’s crew Roll Deep. “If you’re under the influence of alcohol, say “Oi oi!”, Wiley bawled, an instruction that, it’s fair to say, met with an affirmative response. His poppy 2008 anthem ‘Wearing My Rolex’ drew the clearest singalong of the set, though 2013’s equally catchy ‘Can You Hear Me (Ayayaya)’ wasn’t far off. At the end of the show, after consulting with the backstage crew, Wiley revealed, “They said to shut it down, you know what we’re gonna do,” before bowing out with blistering renditions of Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ and BBK’s ‘Too Many Man’.
As a conclusion, it felt like a celebration of grime and how far it’s come – now capable of producing hits that can move a huge crowd during a headline slot at Reading Festival. But, as Little Simz showed, even beyond this sub-genre, UK hip-hop-hop is in rude health.