If US hip-hop’s golden age was in the ‘90s, then British rap music dominated the noughties. Rejecting the repetitive garage and cheesy pop tunes dominating both sides of the Atlantic, east London teens ignored the mainstream and focused on their own exciting, new sound. Crammed into small radio studios or tiny basements, up-and-coming artists like Kano, Boy Better Know and Wiley would spit red-hot lyrics, 16 bars at a time, for whoever had turned up. It was during these sessions that grime was born. Against All Odds, the new movie resurrecting iconic TV station Channel U for its premiere, finally tells the story on film.
“We needed time for the grime kids, like myself, to grow up,” director Femi Oyeniran explains on a Zoom call with NME. “We needed people who liked grime when they were little to get into those positions of power where they’re able to tell their stories.”
Many years in the making, Oyeniran and co-director Nicky ‘Slimting’ Walker’s vital film is about a young MC struggling to establish himself on the scene. It follows in the footsteps of indie classics like Kidulthood, which shaped youth culture in the mid-2000s. Oyeniran starred in that film as a teenager and, along with Walker, has helped to craft a lovable, if slightly rough around the edges, ode to the same era.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, until the age of 10, Oyeniran had a different start in life compared to Walker, who is from Leyton. Excelling in school, he was inspired to become an artist after hearing Walker, an early pioneer of grime, DJing on pirate radio. Before that, Walker got his start in the performing arts, attending Sylvia Young Theatre school at the weekends. It wasn’t until he saw Kidulthood in 2006 that the pair came into contact though. Noel Clarke’s classic drama had such an impact on Walker that he eventually reached out to Oyeniran, who played Moony. Three years later, they co-wrote The Intent, but despite working with a cast of grime legends (Ghetts, Scorcher, Krept & Konan) neither felt it was the calling card the music deserved. Enter Against All Odds.
“My inspiration is seeing what the culture does and where it’s got to,” says Walker. “We’re on a world stage, performing in big world stadiums. You got myself and Femi — film directors and producers — making movies that are going on Netflix, getting recognised around the world. My purpose for this was to showcase what great talent the UK has, and how well Black British talent is doing.
“There’s not a lot of representation of us on the screen in the UK. America’s ahead of us, we’ve got to get better. I’m not complaining. I’m not saying those doors are not opening because they are. So I’m grateful that films like this have given us opportunities to express ourselves and showcase what we are doing, and give hope to our young filmmakers who are courageous.”
While making the film, one of the duo’s early concerns was connecting with a new era of fans – Gen Z-ers who are more interested in drill than original pioneers like J2K (who is an antagonist in the film) and Tempa T.
“This story is about an era [I] grew up in,” says Walker. “But it is also for people who weren’t present in those days [or] don’t know about that part of history.” For Oyeniran, it’s a chance to see how grime started: “There’s a lot of unsung heroes who set up the foundation. We’re telling the story of grime before it was even called grime. When MCs and DJs would go on the radio, and just play music, there wasn’t an actual name for it. Nobody [knew] what they were doing but having fun and finding a way to express [themselves].
“To me, drill is an evolution of grime in the same way that Lil Uzi Vert is an evolution
of 2Pac or Jay-Z,” he adds. “I think it’s very important that when we talk about British music, we talk about the lineage of Black British music. [Against All Odds] is a celebration of British music heritage, not just grime in isolation from everything else.”
But even if there’s much more to Against All Odds than grime, it takes care to show off the genre’s best bits – from the cramped, pirate radio HQs where 10 MCs fight over the mic to the secret underground raves where you could witness your fave rapper spitting venom in the flesh. “We shot at Jammer’s infamous basement,” says Oyeniran, referring to the location for the Boy Better Know member’s infamous Lord of the Mics rap battles, which racked up millions of YouTube views in the early noughties. “That’s where all the clashes – Wiley and Kano, Skepta and Devilman – happened. You go into that room, and it’s got the signatures of all the legends on the wall. It was just an incredible, magical moment.”
Equally important to the story of grime was every budding rap junky’s most-watched TV station, Channel U. Launched in 2003, it became one of few media platforms that presented Black British culture to a mainstream audience. Serving up daily music videos, it was responsible for breaking some of the genre’s biggest stars before it was sidelined by digital competitors and the plug was pulled in 2018. Without Channel U, UK rap might not be as prevalent as it is today.
Luckily, Oyeniran and Walker have managed to resurrect the network for a limited time on November 20 to celebrate Against All Odds’ premiere. “It made sense because [Against All Odds] is a nostalgic piece of work and Channel U was a massive part of that whole era,” says Oyeniran. “There’s a younger generation who may not know what it is, so it’s about educating people and remembering part of the history. If we don’t speak about our history, how do you get to the future?”
Content-wise, there’ll be a mix of old-school grime videos and classic shows to watch, before the new film will stream live. The film’s knockout EP is already available, stuffed with emerging talent alongside veteran artists. Of those younger stars, Oyeniran praises Capo Lee and Novelist for “flying high and doing amazing things.” Sadly, there are no plans to bring back Channel U beyond this one-day event, but Against All Odds will be available online forever – and young rappers will continue to build upon the work of those that came before.
“Grime’s never dead,” says Oyeniran. “We need to stop being purist. We want people to relive that good feeling that they had when they were growing up – enjoying this town and enjoying the culture.”
With Against All Odds, the two directors have added another integral piece to the tapestry of grime – one that will inspire young artists in the same way that Kidulthood inspired them. “My goal is just to make an amazing body of work that stands the test of time” says Walker. “If anybody ever wants to know about some grime history, they can put it on, and they can see how it came about. They can see some of the early stages of it, how it progressed to where it is today.”
— Femi Oyeniran (@femioyeniran) November 20, 2020
According to Oyeniran, the film will spark a global fandom – and prove an enduring touchstone for the genre: “The idea is to marry our generation with the future generation, so that legacy is gonna live on in them. I was talking to Busta Rhymes and his manager… They made me think that if you do the best job you can now, and present people your best no matter where it ends up, it’ll find a home and people will love it.”
‘Against All Odds’ is out November 20 – Channel U returns to Sky channel 385 on the same day. You can watch it all online here