How Grime Became The Unlikely Sound Of Festival Season 2015 – Novelist And More On The Genre’s Resurgence

Over the past 12 months, grime – arguably the most exciting homegrown genre of this century – has experienced a massive resurgence. From Kanye West performing with a host of British MCs at the Brit Awards back in February to Drake bringing on Skepta at London’s Wireless Festival in July, grime’s frenetic mash-up of jungle, rap and dancehall, born in London towerblocks in the early 2000s, has gone global again…

Stormzy, an MC who’s yet to trouble the Top 40, is about to embark on a sold-out UK tour. Skepta, from the long-standing grime outfit Boy Better Know (which also features his brother JME), has drawn crowds of thousands at every solo festival show he’s played this year, London’s Lovebox and Glastonbury included. With no major label backing, his current single ‘Shutdown’ has already entered the Top 20 most played songs on Apple’s new worldwide radio station Beats 1.

Crucially, grime artists have been discovering that they have an unlikely natural home performing in the loose party atmosphere a festival thrives on. Now they can’t wait for more. A look at the Reading and Leeds Festivals lineup doesn’t just show a cursory nod to grime – it’s now as important as the rock and indie bands on the bill. Over on the BBC Radio 1Xtra Stage punters can catch a deft cross-section of the current wave of artists cropping up on playlists across Britain; Krept & Konan, Stormzy, Fekky, Lady Leshurr, Tempa T, Bugzy Malone and Lethal Bizzle.

We asked three MCs and two promoters for their take on grime’s second coming.

Novelist
18-year-old rising grime MC from south London

“People are getting that it’s not just a UK version of rap, and that there’s something to move to as well. I want to do some shows with house-party vibes. When people get there it’s going to be really chilled – the artists performing won’t be in a separate [backstage] room. We’ll all be together. I love it at a festival when fans come up to me and start chatting. I feel like I’m there for them, so we’re friends. People can just approach me and speak. Most of my fans are teenagers. When they see me, they know they can talk to me because of my lyrical content and my whole energy. My first ever festival was Outlook in Croatia and I was 17. I wasn’t even legally meant to be there, but I went and it was sick. I love festivals; they weren’t something I grew up with at all; they used to be something I just saw on TV. But they have changed my perspective.”

Jon McIldowie
Booking agent for Reading and Leeds Festivals

“Boy Better Know and others are having an impact in the States, and kids that have grown up on indie and rock are embracing them – here and there. That’s quite unusual and extremely positive. There’s an edge – an aggression – to the music, which is lacking from a lot of other genres. It’s very real, it comes from the street, and that’s the reason a lot of American hip-hop acts are getting into the grime scene – it has authenticity. These things come in waves. What’s great about the scene now is you’ve got people like Stormzy, Skepta and JME producing a quality of work that we haven’t seen before.

“The genre’s maturing in a really good way, and it was the same with punk, with metal. A few years ago people were calling the death of grime, and that was really good for these acts – it gave them time away from the spotlight to produce some quality music. And I think it’s not just the artists who’ve had time to develop, it’s the managers and the independent labels. Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy In Da Corner’ was the mainstream birth of the genre, if that had continued then it would have been too much too soon. The fact that people in the mainstream moved away and then came back again has been to the betterment of everyone.”

Meridian Dan
Tottenham MC who quit making music in 2005 but has since returned to the scene, recording last year’s ‘German Whip’

“When I started out 15-plus years ago, we were just doing it for our friends, and maybe people who were 10 years older. Now there are all these people who are younger; who have grown up on this culture. Things have changed. Before, we’d go on the radio and spit lyrics over tunes, and any lyrics could come out at any time. We’d do the same thing onstage at shows. But now it’s developed into the thing where, when you go to a show, you perform PAs – you go over recordings of tracks, because people are pushing certain tunes at festivals. In the early days, everything would get shut down. Now everybody knows someone who MCs and people are used to the culture, so it’s not as intimidating as it once was. It’s wicked.

“Reading and Leeds last year was really good. Never ever would I have imagined myself playing at Reading – I’d never been before. I got the booking, the tent was huge, but 20 minutes before my set, it was kinda empty. Five minutes before, it picked up a bit, then my DJ played a few tunes and by the time I performed it was crazy. It’s nice to play places where people don’t know about you. I like doing that, because then I feel like I’m having the most impact. My show’s all about having a good time; wherever I can pitch up and set up my PA system, I’m there – in a field, anywhere. There are loads of people coming up. There were thousands in my generation, now there are tens of thousands. But I don’t know that the scene is more cohesive; there’s very much sections and levels. Everybody is together, but also everyone’s not – there’s competition. I never get into beefing. I’m here to entertain and not get involved in any argy bargy. I come from a place where that sort of thing happens on a daily basis, and it’s not in the lyrics, you know what I mean? I don’t want to get into violence; it’s not what I’m about.”

James Benenson
Found Festival director

“I think a lot of people are saying grime is back but, in reality, it’s always been there – it’s just coming into its own again and getting wider recognition. The MCs driving the scene have grown up, and not just musically. Skepta, in particular, is leading the way and getting attention internationally for the first time, but most importantly maintaining his authenticity while he does so. Dizzee Rascal was the first to emerge from the grime scene and step into the US and Europe, but he had to change his delivery and content to appeal to a sufficiently commercial market. The difference now is Skepta is unafraid to take something very London and very British and take it overseas.

“Artists such as Tinchy or Dizzee have had their time in the sun, but they’ve faded away because ultimately grime, as the name suggests, is something that’s gritty and raw, and if you try to market it too much, you’ll take away the energy that makes it unique. People are now seeing grime for what it is. It has a very serious side, a lot of the lyricism is very clever, the delivery is quick, it’s very sharp and there’s a lot of talent in the scene. Now festival promoters feel that they’re ready to present grime artists alongside more mainstream acts. Boy Better Know have been the most organised, down to their graphics, promotion, press shots and mixtapes. They’ve always known something bigger was coming and they’ve been biding their time. And they’ve done it the way they wanted to do it, as opposed to other acts that have bitten the cherry as soon as it’s been offered to them – signed deals that perhaps they’re now regretting. It’s a shame that certain acts have been taken in and spat out by the major labels – they’ve been put on big hits and won a few fans in the pop sector, but lost the credibility in the underground.

“Grime is still pulling in a young audience, and it’s also enticing people outside of the area codes where it was born. It was made in London for London kids, but now, as a promoter, a lot of the hype we get for grime comes from the Home Counties, from all across the country, and abroad. It’s the in-your-face genre that’s around now that’s really and truly British.”

Lethal Bizzle
Grime artist who broke through in 2004 with ‘Pow! (Forward)’

“I’ve never really been too comfortable with the word ‘grime’. To the average person, it’s almost like a negative from the start, and people who don’t know about the scene just scapegoat it… I went out on the NME [Rock’n’roll Riot] Tour in 2007, though, and I saw worse things on rock’n’roll tours than I saw in grime raves. Fights were kicking off all the time – moshpits. Sometimes it was just people getting excited and crowd surfing, but for some reason in a grime rave, these things aren’t allowed to happen. I don’t even know how we can resolve it. If the artists can keep being successful and unifying with each other then we’ll be OK.

“I probably had one of the most fun times doing the NME tour – it really opened my mind up, letting me see that rock’n’roll fans like grime, they like hip-hop, they like indie. I couldn’t play out in 2004. I’d go to venues and the police would be outside saying, ‘Nah, you can’t come in; if you come in, we’re shutting the whole event down,’ and the club owners would be like, ‘We might lose our licence.’ I’d drive to Leicester, to Leeds, and be told, ‘This ‘Pow’ song causes trouble, it can’t happen.’ So from that to where I’m at now, I think there is progression, but the stigma of grime is still being felt. It’s just sad that that shit still happens 10 years later.”