Updated: Jun 26, 2020
A deep dive into the relationship between American hip hop and UK grime.
You get two types of hip hop purists these days. There are those who use terms such as “real hip hop”; they will disregard at least two thirds of hip hop made after The Blueprint 3, especially if it gets radio play, as not being true to the genre. They popularised the term “mumble rap” to mock the mainstream trap sound that has developed over the past decade and generally believe hip hop peaked in the 90s. These are “old heads”. And then there are those who are more in touch with the fast-developing world of sub-genres that now offers listeners a diverse and nuanced palette to pick and choose from. They enjoy attaching the hip hop label to everything within the realm of vaguely rhyming vocals over some description of a beat. With such an open approach, they stay inclusive of fresh sounds and deem hip hop to be the most eclectic genre of music there is. These more agreeable fans tend to comprise the younger generation of hip hop heads who use the internet to expose and educate themselves on artists old and new, unknown and mainstream. When the conversation comes to grime however, it’s these people that generally make the mistake of claiming the genre as a subsection of hip hop, and the old heads who correctly deem it to be something quite separate.
Let’s get this clear. Grime is not hip hop. The reason for that goes beyond grime’s 140 beats per minute cornerstone or the sound’s garage foundations that are so far removed from the disco and funk roots of hip hop. The reason why grime is not hip hop is a matter of culture. Even though hip hop in the all-inclusive sense is a melting pot of so many different regional influences and subgenre-specific tropes, the longevity of it and the genre’s inherent sociocentric and communal nature have allowed a distinct and recognised culture to emerge from the patchwork. There’s a general consensus and spirit to hip hop which goes beyond the music and, when you take part in it as a creator or consumer, you become part of a community. Grime is certainly similar in that sense, but significantly, it operates on its own terms and is an uncompromising embodiment of underprivileged urban living specifically in the UK. Grime culture is inherently more stubborn and abrasive than hip hop. You might call grime fans “old heads”, but that term doesn’t even translate because of just how fresh grime still is, haven taken its baby steps this side of the millennium. Hip hop can be summarised by Kanye’s: “Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion?” whereas grime is when JME rapped: “'Cause the music originated / And will always remain in the streets.”
Naturally, a relationship exists between grime and hip hop. Signs of mutual recognition emerged as early as 2007, with Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Where Da G’s’ featuring hip hop legend Bun B. By the start of this decade, increasing focus on introducing new sounds to hip hop and disturbing the established status quo rewarded artists with an ear for foreign influences. Danny Brown is one such artist, a consistently vocal grime fan who credits it as inspiration for his gritty and energetic sound. In reply, he was given the honour of his own Fire in the Booth back in 2014. And of course, there’s Drake, another early co-signer, someone whose obsession with grime and other London-based genres often lands him “beg” status. Arguments for: the accents, the slang. Arguments against: Drake’s love of the genre comes from a place of genuine appreciation and respect – as far back as 2011 he was shouting out artists such as Sneakbo for inspiring his music. What’s more, the dancehall and soundsystem influence common in grime beats is a legitimate justification for his personal affiliation – his home town of Toronto is full of Jamaican neighbourhoods. And most importantly, he does genuine good for talented up and coming UK artists with his features and co-signs, giving them their breakout hit and the recognition they deserve without having them adjust their artistry.
Things changed in 2015. The trigger was Kanye’s legendary performance of ‘All Day’ at the BRIT awards, featuring half the grime scene and a flamethrower there on stage with him. To this day I see it as an indescribably iconic moment. The performance was an unapologetic statement that black urban artistry will and should upset the elitist white ethos – a statement that, especially given the context, is decidedly grime. The explosion in grime’s popularity that followed Kanye’s visit was unprecedented, a fire that was kept ablaze by Chip’s stream of viral clashes with Bugzy and then Yungen. Suddenly, US rappers who previously expressed no particular interest in grime were keen to jump on a track with the most trending artists. At the same time, a new generation of fans from across the UK and beyond emerged over night, as well as a new generation of fired-up artists. Still stood on that metaphorical BRIT stage, artists needed to diversify in order to distinguish themselves amongst the black tracksuits of their peers – see the more melodic dancehall, gospel or trap influence in certain artists’ recent work. Others felt a need to move away from Grime in order to return to a rawness diluted by the commercial success of the genre – cue the rise of frill. Overall, I’m still convinced that grime is in a better position now than pre-2015. To refresh and branch out whilst maintaining authenticity is the best thing that could have happened to the genre. If in doubt, just look at Skepta – last year’s ‘Praise the Lord’ (where he undeniably stole the show from A$AP Rocky) went platinum in the US, and this year he has released one of the most focused and inventive grime albums I’ve heard in a long time – Ignorance is Bliss. Clearly, grime is very aware that it can continue to stand on its own two feet should it to choose to.