Optimus Grime: how an art form evolved out of inequality and London’s failed regeneration5 min read

Book review of Inner City Pressure The Story of Grime by Dan Hancox

Two-thirds through his book, Dan Hancox describes a futuristic vehicle, used by the Metropolitan Police during a 2011 anti-austerity demonstration in central London.  A ‘Transformers-style van, opened out into a 10-foot-high steel wall’, with which ‘they cordoned off Trafalgar Square and christened it ‘the sterile zone’’. The police allowed entrance to the public, but only if they discarded their placards first. Apart from being alarmingly dystopian, this scene is shot through with the science fiction of ‘afrofuturism’ (think Black Panther). The ‘sonics’ of grime, argues Hancox, exhibit a similar effect. The ‘sleek raygun zaps and zips of a synth’, its production ‘shines sleekly like a spacesuit’. Early on in the book, Hancox differentiates grime from US hip-hop, because of its hyperactive, progressive perspective. Grime asks ‘what’s next?’, contrary to the stay-true-to-your-roots, ‘realness’ of American rap.

There’s a compelling argument for why grime artists wanted to push forward, to ‘work like a soul inspired until the battle of the day is done’. Hancox depicts the origins of grime, in the early millennium, in a divided London experiencing great change. The Docklands regeneration which was initiated by Thatcher’s government, and which resulted in Canary Wharf, continues. East central London, in particular is on the verge of transformation and invisible lines clearly demarcate the boundaries of the haves and the have nots. One Canada Square and the newly built Shard are the soaring trophies of economic advancement, while just outside and at a drop, nestle the worn tower blocks of some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. 

The Shard and the neighbourhoods which sit in its shadow are symbols of rising levels of inequality in London.

Hancox paints a vivid picture and backs it up with grim statistics: In Britain’s cities, between ‘79 and ‘95, child poverty had trebled; between ‘86 and ‘96 the number of drug addicts had increased by four times as many. The capital boasted earnings three times as high as the rest of England, but unemployment stood above the national average, and over double the amount of children were living in ‘workless homes’.

Grime grew up in the country’s most concentrated areas of deprivation, the boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham. As Hancox describes, in a sly, foreboding reference to the 2012 Olympics – at which Dizzee Rascal performed, and which might as well have been the government’s celebration party for their regeneration of East London – ‘a medal-winning podium of poverty’.

But how aspirational a genre could grime ever be, when it was created in direct reaction to the overly slick sound and image of Garage? The dirty bass and screw faced, lyrical delivery by MCs, hooded up on rooftops, only ever stood in opposition to the ‘aspirational dress codes in UK garage clubs’ down below (no hats, no trainers – shirts and shoes required). Moreover, it was about to be marginalised further by the sinister actions of a government preparing for crack down, for a period of cultural sanitisation to remove all that threat, all that grime. The idea was to create an environment more palatable to the upwardly mobile, and mostly white, prospective inhabitants to move in from the suburbs. And so the era of the ASBO commenced.

Hancox skilfully presents his argument that institutionalised racism forced a burgeoning musical scene into the background, tarnished by accusations that it encouraged a spectrum of negative behaviour among England’s youth, from hostility to violent thuggery to murder. He doesn’t shy away from discussing the violence associated with grime, acknowledging the murder committed by – now incarcerated – MC Crazy Titch in 2006, even comparing his manic style of performance to a kind of deranged energy. But, Hancox points out, the connection between black youth culture and high profile gang shootings, was correlation at best.

Yet the lyrical references to violence in UK rap were enough evidence for Blair and the champions of his new ‘Respect Agenda’. For young black people in Britain, the 2000s were marked by Antisocial Behaviour Orders, stop and search policies which relied on racial profiling, the increased powers of the Department of Trade and Industry, who closed in on pirate radio stations, arresting and tagging those they caught and by the proliferation of CCTV cameras. Between 2000 and 2006, New Labour spent £500m on installing CCTV cameras in public spaces across the country.

Hancox writes with the calm confidence of a practiced researcher, but more so with the care and attention that only those emotionally invested in their subject can achieve. He’s clearly a devotee to grime, but doesn’t let that cloud his judgment – even commending Cameron’s ‘Hug a Hoodie’ comment for it’s appropriate acknowledgment of the underlying hurt of many, misrepresented young people. His passion for the subject is evident but measured by a clear ability to structure a good narrative arc and, I suspect, a sense of responsibility to do the story justice. The book benefits from his clearly close relationship and respect for his subjects. Anecdotes come from repeated, personal calls, over the years, from Wiley, opinions are gently prompted from the passenger seat of Skepta’s car, the artist skinning up next to him.

This points to the central achievement of the book and what I interpret as the most significant accomplishment of grime, which is to allow the marginalised to speak up, to have their voice. It’s notable that grime’s deviation from Garage was most significant in the way it brings the MC to the foreground, the musical structure allowing for lyrical complexity by an MC who took the centre of attention, ahead of the DJ. Hancox, not unlike a skilled MC, shapes his language, to rhythmically describe the exhilarating craft and artistic balance of preparation and improvisation which goes into a performance:

“they would write lyrics in either 8, 16, 32 or 64 bar sections, with the style varying for each of those lengths. [8 bars] are your silver bullets, your punchlines, powerful and simple shots of lyrical adrenaline – the bars that could make you underground-famous. 16s and 32s are for your more detailed or ‘thoughtful’ content, for ‘spraying’, and they need more space to breathe: they’re suited to slower burning, less sugar-rush hectic instrumentals”

No one could have predicted Grime’s resurgence in the 2010s (no one except Wiley, Skepta and the artists who doggedly persevered through the intermediate years, that is). It’s notable that it came back amidst growing political unrest, brought in by young activists who were having their EMA payments taken from them and their university fees trebled, as Hancox points out. Skepta’s defiant comeback was marked by the release of a track which proudly dismisses the showy material trappings of fame (i used to wear Gucci/put it in the bin cos that’s not me).

Kano’s Made in the Manor is a return to east London where he grew up with youth clubs, accessible public spaces and a complex and multicultural network of family and friends who played reggae, hip-hop, afrobeats, soul, rnb, garage and jungle at summer barbeques. Hancox describes the reverence for jungle, by grime artists, in particular. Their eyes glaze over when they talk about it, ‘creators speak of Jungle like a first love’, ‘the implication is that the purity and community of the underground scene were never sullied by the ego of MCs-turned-superstars’. Seemingly, grime has become more about its roots, as the political landscape has worsened. It’s not individualistic, Thatcherite entrepreneurialism, it’s the powerful voice of a community. At its centre, grime is about anarchic, do-it-yourself creativity.

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