If you can’t mess with time don’t do grime, writes Wire Editor Derek Walmsley in Seismographic Sound: Visions Of A New World, a book recently published by Norient
“It’s all playground,” grime MC Wiley said to me at the end of an interview once, qualifying the tough talk that came out in our discussion – of rivals he claimed stole his music, or of his use of samples of guns. It was as if he was saying: you know it’s all pretend? Likely it was an aside to me, as an outsider, who might not understand the particular context of references to violence in grime. In any case the reference to the schoolyard is revealing. Violence in grime is simultaneously a matter of fantasy and reality. References to guns, knives, beefs and war are a way of both boosting your own image at the expense of others – all the while keeping the tension on a strictly lyrical level – while also reflecting a setting for the music in which the realities of gang life are never entirely absent. A track by The Essentials, “State Your Name Soldier”, took this situation to its logical extreme – it had each MC introduce their location and who they were repping before each verse, as if they were addressing a drill sergeant.
Grime as a musical form came out of the UK garage scene in the early 2000s when MCs began rapping on the tracks. It started primarily as a London based movement, but quickly ran into controversy when numerous live events were disrupted by disputes between rival crews, licensing problems or police interference. Violence has often lurked in the background, from volatile MC Crazy Titch getting jailed for murder in 2005 at the height of his fame, to grime shows getting kicked off the former pirate radio station Rinse FM in December 2006. (This was after Wiley dissed former ally God’s Gift live on air, calling him a “donut”, which allegedly resulted in God’s Gift and crew gatecrashing the station to beat up Wiley.) As Wiley’s playground reference suggests, though, these conflicts are almost always internal affairs between the different artists. Because live grime events often happen at a distance. Vocal diss tracks are recorded in the studio, in which MCs ridicule and goad their rivals by calling out their names on live radio sets. War is a state of mind: a state of constant awareness of the need to protect your reputation against those in the rest of the scene wanting to take it.
In the 2010s, instrumental grime has gained in popularity in London, the rest of the UK and beyond, often overshadowing the vocal tracks with which grime made its mark – perhaps in part because it lacks the tough talking that gained grime a reputation for trouble. Instrumental grime gave rise to the phenomenon of the war dub, in which producers take musical potshots at each other by dedicating tracks (usually on SoundCloud) to producers they feel deserve targeting. Instrumental grime has also gone deeper into the palette of war sounds originally explored by producers like Wiley – the sounds of guns firing, cartridges hitting the pavement, magazines being inserted, and so on. In the hands of new producers, particularly on the Keysound record label, similar sounds (for example metal reverberating like cartridges hitting the floor, sudden thrusts of noise like explosions) are composed in an abstracted and almost formalistic way – they have lost their sense of tension and fear, instead becoming a mere default choice. These sounds carry a sense of something almost like nostalgia for the original grime styles of producers such as Wiley or Jammer.
To take the prevalent violence theme in grime seriously, you need to consider its lyrical battles, clashes and disputes in detail. War is a common word in grime lyrics; violence is not. In contrast to grime, hiphop has space, slow tempos and the back-and-forth of the boom bap beat so an MC can get their mouth around the three syllables of the latter word easily. Whereas hiphop lyricists have style or flex, in grime you are said to have a flow. As that term hints, the words move in one direction: forward. In grime, a common lyrical device is the one line flow, where every line ends with the same word, an AAAAAAAAA rhyme pattern like a machine gun. In Jammer’s track “Destruction VIP”, Wiley ends every line of his verse with the angry words “don’t know you”. Grime is sometimes accused of being one dimensional, but this is simply a reflection of the speed and repetition of the art form. You get a rapid rat-a-tat-tat report of references and code words.
In a lyric like Flow Dan’s “War” verse, dropped to devastating effect on Logan Sama’s last ever show on Rinse, the single syllable word “war” is wielded like a weapon. Because grime’s lyrical structure is simple and direct, it has the effect of simplifying and abstracting the messy business of violence into a flow of code, boasts and bravado. There are many terms for guns, for instance, usually single syllable words that can be dropped quickly: heat, skeng, shotty, pumpy, glock, gat, and so on.
On Dizzee Rascal’s verse on Roll Deep’s track “Eskimo Vocal”, each line contains a sum, and if you do the math, each of those sums is a reference to a different calibre gun. 3+2+3+1 equals a 9mm; 3x10+7+1 equals a .38 calibre; 9+8+3+2 equals a .22 calibre. He drops all these sums yet the whole thing rhymes. It’s a brilliant piece of lyric writing –dense, fast, yet subtle. Similarly, on a Wiley production from 2005 entitled “Sidewinder”, two Ruff Sqwad MCs, Tinchy Stryder and Slix, drop verses with no rhymes, just chants of (respectively) “gun fingers” and “big shot pum pum pum”.
Furthermore, on the original version of “Forward Rhythm” by Lethal B (also known as “Pow”), a verse by Hotshot reels off a list of guns with the exclamation “shoot it!”. In these examples, the form of the lyrics becomes as simple as possible to make the wordplay sound fast and furious. In other words, there’s a perfect match between the form and the content. In these examples, violence has generated the form, the structure and the contours of the lyrics. In other cases grime uses humour to disarm the violence of the lyrics. In a Skepta lyric from a clash with Devilman, captured on the Lord Of The Mics DVD, he produces perhaps the most absurdly extended threat in all of grime: “Signed up to the gym cause I heard man are looking for me and my mates/And after I’m done with pumping weights/I’m going to buy a stab proof vest and slot in the plates”. It’s like a montage scene of an action movie in which the hero prepares for a showdown condensed into just over two lines. In a Wiley lyric in Roll Deep’s “People Don’t Know”, he says there’s not a gun in his car, but there is a baseball bat... that he uses to play baseball or, even more inoffensively, rounders. In these cases, the scenes sketched by the lyrics, even though they’re playing with notions of violence, are so extended that they become simply absurd. Grime MCs are able to extend lines in this way because the rhyme schemes are so simple; you can repeat words, you can rhyme very simply indeed, and stretch out your lines like a piece of elastic until it snaps.
There’s a recurring paradox at work here, which is that grime, by referencing violence and war so much, seems to blunt its edge. That’s not to deny that events in the grime scene ever overlap with real-world violence, but violence is part of the discourse of grime to such an extent that it bears no resemblance to real-life events. MCs can be bitter rivals on record but friends in reality. Disputes and threats are generated in a sphere completely separate from any real-life dispute. They quickly take on their own logic and rules as associations and perceived slights incorporate other participants. Lyrical wars in grime spread quickly – they are chaotic, almost self-generating and more like a game of Chinese whispers than a real dispute. Allusions and references to violence in grime should never be taken at face value, but must be understood on their own terms.