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spirits rejoice

Derek Walmsley

DJ Rupture's blog has a new track to download from The Wire ex-cover star Wiley, who is going through another of his purple patches of frenzied activity (last seen around the time of 2006's five – or was it six? - editions of Tunnel Vision mixtapes). "Spirit In The Beats" also features Flo Dan, here in more lyrical mode than his more ranting recent outings with The Bug.

The track is decent enough, but it's the reference to "spirits" that makes the hair prickle up. Spirit is a recurring obsession of Wiley's. On the classic "Boogieman" from many years ago with Trim, he "breaks the doors down and lets the spirits in"; on a recent freestyle on a Maniac beat, it was a reference to a burned out car and "spirits leaving the vehicle". In an interview many years ago, Wiley says regarding estranged ex-Roll Deep member Dizzee Rascal that "my spirit is with him, his spirit is with me".

There's various ways to interpret such references. There's a kind of comic book resonance to the way he uses it, as if he believes he has a non-material doppleganger, a sort of uber-Wiley who's all-seeing, all-knowing. Such a fantasy seems to fit: in the ultra-material world of grime, where everything is cold hard concrete or cold hard cash, it's not surprising that an MC invokes a spiritual side-kick. Dizzee Rascal had a track about being "here, there... everywhere": a yearning to turn urban chaos into some sort of cosmic order.

What really strikes a chord is that "spirit" seems something of a grimey-counterpoint to hiphop's painfully overused category of "soul". For American music, soul (as a concept and genre) is so tired it has nothing to do with James Brown and Bobby Byrd: it's simply a prosaic, statement of 'this is who I am' individualism. Grime very rarely mentions soul: by invoking "spirits" instead, it taps something much more uncanny and chaotic. It reminds me of one of the true reasons grime felt so fresh, a few years back: it suggested urban poetry where the slate had been wiped clean of all hiphop's tired, burdernsome political and [a]moral ideology.

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