Grime and the City

Grime has become the soundtrack for every youth political rebellion of the last decade. Now, the communities that created it face an existential threat.

Dizzee Rascal in Glastonbury, England on June 28, 2013. Ian Gavan / Getty Images

If you want to read Dan Hancox’s Inner City Pressure, it’s best to open Youtube and cue up a track or two of grime, the brutalist, neon-hued music that is the book’s central subject. Skip past the major hits, like “Shutdown” by reigning superstar Skepta or “I Luv U,” the breakout from genre-defining MC Dizzee Rascal. Head instead towards the live end of the spectrum — Wiley, the music’s sonic godfather, with Dizzee Rascal and Dj Slimzee on a set recorded for the Sidewinder rave, or teenage wunderkinds Ruff Sqwad spitting live on Rinse FM, a labor-of-love pirate station with a constantly shifting address. You’ll hear a remarkably complex sound; a jaw-dropping mixture of buzzing, squelching, synthesizers, and frantic, slang-encrusted rhymes, with nimble vocalists rapping just this side of comprehensibility.

Hancox argues that in order to understand grime, you have to understand London, the city that birthed it. More specifically, it’s necessary to understand the working-class “informal city,” built around the high-rise tower blocks of council estates and concentrated in eastern boroughs like Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Newham. Over the last two decades, many of these areas have been the subject of a profound transformation from above.

The story of grime — born from a dense working-class community, nurtured by a grey-market economy of raves, pirate radio stations, and under-the-table vinyl sales — tracks tightly with that transformation, both enabled and undercut by the remaking of its urban environment.

Pirates and Police

The gentrification of London’s working-class neighborhoods didn’t happen by accident. Instead, it was the result of a clear plan, one initiated by the Conservative governments of the 1980s — with their public-private development schemes that funneled billions of public funds towards gleaming playgrounds for the financial sector — but ushered to maturity by the Labour administrations of the 1990s and 2000s.

“The new millennium,” Hancox writes, “began with grime’s inner city on one side, and an entirely different, largely new kind of inner city growing rapidly to take its place: expensive, monocultural, private, surveilled and planned from the very top by Tony Blair’s government.”

Although rarely explicitly political, grime’s very aesthetic — its matter-of-fact valorization of the alternative geography of the mixed-race, working-class London it calls home — stands in direct opposition to the clean-cut vision presented to tourists or investors. Given this, it’s no wonder that the moments of social and political unrest that have rocked the city in recent years — events like the anti-austerity protests of 2010, the violent riots of summer 2011, or the youth-led wave that helped power Jeremy Corbyn’s insurgent 2017 campaign — so powerfully connected themselves with the genre.

Musically, grime was born out of the stylistic welter that followed the breakup of UK garage, a suave, sophisticated genre that combined house music and nineties R&B with subtle nods to the rhythmic innovations and heavy bass lines of jungle, a reggae-influenced dance style popular in London. In the early 2000s, as garage stars hit the top of the charts with smooth, pop-oriented material, a younger generation began to push back, developing a style better suited to their world of tracksuits and council estates.

Kept out of the limelight by DJs unwilling to accept the new sound, a cohort of musicians abandoned the attempt to force themselves into the garage mainstream and retreated to the underground. It was here, in a scene lead by a handful of twenty-year-olds and a legion of teenage diehards, that grime came into its own.

“Grime,” Hancox writes, “emerged from a spider’s web of intergenerational influences, schoolmates, neighbors, friends, family, and people who knew people — from school, from the estate, from the local area. The more you dig into its past, the more you realize grime’s social networks precede the music entirely, not just by years but by generations.”

Excluded by poverty and racism from the city around them, these communities were forced to develop a self-sufficient, collectivist aesthetic that would later undergird their music. This aesthetic was strengthened by its connection to the economies of the “informal city,” a world of hustles and dodges that offered a means of survival in opposition to the top-down, law-and-order vision of the authorities.

For grime, the most important of these was pirate radio, “the last bastion of truly autonomous, urban working-class self-expression — autonomous in the sense that it is possible to make a living from it, without the approval, or profit extraction, of the whiter, wealthier established British culture industries.” Hidden in squats or borrowed flats, transmitting from aerials smuggled onto tower-block roofs, hundreds of pirate stations poured an aural deluge over the airwaves.

Pirates leveraged the height of the public housing towers they knew so well to broadcast outwards, to the vast city beyond their isolated, postcode-sized worlds. “They were the lifeblood of grime in its embryonic period,” Hancox writes, “a meeting point . . . a place where hits and stars were made; a communication channel and a binding agent, for the community contained within earshot.”

Major label attention came in 2003 following the release of Dizzee Rascal’s Mercury Prize–winning album “Boy In Da Corner.” Record deals launched a handful of MCs to success, but the wider scene never really took off. Some of this is due to the vagaries of the music industry. But Hancox convincingly claims that far greater blame can be laid on the determined efforts of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour government to stamp out black youth culture under the aegis of “urban regeneration.”

Some of these efforts will be familiar to any urban resident: rapid development, skyrocketing rents, and a refusal to create new affordable housing. But metropolitan governments also sought to undercut life in areas whose inhabitants were, in essence, deemed socially unacceptable. In addition to the proliferation of CCTV surveillance and heightened policing of developers’ new “privately owned public spaces,” the early 2000s also saw the introduction of a number of remarkably coercive legal innovations.

The most notorious of these were the “anti-social behavior orders” (or ASBOs), which elevated behaviors like public drunkenness or noise to criminal offenses. Also crucial were “dispersal orders,” which allowed police or municipal authorities to “force ‘groups of two or more people’ to leave a designated ‘dispersal zone’ and not return for at least twenty-four hours.”

The London police began to demand that clubs submit Form 696, a “live music risk assessment” rife with racist questions aimed exclusively at black British styles. Even when the form was filled out correctly, performances were often canceled without warning — the police would reach out directly to property holders, frightening them into shutting down the event.

By criminalizing everyday social spaces, these policies dealt a crippling blow to grime, cutting the legs out from under a style already struggling through a difficult adolescence. As the genre’s stars attempted to cross over to pop, the pirates were chased off the air, record stores were felled by rising rents, and club nights were shuttered by the police.

The result of this campaign was that by the late 2000s, live grime had been essentially driven out of London. Hancox sees the government’s attempt to deny a place for working-class black music in London as a linchpin of its effort to deny a place for working class black people in London.

“Fighting for the right to party might sound like a relatively glib thing to care about when so many life-and-death injustices remain unresolved,” he writes, “but they’re all interlinked: the right to a social life is fundamental, to enjoy culture, free and unmolested and it’s no surprise that it has been so often pushed out of reach of young black Britons.”

Grime’s Collective Alchemy

Less than a decade later, however, grime is more popular than ever before. What happened? In the latter part of the book, Hancox traces how a set of veteran artists, like MC Skepta and his brother JME, went back to basics. They abandoned attempts to cross over and gradually built a self-sufficient infrastructure to support their music.

At the same time, a new generation, raised on grime’s first wave, was now old enough to make the music themselves. These young performers formed close links with the older musicians and reinvigorated the underground, swapping radio for Youtube and using social media to reorganize their community. Grime’s second coming developed organically, slowly building through self-sufficient operations insulated from the broader music industry, before exploding in popularity among a massive audience hungry for its swaggering authenticity.

A victory, then, for community-oriented self-determination and artistic control of the means of production? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Putting aside some questionable promotional deals, and the tensions of the massive racial shift in grime’s fanbase, Hancox zeroes in on the ever-mounting challenges that continue to face the working-class Londoners who create the music.

Not only are rents higher and the opportunities for employment worse, but the social programs and informal economies so crucial to the style’s developments have been legislated or enforced out of existence. “The question facing future generations of teenage DJs, producers and MCs,” Hancox writes, “is whether the same community-driven youth subcultures can still flourish . . . When the sound of the inner city is finally at the heart of UK pop culture, what does it mean when the places that produced it have changed beyond all recognition?”

By linking the narrative of grime’s rise, fall, and redemption to a clear-eyed analysis of the vast transformations remaking twenty-first-century London, Hancox turns a defiantly local story into a compellingly global one. Despite its consistent exclusion from London’s greater promise, grime’s “collective alchemy” succeeded in part because of its metropolitan roots and its oppositional proximity to the main arteries of global finance and culture.

As cities grow ever more exclusionary, with luxury apartments standing empty and the working classes forced to the margins, their long-dimmed promise seems to disappear before our eyes. Hancox’s work is most powerful when it forces us to confront, head-on, the costs that will be faced if we continue to let that promise vanish.