I’ll cut to the chase: If you can’t find anything to like on Run the Road, you might as well give up on grime. Listen to the five best tracks—Terror Danjah’s “Cock Back,” Riko & Target’s “Chosen One,” Jammer’s “Destruction,” Lady Sovereign’s “Cha Ching,” Shystie’s “One Wish”—and if you still feel a bit shruggy, well, strike the genre off your list, ‘cos that’s as good as grime gets.
I’d be perplexed and disappointed if you did, admittedly. Surely there’s something for everybody here? You want to feel the same dark rush the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” gave you? Just listen to the six opening bars of D Double E’s “performance” on “Destruction”—a vomitous self-exorcism that sounds barely human. Conversely, if you’re jonesing for nursery rhyme tunefulness, there’s pasty-faced Lady Sovereign’s delicious faux patois. Grime can do quasi-orchestral grandeur (swoon to Target’s “Chosen One” and Terror Danjah’s “One Wish” remix) as superbly as Anglo-gangsta (check Bruza’s astonishing 27 seconds on “Cock Back,” equal parts Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday and Jadakiss). But what pushes Run the Road into the first-class compilation zone is the second-tier tracks: Durrty Goodz’s double-time and ravenous “Gimmie Dat,” EARS’ plaintiveelegy for lost innocence “Happy Days.” There are only a couple of outright duds.
Grime sometimes gets treated as merely “the latest fad” from the trend-hoppy U.K. But the grander movement of which it’s an extension or mutation—London pirate radio culture—has been going on since at least 1991. From hardcore rave to jungle to garage to grime, underlying every phase-shift there’s an abiding infrastructure based around pirates, dubplates, and white labels sold direct to specialist stores. The core sonic principles are also enduring: beat science seeking the intersection between “fucked up” and “groovy,” dark bass pressure, MCs chatting fast, samples and arrangement ideas inspired by pulp soundtracks. The bpm have oscillated wildly, particular elements wax and wane, but in a Northrop Frye sense this is the same music. You could even see it as a conservative culture, except that its credo is “keep moving forward.”
One of the few recent innovations in the scene’s production-and-distribution has been the vogue for DVDs (which Americans can mail order from companies like Independance). This syndrome seems symptomatic of grime’s impatience for fame. Tired of waiting for the TV crews to arrive, they decided to DIY. Typically consisting of promos, live footage, interviews, and quasi-documentary material, the production values lean toward cruddy. Nonetheless, these DVDs are fascinating capsules of subculture-in-the-raw. For American grime fans, just seeing where their heroes actually live—projects a/k/a council estates in low-rent areas like Peckham and Wood Green—ought to be revelatory. Some of the videos in Risky Roadz are shot on the concrete pedestrian bridges connecting different blocks of flats. Compared to American rap promos, the camerawork and “choreography” look positively third world.
In Risky Roadz, Dizzee Rascal is interviewed on an actual road—Roman Road, to be precise, a crucial thoroughfare in grime’s topography, home to legendary record store Rhythm Division. Dizzee offers sage advice to aspiring MCs: “Do you. Do you well.” Another interview is with Riko—a future star, everyone agrees, so long as he can stay out of jail. “I want to get my zeroes,” says Riko of his hunger to get signed. When the subject of mic battles and MC feuds comes up, he fires off the usual threats to anyone stepping forward to test, then checks himself: “I don’t mean ‘shot,’ I mean lyrically shot.” Looking at Riko standing there, you might well think, “Here’s someone with the charisma glow, the sheer physical beauty, and—’cos these things count, for better or worse—the bad-boy backstory, to be, ooh, as big as DMX.” It’s quite likely that’ll he’ll remain just a local legend. The excitement of this moment in grime’s rise is that that unjust outcome doesn’t feel inevitable.