Since it burst out from the council estates of London’s East End in the early part of the decade, grime remains the first and only authentically British MC culture. A jackknifing collision of rasping U.K. garage beats, local slang, U.S. street rap, and Jamaican dancehall, it was as visceral and exhilarating as anything you’re likely to hear. For a while, it even looked ready to take on the world. As with so many “next big things,” though, these early hopes proved somewhat premature.
No one since has come close to the commercial and critical success of the scene’s one big break-out album: Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut Boy in da Corner. Meanwhile, of the few legitimate full-lengths released this year by artists once viewed as major-league players, only Wiley’s Playtime Is Over still hewed to grime’s original blueprint. Both Rascal’s Maths + English and Kano’s London Town marked a retreat to traditional Brit rap, while Lethal Bizzle’s Back to Bizznizz even made a bizarre foray into indie-rock with Babyshambles and Pete Doherty. Now, as funky house dominates the pirate-radio network and dubstep—an older, instrumental offshoot of two-step garage—enjoys an exponential spike in popularity, grime’s game appears to finally be up.
Look a little deeper, though, and things might not be so bleak. Rather than rolling over as its big-money dreams slipped out of reach, grime has used this time to take stock and return with a torrent of new independent recordings. At their best, these underground releases play to the genre’s strengths in ways that its crossover efforts have never been able, turning uncompromising lyrical cartwheels and pushing sonic boundaries along the way.
Take, for example, Trim’s Soul Food series of mix tapes. Over two installments so far, this laconic ex–Roll Deep member sticks to his guns and paints a captivatingly introspective picture of inner-city life on such tracks as “In the Ghetto” and “I’m Not.” Less expected, though, is a sludge-paced screwed-and-chopped edit of his former crew’s anthem, “When I’m Ere.” Durrty Goodz’s Axiom EP, on the other hand, takes a different tack. Blurring the boundaries between grime and dubstep, the MC rides productions by both Digital Mystikz’s Coki and the Bristol- based Peverelist. While the rhythmic template may have altered slightly, it’s still unmistakably grime; the fast-chat gymnastics and pummelling low-end of the title song providing a perfect example of why so many people fell in love with this rough and rugged sound in the first place.
Many artists are struggling to make ends meet in grime’s post-gold-rush climate; Skepta, however, has become its most successful entrepreneur, complete with his own signature T-shirt line and label. This professional attitude is also evident on his latest CD. Collecting some of the rapper’s biggest tunes (including the stomping 4/4 garage of “Doin’ It Again”) along with new material, Greatest Hits is, he insists, not a mix tape, but a genuine album. It’s a thrilling and occasionally nostalgic ride, marrying scorching instrumentals with intricate, witty flows. For a largely ephemeral music in which countless examples of lyrical genius have faded into the ether of the U.K. capital’s illegal air waves, this approach is welcome, showing that by keeping in mind the lessons of its past, grime can still look to the future with confidence.