Grime transformed British music. A new exhibition traces the how.

LONDON — On a wall-mounted screen at the Museum of London, low-resolution video showed young people rapping fast and hungrily over syncopated beats. Every now and then, a graphic from the 2000s that read “Risky Roadz 2” would flash on the screen.

The video is early work by Roony “RiskyRoadz” Keefe, who documented the early days of grime, the muscular British rap genre. Keefe first picked up a camera to record the budding scene in 2004 and created DVDs of the freestyles he recorded.

“I heard an MC and I was like, ‘You’re good, put them on,'” Keefe said in a phone interview. The DVD helped the rapper advance in the scene like he was an A&R talent scout, he added.

Nearly two decades later, Keefe, 37, is co-curator of Grime Stories: From the Corner to the Mainstream, a small but heartfelt exhibition currently on view at the Museum of London until December that looks back at the beginnings of Grime and the context from which it arose.

“It’s a big deal, you know,” Keefe said. “You never think you’re going to end up in a museum.”

Originally a tight-knit scene formed by young people in East London, grime now holds a respected position in mainstream British music and culture. Such is the selling power of the genre that Ikea D featured Double E, an East London MC, in its 2019 Christmas advert. In politics, the 2017 #Grime4Corbyn campaign harnessed the power of rappers to encourage young people to support then Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

At the 2015 Brit Awards – Britain’s version of the Grammys – Kanye West performed with a host of grime artists. Drake has long embraced the genre, starring with rappers Skepta and Giggs on his 2017 More Life mixtape, Skepta’s Boy Better Know crew got tattooed and helped launch cult TV show Top Boy to revive, which stars the grime artist Kano and is set in East London.

Grime Stories was conceived as “a place to talk about the real life experience of people in East London,” said Dhelia Snoussi, curator at the Museum of London. A way to “tell some of the important stories that are less heard”.

When it emerged in the early 2000s, grime was a dire affirmation of identity. It developed as an evolution and reaction to garage, a popular black British dance genre that had veered in flashy pop directions. Other British forms of rap were overly Americanized, some felt, using slang borrowed from across the Atlantic. The grime creators instead wanted to address life in their corner of London.

The exhibition was built around Keefe, who, in addition to running a production company and directing, is also a black cab driver in London. His knowledge of the city’s streets was a way to tell the story of the community surrounding the genre, but the curators “immediately realized that many of the places we wanted to taxi to were no longer there,” said Snoussi, and gentrification became the focus of the exhibition.

The show includes short documentaries and memorabilia such as Keefe’s first camcorder and a bag from record store Rhythm Division, a hub in the early days of grime. (It’s now a coffee shop.)

Especially for purists, grime is a genre with strict technical parameters, including a tempo of 140 beats per minute. But it’s also a way of thinking about community and identity. It’s not BPM, it’s not sound, it’s everything,” says a video in the exhibition.

The scene developed around public housing in East London and its site specificity is evident in the partial reconstruction of a basement belonging to the Jammer family, one of the pioneering figures of the genre. Jammer’s basement housed early collaborations, freestyles and recordings, commemorated by the layers of artist labels covering the walls.

DJ Target, who now hosts a show on the BBC’s Radio 1Xtra, was part of those early days. Grime soon became a culture that influenced “how people dressed, how they spoke, how they looked, the haircut they got, the slang words they used,” he said. “And everything just felt like it was ours.”

The desire to reflect real-life experiences in music was also a reaction to the young rappers’ environment. Despite growing up in London with parents who may have also grown up in the UK, early grime artists were “still trying to negotiate and find that sense of belonging,” said Joy White, an academic who has been involved with the genre since 2007 employed.

Success was localized at first, but then came 2003, a year that Dan Hancox, a music journalist, called a “critical, explosive moment” for grime – akin to 1977 for punk. In 2003, 19-year-old rapper Dizzee Rascal released his debut album Boy In Da Corner, which went on to win Britain’s top music award, the Mercury Prize.

“That was a landmark moment for everyone to see and see that this is actually possible on a much larger scale,” Target said.

In the nearly decade that followed, more artists emerged from the grime scene to become influential figures in British music, despite record labels signing many rappers and then letting them languish.

In the 2010s, many grime rappers embraced a more mainstream-friendly sound. Wiley had chart success with dance-oriented tracks like “Wearing My Rolex” in 2008 and “Heatwave” in 2012. Artists like Tinchy Stryder, Skepta and Tinie Tempah also started to climb the UK charts.

The exhibit includes a gray Trinity Korg keyboard, owned by Jammer and loaned by Skepta to produce “That’s Not Me,” a 2014 track that heralded a return to grime authenticity.

That same year, a young South London MC named Stormzy released his debut EP. Today is Stormzy Grimes’ most successful breakthrough. “Without a brand new star with the extraordinary, one-of-a-kind charisma and talent that Stormzy has,” Hancox said, “the smut wouldn’t have taken root in the popular consciousness like this.”

Stormzy, now 28 and a household name in the UK, represents both the far-reaching influence of grime and the shift in genre, with the tracks on his albums swinging from more traditional grime to newer genre innovations in black British music.

Grime influence is built into the DNA of many of these genres, including afroswing, UK drill and road rap. Inspiration has also moved the other direction, and grime has evolved to offer more fluidity and variety in the beats and styles that MCs rap about.

Jammer welcomes these changes. “What people are saying is we want it to sound like the old days,” he said. “It’s not the old days.”

“I’m here for the new, I’m here for the exciting,” he added.

Leave a Comment