Boy Better Get To Know: Why Britain Needs to Recognise and Celebrate its Black Artists

For the past few years, grime has been making a small but significant shift in the mainstream. Artists like Wiley, Dizzee and Tinie have spilled over into the realms of pop culture. Others, like Skepta, spilled over and pulled back again, wanting to forge their own way into the limelight without conforming to polished beats and signing to major labels.

There’s no question: artists like Wiley and the Roll Deep crew set the stage for this new wave of artists. Without Dizzee’s enduring popularity, his ability to draw crowds at festivals across the globe and collaborate with some of the world’s biggest producers, it’s unlikely that artists like Skepta, Stormzy and Krept and Konan would be in a position to retain a larger sense of their roots.

Not that the artists preceding them ever strove away from their roots – but they certainly adopted a more commercial sound. Perhaps the definitive shift was Skepta’s “That’s Not Me”. Perhaps the turning point was already visible in Temps’ “Next Hype”. Perhaps it was in the rise of SBTV, Link Up TV, and the digital channels for alternative cultural production that didn’t have the high thresholds of grimes’ beginnings in pirate radio.

Released in 2014, Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” featured a lo-fi video and a sound more reminiscent of the rudimentary riddims made on PlayStations than “Wearing my Rolex”. The video cost him £80 and returned to the aesthetics of the DIY camcorder videos that had been the form of self-expression on the streets. The song represented Skepta’s move away from major label studio albums and also, arguably, away from commercial expectations and disappointing responses. The words themselves speak of Skepta’s journey, with Skepta spitting out “Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin ‘cos that’s not me” for the hook. Unlike the non-hegemonic forms of masculinity promoted by the hip-hop world, grime turns it’s back on expensive cars, haute couture brands (unless it’s Margiela) and California women by the pool. It’s still rampantly misogynistic, but the brand of masculinity grime promotes is one of authenticity: Adidas tracksuits and knowing where you came from.

The grime video aesthetic: the pixelated low-resolution footage; the unabashed disregard for steadicam; the low-budget, street based mise-en-scene; and the permeating and quintessentially British humour, all perhaps hark back to the original “Lord of the Mics” videos. Jammer first started the Lord of the Mics series in 2004, transforming the long tradition of clashing, from dancehall master of ceremonies to the live lyrical battles of pirate radio and underground raves, into a DVD that he sold out the back of his car and in local record stores. 12 years on and LOTM is a cultural institution in it’s own right. It’s a sign of grime’s shifting audience that this year’s tickets are going for  £100, and the YouTube videos are now blocked for copyright infringement.

The original qualities of these films: the pirate-quality, the lighting of east London basements, the sweat and energy of the crowds, are distilled in Temps’ “Next Hype” video, a 2009 foray into fish-eye visuals with the well-worn “tipping over your CD rack / not getting none of your CDs back”. Featuring Tim Westwood, the video embodies the self-deprecating humour that grime videos so often capture and everyone in it can barely smother their smiles. Like Stormzy’s “Know Me From”, complete with cardboard cut-outs, or Yungen’s “Punk”, a la pizza in petrol stations, the video represents not only a form of humour but a form of literacy, a chain of inside jokes and references.

With over 7million views on youtube, “Next Hype” has become it’s own sort of cultural touchstone. Without platforms like YouTube, where producers are free to produce their own content, grime could never have reached such a large audience. Of course, these new channels and wider audiences have their own drawbacks. Starting on pirate radio, with stations like Rinse FM pushing the grime scene forward, an OFCOM license also meant a certain degree of censorship. DJ Sian Anderson talks about how the newly scrubbed up tracks forced her favourite MCs off the tracklists. This self-censorship still exists, but with the growth of the online “youth” channels SBTV and Link Up TV around the same time Rinse went legal, the platforms for self-expression are definitely growing even if the parameters of what’s acceptable to say are closing in. It’s a classic trade off between what larger audiences deem socially acceptable and what’s important to keep saying even if Middle England finds its distasteful.

These platforms are allowing grime artists to navigate this trade-off more on their own terms than ever before. Yet, there remains a history of music in Britain, stemming back to the arrival of Jamaican dancehall, which is consistently erased. Dancehall, garage, drum and bass, dubstep, jungle and grime are all variations on a theme that reaches back to the Jamaican diaspora and civil rights movement in Britain. The black histories of these genres are conveniently forgotten, as they take on a white face signed to a major label, with a scrubbed up sound suitable for the radio accompaniment of the cornflower-blue morning commute.

Grime can’t be UK’s answer to hip-hop because, unlike hip-hop, grime has never been given the recognition it deserves. Hip-hop has become prestigious, empowering, ‘the euphemism for a new religion / the soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing’, as Ye said. What’s important about hip-hop is that it has carved out a niche for it’s own self-determined aesthetic within the mainstream. Grime, on the other hand, is constantly shoved back into the corner. Artists may find their way onto Radio 1xtra’s Fire in the Booth segment, but then their only mainstream exposure will be a part of Charlie Sloth’s “Rap Show”.

So is it any wonder the latest generation of rising, young, black artists in the UK are turning their backs on the route of commercialism, commodity and conforming? Our music industry has exploited their innovation and their art for generations.

Last year, Kanye asked Skepta to find some boys to join him onstage for his performance of “All Day”. Why is this the only way for grime artists to get on stage at the Brits? It stands as yet another symbol of the relegation of black British talent to the background. Only a few days ago Krept and Konan were on Channel 4 news being interviewed by Krishnan Guru-Murphy about the Brits lack of diversity. Referring to the recent hype between Yungen and Chip, Guru-Murphy asked, “does it have anything to do with gang culture?” in turn sacrificing himself to all the ignorance of the British population. This isn’t to deny grime’s often violent past – Simon Wheatley’s photographs capture the gang aspects of the early grime scene (and who can forget that picture of Skepta in the fish and chip shop?). Yet, grime is a mode to articulate these forms of oppression and often constructs productive interventions for those left most disillusioned and disenfranchised by our social system. Perhaps it is time for Guru-Murphy to ask us why we still find black bodies intimidating?

Which leads us to the recent hype between Chip and Yungen. Whilst Yungen getting nominated for the “Newcomer” MOBO is important recognition for the scene, like Chip said, he isn’t new: “Some of your best newcomers ain’t new / So if you gunna nominate Yungen, big up, but nominate Sneakbo too.” It’s less shade at Yungen, and more at the British music academy. Importantly, this beef is racking up visibility for both artists and seeing increasingly speedy production of some of 2016’s best beats. But, despite this seething talent, the big award shows remain empty of any representation of black British artists this year. Drake, the Weeknd, and Kendrick Lamar all got Brit nominations for “Best International Male Artist”, but it’s like black voices, beats and tunes don’t exist in the UK. And what this points to is the sad state of the British music academy that can only recognise white, or white-washed, music. It barely recognises independent labels. I wonder if it realises that Boy Better Know exists, or that it has just signed one of America’s biggest hip-hop stars. One nominated for a Brit, in fact, who left the ceremony early to go hang out at the Section Boyz show…