lotm cover

Behind The Scenes: Lord Of The Mics VI

We headed down to the Red Bull Studios for the Lord Of The Mics VI premiere to meet the gang and watch the final cut.

If you missed all the drama surrounding the headline clash between P Money and Big H five months ago, have a quick look at our review of the live event. In short, H didn’t come up with enough bars for the battle – and, as you see on the DVD, he decides he’s finished early and walks off stage demanding more money to stay on. After an endless hype campaign the DVD is finally out, so we visited the Red Bull Studios in London Bridge and spent an afternoon chatting to almost all the MCs involved, including P Money, Big H and the duo behind the scenes – Jammer and his business partner Ratty. After chasing everyone down for short interviews, Jammer treated us all to bags of popcorn (and of course the obligatory cans of Red Bull), and we all sat down to watch the DVD premiere. It was a strange day out.

Grime has been in a healthy place recently. Its instrumental foundations are as varied and creative as they ever have been and its veteran MCs are enjoying a new surge of interest alongside some new and fresh faces. There’s a sense of things returning to their routes; new artists are somehow absorbed in nostalgia from before their time and older acts have stopped chasing those hollow record deals and picked up the mic on radio again. If you’re not convinced, perhaps you missed some of the almighty cyphers that happened this year: Logan Sama’s last show on Kiss, Dizzee Rascal’s grimey return on Mistajam’s 1xtra show (maybe skip the ‘Rari Workout’ rendition at the start) and The Grime Show x Butterz: Rinse 20 special, to name just a few.

One of the best sets of the year was the Lord of the Mics Boiler Room takeover (see above), celebrating the 6th DVD and the 10th year anniversary of the Grime institution. Its very first clash between Wiley and Kano is one of the genre’s most famous and important moments. The story gets repeated to me on the day – Jammer was working in his studio with new kid on the block Kano who was surrounded by hype from his Boys Love Girls anthem and his involvement with N.A.S.T.Y. Crew. Wiley was the already seasoned veteran, the man responsible for steering things from UK Garage into Grime. Kano was in the studio when Jammer offered the idea of a clash and Wiley had just landed back in London after flying back from the States. These were the days when you couldn’t reject a challenge, and so Wiley drove over to Jammer’s and the clash happened there and then. Fast forward ten years and both Wiley and Kano are iconic figures. The stairs they clash on (that descend into the basement of Jammer’s Mum’s house) has become the most famous backdrop in Grime.

jammer basement

At this time clashing was commonplace, both on radio sets and at raves. It’s a borrowed style from sound clash culture, a musical tradition that can be traced back as far as the 50s in Jamaica. Dancehall clashes (like this classic Ninjaman vs Shabba Ranks showdown) were the original template for Grime MCs. Prior to LOTM, however, filming Grime clashes was unheard of. I asked Jammer whether they were inspired by US Hip-Hop battles, as clashes like Busy Bee vs Kool Moe D‘s 1981 showdown had led to a rich battle tradition in the US.  At first he says with confidence that it’s entirely a Jamaican thing, but when I push a little further he admits being influenced by the Smack DVD series. “I’ll be honest yeah it did – Smack’s format, but I wouldn’t say I sat down and watched it thinking we would do the same. What I did notice was that we didn’t have anywhere that you could see our people… It was faceless.”

Prior to the Grime DVD craze – Practice Hours, Risky Roadz, Lord of the Decks, Conflict – Grime was indeed a faceless genre. All the music resided on radio or on record, apart from maybe a glimpse at a rave you wouldn’t know what most of the MCs you listened to looked like. Ratty explains the inspiration behind getting the camera out: “People want to see faces. There was no YouTube at the time, there was no channel AKA or anything similar. We said to ourselves, how are we going to get people’s faces seen? We looked at the American DVDs like Smack and thought to ourselves, we need a UK version of that. We just put two and two together and thought, you know what? People buy into personalities too. You like their music, but you might like them even more for what they’re wearing, their character etc.”

lotm 1 cover

If Grime was faceless in London, it was even more-so in other parts of the country. There were far less records available, little pirate radio presence and just a few tape recordings of sets in circulation. Dorris, who clashed Hazman on the day, described his early experience of LOTM in Manchester: “I’d heard Dizzee and Wiley and a few Sidewinders at the time. At a record shop called Eastern Bloc where they used to sell all the London Grime, I saw the DVD and thought I better buy this! It was only then that I’d seen it all with my eyes, not just on radio. This was ten years ago – I don’t think we knew any MCs really, LOTM branched it out. That was the first time we saw their faces and felt more involved.”

Local, from Cardiff, describes a similar experience buying the first DVD: “I was already following grime, I had the Lord of the Decks DVD from a record shop in Cardiff and that got me into it – actually seeing what it was all about. When I bought the first LOTM I only knew Wiley and Kano, I didn’t know who all these other people like Footsie and Scratchy were – they’re household names now!”

LOTM created a new market where there wasn’t one already, a DIY attitude that has influenced a range of platforms from SBTV to Boiler Room. There have been a series of similar rap battle platforms for UK MCs since LOTM’s inception, like Words are Weapons and Don’t Flop, but LOTM has the classic moments that set it apart – Skepta vs Devilman’s originalMarger swinging for Lay-Z and Sox’s famous choke against Kozzie.

live shot

For the very first time, in the new DVD, 3 out of the 6 clashes were filmed in front of a live audience. The MCs involved had mixed opinions on the format, some felt more in their element, others not so. P Money was one of the former: “Obviously doing it in the dungeon is sick – it’s tradition. But for me live is so much better. Look at Eskimo Dance – the reason why it’s such a big event is because it’s almost like live clashes. Everyone goes in with their best bars going after each other. Even though it’s a friendly environment, live is the best way.” East London’s Opium (pictured below, left) considered the live setting a more considerable curveball for his clash against Dialect: “For me I was worried, because I thought it was going to be the generic setting of Jammer’s basement. Jammer only told me two weeks after I’d signed. I’d been prepping for the dungeon, so I reassessed pretty much all of it.”

For some of the MCs, like Opium, this was their first clash. He wasn’t the only one – Local and AK told me they’d never done a live clash like LOTM, perhaps the odd send-for-send, but nothing on this scale. Lots of MCs are using the clash platform as a promotional tool these days – the larger YouTube channels can easily get thousands of views. Leeds’ Dialect tells me that despite MCing for years, since starting to battle he’s felt his profile grow considerably. In contrast to Big H and P Money’s many months to prepare for the clash, the other guys had startlingly little time to write bars. Dialect reckons he had about 2-3 weeks to prepare for the clash, and Dorris recalls a similar story, telling me he had 13 days or so: “I went home, closed the curtains, dimmed the lights and that was me for a week…”

opium vs dialect

How was it possible then that every single person came up with enough bars apart from Big H, who’d had so long to write? After all the gossip since the clash, I was pretty amazed when he turned up to the press day. I asked him if it was true that he’d never watched the DVD, something I struggled to believe. He hadn’t: “I don’t have time to watch every DVD under the sun, but I knew what was going on. You haven’t got to understand everything, you haven’t got to know everything to know what’s going on. I ain’t got to watch a whole DVD to know how to clash someone so I went down and did my thing”. He even asked me if I’d ever watched it…

I was curious what the incentive was (apart from the money) for H and P to take part – they’ve both been high profile figures in Grime for years. I always fancied P, but many wrote H off too early. His flow is to the point, well enunciated and he has an army of rave bars. Street Crime UK is, in my opinion, one of the best Grime mixtapes ever. I asked him whether he’d been annoyed at some of the articles that suggested he was only on the DVD due to his cameo on ‘German Whip’: “I’ve heard some people say I’m only here because I was on ‘German Whip’ or something like that. That’s just ridiculous. ‘German Whip’ only got where it was because I was on it, people have to bear that in mind.”

They both tell me they did it for the ‘benefit’ of the scene, P tells me: “I’m near the top, but there’s other people who are who ain’t done it. I wanted to prove to people that if you think you’re sick then just do it, it’s entertainment.” When I ask him if he thought the clash was successful, he tells me that H’s lack of sportsmanship spoiled the experience: “He thinks he’s bigger than everyone else who’s done it, he tried to edit the rules, I didn’t like that. The rules are explained in advance, months before and even the night before and he still came on the day and tried to edit stuff. I’m not a fan of that, I don’t respect that.”

If he doesn’t respect H, I wonder what he thinks of Ghetts for bailing on their potential LOTM 3 clash. “Ghetts went on radio and said he’d do it for 10k. Jammer offered him that, but last minute he said no… Obviously at that point I was like what? But he said it was ‘cos he wanted to be different, he didn’t want to go down that battle route anymore. And he has changed his image since, so I respect him for that.”

Where there was substance in the Ghetts beef, the Big H feud seemed a little more out of the blue. P reckons he had little choice in the end: “It was a tweet – he said he’ll clash anyone, but that no one wants to clash him. So he was, in his own right, saying that no one wants to clash him. Someone tweeted him my name and obviously he can’t back down, he can hardly say ‘anyone except him’, so he kinda got backed into a corner and had to say he would. I saw this and tweeted Jammer straight away saying ‘let’s go’. I don’t think he expected that.”

In the ten years since LOTM’s inception, the industry has changed massively – most of the record shops have gone, everything is available online and it’s hard to sell physical DVDs. Artists chuck their stuff out on SBTV and similar channels and clash series host their footage online for free viewing. I was curious as to where Jammer and Ratty stood in terms of keeping things profitable (aside from charging extortionate amounts for the event) – the days of flogging thousands of DVDs are clearly long gone. They allow many of the old clashes to stay online, even though they are still for sale – Jammer even referenced a bunch of them on a recent Dummy article. “People that love LOTM and want the DVD will buy the boxset, so it doesn’t really bother me that much. The new stuff never gets up.” It’s obvious that they still haven’t quite decided where they stand on the subject, but they are aware that they need to keep up-to-date, Ratty explains: “With LOTM 3 we did something that nobody has ever done before, which was made it available on iTunes to download. It’s accessible, if people say ‘I don’t want hard copies or I cant play DVDs’ then they’ve got no excuse – they can buy it off iTunes.”

Coincidence or not, since LOTM returned in 2011 things in Grime have been getting more and more exciting. In the gap between vol. 2 and 3 (5 years between 2006-11), things were at their dullest. Ratty tells me with pride that their return triggered a lot of things: “When we brought it back, Eskimo Dance returned literally 6 months to a year after that. Wiley said ‘you man have brought the energy back, this is sick that Grime is back – the energy of what we’ve been missing is back.’ He decided, based on that, to bring back Eskimo Dance.”

Lord of the Mics VI is out now. You can order the DVD via the official store, or buy the digital version via iTunes.

Words: Jonathan Kambskarð-Bennett