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Grime-tinted Glasses: Thoughts On The Genre’s Recent Sonic Boom

When Dan Hancox referred to Ruff Sqwad’s ‘Functions On The Low’ as “quite simply one of the greatest tracks in the history of British electronic music” in his interview with Rapid from the grime crew, reflecting on the ‘White Label Classics’ release, in the Guardian last December, part of me felt stupidly, and probably irrationally, proud. I, as have many others, have watched the genre work it’s magic from the ground up, often exciting and frustrating in equal measure before either self-combusting or losing it’s biggest and best to major record labels. Over a period of time, these were blows that hit grime, as a scene, particularly hard and pre-2009/10, signs of recovery on any meaningful scale were close to non-existent. Of course, there were exceptions, most notably MCs like P-Money and Dot Rotten, both of whom were starting to show the kind of potential that have made them the stars they are today, but grime for the most part was lost and divided. When you put things in that context, reading Hancox’s words three years on now seems all the more extraordinary and strangely emotional, even if the track he was describing was made nearly a decade ago.

2013 has of course bore witness to grime’s greatest sonic resurgence to date, with the genre’s instrumental arm stepping out of the wilderness for the first time and defining a new-found appreciation of the sound that seems to transcend age, location and even background. Grime was, for a long time, purely a London thing but although the culture is still deeply-rooted in the nation’s capital, the sound has become a nationwide and more recently, worldwide phenomenon. In fact, some of the best instrumental cuts of the year so far have been released by producers operating outside London’s confines, but all this proves is just how influential grime really is. It’s as if the rest of the world had been waiting for the scene to let it’s guard down; grime can be made and enjoyed by anybody now.

Much of this change in attitude can be in part attributed to Butterz, a grime label with an outlook that has redefined expectations of grime music everywhere and put the sound back on the nation’s dancefloors. They were the first to truly harness the art of experimentation with open arms too; you only have to look at Royal T‘s garage-infused club bangers or Swindle‘s ‘Do The Jazz’ (although released on Deep Medi, it’s a Butterz staple) to understand that Butterz were the first to pave the way for the producers now running havoc in 2013.

Of those producers, names like Bloom, Wen, Visionist and more recently Breen – amongst a slew of others it has to be said – are stand-outs and although I’ve grouped them together here, each seems to explore a part of grime’s traditional make-up in a new and innovative way. Wen, championed to the hilt by Dusk & Blackdown over the last year, makes dark, murky and rugged grime in and around the 130bpm mark whilst Bloom, incidentally from Belfast, opts for some of the most incredible sounding stuff I’ve ever heard – deconstructed layers of grimey rudeness pieced back together again to bang like a fucking freight train. Visionist, who recently nodded to Dot Rotten as a major influence, works the same raw emotion into his productions that Young Dot used to put into his own, whilst Breen’s sound, although eski-leaning, is genuinely haunting in it’s coldness. Who’d have thought grime could sound this good again?

At a time of such innovation, it seemed a good idea to take a look at two releases from opposite ends of the grime spectrum, to demonstrate just how fluid and exciting the genre really has become. I opted for Merky Ace‘s debut LP ‘All Or Nothing’, forthcoming on No Hats No Hoods, and Mr Mitch‘s debut 12” release, ‘On The Blob’, for Shiftee’s Hot Mom USA imprint. First up, Merky…

The fact I’ve barely touched on MCs goes to show just how dominant instrumental grime has become over the last few years; although MCs are still vital to the genre, the current crop seem to lack the prestige of scene legends gone by. That said, expectation levels today are wholly unfair. The likes of Flirta D, D Double E and Wiley learnt their respective crafts at a time when grime was technically just an overspill from a dwindling UK garage scene, when sets were still recorded on tape and when the internet still operated on dial-up connections – there was no pressure or expectation because nothing tangible existed, it was all for the love of it. Now, with music so readily available to consume, in order to stand out, you have to be good. Very good. It’s a pressure not many MCs have taken in their stride but, as always, there are exceptions.

Merky Ace, a prominent member of Lewisham’s Family Tree grime collective, consisting of fellow MCs TKO, Shifman and M.I.K alongside in-house producers Faze Miyake and Splurt Diablo, is most definitely one of them. His debut LP, ‘All Or Nothing’, follows a series of mixtapes that have checked his progress over the last few years, amidst collaborative work with the likes of Royal-T. Out on No Hats No Hoods, the label co-ordinated so conscientiously by DJ Magic, it’s the album I’ve been waiting for since P Money’s ‘Money Over Everyone’.

Gritty, raw and unmistakably aggressive, it packs all the right punches and manages to bridge the gap between instrumental and vocal excellence – this is an LP, for once, that’s full of both. “An LP is the most solid form of work really”, he tells me perched on a stool in a busy Starbucks, “There’s nothing like being able to go through songs at ease and listen to a body of work.” Whilst a lot of focus has been on MCs putting out singles as quickly and coherently as possible, Merky has avoided doing so, instead saving his best work for bigger projects that he hopes will define him as an artist. Lets not forget it helps finding a label who are willing to back you to do so too: “There’s a lot of trust there because he (Magic) knows what he’s doing and he knows that when I’m looking to do something, there’s no reason it should be overlooked. He knows the direction I want to head in.”

A number of tracks on the album are already familiar, with club bangers like ‘Eff Tizzy’ earning regular slots in Faze Miyake’s sets but there’s a lot more to ‘All Or Nothing’ than I’d initially expected. Yeah it’s greazy, yeah it’s angry and in parts a little brash, but this is Merky laid bare, this is an MC telling anybody who’ll listen just how good he is. As I touched upon earlier though, it’s the harmony between Merky’s vocals and the beat that really makes the whole thing sing. Guest production credits from serial hit-makers Teddy, Rudekid and Z-Dot sit well alongside the 808 bangs of Faze and Splurt and as Merky himself says, getting that balance is vital; “When the right vocals are there, that energy can’t be beat. As much as a beat can do damage by itself, the vocal part is always gonna hold it’s value.” For all instrumental grime’s brilliance, Merky Ace is the perfect reminder of the value of a great MC.

In contrast, Mr Mitch, one of contemporary grime’s most exploratory creative minds, is the perfect example of just how far the instrumental boundaries are currently being pushed. With a release on Butterz to his name, he has certainly not been afraid to express himself over the last 12 months in particular, with his sound meandering in and out of the 140bpm mark at will – he’s even made a track punctuated by the sounds of meowing cats. Whatever it is that makes him tick though, the music he makes is generally glorious, from the hip-hop leaning ‘Super Freak’ right the way through to debut 12” banger ‘On The Blob’, something of an ode to 4×4.

“To me, grime has the potential to be such a broad genre because it takes influences from so many other genres already”, he explains. “With ‘On The Blob’, I ended up taking elements from house but using them in a grimey context – I wanted to use a pulse kind of bass sound in a way I’ve not heard it used before.” To me, that’s what Mitch and moreover, the instrumental stuff of 2013 is all about. There is a willingness to try new things, to do things that haven’t been done before and to make grime sound as mad as possible. ‘On The Blob’ certainly manages that too, marrying fast-paced booming kicks with air-raid klaxons and a shit load of dancefloor swagger. On the flip, ‘Milo’ is far more in keeping with his more recent ambient, chilled out cuts, a side to his music that he explored fully in his free ‘Searching’ compilation series. What is clear though is that whilst the two tracks are certainly not conventional, they are both unequivocally grime. “I like the way the music is evolving..” he says, “..there are so many producers creating new ways of exploring their interpretations of grime and that’s what I love about it. It’s not one thing, it doesn’t need to have a certain drum pattern or use specific sounds, it doesn’t even need to be a certain tempo really.”

So there we have it, two releases that serve as the perfect welcome to grime in 2013. Awash with innovation but still true to it’s roots and now open to all, you’d be hard pushed to find a more exciting genre to get to know. And you just know it’s only going to get better too.

Tomas Fraser