It's deeper than Skepta and Boy Better Know. While both, the artist and the label, along with high-profile artists such as Drake, have brought a great deal of overseas attention for grime, the genre has been bubbling for over a decade. As everyone should know by now, there's much more to the UK-birthed craft than the handful of individuals constantly making the rounds on blog headlines. Just like the modern U.S. rap scene thrives far beyond A$AP Rocky, Tyler, the Creator, Kanye West and Young Thug, grime plays host to a vibrant, ever-evolving underground that's nearing creative heights never before reached.
To gain a better grasp of the who, what, where and why, we reached out to four of the genre's most talented and knowledgeable individuals and producers. The ensemble we arranged consists of Letta, Son Raw, Mr. Mitch and Slackk, four people who come from different backgrounds and locales but carry the same understanding of the genre. All four are more than qualified to be considered "gatekeepers," and collectively this group's experiences range from niche radio shows to tastemaker blogs to acclaimed albums.
Letta is a California-based producer responsible for a stellar, boundary-breaking full-length project entitled Testimony. His transformation from skid row junkie to globetrotting underground champion is rival's most rappers' rag-to-riches tales. Son Raw is a DJ, curator, tastemaker and writer whose pen game is just as potent as his mixing. He hosts a UK grime program on East Village Radio, DJs and contributes to a few different publications. In recent years, he's proven himself to be one of the genre's living, breathing and walking encyclopedias. Mr. Mitch and Slackk are two of instrumental grime's best producers, and have been featured by many of today's most respected, relevant outlets. They're also responsible for some of their craft's most striking, powerful and forward-thinking releases. Together, they run Boxed, an institution in the grime community and one of their genre's strongest, most progressive movements.
From Drake to the artists you need to be paying attention to right this moment, all four delivered thorough, thought-out answers to everything. You can check out our discussion on grime below.
With Grime continuing to rise in popularity outside of the US, what are some of the artistic benefits of the genre receiving recognition in the States? Can you see the UK Grime sounds meshing and blending well with US rap styles like Atlanta's current movement?
Letta: I think that it can go either way. Just like any other type of music, it can either get translated real well over here or just get all fucked up. I see it in the UK too -- I feel like a lot of people over there are spinning more trap shit. And, that's cool, but as long as it's a slow transition -- they shouldn't just "play to the U.S. market." What they do over there is important and needs to be heard. There's a million ways to blend it and I think it's already happening -- I'm interested in seeing how it all pans out. The east coast is really getting it, and L.A. is getting it now.
I think it is a really positive thing and people are being more accepting of experimental and fringe sh*t. But, you'll also have people wanting to just "hop on the next sh*t," like Drake. He's all cliqued up with BBK now and trying to bring Top Boy back for season three -- all of a sudden m*therf*ckers are "UK Number One Brand." I guess he's over Houston now (laughs), I guess he took everything from down there. It's all cool, though. With my contemporaries and I, I still think it's kind of separate from what Skepta and them are doing. You can go to an L.A. club and you'll hear "That's Not Me" or "Shutdown" and that's the only grime song you'll ever hear play. There's a difference between those things, but I think it's all a positive thing if it's put in the hands of people who really care and not just want to make money off it. For the things my friends and I are doing, it's nothing but positive. Me, the U.S. homies, and all those friends overseas are all really strong and keep in touch and we're going to grow. It's all going to happen in a positive way.
Son Raw: From an UK perspective, it potentially opens up a new market for artists, both in terms of the genre’s “A-list” who could find fans among mainstream hip-hop heads, and for newcomers who might attract the interest of American underground music fans. You also can’t discount the psychological aspect: some (but not all!) of grime’s original artists have wanted to break the U.S. for a long time, like it or not, it legitimizes the sound.
From an American perspective, I think grime brings a much needed dose of new musical ideas to the table, in terms of flows and production. Atlanta’s trap style has been evolving among the same template for over a decade now, which is an eternity in rap, so I’m hoping some of grime’s more adventurous ideas begin to influence the discourse. There’s certainly compatibility given the overlap in tempo at 140BPM.
Mr. Mitch: Yeah that's a possibility, to be honest I think there's so many people coming at grime now with their own points of reference and different external influences that the genre has so many possibilities in terms of sound. There's a certain type of grime that is very London/UK centric and probably only makes sense to people who understand the culture but as people continue to contribute to the genre it will continue to broaden.
Slackk: I think it's of great benefit if people end up out there and spreading what's going on but the last thing it needs is some kind of cross-pollination or dilution. We've gone through that in the past and no-one needs a false U.S. influence on the sound, it detracts from what's really going on and the strong merit of grime is that it's a very UK specific sound, in my opinion. I was in New York the other day and they were getting on with the real stuff, no one wants anything half-hearted here.
Is grime as a whole currently at a high point when it comes to its creativity and sound?
Letta: I think this is a really exciting time, everybody is really pushing the boundaries. People are just really pushing the creativity right now -- I have a million people that just inspire me, I hear great tracks all the time. It's just a really exciting time right now. Definitely in the last few years, things have really picked up and it's a high for sure.
Son Raw: Grime will never be as raw and uncut as it was during its genesis, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: there’s no sense pining for the past through rose tinted glasses. Instead, I prefer to point towards grime’s huge untapped potential: grime’s first era produced comparatively few classic albums, so there’s a ton of opportunities for new emcees and producers to team up and create full-length releases that will stand the test of time.
Mr. Mitch: I'm not sure, for grime to have even been created there would have been a great amount of creativity and experimentation and there were definitely a lot of producers experimenting with the sound early on. It feels like now producers are just continuing to push the boundaries.
Slackk: Personally, I think we're in a great spot sonically. There are loads of interesting producers doing pretty weird things and throwing disparate elements about. All the DJs are open minded, a lot of the MCs seem to be embracing it too. It feels like the most open it's been in some time, whether that means it's the high point? Dunno. It's certainly more creative than it's been in a while and it feels a lot more free, to me. I don't think it'll ever have the shock of the new again, like it did originally, but it's a very distinctive time at the moment.
Who are some artists you believe are at the forefront of Grime in terms of talent and future potential?
Letta: That's a long list, but Gobstopper as a whole, Mr. Mitch, Igloo, Strictface, everyone on Coyote is just murdering it. So many are just inspiring, there's just a lot of sh*t happening. All these labels in the UK -- Gobstopper, Local Action, Coyote, Glacial Sound -- everyone is just killing it. I'm just trying to keep up with my friends, they're all just f*cking dope.
As far as future potential, there's a lot of people I've been paying attention to and who I hope get more chances to release some stuff, first few that come to mind would be Patrick Brian, Grizzle Fallow, Glot, Spnks -- I've heard some Daffy tunes, one with Gundam that was very dope. I could really go on and on there's so many people killing it right now representing a really broad range of styles and sound. As far as what to listen to if you're just getting into the instrumental grime sh*t I think that's easy, go listen to everything on Coyote Records, Gobstobber, Glacial Sounds, Different Circles, Oil Gang, and then tune in to the Boxed show every Sunday on Rinse and you will be good.
Son Raw: I’m more excited about the acts currently tearing up London’s underground scene on radio stations like Radar Radio, Mode FM and Rinse FM than I am about names that have attracted attention in the U.S. so far. Grime’s at its most exciting when it ignores hip-hop’s conventions. With that in mind, I’m most excited about Novelist whose self-produced debut album this year will hopefully become a rallying point for this new generation. RocksFOE is another producer/emcee with an extremely unique style: he combines atypical, almost gothic pop-culture influences into grime’s matrix and his self produced debut EP is completely fascinating. Beyond that, check out AJ Tracey, Big Zuu, Mic Ty, YGG, Elf Kid, Nico Lindsay and Capo Lee. And that’s just a sampling: the scene goes deep.
Mr. Mitch: It's a hard question because it depends on what strand of the genre you're looking at. There's the instrumental grime stuff which has a lot more experimentation within it and has a lot of good producers pushing the sounds in new directions. Some of them may not even consider themselves grime producers but their sound is heavily influenced by it at least. Guys like Mumdance, Murlo, Iglew & Loom all push the sound in different directions.
On the MC front some of the artists that are doing it right now for me: Novelist, Maxsta, YGG, AJ Tracey and more.
Slackk: MC wise, If Rocks FOE, YGG, AJ Tracey and Big Zuu aren't massive next year I'll be surprised. People like Jammz too, obviously, but he's already on the come up. Scouse Trappin Tremz as a wild card. Producers, there's loads- Sirpixalot, Kid D, Trends, Kave Jonson, Boylan, Tarquin- they should be popping up a lot more next year. I could list producers forever really.
Who are artists that you feel best define grime's modern sound and serve as prime examples of where the genre is at this very moment?
Letta: I can go on and on and namedrop, but I don't really like to do that. From Rabit to Mumdance to Logos to the other side of Mr. Mitch and those people, there's an obvious core of people just killing things. The spectrum is just gigantic, it's hard to pin down and because of so many different sounds, it's hard to just point to one person who represents this right now. We all do in a million different ways.
Son Raw: The producers orbiting the Boxed club night are definitely the ones leading the conversation in terms of grime’s sound, at least on an underground, forward-thinking level. At this point, it’s not unfair to compare Boxed’s influence to the hardcore continuum’s great underground labels/parties like Metalheadz and DMZ. Again, there’s too many names for a full list, but I’d suggest checking for Slackk, Mr. Mitch, Mumdance, Logos, JT the Goon, Spooky, Murlo, Dullah Beatz and Trends to start.
In terms of emcees, it’s pretty much the list I mentioned above: Novelist, Elf Kid, RocksFOE, AJ Tracey, YGG, Mic Ty, Big Zuu, Capo Lee and Nico Lindsay, with more names popping up every day as the scene gains momentum.
Mr. Mitch: The artists that I mentioned previously plus more of my contemporaries -- Slackk, Logos, JT The Goon, Letta, Dullah Beats, Spooky, Trends. So many producers with so many different sounds.
Thoughts on high-profile artists and rappers like Drake throwing their support behind BBK and Skepta and Danny Brown being a huge fan of Grime:
Letta: It's whatever, it's cool. I just don't like Drake. Danny Brown is cool as f*ck, that's the homie. But, with all this rapping over grime songs, what does that really mean? Are you really supporting or is it just, "this is the new hot sh*t, I'm going to rap on it." But, that's cool: get your money, do your thing. I don't dwell on it a lot, I don't really think it effects me. Word up if Skepta or someone wants to get on my beats, I just don't really see that. I don't really think it effects me all that much, they can all do whatever they want to do.
Son Raw: Drake is an opportunist: he’s pulled this move before with hip-hop acts like Migos, Makonnen, etc. He finds a cool act on the verge of breaking big and attaches himself to them to ride their wave. Whether BBK manages to leverage this to their advantage, is something only time will tell. I suspect Skepta will benefit in his quest to become a player in the U.S. rap scene, whereas JME will continue to do exactly as he’s always done in the UK independent market.
Mr. Mitch: It definitely helps to bring some attention and excitement to the genre from other territories and I definitely feel like there's more money being brought into the genre. Obviously there's always the danger of a genre losing part of itself as it grows, but as long as people continue to experiment I think it will be fine.
Slackk: It seems like Drake and Skepta and that are cool, so good for them. I'm weary of Drake because he has a massive history of jumping on trends to keep his own hype popping and then disappearing once he's got everything out of them -- if you can't see that history then you need to clock your cultural awareness -- but these sort of things can be mutually beneficial even if they're not sincere. It doesn't really effect the underground elements that make things tick though, it's just raised the profile of BBK even more and that's great, they deserve it. I think what will happen from this is that we'll likely see a few people getting signed off the back of affiliations and statuses elevated, but ultimately it's the lower less visible levels that make things tick and they're far more important than Drake knowing who made Ghetto Kyote.
Which labels and collectives associated with Grime do you see as the most forward-thinking and most likely to have a lasting impact on the genre's future?
Letta: Gobstopper, Coyote for sure, Glacial is doing amazing sh*t, Local Action, Oil Gang, the homie Grandmixxer just launched a label and whatever comes out on that is going to be fire. There's a lot of people really, those are just the ones I instantly think of. There's a lot -- it's going to be a big year.
Son Raw: Grime’s in a very healthy space right now, label wise, with several quality independent imprints pushing the sound. The Butterz label has been dropping quality releases for half a decade now and have expanded into promoting live shows in the UK. They’re definitely forerunners. The Boxed club night just launched a group label that’s already become a key imprint for instrumental releases, and each member of the collective also runs their own individual label at the forefront of the genre: Oil Gang specializes in highly melodic bangers and Gobstopper focuses on more abstract material, and they’ve both had banner years.
Further afield, Bristol label Bandulu has been incredibly successful as a vinyl-only imprint, and experimental labels like Local Action and Crazylegs are pushing grime’s boundaries even further.
Mr. Mitch: Not to blow our own trumpet but I think Boxed as a night and a hub for producers has had a significant influences on the progression of the grime instrumental. It's a place that allowed all different strands of the sound to live under one roof and given those producers making it a forum to be heard. Label-wise, I think Gobstopper Records, Local Action, Different Circles, Butterz & Oil Gang all contribute to pushing the sound in different directions.
Slackk: Well first of all, Boxed, my crew, have just started a label and that's obviously the fire thing. We've got loads of releases already lined up so that will be boss. Of the newer labels I respect Mean Streets and Ghost House a lot. Oil Gang has obviously been banging it forever, so has Gobstopper and they're both boss. I would say that the main thing that's happening is that most people are putting out music themselves though. If you hear a producer you rate the chances are they've got four or five things on a Bandcamp or maybe a little self-release vinyl or something. Grime has always been a DIY culture in terms of releases -- there are very few labels, more just crews putting out their things. Collective-sise, I like what Grandmixxer and SLSA are doing a lot, Vision Crew are good, the Coyote Records lot are doing some good things, and obviously Bandulu from Bristol are top of the game (apart from Boxed!). Special mention to Chow Down from Manchester too.
Will grime ever legitimately "cross over" in the States and firmly entrench itself in the U.S. market and culture in a way similar to that of hip-hop?
Letta: I have no idea and I don't even know if I would want that. Myself and everybody I'm f*cking with aren't doing it for the money, and to me that [crossing over] just means we'll all get burnt out. Will it happen? I don't know, we'll just have to wait and see. I don't really give a fuck about commercial presence to be honest; I'm just trying to make dope shit with integrity. So, if it crosses over, cool. If it doesn't, I don't really cae: I'll still be here smoking my weed and making weird beats.
Son Raw: Emceeing culture is fundamentally local. This is true in England, Jamaica and around the U.S. With this in mind, it’s foolish to expect some sort of “British invasion” where grime somehow plants its flag in U.S. soil – that’s fundamentally misunderstanding how urban music works. However, with the advent of the internet, I think it’s more likely than ever that some of grime’s musical ideas will find their way into American hip-hop – and that’s a great development. Grime developed when London producers and emcees brought in American hip hop and Jamaican dancehall influence to London’s UK Garage scene, and I think it’s exciting that those ideas could bounce back across the Atlantic and create new sounds. This will also make it easier for breakthrough grime artists to cross over and tour America, on a more individual level.
Mr. Mitch: I think the grime that does cross over won't necessarily be the same grime that has thrived in the UK. It may change to adapt to its surroundings. But who knows I could be wrong. Americans seem like they may be ready to embrace UK culture in the same way that we have embraced US culture through hip-hop for years.
Slackk: No, and I hope it doesn't. I've always said that the more important thing is to have an infrastructure that allows it to be self-sufficient. I don't view grime as a sub-genre of rap or whatever thing it would become if it crossed over; I think it's a niche British music that exists because of the unique and odd heritage of electronic music and soundsystem culture in England. I think you've got a few MCs with the right momentum to potentially blow a little and make some progress over there as individuals, but as a whole I think we're too specific to be anything more than a niche concern to people who are interested in divergent music. And that's what grime should be aiming to be. What good ever came of anything crossing over? Everything gets f*cked up then.