Thursday, February 19, 2004
Feb Hitlist
Class A - In Da Midlands (!!!!!)
Kiley Dean - Keep It Movin'
Carsten Jost - Uccellini
Sizzla - That's OK
Captain Comatose - Price Gun Baby
Britney Spears - Toxic
Air - Run
Hillary Duff - Come Clean
Vybz Kartel - Hall Of Fame
Tocotronic - Hi Freaks (Superpitcher Mix)
John Spring - Do You Like That?

Monday, February 16, 2004
A Mix for Nicole W

Junior Boys - More Than Real
Disco Inferno - The Long Dance
Bubba Sparxxx - Nowhere
Alexander Kowalski - Lock Me Up
Alphawezen - Gai Soleil
Laika - Bad Times
Wu-Tang Clan - Babies
Wayne Wonder - Just Another Day
Amerie - Float
Saint Etienne - Sadie's Anniversary
Tiny Trendies - The Sky Is Not Crying
Tocotronic - Hi Freaks (Superpitcher Mix)
Michael Nyman - The Morrow (Theme from Gattaca)

Thursday, February 12, 2004
Okay, so here is my big grime round-up, most of it over a month old. Since then I've heard a lot of new stuff, but this is strictly for my '03 peeps, and anyway I had to stop somewhere. Enjoy.

2003: What Grime Did
What gives me the right, eh? Nothing of course, and I accept that geographical incompatibility undermines any attempt I might make to truly summarise grime as a musical culture for you before I begin. This was the same difficulty I had with 2-step as well (not to mention with jungle, US hip hop, dancehall – hey, pretty much all the music I like!), but the combination of grime’s beefed up narratology and the willingness of many critics and listeners to entirely gloss over the specificity of grime within the broader ebb and flow of hip hop-styled musics makes grime seem like a special case, for now at least.

How do I experience grime? In my headphones through cobbled together mix-cds from sympathetic fans; through the hectic melting pot of online radio stations; in brief grainy snatches of downloaded samples. But more important than any of these physical contexts are my ears, and what they listen for. Reared on 2-step and related sounds these past four or five years, and entirely divorced from any visceral knowledge of the figures and conditions behind this music, they listen to grime as if it were dance music. Not an MC bearing his soul with a nice backing track, but a patchwork of warring components, of which the MC is but one (albeit a crucial one). I mostly love MCs like I love sonic effects – for the very sound of their voices, the twists and turns of their flows, the unexpected thrills of their screwy rhyming patterns.

This is true with normal hip hop too, but with grime – as with dancehall – my primarily aural appreciation of the music’s central figures has greater primacy above and beyond lyrical content. I don’t think this is particularly incorrect; or rather, it is only as skewed as listening for the words first, which, judging from many articles on Dizzee, is exactly what many critics are doing. Most likely the best position is somewhere in between these two poles: the exciting thing about grime from a rapping perspective is how the MC is in a process of becoming, transforming before our eyes from a aural showman into a real voice, a fully fleshed character. MCs themselves seem both eager and reluctant to abandon this original role, on the one hand anxious to establish personalities for themselves, and on the other peppering their performance with extra-textual sonic triggers that work like diva vamps or samples – where would Nasty Crew’s D.E.E. be without those trademark dry retch noises?

I’m not sure if I actually want the MC to ever reach that end point where lyrical content assumes primacy: it is, rather, the instability and undecidability of the incomplete totalisation process that makes it so thrilling; the manner in which MCs seem to teeter between pure aural effect and discernible meaning. One of the more pernicious effects of Dizzee’s success may be the assumption by many that to be successful an MC must bare his soul. It’s not that I’d discourage MCs from doing so – it’s what makes Dizzee tracks like “Do It” and “Brand New Day” so marvellous – but I fear that the quest to “say something” will end up trampling the pure joy in delivery that you hear on tracks like “Seems 2 Be” or “Live-O” (a good analogy might be Jay-Z, whose insistence on being confessional frequently tips The Black Album over into whining, missing the effervescent bubbliness you can hear on his more textless work – “Crazy In Love”, “Beware of the Boys” much of S. Carter Collection)

Again, maybe the desired goal is between the two poles. I’m hoping that grime ends up at the kind of equilibrium dancehall has found, where the DJs’ dual roles of providing content and physically-felt entertainment seem to melt into each other seamlessly. Doubtless grime’s ghettoised, lower-working class origins will keep its visions darker – at least compared to dancehall’s current carnivalesque buoyancy – but the very specific physical effect of the grime MCs’ style has too much pleasure to impart to the body as well as the head for MCs to get too caught up in becoming Rakims. My favourite non-Dizzee MCs from last year – Sharkie Major, Kano, latterly J2K – are those whose flow most captivated me regardless of whether I understood what they were saying. Sharkie’s raps are like hail storms of intensity, words raining down in an endless torrent sustained by his endless reserves of self-belief, his enthusiasm so naively manic that it’s impossible not to get swept up in it, to remain impartial; it’s not his stories that inspire sympathy and support but the very sound of his persona leaking through every raggedly gasped breath.

The other side of the coin is grime’s sonic artillery, whose expansive development this year is difficult not to focus on at the expense of all other considerations. Again it’s my dance-trained ears coming to the fore, but there’s something so inevitably physical about grime that I cannot prevent myself from approaching it first and foremost as dance music. While to receive it as such is to obscure its full scope for enjoyment, the style more than holds its own if assessed by this criterion alone.

If grime’s basic properties (radically syncopated, almost arrhythmic jabbing beats; crude-sounding basslines making raids on the mid-range; cheap and shrill sounding synth and string patterns, not to mention the massively increased role of the MC) were already well-established by the end of 2002, 2003 witnessed a period of recolonisation. Alien dystopia minimalism was still ever-present – although, tellingly, I’ve yet to hear a track that takes the form further than “I Love You” – but it was balanced out by a concurrent embrace of anti-minimalist populism – the return of melody, arrangements, pop vocals.

Maybe this has only been made possible through the splintering of the scene – now that lighter producers have fled to the confines of urban house, there’s a vacuum within grime for producers to play around in. Just as the “journey to the light” of 4 Hero, Foul Play, Omni Trio et. al. in ‘93/’94 was only made possible or meaningful because of the break with happy hardcore, grime’s musical brief has been expanded, not limited, by current generational fracturing. (on a tangent: it will be interesting to see if “urban house” actually does come up with anything worthwhile. There are definitely some great tunes floating around – Drama’s “Keeper of the Keys” takes Todd Edwards cut-up vocals to a new level of ethereal beauty, creating a hushed multi-part choir of angels humming platitudes of love and devotion. But what’s that central vocal that emerges? “I love raving”!).

My favourite grime tracks have tended to cleave to this new softcore sound, and it’s these which form by far the greater bulk of my list of favourites for ‘03. You’ll have to look elsewhere for a more balanced and comprehensive summation (the following is so far from such a thing it’s not even funny), but for now, think of this as a run-down of the individual tunes and grooves that most grabbed me last year, its purpose more to get all my thoughts on this stuff down in one place than to act as any sort of guide for the grime aficionado wannabe. There may even be an advantage to my ‘distance’ from grime: with a Soulseek-less Mac in Australia, if I’ve been able to hear these tunes, you probably shouldn’t have too much difficulty wherever you are….
(thanks to Keith, Luke, Steve and Simon for some of the sonix, apologies to the latter for the shameless theft of end-of-year thought-layout!)

Wiley ft. Kano/ Dizzee/ Sharkie Major – Ice Rink
Wiley – Eskimo; Freeze; Ate All The Pies; Ground Zero
Wiley & Dizzee Rascal – Take Time
Danny Weed – Rat Race; Salt Beef
Danny Weed & Wiley – Shanghai Beef
Roll Deep – Roll Deep Regular; You Were Always (ft. Tinchy Strider); Unknown Track
J2K – This Is Me; They Will Not Like You ft. Wiley

You could make a good case for “Ice Rink” being the most radical tune of the ’03 (or ’02 I guess, but I’m slow off the mark) – combining post-“Grindin” minimalism on the one hand with the most simply alien groove ever, a ping-ponging computer lurch that bounces back and forth for eternity (as I think Sean G from ILX put it, like dying in Super Mario Bros over and over again). What becomes clear when you listen to a couple of versions of “Ice Rink” is how its mental simplicity forces you to focus on the what the DJ is doing: even the less gifted performances (I don’t have an issue with Tinchy Strider per se, but his adolescent croak here reminds me of kids I didn’t like at school) sound somehow charismatic. Dizzee and especially Kano sound excellent, the appealing idiosyncracy of their flows magnified and intensified. But my favourite version is Sharkie Major’s, whose boasts of lyrical prowess are almost heartwarming, like a kid realising he can do math. What is it about Sharkie that makes me think of a gifted but naïve pupil? Or, worse, a hobbit? He’s like Pippin or Merry in one of their infrequent displays of leadership – on the one hand he demands and deserves to be taken seriously, and on the other you feel like ruffling his hair.

Wiley had some other slices of pure weirdness up his sleeves, and while his batch of cold-focused tunes (“Igloo”, “Freeze”) tend to blend together with their squelchy synths and murky basslines, other productions displayed a surprising diversity. I never quite clicked with the moody misanthropy of “Ground Zero”, but the flip of “Ate All The Pies” is the most alien slice of computer noise since Beenie Man’s “Moses Cry”, trebly underwater Mario Bros sounds compressed into rave stabs of furious intensity. It’s hard to go past the old standard “Eskimo” though, where he perfected his use of Frankenstein-like mid-range basslines and cycling intensity to make what is, perhaps even more than “I Luv U”, the quintessential grime tune.

Best version of “Eskimo” simply has to be dancehall DJ Harry Toddler’s “Donkey Kick”, with its half-comical, half-menacing sighs (“Ohhhhh I just LOVE to dance!”) and nonsensical noises. “Donkey Kick” really chimes in with that vibe of “weird energy” that runs right through darkcore, jungle, 2-step, dancehall – simultaneously an upbeat party number and a slice of pure darkness, the song draws no distinction between enjoyment and anxiety, in a manner that reminds me of Acen’s “Close Your Eyes” – Harry doesn’t think he’s gonna overdose, but surely a dance called the donkey kick carries its own potential for physical harm?

Roll Deep’s second producer Danny Weed seems particularly committed to pursing this vibe of “weird energy”: signature tunes like “The Creeper” and “Salt Beef” aren’t dark so much as wrong-sounding. His medium-range basslines sound like the bleats of mutant animals, while his array of sample-sonics – polaroid flashes, cash register rings – seem to be chosen for their sickly, slurpy smudge effect rather than to create any particular mood. My favourite is “Rat Race”, with its squeals and explosions, its high-pitched synth-whistle melody that careens back and forth across the groove like (indeed) a race through an impossibly circuitous and confusing series of tunnels, filled with dead ends and false leads. Danny’s rhythms are also distinctly messy sounding and haphazadly programmed, like half-formed playthings he got bored with and released by mistake. “Thai Weed”, a collaboration with Wiley, is particularly misshapen, like a coterie of rudimentary robots attempting to choreograph a complicated Janet Jackson dance routine and losing all their limbs in the process. Wiley and Weed lay out all their signature sounds on the table, seemingly intent on constructing a track using only their samples; the result is a Frankenstein’s monster of a tune with one of the most bizarre and fascinating grooves you’ll hear.

In spite of these flirtations with the bizarre, however, Roll Deep are often most interesting when they veer towards pop. The Danny-produced “Roll Deep Regular” slows the viscous groove of “Salt Beef” to a panther crawl, all dark Oriental menace and suddenly stomping beats that sound like they’d leave meter-deep potholes in the ground. A lot of slowed-down grime sounds hardly distinguishable from regular hip hop, but Weed’s off-kilter grooves and arsenal of sonics render “Roll Deep Regular” a quite different beast. Like all Weed productions there’s something wrong-sounding about it, but at this reduced speed it’s not hysterically frenetic so much as insidiously unusual. In spite of this “Roll Deep Regular” works marvellously as a pop song, and one of the few released tracks from this year that makes Roll Deep sound like a cohesive business unit. Every MC sounds on point throughout, culminating in the not-really-anthemic call and response chorus (“If I eat food/eat food with my crew”? Surely this is not like the most exciting thing that happens in Roll Deep?). But my favourite moment has to be Dizzee’s “Dizzee might make a big boy look petite!” (this must be one of Dizzee’s most attractive features as an MC: his tendency to mash up typical thug ideology and terminology with the most unsuited – and often very prissy – words and phrases)

Even more pop-friendly, Wiley and Dizzee’s “Take Time” is built around a surprisingly sprightly little piano tinkle you could imagine R Kelly working wonders with. Combine this with some string skirmishes and charmingly folky synths and you have a tune which studiously avoids all of grime’s usual ingredients. That it is indeed grime is indisputable: the compulsive gymnastic flips of the programmed rhythm brook no argument, not to mention Wiley’s hyperspeed rapping (unusually good here: “I can break up a happy home all on my own!”). These more mainstream-sounding grooves tend to inspire the MC to more story-based raps, although it’s rarely clear-cut what story is at work here. As far as I can tell “Take Time” is mostly about a young pupil of Wiley’s who is too eager to get into guns and violence. Wiley’s trying to convince him to enjoy his youth but keeps undermining his argument by boasting of his own achievements. Dizzee just rants about women again.

Wiley’s best performance that I’ve heard is his appearance on J2K’s “They Will Not Like You”, partly because “Hello, my name’s Wiley and I’m wiley!” is, like, the best self-intro since Eminem’s “Hi kids, do you like violence?”), but my favourite Roll Deep grime-pop effort is J2K’s “This Is Me”, whose stuttering “Nigga What Nigga Who” spasm-beats and lovely Eastern flute loop are up there with “I Luv U”, “Boys Luv Girls” and Donaeo’s “Bounce” for sheer pop exuberance. J2K is pretty much the perfect grime MC in that he combines straightahead menace with a slight edge of Kano-style wit, such that you can never work out whether he’s joking or not: “I never listen to a thing unless it’s about me,” he claims straightfacedly. Most of all though it’s the expressiveness of his voice, which layers every line with cadence, twists it into bearing the hallmark of a new and distinct emotion or feel. Sharkie Major can get away with a monotone rush of words, but on the whole it’s the biggest sign of a below-par MC, or one who is elevating text too far above and beyond delivery. On “This Is Me”, even the most lackluster lines (and much of it reads like a textbook of grime cliches) sound exhilirating.

Nasty Crew – Take ‘Em Out; Hold It Down;
Nasty Crew & Terra Danja ft. Riko & Crazy Titch - Cock Back
Diamond Click – Don’t Ya Know
Armour – In The Business (Terra Danjah Remix)
Jammer ft. Hyper – Lyrical Combat
Jammer ft. Kano – Boys Luv Girls/Vice Versa
Kano - Focus
Jammer ft. D.E.E. – Birds in the Sky
Jammer ft. Sharkie Major – It Ain’t A Game
Jammer – Weed Man/Pick’n’Mix; Destruction; One & All
Bigga-Man ft. Ears - Player
Bigga-Man – Trump (Funny Song)
N.A.S.T.Y. mix-cd by Jammer (Deuce Magazine July 2003)

Keith was dead right when he suggested that Jammer sounds like he takes his cues from martial arts films as much as any strictly musical sources. The big Jammer/Nasty Crew shouty numbers – “Take ‘Em Out”, “Don’t Ya Know”, “Lyrical Combat” etc. – actually sound like fight sequences, with their assymetrical pummelling beats like a series of one-two punches to the gut, their dramatic string arrangements swirling around like those 180 degree pans you get in The Matrix. These are also great pop tunes: “Don’t Ya Know” is particularly harsh with its at times almost painful bassline and snarled threats, but everything about it is utterly hookworthy – particularly the perfectly judged casualness of the not-quite-in-unison chorus chant, doing away with any sense of military precision and replacing it with a relaxed confidence that’s much more compelling.

But this stuff isn’t all sturm & drang – “Boys Luv Girls” surpasses Donae’o’s “Bounce” and joins Dizzee’s “I Luv U” as one of grime’s pre-eminent pop songs, both for Kano’s marvellous performance and Jammer’s left-of-center factory-whir production. Kano’s might be my favourite vocal performance of anything from ’03, with almost every line containing something treasurable (“Okay, it’s a date then!” he sighs in frustration, then throws in, almost so you wouldn’t notice, a little embittered aside “I ain’t paying!”). What’s really notable about Kano as a rapper is how quickly he shifts between moods – not just bitter and frustrated but sly, sarcastic, arrogant, bemused – and how his wonderfully expressive voice registers each one perfectly. It gives his raps a relatively idiosyncratic feel: supplementing the standard MC approach of sustained assault with clever set-ups and pay-offs, like in “Take ‘Em Out” where he constructs a number of illusions about himself and then efficiently knocks them down with “the truth” (he’s only in it for the money), his entire tone transforming from deceptively gentle to smug, almost contemptuous.

Sharkie on the same record is all sustained assault, although as usual there’s something undefinably loveable about his opening volley (“Spit hard! We doing this for life! I can’t really see us flopping, I can see us going on forever! I be making mad dough, and no matter where we go everybody gonna know!”) – maybe because it implies that when someone suggested to him that Nasty Crew might fail, he took the suggestion seriously, considered it, and then firmly and resolutely rejected it. He’s a very serious guy, is Sharkie.

Bigga-Man’s “Player” takes the weird, fucked-up electronic whines of “Boys Luv Girls” and runs with them for some great caught in the machinery action. What’s really interesting about grime’s mechanism is that it’s largely unconscious. No sooner did techstep arrive than it started cloaking itself in psuedo-scientific imagery; likewise there’s something really self-conscious about the more machinic R&B tunes like “Try Again” or “What About Us” – the songs were deliberately deadened in order to fit the mood of the clanking, enervated grooves. But “Player” is a pretty upbeat and unpretentious number, with Ears boasting of his sexual prowess in a prosaic, almost down-the-pub kind of way (“I bet you any money if I saw your mum I could walk right over and take your mum/cos your dad ain’t doing shit for your mum plus I heard her say she likes the young ones!”). For grime producers and MCs such musical qualities don’t carry heavy thematic requirements with them; they just sound good, so you hear them worked into all sorts of tracks with lots of different moods and temperaments. (Speaking of moods and temperaments, Davinche has some great meloncholy tracks as well

I still haven’t worked out, for example, if there’s any conceptual push behind the mad love for the East exhibited by Jammer and likeminded producers. Hyperdub’s Kode 9 calls tunes like Jammer’s “Vice Versa” “Sino-grime”, which is good a name as any, but its difficult to know whether producers consider their Eastern flirtations to be something vaguely distinct from your more standard grimey tune, or whether Chinese flutes and sitars and tablas are just another sonic tool alongside mid-range basslines. As a meme, Eastern samples have at the very least had as seismic an impact as they had on hip hop, and may soon even match dancehall’s eastern epidemic. Like dancehall, grime has gone beyond most hip hop in attempting to incorporate these affectations at a more fundamental level of the groove, but whereas dancehall’s rendezvous with bhangra and the like is often surprisingly seamless, grime’s own rapprochement is fascinating for the very reason that the results have an intriguingly awkward angularity about them. “Vice Versa” sets up the East and East London as a soundclash, the sparkling flute melody and groaning Eskimo-ish bassline engaged in an endless circling duel which feels like it can only stop when one of them drops dead. The joints are better disguised on the one-two punch of “Weed Man” and “Pick’n’Mix” (these two tunes always seem to be mixed together, which is unsurprising since they blend so well), where squashed flutes and gamelan sparkles are weaved into grooves whose percussive peculiarity

Beyond even “Pick & Mix” is the Oriental absurdity of Bigga-Man’s “Trump (Funny Song)”, whose cheerful flute melodies and finger-bone percussion edge grime closer to Super Mario Bros theme tune music, although if you’re looking for a more musical precedent think Jay-Z’s “Things That You Do” at double-speed – there’s that same slightly sickly-sweet vibe going on, but this is much more lovable and bizarre. And then it will have interludes of eerie synthetic horn fanfares, moments of stunned somnolence as if a sudden bugle call heralded the arrival of the Emperor to the peaceful market square.

Skepta & Jammer ft. D Double E – Thuggish Ruggish
Skepta – DTI; Meridian
Skepta ft. Escobar – Big Bar’s Freestyle
Skepta – Meridian

Skepta’s big on dynamics: “DTI” and its attendant remixes (up to and including Eskobar’s great MC version “Big Bar’s Freestyle”) is filled with awesomely yawning gaps and moments of silence before the beats gallop past in a mad rush to make up for lost time. Although both tunes run along at grime’s normal speed, both feel intermittently winded, held back against their will like an overstretched rubber band. “Thuggish Ruggish”, co-produced by Jammer, actually is slower, its stately g-funk melodrama and stuttering female vocal producing a groove that’s at once funereal and pannicky.

Generally speaking the more sedate grime tunes like Jammer’s “Ain’t A Game” or D.E.E.’s “Birds in the Sky” are basically hip hop tracks with grimy production (although that’s no indictment of their quality). Like Jammer’s ethereal “Mystic”, “Thuggish Ruggish” manages to run at a slower tempo without losing that unique something’s-wrong-here vibe that the 8-bar template has imparted to grime. I suspect it’s because these tunes actually operate like 8-bars: “Mystic” alternates between a morose mandolin churn and a panther-like bassline; “Thuggish Ruggish” between a smooth glide synth sprawl and an astonishing section of stomping and wailing as the groove suddenly turns and confronts the MC (in the released version it’s D.E.E. with more of his dry retch sounds), challenging him for supremacy. It’s a groove that’s quite obviously designed for the MC: the slower tempo allowing the quicksilver rapping to emerge as an even more startling and unusual creature than before; the stuttery section an obstacle course, or even a pole vault, a chance for the MC to heighten the intensity and compulsion of their rhymes by driving them through rougher terrain. Luka just said on ILX that grime came into existence because MCs willed it to, and you can hear that on tunes like this, tunes which themselves are so obviously and consciously plugged into the science of rapping as much as the science of the groove.

Is it just me or is the way this tune bites g-funk more captivating than g-funk itself was (and I say this as someone who loves g-funk)? There’s a rich contextual as well as sonic tension to this stuff: “Thuggish Ruggish” shares g-funk’s slowness, but as with all 8-bar-ish half-speed tunes it’s a slowness that is constantly referring to the speed that’s been cut out (in this way it’s like the opposite of post-Bukem cruisy/snoozy jungle, which is so much more floaty/limpid than its apparent tempo would suggest). If g-funk’s relaxed feel seemed anomalous when you consider (pre-Biggie) gangsta rap’s inescapable tenseness, grime catalyses the contradiction to almost laughable proportions: not just the speed of the rapping or the subject matter or the harshness of the production but somehow the tempo itself seems to hold itself out as elaborate artifice, a display of calm hiding razor-edged panic, an iron fist wrapped in velvet.

What I really love about “Thuggish Ruggish” though is its technicolour vividness. Adding such affectations as g-funk synths to grime is a pretty simple move, and theoretically shouldn’t have that much of an effect on the feel of the music. In reality though, the grime-trained ear is so used to the furrow-browed colourlessness of the standard post-“Pulse X” 8-bar that the recent influx of trebly musicality feels really dramatic, a mammoth overhaul of grime’s stylistic principles (it’s not, but it’s hard to remember that while you’re listening). The seesaw switch between melodicism and anti-melodicism in grime is symptomatic of the minimal/maximal expansion/contraction cycle that runs through so much groovecentric music like a big bang cycle. The hard yards in terms of stylistic mutation and transformation occur during the times of minimalist contraction and intensification – grime was born in that almost imperceptible step resolutely outside 2-step’s borders, somewhere between So Solid Crew and “Pulse X” and “Oi”, until you hear “I Luv U” and you realise that this really isn’t 2-step anymore. By comparison, what’s happening now is relatively superstructural, but it feels so much more exciting than that – maybe it’s analogous to the development of discernible human features on an unborn child whose entire DNA structure was mapped out long before. The excitement that current hyper-musical grime generates isn’t so much about technical innovation as it is a highly emotive associativeness: in essence, hearing the best bits of all the music you like find its (highly individualised) expression within grime’s ever expanding sonic palette. Applied innovation, I guess. Hence “Foulplayification” – not just for the sonic or historical analogousness, but also for the fundamental similarity of the “mission” of this music: embracing everything around it, not to say “We can do it too”, but rather, “We can do it better.

Donae’o – Bounce; Bounce (Remix); Farmer Yardie; Bring It Cum
Mr. Fidgit ft. Dilemma MC – What’s My Name
Shystie – I Luv U; Step Bac; Get Loose

Tunes like “Step Bac” reveal that Shystie has a longer shelf-life than many might accord her: away from the Dizzee mock-ups she comes on all pissed-off, defiant and sarcastic, a combination of Ms Dynamite in righteous fire bun mode and Lady Stush’s sly humour. “Step Bac” in particular is great – hyper-speed rapping over a gorgeously frisky groove of archaic string riffs and razor snares flashing past like scythes. I’m a total sucker for tunes that set up female MCs as murderous firebrands of pent up sexual/violent energy, and this not only slots perfectly into the “Boo” tradition, but takes it up a notch in intensity.

If Shystie’s status as comedienne is largely a misnomer, Donae’o/Mr.Fidgit (and increasingly the entire Social Circles roster) has actively campaigned for the position of jester in grime’s court. I started to doubt Donae’o around about the time of “Falling” going big – looking at it optimistically, it’s an attempt to make an R&B grime tune, but if so why does it sound like Wookie circa 2000 (cf. Usher’s R&B-crunk extravaganza “Yeah”)? Pessimistically, it’s a credibility grab aimed at the anti-grime contingent who would have ignored “Bounce”. “Falling” is the only real false note he’s struck though (that I’ve heard anyway) – other grimier tunes like “Farmer Yardie” and “Bring It Kum” may be obviously tongue-in-cheek but there’s nothing present in the music to say that they’re not lovingly so (the 4/4 grind of “Bring It Kum” especially seems too groove-focused to be a complete send-up, and if lines like “tell Kung Lau to bring it kum” are a joke then I’m not sure what the punch line is). For similar reasons I actually really enjoyed Sticky’s crew-spoof Boo Kroo and their “Boo Kroo Theme”, which was grime refracted through The Simpsons (“Boo Kroo going on contromaversial!”) – to get upset over this parade of largely untrue cliches would be like getting upset about ‘Bart vs Australia’. I don’t have the inside story on these guys but – when you consider the fact that such pranks go back to late ‘01/early ’02 with The Surgery’s “More Weed”* – it seems to me most likely that Social Circles aren’t perpetrating mocking class snobbery so much as setting themselves up as the last bastion of ridiculousness within the garage-rap community – a ridiculousness that always maintained a healthy presence in almost all pre-grime MC garage, from “Good Rhymes” to “Fly Bi” to “Neighbourhood” to “Do You Really Like It?”. The fact that this thread is on the outer doesn’t mean that it’s wrong per se.

Still, Donae’o has yet to top “Bounce”, his most “serious” popular tune, which wins both for its quasi-barbershop vocal bassline and for the ridiculous rapping, whose mutational character-acting tendencies almost set up Donae’o as the Ludacris of grime. People who complain that it’s anti-drugs message is a bit polite should listen again: “Bounce” is as much about drugs as “Area Codes” is about city planning. Even if Donae’o turns out to be more like grime’s Will Smith, I’d tentatively suggest that such a proposition – grime-lite as it were - might actually be a good thing. If you’ve only listened to Boy in da Corner, it might be reasonable to infer that a sort of harsh “hell is round the corner” earnestness was one of grime’s favourable, even fundamental characteristics (although even then that would involve skipping over a lot of that album’s best moments). But many of grime’s best and most engaging MCs – Kano and J2K in particular spring to mind – trade on a bubbly vitality that manages to be funny at the same time as being aggressive, arrogant, paranoid, pissed, whatever. The sheer velocity of grime’s rapping allows for wonderful moments of “did he just say that?” wit that work partly because they flash right by you (this is one of the other great things about grime’s take on rapping: the jokes are often much more submerged, not presented as the grand pay-off like a Thanksgiving turkey); combine that with the music’s increasing musical effervesence and there’s no reason why the MC can’t excel in the role of showman as much as that of jaded street-tough visionary.

* Even better/worse in that regard was Middle Row’s “Right Proper Charlie”, an Ed Case track that represents the first and last time anyone in garage tried to outdo Mike Skinner’s fusion of garage, The Specials and stand-up comedy. With good reason: it’s a (fascinating) car-wreck of a tune.

Jamelia – Bout (Danny Weed Remix)
Davinche ft. Kele Le Roc – What I Found In You
Terra Danja ft. Shola Ama & D.E.E. – Contagious
Musical Mob ft. Lorraine Cato – Pulse X (Vocal Mix)

“Bout” and “What I Found In You” are chips off the same grimette block: female R&B vocals reduced to shrill declarations while spasmodic beats writhe and crumble around them. Weed and Davinche are two of the most destablised grime producers, their delirious beats stomping and snapping, and the relative sweetness of the vocals gives special prominence to the real eerie jerkiness of the grooves. “What I Found You” has an almost latin feel with its belly dance percussion, but the snaking bass boom keeps the dark vibe. Note also the pitched-up, cyborg-like vocals – a classic 2-step trick which started to fade in its final days of glory. Almost as brilliant in the same sweet’n’sour vein: Musical Mob ft. Lorraine Cato (Vocal Mix) and Terra Danja’s Contagious – the latter being particularly delirious, complete with Target/Jammer style Oriental woodwinds.

R&B-styled grime doesn’t always work, mind. “Falling” puts soulful vocals over Donae’o’s trademark snapping beats, but despite the slightly grimey affectations it sounds like a retreat to Wookie-style bass-driven nu-soul, ultimately conservative no matter how sharp the snares are. It’s important that the presence of R&B elements in grime remains instrumental (in the sense of being a tool) only. The scene has no room for star-crooners like Craig David because the R&B vocals in grime can impart no sense of personality; such work is the MC’s exclusive domain. The vocals sound best when they have quite obviously been subjected to grime’s rough treatment – in tracks like “What I Found In You” and remixes of hits from Missy, Aaliyah and Kelis, the process itself is the star.

Pum Pum Riddim
Everyone knows that grime is informed by dancehall, but it’s easy to forget that dancehall has as large an input on grime’s sonic make-up as much as its process (riddims etc.). At any rate the Pum Pum Riddim must be the nail in the coffin of any reductionist “grime = hip hop” line of thinking, its squeaking Ice Rink beats and upbeat Eskimo/Rat Race synth-whistle melody practically screaming “pitched up dancehall”, like Elephant Man’s “Pon Di River, Pon Di Bank” fed hefty doses of speed. And true to form it’s received a dozen MC re-interpretations, from scene stalwarts such as Kano to the obviously grime-friendly Harry Toddler. As with “Donkey Kick”, Toddler’s version demonstrates how simply a grime track can be turned into dancehall track almost entirely through the simple addtion of patois. At the moment use of patois on garage tracks can seem oddly traditionalist – the preserve of Ed Case and Sticky tracks, or an exotic flourish for Ms. Dynamite or Mis-Teeq’s Alesha – but with heavily Jamaican-flavoured MCs like Flo Dan (whose “Big Mic Man” from last year could easily be a Ward 21 tune) and others like God’s Gift dabbling (check his own raggafied take on Pum Pum) there’s no reason that grime’s explicitly Jamaican background might not once again be shifted into the foreground. (update: I think this section has been rendered completely irrelevant by blogposts from Matt and Bob, but yeah, anyway…)

Target & Danny Weed ft. Wiley, J2K & Breeze – Pick Yourself Up/Pick Yourself Up (Target Remix)
Rico – Popadoms (Gangsta) (Target Remix)
Target ft. Rico – Chosen One
Target – Earthwarrior (Remix)
Danny Weed & Target – Fresh Air; Hyperdrive

“Pick Yourself Up” is grime-pop par excellence, its strident string-riffs framing a hopscotch beat so defiantly unbalanced and shuddering it’s perversely catchy, as mnemonic as the gorgeous melody. But I prefer Target’s more poignant, 8-bar-ish remix with its lugubrious bass hum and trembling gothic melodic squiggles (the epitome of Foulplayification!). Target’s big on lugubriousness actually: his remix of Wizzbit and Rico’s “Popadoms (Gangsta)” sucks out the sly energy of the original and replaces it with mistwraith entropy, his blaring foggish bass synth smothering the (surprisingly) limber bongo loop.

I really hope that – unlike Jammer with The Nasty Crew – Target can remain within the confines of Pay As U Go Kartel. Partly because – Dizzee and Wiley aside – he’s probably most vulnerable to being swept up by the general media and being transformed into an “intelligent grime” producer, on account of the unabashed emotionalism and clean lines of his production style. He largely avoids grime’s trademark abrasiveness – something frequent production partner Danny Weed is more adept at providing – and his tracks have a greater resemblance than most to the delicate friskiness of 2-step (though this cuts both ways: check his “Earthwarrior (Remix)” for some ferocious woodchopper beats a la London Dodgers’ “Down Down Bizznizz”).

Far better that Target use these qualities to remain grime’s foremost pop producer, ie. more The Deepest Cut, less The Haunted Science. I’d hate for his tunes to lose their loveable winsomeness, but more importantly I’d hate for him to drift away from the big MC numbers that are inevitably his best work. “Pick Yourself Up (Remix)” and the martian beauty of “Chosen One” both illustrate how astonishing grime-pop at its best can be, compressing layers of different feelings into small boxes of tightly wound energy and intensity. They’d be nothing without their MCs, who run with the tunes’ ingredients of sadness tinged with hope, creating narratives of continual vigilance against dissolution, stern sermons of hope and the determination to succeed – or at least survive – after years of self-destruction.

I tried to think of hip hop tracks with a similar feel, and oddly all of the examples I came up with were recent: crunk at its most bittersweet; the resigned tale of clinging to existence in Bubba Sparxxx’s “Nowhere”; the grim words of advice in The Streets’ “Stay Positive”. In all these instances, as with Dizzee’s “Do It” and “Brand New Day” or his and Roll Deep’s much-feted unknown track, it’s the largely spectral quality of the music’s beauty that makes it so powerful, the sense that relief and release are just out arm’s reach. Maybe that’s why right now Target is my favourite grime producer, the one whose music speaks to me more easily and powerfully than just about anything else out there right now.

Ruff Squad – R.U.F.F., Tingz in Boots, Misty Cold
Haven’t heard much Ruff Squad (or “Ruff Sqwad”) to be honest, though I’m hoping to correct that situation soon. Lots of people I tend to trust check for the blitzkrieg approach of stuff like “Tingz in Boots” and “Misty Cold” (great title) – all atonal synth blares and laser zaps, beats lurching and spasming all over the joint – but so far such stuff hasn’t grabbed me to any extent beyond a sort of unheated enjoyment. Maybe it’s just that for the last year or so my listening headspace for this last year has been unusually attuned to melodic and textural pyrotechnics (cf. my longstanding rhythmic preoccupation), and as a result the austere physicality of tunes like “Tingz in Boots” – and indeed a lot of grime – has registered with my nervous system and not my heart.

It would also explain how, despite this, “R.U.F.F.” is probably my favourite grime track of the year, just pipping other top choices like “Thuggish Ruggish” or the Target remix of “Pick Yourself Up” or “Boys Luv Girls”. “R.U.F.F.” benefits from particularly energetic rapping from Tinchy Strider and his compatriots and a wonderfully anthemic chorus (“R, U, Double Double F! Ain’t no other crew that can test!”) but what makes it is the utterly gorgeous and captivating backing arrangement, an apocalyptic meltdown of tense strings and a shivery oscillator synth riff that bounces around with disarming sweetness and the very slightest hint of regretful wistfulness, as if it presages its own end. “R.U.F.F” registers in my head as pure intensity, explosions of colour that are only comparable to rave at its most impossibly over the top. As far as I know “R.U.F.F.” was produced by Ruff Squad’s in-house producer Rapid – could he become the Acen of grime?

(update: since then I’ve heard some more Rapid productions, most of which are absolutely amazing in a hyper-melodic hymn-to-the-apocalypse kind of way – this guy is a genius)


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