NEW WAVE OF GRIME

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Jor­dan Cur­tis Hughes

Few gen­res have gen­er­ated as much ex­cite­ment and con­tro­versy as grime and its off­shoot drill. We meet three of the scene’s emerg­ing new wave of stars.

Few Bri­tons are quite as fa­mil­iar with the stress­ful fragility of life as young, black, work­ing-class Lon­don­ers. But those streets have also pro­duced some of the big­gest do­mes­tic stars of re­cent times, and they re­main Bri­tain’s most fer­tile mu­si­cal breed­ing ground. Jazz Mon­roe meets three of the most no­table voices from the next wave of grime and drill, and hears tales of hope and wis­dom amongst the woe.

day of spring – the one that am­bushes you with sweat patches, waft­ing bar­be­cues, passers-by ex­hibit­ing un­due ir­ri­ta­tion – and that is a day to cel­e­brate. The cel­e­bra­tion is her­alded in cabs pump­ing R&B, on climb­ing frames swarmed by scream­ing, de­lighted kids, and, nes­tled on a hous­ing block in West Lon­don, by a bunch of mates in flo­ral shirts and track­suits, neck­ing Corona and Volvic while perched in the open boot of a black Volk­swa­gen, find­ing nearly ev­ery­thing funny. The lo­ca­tion is the Mozart Es­tate, where trop­i­cal trees loom over back gar­den walls, and where for­mer res­i­dent Big Zuu, a metic­u­lous, play­ful, hard-not-to-love MC, is fast be­com­ing a lo­cal hero. To­day, the unas­sum­ing 22- year-old is in a grey Nike track­suit, one smoke be­hind his ear and an­other in his mouth. He’s as mul­ti­di­rec­tion­ally large as some­body called Big Zuu ought to be. Ear­lier, un­der­cover po­lice cruised into the es­tate and ha­rassed a group lurk­ing nearby, but Zuu de­fused ten­sions. “That’s nor­mal,” he con­firms later, laugh­ing. “We said, ‘We’re do­ing a shoot.’ They were like, ‘That’s good, when’s it com­ing out?’ and walked off. We were smok­ing our zoots in their face!” In per­son, he has the same gre­gar­i­ous man­ner that catches your ear in his mu­sic – never too se­ri­ous, but sin­cere enough to make you care. His per­son­al­ity is mag­netic, a nec­es­sary as­set in the present grime cli­mate. Af­ter dom­i­nat­ing UK pop cul­ture in 2015, the scene is in a tran­si­tional phase of up­surg­ing tal­ent and dwin­dling in­ter­est. The pa­tron­age of taste-mak­ers Kanye and Drake has done lit­tle to en­dear ma­jor la­bels, whose habit for pair­ing MCs with house-lite pro­duc­ers – think Dizzee x Calvin Har­ris – has prompted stars such as Zuu, Stor­mzy and Nov­el­ist to re­lease in­de­pen­dently. Deeper woes plague the un­der­ground, too. Last Novem­ber, Sadiq Khan fi­nally re­voked Form 696, the no­to­ri­ous riskassess­ment doc­u­ment that green-lit the open

“I thought I could be more of an in­flu­encer in youth work if I be­came big in mu­sic. Now when I talk to youths that lis­ten to my mu­sic, I can feel the power am­plify, be­cause I have that rap­port al­ready.” Big Zuu

pro­fil­ing of black and mi­nor­ity-eth­nic events. But it had al­ready dev­as­tated the cap­i­tal’s live scene, cre­at­ing a hos­tile cul­ture to­ward black artists and the venues who book them, of­ten at great fi­nan­cial risk. In this dance-for­ward van­guard genre, the shut­ter­ing of peace­ful nightlife in­sti­tu­tions rewired the scene’s DNA. “La­bels are more fo­cused on the sound of right now,” Big Zuu re­flects, point­ing to JHus’s Afro beat-in­flected an­thems. As the club cul­ture of grime dis­ap­pears, at­ten­tion is shift­ing to cross­over beats and lush YouTube vi­su­als, a poor fit for its manic en­ergy. “If we keep mak­ing rap, we’re for­get­ting the base of our coun­try’s mu­sic,” Zuu adds. “But if we keep push­ing our mu­sic, it can reach crazy heights.” In a house near the al­ley­way where he’s telling me this, Zuhair Has­san dis­cov­ered grime aged 10 via on­line rips of pi­rate-ra­dio clashes. He grew up with his sin­gle mother, who had fled Sierra Leone dur­ing the civil war and, like many em­bat­tled par­ents, con­sid­ered the suc­cess of her son’s ed­u­ca­tion to be the mea­sure of her life de­ci­sions. The out­look promised lit­tle: Zuu’s ap­petite for dis­rup­tion proved a scourge to de­spair­ing teach­ers. But his fierce in­tel­li­gence ruled out ex­clu­sion, and he was driven, he says, by the “stigma” of hav­ing a Mus­lim sin­gle mother from West Africa. By then, the Mozart Es­tate had be­come a bat­tle­ground for ri­val gangs from nearby

Lad­broke Grove and South Kil­burn. Zuu stayed off the streets by fre­quent­ing a stu­diofitted youth club, where he’d munch sweets and record tracks with his dis­tant cousin, AJ Tracey. In 2014 came two break­throughs: he se­cured a spot at uni, and MTP, his grime crew with Tracey, made its pub­lic de­but. For 15 months, Zuu jug­gled so­cial-work stud­ies with nights per­fect­ing his bars. In that time, the likes of Skepta were evolv­ing from cult leg­ends to pop-cul­tural icons. Zuu even­tu­ally con­ceded that it was now or never. “We had the essence, the ra­dio, send­ing for each other, cliques and groups, new in­stru­men­tals, new swag,” Zuu says of their early buzz, swig­ging from a mas­sive bot­tle of wa­ter. “Be­fore that, not ev­ery­one was wear­ing Nike track­suits. Man­dem were wear­ing jeans with a nice belt. But ev­ery­thing changed. The grime resur­gence was piv­otal. That’s why, by the end of 2015, I was think­ing, ‘Let’s get it.’” Rather than aban­don so­cial work al­to­gether, Zuu’s fo­cus on mu­sic her­alded a re­newed re­spon­si­bil­ity. “I thought I could be more of an in­flu­encer in youth work if I be­came big in mu­sic,” he ex­plains. “Now when I talk to youths that lis­ten to my mu­sic, I can feel the power am­plify, be­cause I have that rap­port al­ready. So how many peo­ple can I change now?” The only per­son left to con­vince was mum. “At first she was like, ‘My son’s a dropout,’” he ad­mits, grin­ning. “But even­tu­ally, when she saw that I was mak­ing money from mu­sic, she said, ‘You know what? Cool. Now give me some money!’” n a splin­tered grime scene, Kojo Kankam, aka Nov­el­ist, and Big Zuu have plenty in com­mon. Like Zuu, Nov is pas­sion­ate and em­phatic, a man whose laugh makes you laugh. They’re both grime orig­i­nals, unswayed by Amer­i­can trap beats. And for a 21- year-old, Nov­el­ist, too, pos­sesses strik­ing pur­pose. Among his virtues is a po­lit­i­cal charisma that first struck me at Glas­ton­bury 2016, the evening af­ter the Brexit vote. As the Al­barns of the world is­sued de­jected laments, Nov­el­ist led a tent packed with mud-dap­pled teens in an up­roar­i­ous chant of “Fuck David Cameron!” That was the crest of the South-East Lon­doner’s hype wave. A few years be­fore, he’d es­tab­lished an en­dear­ing grime crew called The Square, cut his teeth as a lead­ing MC on pi­rate ra­dio, and re­leased pi­o­neer­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with pro­ducer Mum­dance, spray­ing ver­bal salvos over para­noid beats that evoked the de­con­structed in­stru­men­tals in­cu­bat­ing at club night Boxed. But it was tracks like Street Politi­cian, which ral­lies “black boys stuck in the sys­tem”, that stamped his mark. Glas­ton­bury was a vic­tory lap, but also a launch­pad to more lu­cra­tive stages. And it was at that mo­ment that he van­ished from the face of the Earth. Eigh­teen months have passed on the af­ter­noon Nov­el­ist meets me at Abbey Road, fi­nally back in the pub­lic eye. In these salu­bri­ous sur­rounds, en­gi­neers have been mix­ing his la­bo­ri­ously self-pro­duced de­but al­bum, Nov­el­ist Guy. Loung­ing on a sofa is Nov­el­ist’s ever-smil­ing man­ager, Dion, who dou­bles as his ever-smil­ing mother. He clearly in­her­ited her mag­netism: un­ac­count­ably trust­ful, the pair share an in­nate abil­ity to make you, a stranger, feel spir­i­tu­ally recog­nised, like an old friend who just walked in the room. When I ask about Nov­el­ist’s child­hood, his re­sponse – “my fam­ily love each other” – some­how sounds nei­ther trite nor de­fen­sive, but rather like some­thing pro­found that schol­ars could study and learn from. This pro­foundly lov­ing house­hold ben­e­fited from the pres­ence of Nov­el­ist’s un­cle, who’d se­quester him­self away up­stairs mak­ing grime and deep house on Fruity Loops and Rea­son, some­times en­list­ing Dion to sing. Nov­el­ist says his child­hood was “blessed”, com­ing un­der threat only when street life in­truded on his teens. “Not ev­ery­one’s fam­ily has a lot of love,” he re­flects. “So some­times you can think, ‘Why is that per­son act­ing like that?’ But you don’t re­alise, at home, they’re go­ing through a mad­ness.” Cu­ri­ous, I ask whether a spe­cific ex­pe­ri­ence brought that di­vide into fo­cus. “Yeah,” he says. “When I got stabbed in my chest.” Si­lence. “That day was aw­ful,” Dion mut­ters fi­nally, elab­o­rat­ing in whis­pers to the pub­li­cist. “Af­ter that I re­alised life is thin ice,” Nov­el­ist goes on. “Don’t skate on the wrong part.” Just 13 at the time, he ex­pe­ri­enced what sounds like dis­so­ci­a­tion. “When you see things on the news, you never think it’s

“I got stabbed in my chest. Af­ter that I re­alised life is thin ice. Don’t skate on the wrong part.” Nov­el­ist

go­ing to hap­pen to you. When I re­alised I was bleed­ing” – he’s swiv­elled his chair now, orat­ing to the room – “I was think­ing, ‘Oh my days! How did this hap­pen to me?’ I re­mem­ber the thought go­ing through my head: ‘I’m in a news ar­ti­cle all of a sud­den.’” Hos­pi­talised with a punc­tured lung, he came to be­lieve he sur­vived by re­fus­ing to die. He also cred­its his faith – not just with pre­serv­ing him, but for dis­solv­ing his need for re­venge. In­stead, he re­newed his fo­cus on the beats and bars he’d been com­pos­ing for years, re­sult­ing now in Nov­el­ist Guy, a tight, bril­liantly bizarre jour­ney de­signed to “raise the stan­dard of what peo­ple call grime mu­sic”. It veers from hard­core grime to punky synth ab­strac­tions, “pur­suit mu­sic and po­lice chases – the sound of me en­ter­ing a new at­mos­phere,” he en­thuses. For an MC closely at­tuned to so­cial in­jus­tice – at one point, he dis­solves into out­rage on the topic of nurses’ pay – Nov­el­ist’s trade­mark lyrics are sur­pris­ingly im­pres­sion­is­tic, wrestling with the war­ring voices in his head. One ex­cep­tion is Stop Killing The Man­dem, an ur­gent, clubby bom­bard­ment that be­gins with Nov­el­ist bark­ing the ti­tle like a drill sergeant 16 times. “Too many peo­ple are dy­ing, fam,” he says of his vi­sion for the track. “Peo­ple need to start ac­knowl­edg­ing what’s happening, and not act­ing like their words don’t have some kind of ef­fect.” In early April, a Times ar­ti­cle de­nounc­ing a grime-ad­ja­cent genre called UK drill de­clared, “Mur­ders and stab­bings plagu­ing Lon­don and other cities are di­rectly linked to an ul­tra-vi­o­lent new form of mu­sic sweep­ing Bri­tain.” The ar­ti­cle jux­ta­posed jour­nal­is­tic ac­counts of gang his­tory with creative spec­u­la­tion from judges, be­reaved fam­i­lies and the ar­ti­cle’s au­thors, all propos­ing that drill is driv­ing Lon­don’s knife-crime cri­sis. Caught in the mid­dle is Headie One, born Irv­ing Ad­jei, a rap­per whose blasé threats slither over the omi­nous beats of drill, which has ac­quired a chill­ing dead­pan qual­ity since spilling over from Chicago. “I don’t su­gar-coat sit­u­a­tions,” Headie says of his hood-com­men­tary lyrics, speak­ing on the phone from Tot­ten­ham. “I like to make it as re­al­is­tic as pos­si­ble, so you can see it like you were there.” The 23- year-old, typ­i­cally guarded in in­ter­views, perks up when de­fend­ing his

mu­sic. His quiet phone man­ner is less stand­off­ish than sullen, the slow dredg­ing of thoughts be­neath an ice sheet of in­tro­spec­tion. Grow­ing up with his cab­driver dad and sis­ter in Tot­ten­ham, he played foot­ball and wrote freestyles, usu­ally to spar with school friends. As life got more se­ri­ous, so did the mu­sic: af­ter some “lit­tle hol­i­days” – in­clud­ing a spell in prison for deal­ing co­caine and heroin, a charge he dis­putes – Headie says he gained the per­spec­tive to “speak about [ his] mis­takes, so other peo­ple can learn from them”. He sees lit­tle value in hand-wring­ing over vi­o­lent so­cial com­men­tary. Politi­cians baulk­ing at morally ugly drill should first ad­dress the morally ugly con­di­tions, he ar­gues. Headie One’s big­gest and most con­tro­ver­sial hit is Know Bet­ter, re­leased this Jan­uary, af­ter a vi­ral video ap­peared to show sev­eral young peo­ple as­sault him in broad day­light. The re­sponse track al­ludes to re­tal­ia­tory at­tacks on his al­leged gang­land ri­vals from Wood Green, who may have been be­hind the video, though Headie elides iden­ti­fy­ing de­tails with a “shh-shh” hook. It’s a cap­ti­vat­ing per­for­mance, his ag­ile word­play ir­re­sistible. But those who join the dots, match­ing lyri­cal clues with con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous news re­ports of vi­o­lent crime, will find un­set­tling par­al­lels. In Headie’s telling, the pur­pose of such un­com­fort­able re­al­ism is not to gloat, but to re­veal his bru­tal re­al­ity and, through suc­cess, to es­cape it. For Big Zuu, find­ing a way off the streets has given his work a moral pur­pose. “Peo­ple say, ‘You think be­cause you’re mak­ing pos­i­tive bars, you’re bet­ter.’ I don’t think I’m lyri­cally bet­ter, or that peo­ple are writ­ing in the wrong way. I just feel like we have some re­spon­si­bil­ity.” He stops short of crit­i­cis­ing drill mu­sic. “Headie One rep­re­sents some­thing dif­fer­ent to me, but it’s not some neg­a­tive mad en­ergy. He rep­re­sents what’s go­ing on and what’s real. I try to bring the core prob­lems in peo­ple’s faces.” Back at Abbey Road, hunch­ing for­ward in a swivel chair, Nov­el­ist is sim­i­larly re­flec­tive. With the dis­claimer that he’s “en­joyed mu­sic that al­ludes to vi­o­lent crime”, he de­scribes an epiphany he ex­pe­ri­enced in Aus­tralia un­der a tran­scen­dent sun­rise. “The sky was dark blue over there” – he points to the cor­ner of the stu­dio ceil­ing, rep­re­sent­ing a pocket of sky – “pur­ple and light blue here” – his fin­ger arcs to­wards the mix­ing desk – “and bright yel­low where the sun was ris­ing.” It struck him that many back home had scarcely left their neigh­bour­hood, let alone Eu­rope. And fewer still have be­friended a kan­ga­roo. “Why would I en­cour­age any­one to kill each other?” he sighs. “I’ve seen a koala; I’ve held snakes. Peo­ple feel, ‘That’s never gonna be me. I can’t get out.’ You can. You can. Def­i­nitely can.”

“I don’t su­gar-coat sit­u­a­tions. I like to make it as re­al­is­tic as pos­si­ble, so you can see it like you were there.” Headie One

Party pol­i­tics: Nov­el­ist in­spires a down­cast crowd at Glas­ton­bury the day af­ter the Brexit vote, June 2016.

Sound of the un­der­ground: Big Zuu per­forms at Birth­days, Lon­don, 13 Septem­ber, 2017.

Spring has sprung! Big Zuu en­joys a zoot, West Lon­don, April, 2018.

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