NEW WAVE OF GRIME
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.