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Grime Scene Investigation

Run the Road Brings the U.K.’S Hip-Hop Hybrid Across the Pond


By Tom Breihan | Posted 4/27/2005

The U.S. release of Run the Road (Vice/Atlantic), a compilation of many of 2004’s greatest grime singles, is a major event for curious listeners. Grime—the London-born hybrid strain of hip-hop variously called eski, sublow, eight-bar, and, most commonly, grime that emerged from rave clubs and pirate radio stations—sounds like American hip-hop heard through a prism. The beats and hooks are there, but they’re refracted through heavy doses of dancehall and jungle. Drums punch through complicated, off-kilter patterns; ugly, metallic synth washes and laser pings further distort the boom; teenage-hyena MCs hungrily snarl firebreathing threats. It’s a harsh, distended music that would probably make Ja Rule hide under his bed and cry.

But Ja Rule might never hear it, since grime isn’t easy to find. The genre has produced no major stars even in England. In America, only three grime albums are commercially available: Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner and Showtime and Wiley’s Treddin’ on Thin Ice. These albums, great as they are, only hint at the roiling, seething underground that produced them.

Run the Road reveals a stunning multiplicity of voices, hungry nobodies desperate to rise out of the morass and make an impression. Dizzee and Wiley make appearances, but the album belongs to the relative unknowns. There’s Kano, the butter-smooth cocky charmer who effortlessly wraps his light-speed flow around twisty beats, constantly sounding amazed by his own greatness. There’s D Double E, the deranged spitfire, swallowing his words with a terrifying, guttural patois. And there’s No Lay, a woman who probably pours corrosive acid on her oatmeal in the morning. No Lay’s track “Unorthodox Daughter” is a masterpiece of menace, as she furiously clamps down on every syllable like it talked shit about her mother: “MCs bawling out bloody murder/ Stop the bawling ’cause I fuckin’ heard ya.”

Grime MCs don’t have much in common with their American counterparts: no punch lines, no politics, no vivid detailing of drug-dealing histories. They’re more like dancehall MCs, competing to come up with the best signature lines and the most instantly recognizable styles. White (Wonder and Plan B), female (No Lay), and even white female rappers (Lady Sovereign) don’t seem like anomalies as long as they can spit frantic light-speed hardness over glittering, damaged tracks. Their battle rhymes and their party rhymes are one and the same. An MC like Kano has style and confidence to rival any American heavyweight, but he doesn’t have the lyrics. But with beats like these, he doesn’t need them.

The production on Run the Road soups up and refracts the slick, mechanistic style of Timbaland or Dr. Dre. DaVinche’s track for Kano’s “P’s and Q’s” sounds like the Knight Rider theme as played by a college marching band from a cold and hostile planet. On his remix of Shystie’s “One Wish,” Terror Danjah layers shrieking Psycho strings over a dense, forbidding tangle of frantic ringing synths and monstrous drunken drums. For their own “Cap Back,” Wonder and Plan B spin a cold, trickling guitar line into a swollen, throbbing swamp of bass. “This track’s deep/ you could have it as your ring tone,” they say on the hook, and they aren’t kidding.

The album reflects a scene constantly shifting and lurching, spinning out new sounds that would’ve been completely inconceivable even a year ago. Ask Mike Skinner, the 24-year-old Birmingham rapper/producer who records as the Streets. Skinner’s garbled, off-kilter flow helped set the stage for grime way back in 2002. But when he shows up on Run the Road, making a brief cameo on the remix to his track “Fit But You Know It,” he sounds like a relic, shaken and happily dazed.

Run the Road has a few slow spots; the genre isn’t great for slow, melancholy tracks like Roll Deep’s “Let It Out” or Ears’ “Happy Daze.” But the album’s greatest flaw isn’t in any of its own tracks; it’s the exclusion of Lethal B’s blistering posse cut “Forward (Pow),” last year’s biggest grime anthem. Over the track’s four minutes, 10 MCs spit their best lines over Lethal B’s swarming drums and synth stabs, sounding as if they could keep going for hours without sacrificing one iota of intensity. The track has begun to attract the ears of American rap audiences; Southern rappers Pitbull and Stat Quo have already done versions of the track. Both “Forward (Pow)” and Run the Road paint a picture of a ridiculously fertile underground, a sound that had barely been heard outside London’s borders until recently. There’s plenty more where that came from.

If you’re under 30 and grew up in the city, chances are you grew up with Baltimore club music; it’s part of the air here. The skeletal boom of club is like the glitter of piles of broken car-window glass on the sidewalk, just another part of our city. But imagine hearing Baltimore club music for the first time, discovering that this frenzied, chaotic, hedonistic dance music has existed and thrived here and here only. It’s a great thing when a city creates its own indigenous party music from disparate jagged shards of other genres. Baltimore has club music, Miami has bass, San Juan has reggaeton, Rio de Janeiro has baile funk. And now London has grime, and it’s time to wake up.

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