Grime is the UK’s most exciting musical and cultural export in decades, but it’s also fascinating on a business level. Many grime stars have broken through entirely independently, going the DIY route rather than signing to a label.
A panel at AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London today explored how they did it, and what other artists might be able to learn from grime’s success.
The panel included BBC Radio 1’s MistaJam; GRM Daily co-founder Posty; Dench Records and CNTRL Management’s Nadia Khan; Spotify’s Austin Daboh; and journalist Kieran Yates. Disrupt Media’s Phil Kemish moderated. The panel started with some memories of how they first encountered grime.
“I’m from Nottingham, not from east London, so my first real experience of very very early grime was a friend of mine who used to come down to London and record pirate radio sessions. And I remember it was Heartless vs Pay As You Go, which was late garage,” said MistaJam. “And I remember seeing Dizzee Rascal videos and going ‘what the hell is this, and how can I get my hands on it?”
Daboh said his experience was similar. “Late 90s, early noughties, being a fan of Heartless Crew… In terms of actual the recognised grime sound, 2001 is when I first came across it. I was leaving secondary school that year: this friend said ‘have you heard of this guy Dizzee Rascal?’… But a couple of years earlier than that was the prototype grime if you want to call it that.”
Posty said he was 15 or 16 and an avid fan of American rap “until I heard this guy called Kano who was rapping on grime beats. Before it was very sound effect-y, and it was hard for me to love it. But once I discovered Kano I started to discover other people… and I was also able to share the music with my friends.”
Yates said her gateway drug was Dizzee Rascal’s ‘I Luv U’ track in 2003, like other members of the panel.
Daboh remembered that mainstream radio “wasn’t playing anything that wasn’t seen as a potential pop hit: and young male MCs weren’t being supported at all in daytime… so for us as schoolkids to get our fix of the genre, we had to go underground, and that at the time was pirate radio. That was our 1xtra, our Capital Xtra… the first time I heard a lot of records, it wasn’t at all the mainstream outlets.”
MistaJam was broadcasting on a pirate station in Nottingham. “Pirate radio back in the day was 100% illegal, but it was the only way the community was able to speak to each other. You had all kinds of music that weren’t really being represented by mainstream radio in the day,” he said. “It was the purest and the rawest. There were no rules… so that’s where a lot of artists really cut their teeth, where a lot of DJs really cut their teeth, learning to be programmers.”
Artists were also selling mixtapes, white labels and merchandise to the audiences they reached through these stations – Wiley famously drove around in a white van delivering his products directly to fans. But then in the mid-2000s, digital platforms came into the equation with YouTube, but also with grime-focused sites.
“Me and my friend had a plan to create this website where everybody could put content onto the website, and we’d update daily with whatever was coming out. We paid for the website, and then realised there wasn’t anything to put on there!” said Posty.
“I would meet a rapper and speak to them for 20 minutes, break down that bit of content into four five-minute pieces, then I would do a freestyle with them, and then a crepcheck [trainer comparison]. For every rapper I had seven bits of content with them that I could release every day. And because the content was so scarce at the time, people were just jumping on everything we did,” he said.
Yates said that this “was the really early beginnings of appointment viewing: people were making appointments on GRM Daily, on SBTV… because they knew something would be uploaded at a specific time… Some of the greatest people who were doing it at that time created these ‘appointments’, which we have now seen become very crucial elements in record labels and album campaigns… it was really seeing young guys like Posty and Jamal [Edwards, SBTV boss] and people of that ilk setting a precedent and pioneering that kind of structure.”
Yates also talked about a demonisation of grime and pirate radio from very early on in the genre’s development, with stations unable to get official FM licences, and DJs uncourted by the mainstream media.
“The thing that I find really interesting is that when I speak to people from older generations to me, the parallels between punk and what happened in the 70s and grime and what’s happening now: it’s basically the same thing with a slightly darker complexion!” said MistaJam.
“It’s a youth that are misunderstood by the elders… but their friends get them. ‘I’m going to sell t-shirts, and put that money into a recording session… then a white label, a mixtape, some bookings…’ It’s that whole thing of DIY: doing it for yourself because no one else is doing it for you. And not only is nobody else doing it for you, but the establishment is saying that what you are doing is inherently wrong.”
“The only way to get your records out there was to get the vinyls in the boot of your car,” said Khan, who manages Lethal Bizzle, whose ‘Pow’ was famously banned by clubs around the UK, at the behest of the authorities.
“We found that his song, by the establishment, got shut down in clubs. They were saying it causes riots in clubs!… How can we get out there. I’ve got an artist who wants to go out and do shows, but he can’t… There were signs up and down the country saying DJs can’t play this record, or even the instrumental of this record.”
Bizzle found his route to an audience by playing to rock and indie audiences in traditional gig venues, building his business from the ground up and getting around those restrictions in clubs.
“The rock scene understands a moshpit. They understand what it is, they understand that it’s not actually people going crazy wanting to punch each other. It’s an expression of the energy within the music,” agreed MistaJam.
“And that’s coming through with grime… It’s a cultural thing where I don’t think there was a knowledge of what this was, or where this had come from, or why it was the way that people were expressing themselves to the music. It was just pure energy… And I can go anywhere now and play grime, and it gets the same reaction in a positive way to anything else I would play. We’ve reached that tipping point, but it’s been 13-14 years to become this ‘overnight’ sensation.”
Yates talked about barriers in the media world, but also the fascination with grime from broadsheet newspapers in the UK as a scene run by young black men, which the editors found unusual, but also interesting.
“There was always sort of a real appetite to cover this, and along the way it’s been covered very very badly, and very very well. That is key to having these conversations when we’re talking about the link between what’s happening on the underground, and where we sit in the media as people who are looking and engaging,” she said.
Posty talked about the impact of social media on the grime scene. “It gives the artists direct access to the consumer, and the consumer the same way back. People buy into artists when they feel like they know them more, and obviously social media allows that,” he said.
“If you follow your favourite grime MC, you feel like you know who they are. That only helps the music get out there.”
The conversation turned to streaming, and Daboh’s move from the BBC to Spotify. “One of the things that streaming has done – and I’m not just talking about Spotify, I’m talking about video platforms as well, SoundCloud, YouTube – what streaming has done is put a spotlight on just how big this genre is,” he said.
He suggested that we have moved from a position where a young MC on a council estate couldn’t possibly afford to spend money on radio plugging or other forms of media promotion. “We can see at a really early stage at Spotify just how well a record is doing. You can have 1,000 plays on Spotify and we can have data showing how people are engaging with your record,’ he said.
Daboh praised the BBC’s 1Xtra station, but noted that “there are only a certain number of hours in the day when grime can be played” there, whereas on Spotify and YouTube “there is infinite space”. Spotify’s Grime Shutdown playlist has around 340,000 followers.
“We’re close to eight figures in terms of monthly streams, and we’re able to affect mainstream charts. So when something goes in to Grime Shutdown, there’s a ripple effect that you see outside of Spotify,” said Daboh. One example is Skepta’s ‘I Spy’ from his 2007 greatest hits album, which was placed on Grime Shutdown and got “a million extra streams” even though it was an older track.
Khan talked about expanding her business beyond music. “With live events, we couldn’t get a live agent or get booked on shows, so we were like ‘let’s create our own live event and book our own shows’,” she said. And made its own t-shirts using the “Dench” based on one of Bizzle’s favourite words at the time, which sold like hot cakes.
“Grime has that power to shift culture and to affect it,” said Kemish. “That is part of the beauty of grime in the fact that there is a story there, and there’s outlets available to tell that story,” said MistaJam.
“Even for me, being somebody that wasn’t there in the tower block in east London, and then coming to it as someone who wanted to find out the story: there were places where I could find out the story, where I could get the music and watch the freestyle.”
“Grime has shown every other genre that is out there, especially at an independent level, that it’s about using the tools available to you to get your story out there… whether it be YouTube, or GRM Daily, or the record store, or Spotify. It’s about showing people that this is actually happening and you are welcome to be part of it. It’s not a closed-door thing.”
The final question focused on politics: how will the current political climate – Brexit, Trump, immigration scaremongering, racism and more – affect the way the genre evolves now. Will it be one of the prime genres (if hopefully not the only one) to serve as protest music in 2017 and beyond?
“I think it’s a snapshot of what’s going on culturally,” said Daboh, who pointed to Dizzee Rascal’s debut album as exactly that kind of snapshot of 2003 from the point of view of a young MC. “And now Stormzy’s forthcoming album will be a snapshot of a guy in his early 20s in 2017 London,” he said.
“Grime has always held a quite honest mirror to society. And that’s sometimes the reason it hasn’t quite been understood. There’s an honesty and truthfulness in grime, reflecting the communities around it. That’s sometimes quite funny… and sometimes it’s quite dark… It’s always been about social commentary.”
Yates pointed out that grime MCs were rapping about police stop’n’search policies in 2003, so the political aspect has always been there. “You always see that social commentary, and the development of British politics through the lens of grime MCs… that’s going to continue to happen. The difference now is there’s more platforms to be heard on, so that’s to be celebrated.”