A report released by the British Phonographic Industry in June this year indicated that sales and streaming of music labeled as ‘grime’ nearly doubled between May 2016 and May 2017, when the statistics were last published.
The rapid rate of growth in the genre has either led to, or coincided with the release of Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer which has become the first “pure grime” record to reach No. 1 on the Official Albums Chart in March.
The list of notable grime releases of 2017 is short and includes Chip's League of my Own, Godfather by Wiley, J Hus' Common Sense, Devlin's The Devil In and Dizzee Rascal's Raskit.
EPs include Snake by P Money and You’ll Never Make a Million Off Grime by Lethal Bizzle, among others.
Rather than compile a list, a more pertinent approach would be one of examining the genre’s rapid growth as a whole—as well as the seeming paucity of releases and possible expectations for its future.
To further understand reasons for these developments in the genre, we interviewed Capital Xtra presenter Robert Bruce and Mikey Akin, one half Sons of Sonix, the production duo who made “21 Gun Salute” and “Velvet” off Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayer.
Several factors are contributing to grime’s resurgence. An obvious one is how affordable advanced technology has become, thereby democratising the recording process so that what would require a hi-tech studio could be done on an iPhone.
“We recorded ‘Birthday Girl’ in the most basic place. Stormzy recorded his verse in our old studio and the backing vocals by J Warner was done in my bedroom,” says Akin, “but it would come out on social media and do a madness. We're at a place where we have the skill set and tools in place.”
Streaming, the world over, has taken the place of downloads and this, in grime, is no different.
The report by British Phonographic Industry states that “downloads of songs tagged as grime fell at a faster rate (-27 percent) than in the wider market (-24 percent), yet plays of grime-related tracks grew by 138 percent on streaming services (compared to 61 percent for overall tracks).”
Playlists such as Spotify’s Grime Shutdown and Apple Music’s Grime 2.0, as well as Deezer’s grime channel have driven streaming traffic.
Despite these increases and high levels of excitement about the genre, only a handful of albums have so far been released this year.
Rather than see this as a slow response to near doubling of sales and streaming figures, Akin says “there are other projects being released but these are the ones that are connecting” and that “there would be more but it just takes time.”
To expect a profusion of grime albums right after a huge surge might seem reasonable, but other factors explain why this has not been the case.
The prestige of an “album” to an artist has returned over the past few years across genres. Life of Pablo by Kanye West and Lemonade by Beyonce are two examples of ‘full’ projects in pop that have helped to re-establish the “album” in conception and consumption.
Adele’s astronomical album sales are an exception. Her sophomore record, 25, was the best selling album of 2016, raking out 25 million copies. While the next albums in line, Views by Drake and Lemonade by Beyoncé each sold under 2 million copies.
Artists have one shot at a classic debut release and may want to take time to prepare “instead of just putting anything out and calling it an album. I think we're going to see an increase in mixtapes again, and then people are going to plan their albums” says Bruce.
Akin is in agreement though he's quick to remind of the genre’s very humble beginnings in relation to its recent growth “grime is a genre that started in east London and even to the world the U.K. is a little blob” also adding that “where before we had one or two major grime albums, now we have five, in the next few years you're going to see more and more on the charts”.
The prestige of grime has also risen. Skepta’s Konnichiwa winning the Mercury Prize in 2016 brought some level of respectability, as did his winning the Best Songwriter and Best Contemporary Song at the 2017 Ivor Novello Awards.
Online platforms have also made huge impacts. Outlets like BBC’s Fire in the Booth, Link Up TV, GRM Daily and Radar Radio have been “very influential because they've created a form of pirate radio online which is 100% legal,”says Bruce.
Talk shows like Not For The Radio, he adds, “give insights to artists and some we haven't heard from for a very long time. They record old stories and tell the new generation.”
Other contributing factors to the genre’s rise have been cosigns from higher profiled stars like Drake and his relationship with Skepta and his Boy Better Know collective; Stormzy's own relationships with Ed Sheeran and a host of other collaborations between grime artists and practitioners from other genres.
Other developments in the genre challenge the very definition of “grime.” As noted in the BPI report “the difficulty in attributing precise genre definitions to artists and their music should, however, be noted, and in the case of grime, allowance should be made for a possible overlap with other urban genres, such as hip hop.”
The all-knowing Wikipedia has it that grime music is “typified by rapid, syncopated breakbeats, generally around 130 or 140 BPM, and often features an aggressive or jagged electronic sound.”
This is not strictly true.“Man Don’t Care” by JME and Giggs packs the menace and intensity synonymous with grime, but the beat could easily be that of a slow jam.
Akin cites “Laid Me Bare” and “Bad Boys” off Gang Signs & Prayer as examples of grime songs that don’t follow the accepted definitions. The “feeling” which a song like “Bad Boy” gives, says Akin, is what makes it grime and this cannot be dismissed “just because it's not 138.”
“21 Gun Salute” produced by Akin and his cohort Mo Samuel's features Wretch 32, a rapper who's only on singing duties on the track, and what one could call a “straight rap” by Stormzy.
But to Akin, the sentiment expressed in the songs—with lines like “I still love these youths” or “I can’t wait till I say ‘I do’ and the bros say ‘brap’ gun shots at my wedding”—while also found in hip-hop, is straight from the top shelf of grime.
“Blinded By Your Grace,” the gospel themed, two-part suite (part 1 features a choir and 2 the singer MNEK), could easily be sung in a church, says Akin going on to add that “it shows the diversity. It shows that grime can also slow down and talk about different things. There's actually no rules in music.”
“Grime gives me a feeling and music is all about feeling for me” insists Akin taking away from agreed upon definitions and leaving it to the listener to decide what is and what isn’t grime.
Bruce, however, believes “there will be some fairly grime albums from artists that do grime and don't have any other influences in their music,” even when he agrees with Akin in saying that “when appealing to a different audience, you gotta think outside your genre.”