For many, grime is an enigmatic genre of music. Its genesis at the crosspoints of dub, UK garage, dancehall, and hip-hop makes defining the sound less than straightforward. The genre took shape in London, England, but a recent wave of promotions has positioned grime to make a splash in America.
Drake has been bending over backward to associate himself with the scene. He recently bought the rights to Top Boy, a television drama focused on crime in East London — an area otherwise known as the birthplace of grime music. He also signed onto record label Boy Better Know, founded by grime emcee Joseph “Skepta” Adenuga. And in 2015 Kanye West rolled out a cohort of young grime emcees for his performance at the BRIT awards. It was heralded by some as a significant step forward in the genre’s place in pop culture. They noted that while several of those emcees had made a big impression on their own, the marketability of grime had been held back by perceptions of (and sometimes direct ties to) anti-social behavior.
But to understand how grime overcame that reputation on its way to international stardom, you have to go back to the early 2000s.
What is grime?
Toward the turn of the century, Richard “Wiley” Cowie was an emcee in the garage scene in inner-city London. He participated in groups like the Ladies Hit Squad and Pay As U Go, rhyming over music that was mostly centered around production and dance breaks. He, along with other artists in that scene, soon began to focus on music that could feature emcees more prominently.
Wiley was a pioneer of the new sound, which eventually became known as grime. The video above captures the critical turning points of the genre’s evolution.
For those interested in a deeper intro to the genre, here is a playlist of classic and modern grime tracks as a starter.