In the early 2000s, something new and exciting was happening in the UK music scene. The sound of UK garage was taking over the charts as well as the clubs, and no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t avoid it. However, there were a significant number of people who, while enjoying UK garage, still couldn’t relate to it. After all, it’s kind of hard to connect with a song about bringing someone flowers when the street you live on has the nickname “the Murder Mile.” Young black kids, unable to fit into the music’s mainstream sensibilities, carved out their own scene and took the best aspects of UK garage, drum-and-bass, and dancehall to create something new. Mixing heavy bass lines with erratic snares and synths on top of lyrics that explained the harsh realities of what life was like growing up in the rougher parts of London, grime was born, and became the vessel that led its contributors to discover their identities and their talents.
After remaining predominantly underground for some time, this new and unique sound began making waves in the music industry. Pirate radio stations such as Rinse FM along with DVD series such as Risky Roadz and Lord Of The Mics made it possible for grime to transcended the smoky basements of Hackney, and the genre started to receive mainstream attention. And as we all know, whenever a scene or sound becomes very popular, its initial bright spark turns into mind-numbing tedium, often caused by record companies rushing to capitalize on the newest trend.
At this moment in time things started to change; as grime albums won prestigious awards and singles began topping the charts, many frontrunners of the scene signed to big record labels and had no choice but to grow into a mainstream sound, taking advantage of the unprecedented attention they had received. Even though both originators and newcomers continued to make grime music, the scene and the attention it received diminished.
The music returned to the underground for quite a few years, but in 2015 the world was an interesting place, and people en masse once again began began to talk about this thing called grime. Newer MCs such as Stormzy, Novelist, and Lady Leshurr were selling out shows and racking up millions of views on YouTube, and legends of the genre such as Skepta were hanging out with Drake and selling out tours in America.
With a little help from the internet, grime had reached heights it couldn’t have dreamed of when it first started, and fans around the world flocked to the genre in droves. Now, we’re witnessing a cohesive grime scene that’s stronger than it ever was in its early years. So there’s no better time to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with some of the songs that made grime what it is today. Here are 10 of the very best.
10. Ghetts – “Practice Hours Freestyle” (from the Practice Hours DVD, 2006)
OK, so it’s not an actual track, it’s a freestyle, but few things show grime’s inherent hunger, skill, and resolve better than Ghetts’ “Practice Hours Freestyle.” Since his early days in the N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, Ghetts has been known for his uncompromisingly complex and hard-hitting lyrics. While it’s arguable that he is one of the most underrated MCs in the grime scene, his debut release, 2005’s 2000 & Life mixtape, as well as an endless array of impeccable freestyles, have proven him to be one of the best.
9. Devlin – “The Truth” (from Tales From The Crypt, 2006)
A critique that’s often attached to grime is the genre’s inattention to lyricism. People tend to think that due to the repetition of bars and the lack of storytelling, grime MCs can’t be called great lyricists. But even of there were some evidence to support such a theory, MCs like Devlin tear it to shreds. Whether he is freestyling or laying down a track, Devlin is capable of entwining various subjects, metaphors, and words as if he had ingested a thesaurus. On “The Truth,” Devlin displays his razor-sharp delivery and ability to grab words from every corner of his lexicon.
8. Jme – “Punch In The Face” (from Famous?, 2008)
“Ha! I’m Jme, my name is tattooed on the grime scene/ People don’t know how to test me, been doing this from 2003.” Those are the opening two lines of Jme’s eponymous “Jme,” taken from his second album, Blam! He goes on to declare himself a genius, telling whoever may be listening that they’ll never be like him. It’s pretty common for MCs — who can be a tad narcissistic — to make such outrageous claims, and as listeners we tend to laugh off such intense bragging, but when it comes to Jme, you can’t help but feel that he’s right, especially when you look at his résumé. Since co-founding Boy Better Know with his brother Skepta in 2005, Jme has proven to be one of the best producers and entrepreneurs in the grime scene, and on “Punch In The Face” (which he also produced) he proves that he’s also one of its best MCs. Jme uses this track to show off just how good he is by dancing around double-entendres with such ease that it has to be heard to be believed.
7. Ruff Sqwad – “Xtra” (from Guns And Roses Volume. 2, 2006)
In the same vein as Roll Deep and More Fire Crew, Ruff Sqwad was a tight-knit grime crew of close friends founded by Prince Rapid in 2001. While the crew is still active today, and has been over the years in different incarnations, the original members were Tinchy Stryder, Dirty Danger, Slix, Prince Rapid, Shifty Rydos, Fuda Guy, and DJ Scholar. The guys knew each other so well that when they performed live they were able to finish each other’s verses, adding freestyled lines and going back and forth that way continuously. Their unique posse-cut style was displayed best on “Xtra,” a track that still hasn’t lost its potency.
6. Skepta – “Duppy” (from Greatest Hits, 2007)
Some people only became aware of Skepta quite recently, which is understandable when you consider recent events. He inspired the biggest hip-hop star in the world to get a Boy Better Know tattoo as well as “sign” to his label, and he released two critically and commercially successful tracks in the last two years. Though it might seem like an overnight success, Skepta has been putting in the work since the early days of grime, so much so that by the time he released his debut album in 2007, he had enough well-known tracks to be able to call it Greatest Hits. “Duppy” is a standout track on his debut, which helped to propel Skepta through the grime ranks. Its drum-and-bass feel made it an instant hit in clubs and raves across the UK, making it one of the last grime anthems to come out of the early-to-mid-2000s heyday.
5. Roll Deep – “When I’m Ere” (from In At The Deep End, 2005)
After his UK garage crew, Pay As U Go Cartel, split up, Wiley formed Roll Deep, a vast collection of MCs and DJs that has featured everyone from Skepta to Dizzee Rascal at some point in time, becoming something of a grime institution. Roll Deep released many mixtapes independently before releasing their debut album, In At The Deep End, but “When I’m Ere” is one of their most loved and recognized tracks. Produced by Danny Weed, “When I’m Ere” shows a level of innovation and skill that is the equal of any producer in any genre. As well as using the rhythms and tempos of Wiley’s Eskibeat basslines, Danny Weed mixed that trademark sound with a gypsy accordion, creating one of the most menacing beats you’ll ever hear. (He also once used the flashing of a camera to create the beat for “Roll Deep Regular.”) The inventiveness of Danny Weed on tracks such as “When I’m Ere” is a prime example of the scene’s relentless creativity.
4. More Fire Crew – “Oi!” (from More Fire Crew CV, 2002)
More Fire Crew were one of the first crews in grime music, and their success, as well as Wiley’s Roll Deep movement, paved the way for future crews such as Boy Better Know and the Newham Generals. More Fire Crew was made up of three members — Lethal Bizzle, Ozzie B, and Neeko — who formed in 2002 and released “Oi!,” which quickly became the inaugural grime anthem. “Oi!” was not only an introduction to the More Fire Crew and its young, talented members, it was also an introduction to grime for a generation that had yet to hear it. The rise of music video channels such as Channel U (now Channel AKA), which exclusively played grime artists, meant that more people were now aware of this underground scene. That, coupled with the ability to get music on your phone, led “Oi!” to become the first grime track to reach a massive audience. It even managed to climb the UK Singles Chart, breaking into the top 10 and peaking at #7.
3. Kano – “P’s & Q’s” (from Home Sweet Home, 2005)
One of the most memorable instrumentals in the history of grime was Kano’s debut single, “P’s & Q’s,” which took him from rising star of the underground to next in line for Dizzee Rascal’s throne. While this track showcases how grime should sound sonically, it’s also proof of the lyrical dexterity possessed by countless MCs, Kano being one of the greatest at flow, delivery, and content. On “P’s & Q’s,” Kano warns listeners of the troubles one might walk into while in enemy territory without friends or backup. It’s a brilliant combination of storytelling and braggadocio that touched on themes that everyone growing up in certain areas of London had experienced. He uses multiple punchlines and metaphors while effortlessly riding the frantic beat — “The only pop you’ll hear from us is POP POP POP, then we’re out.” “P’s & Q’s” became a hit amongst fans and was given the “grime classic” stamp almost overnight.
2. Dizzee Rascal – “I Luv U” (from Boy In Da Corner, 2003)
You may know him as the guy responsible for “Bonkers,” one of the most annoying yet popular songs of 2009, but in 2003 Dizzee Rascal was an entirely different beast. His debut single, “I Luv U,” broke out of the underground and became one of the first grime singles to chart in the UK. A stark contrast to his later work, “I Luv U” weaves a dark tale of teenage pregnancy and blackmail, accompanied by a bass-heavy instrumental that’s as menacing, immediate, and raw as the lyrics that Dizzee spits. Even though he moved on to team up with the likes of Calvin Harris and (believe it or not) James Corden to top the charts, “I Luv U” is a grime benchmark that has forever cemented his place as one of the genre’s most significant and influential MCs.
1. Wiley – “Wot Do You Call It?” (from Treddin’ On Thin Ice, 2004)
Every genre of music has a godfather, a forward-thinking pioneer whose existence and output left an indelible stamp genre’s future success. Just as James Brown became regarded as the Godfather Of Soul, and Iggy Pop the Godfather Of Punk, Wiley is surely the Godfather Of Grime. He invented a sound that became grime’s blueprint, and one of the best examples of that is on his full-length debut, Treddin’ On Thin Ice. “Wot Do You Call It?” came about in the early 2000s because no one at that time knew what to call the new and exciting sounds that were coming out of East London. So before grime became grime, it had more names than a new Kanye West album. Is it 2-step? Is it urban? Is it sub low? Wiley called his own particular sound Eskibeat, but for quite some time, depending on who you asked, you would get a different answer. “Wot Do You Call It?” is the best example of the excitement surrounding the scene at the time, as well as the hollow yet forceful bass lines that would become grime’s trademark.