Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Outsiders: How the Met tries to banish grime from London’s clubs





Superb article from Dan Hancox, whose stirling work can often be found in The Guardian's Film and Music supplement on a Friday. I often come across the 696 form through work but didn't understand its deeply cynical implications until recently.

From rooftops to chart-topping, the music’s never been more popular, nor harder to hear in public. on the Met’s attempt to banish grime from the capital’s clubs, in of Daily Note.

Grime has always been the most local, the most London of genres. In 2003, in a pirate radio studio on a high-rise rooftop in east London, Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch on the mic, and the ferocity of their egos resulted in them squaring up to each other in that crowded box-room. They were prised apart by Wiley, as Tinchy Stryder, D Double E, and about a dozen other phenomenal talents stood centimetres away. That’s how intimate the genre that now tops the charts was at the beginning; so much flair confined into the tiniest of spaces. Ruff Sqwad’s MC Fuda Guy recently told me just how small a world it was in the early years: “To go to another youth club in another area, and for people to know about Ruff Sqwad there was mad. Then for people to actually hear us in other areas outside London, like up North, was just insane – we were like, ‘How did you even hear our music?!’”

At grime’s inception, it was a physical, real-world community – and nowhere is this more obvious than in the Jamaican-derived ‘clash culture’, where lyrical betterment comes through competition, much like 8-Mile-style freestyle hip hop battles. “Lyrics for lyrics, come”, was the gauntlet thrown down in the legendary onstage clash between early grime outfits Heartless Crew and Pay As You Go. The changes the music has undergone – forced away from the public domain, even as it tops the charts – is reflected in the death of this fiercely competitive culture.

In 2010, clashes between rival MCs take place on Twitter or YouTube. Instead of lyrical contests, UK MCs have taken to making epically long, epically boring ‘talking dubs’ for each other, where they are interviewed at extraordinary length about why they consider themselves better than their peers. 2009’s , ought to be on a par with the great battles of grime’s early days: an underground favourite taking on the godfather of the genre. Yet after a few wayward comments in interviews, it culminated in a parodically long, profoundly dull 43-minute YouTube clip in which Big H outlines his position – without once resorting to anything close to music.

The wet genre-paint dried on ‘grime’ at a point when the internet was coming into its own, when MP3 recordings and live online streams of pirate radio could instantly explode the narrow London geography of the music. , the A&R who made Tinchy Stryder a number one star last year and used to DJ on pirate radio himself, told me he knew back in 2003 that Tinchy was going to be a big deal, just because his name had traversed the capital: “I was from west London and they were from east – but I’d heard of them! East London felt like the other side of the world to me back then,” he laughs.

Thanks to downloadable mixes and internet radio, the London underground has been broadcast to the world in the last few years. But while this democratisation is a good thing, in London itself underground black music has been forced into the private sphere, away from the clubs. Grime was always meant to be club music: inheriting its BPM from garage, it was that bit too fast to simply be the British hip hop. Yet in 2010, the music has been relegated from clubs to be heard mostly through the pale grey beehive of PC speakers, or in the solitary isolation of headphones. In this context, common experience, enthusiasm and debate occurs globally on internet message boards, but not communally, locally, in the bars and clubs of the capital. Grime has been banished from real, physical London.

Part of the reason grime exists on the internet now, and not in the real world, is the infamous police . It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the period 2004-09 represents a systematic and deliberate attempt by the Metropolitan Police to remove music performed largely by young black men from the public sphere. Form 696 is a risk-assessment form used by the Met when trouble is expected at a gig or a club. At the potential cost to license holders of six months in jail or a £20,000 fine, it requests ridiculously specific information about performers and likely audience members.

To take one recent example, in August 2009 Urban Affair at the Indigo2 was shut down, deemed ‘high risk’ because their 696 paperwork had the dates of birth for two artists missing. The organisers had booked an allstar cast of performers, headlined by Wiley and Tinchy Stryder, forked out for tens of thousands of flyers and a cross-media advertising campaign, and were offering to put on a supplementary £4,500 worth of airport-style security to assuage any safety concerns. Legally, there was even plenty of time to resubmit the form with the missing details included, but the venue, panicked by the Met’s interference, had already taken the decision to cancel. It’s bureaucracy as a weapon: blunt, stupid and pretty terrifying, piles of paperwork used to bury license holders, to browbeat them into just not bothering with grime.

The Met’s racial focus was not even concealed. “Is there a particular ethnic group attending? If ‘yes’, please state group,” ran one question, and it wasn’t the only leading question on the form. “Music style to be played/performed (e.g. bashment, R’n’B, garage)”, reads one, while another asks for examples of the types of artists performing: “e.g. DJs, MCs, etc”.

The other authoritarian absurdities carried out in the name of 696 have passed into legend. In 2007, Dirty Canvas promoter David Moynihan’s passport was locked in a safe overnight (“I think it’s so that the promoter can’t skip the country if something happens at the event,” the venue’s rather confused head of promotions told me at the time), and that same year MCs were stopped and searched by plain-clothes police as they left a night at . Sometimes the Met cut to the chase and just tell promoters and venues ‘no grime’ at the outset.

And what happened after all this furore? After the pieces in national newspapers, the petitions, the lobbying by UK Music and finally the judgement of a Tory-led House of Commons committee that last year deemed the form to be “draconian” and “absurd”? The Metropolitan Police retired to consider their verdict: they would have to be seen to do something to revise this racist bureaucracy. They went away. They came back. They announced that actually, sorry chaps, they would stop bothering live music fans across the board, instead narrowing their focus to “large promoted events between 10pm and 4am which feature MCs and DJs performing to recorded backing tracks”. Or ‘grime nights’, as they are sometimes known.

In doing so, the Met gambled that the institutions established to protect the live music industry would stop their crying; and they were right. “When the form was first introduced, it suggested it was for all live music events,” Assistant General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union Horace Trubridge told the BBC in response to the announcement. “That was something we were opposed to. We believe now that the form is much more focused and that the vast majority of our members are never going to come across Form 696.” Hooray, cried the union, they’ll stop bothering our members and only close down grime nights! Grime MCs don’t join the union, see.

A new grime night called Reloads at the Rhythm Factory in October 2009 was cancelled because the Met didn’t like the fact it was headlined by MC , a man with a criminal record (never knowingly a problem for Pete Doherty or Amy Winehouse). The week before, I’d seen the same MC perform at The Albany in Deptford, at an Arts Council-funded event, to a cross-age crowd of bright young students and local middle-class arts dilettantes, along with noodly jazz tooter Soweto Kinch and 50-something poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. Apparently Ghetts’ criminal record – a non-violent conviction for which he’d served his time – will lead to an inevitable bloodbath; but not if there are jazz saxophonists on the bill. It’s not even fuzzy logic; it’s not any kind of logic – it’s a systematic attack on a genre of music and the people who follow it.

This mixture of paranoia and prejudice sits perfectly in the context of the ongoing marginalisation of young people as ‘hoodies’, ‘feral youth’ and even ‘chavs’ – all of which are recently coined phrases, all of which malign young people, playing to adults’ worst fears and widening the social gap between the two. The widespread media panic about a youth knife crime ‘epidemic’ in the summer of 2008 marked a new peak in Britain’s hysterical fear of its young people. It should go without saying that even one youth murder is one too many – but when the dust settled on ‘the summer of knife crime’, and the statistics were released in spring 2009, it transpired that there had been one more teenager murdered in London in 2008 than in 2007. A rise of one, year-on-year, is emphatically not an epidemic – particularly when violent crime has consistently fallen since the 1990s. “Kids are calling it the latest fashion,” began one of a thousand sensationalist articles in the British press, without troubling to supply any evidence.

And where Broken Britain and feral youth are being discussed, far-fetched hypotheses blaming pop culture are rarely far behind. At the height of the impotent hand-wringing over knife crime, The Sun published an adorned with the sober title, ‘After 12 hours of gangsta rap I could have knifed someone’. The only proof of this causal relationship between music and violence he could cite in a lengthy feature was that he “wanted to kill someone” after listening to grime. But don’t worry, Adebayo reassures us: “I wouldn’t, of course, because I don’t have a violent nature.”

Grime kids may have been locked off from their raves – and even, thanks to the luxury “gated communities” springing up round grime’s east London heartland, parts of their local areas – but the riddims are rolling faster and fresher than ever. The likes of Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk have been topping the charts with a watered-down electro-pop form of grime, but this success seems to be having a trickle-down effect. Grime DJs like has commented recently that the quality of new tracks they’re being sent is higher than it has been for years. Rinse FM’s grime DJ team of have showcased some of this bright new talent – producers like , and – in their new decade-launching, free download . Despite everything, grime keeps pushing forwards.

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