Cities, like music genres, always change, and they should change. The question is always the same: how are they changing, and for whose benefit? Grime’s inner city has changed so much since its beginnings, that when you ask its pioneers about how the ends look now, they mostly just shake their heads in disbelief. On Dizzee Rascal’s sixth album, Raskit, he revisited on two key tracks the east London that had made him. The first, ‘Everything Must Go’, talked of east London youth ‘swept off of their feet before their condos are complete’, and – in the name of highlighting their hypocrisy – excerpted speeches from Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson. The quote from the latter, as Mayor, playing over Dizzee’s bass-quake outro, had Johnson insisting to the press that he would ‘emphatically resist’ a London ‘in which the rich and poor can’t live together’, and London becoming more like Paris, where poorer and immigrant communities were contained in crime and drug-ridden suburban ghettos, and where ‘the less well-off are pushed to the suburbs: that is not going to happen in London’. It was a perfect description of exactly what was happening in London on his watch, and it was happening in part thanks to his fellow old Etonian and Oxford University Bullingdon Club member, his fellow senior Conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron.
The influx of foreign investment into the London property market has received a growing amount of attention in the last decade – indeed the financial speculation in housing as a commodity has even prompted concerned reports from the United Nations, who have felt compelled to reiterate that adequate housing is a human right. In 2014, research by the firm Molior Consulting found that ten international investment consortia own sites for 30,000 new homes in the center of London. These investments were characterized as ‘buy-to-leave’ investments, or ‘safety deposit boxes’ – the idea being that wealthy overseas investors will buy up expensive flats safe in the knowledge that their value will continue to increase, and rarely (if ever) actually inhabit them. The asking prices for these luxury flats are, of course, far beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority of Londoners. London’s relationship with the wider world (and its money) is complex – since it was founded by the Romans in 43 AD, the city has never been a monoculture, and would never have thrived if it had been. More than 300 languages are spoken in London, and 37 per cent of the city’s population were born outside the UK. In spite of this, there is still an occasional whiff of xenophobia visible in some of the British media coverage of the capital’s evolution.
The pinnacle of Dizzee’s long-awaited return to a ‘hard’ sound, was ‘Slow Your Roll’, a poignant reflection on the futile youth violence he’d seen in E3 and the Isle of Dogs as a teenager, and what had happened to east London while he’d been away. It was ironic that it took
the MC who became a global superstar and moved to Miami – and more recently, to Kent – to really address the gentrification of the manor. The central message of ‘slowing your roll’ is to abandon foolish and ‘numbing’ gangster pretensions and postcode beefs over streets where the kids risking their lives ‘don’t even own yards’. In a stunning second verse, Dizzee describes the entire process of gentrification with devastating clarity over swooning, sad-eyed synths and chipmunked background vocal wails. ‘The developers rocked up ... and the hood got chopped and the natives cropped and the ends got boxed up, then the price got knocked up/Foreign investment raising the stock up, so the rent got propped up, and it kept getting topped up/So the heart got ripped out, and rinsed out: some got shipped out, got kicked out ... Power, money and big clout’s what it’s about.’ Dizzee had been reading Anna Minton’s book Big Capital, which is about exactly this. As rich in pathos as grime’s extraordinary triumph over the odds has been, the question facing future generations of teenage DJs, producers and MCs is whether the same community-driven youth subcultures can still flourish, when the informal city from which they once emerged is being erased. When the sound of the inner city is finally at the heart of UK pop culture, what does it mean when the places that produced it have changed beyond all recognition? And if the young Londoners who were once demonized are suddenly being held up by Tory MPs and media gatekeepers as paragons of British values, where does either side go next? If deprivation, crime and riots are confined to outside the ring road in the future, as Jonathan Meades predicted, does that point to the suburbs as the future incubator of rebellious working-class music and youth culture, whatever form this takes? And where do these changes leave the culture of the inner city? Will it simply reproduce the homogeneous and glossy feel of the property billboards going up across ‘regenerated’ inner London?
The increasing pervasiveness of the internet over our lives has prompted both nostalgia and hand-wringing – about the death of the youth subcultures and tribes that had sustained pop culture since the 1950s. The lesson some observers drew from grime’s speedy rise and fall between 2003–06 was that both youth culture and the media were fragmenting into ever-smaller pieces. New music scenes were much more likely to be flashes in the pan, as new scenes became ever more disposable and commodified – young people had too many choices, they complained, and too much instant gratification. Our attention spans were all being shot to pieces, and as a result new genres were not being allowed to grow and flourish. If it does nothing else, the story of grime rips a hole in these gloomy prophecies. Grime is not only being allowed to breathe, and to exist in a live context, but it’s even being listened to outside the manor, and engaged with by the music industry, the media, politicians and cops. This is what victory looks like, right? But what about the inner city that grime came from?
While the turbo-gentrification of inner London since grime’s inception has pushed poor people further and further out, as their estates are methodically demolished or sold off , and rents soar to prohibitive new heights, the urban renaissance is also making life harder for those who remain in the inner city’s increasingly isolated social-housing blocks. With this process – not to mention Tory cuts to benefits, youth services and the removal of EMA – has come a further narrowing of opportunities and horizons for young people from poor backgrounds, and a further intensification of postcode wars, youth violence and territorialism. 2017 saw the highest number of teenage murders in London since 2008, and a 47 per cent rise in knife crime incidents. Four teenagers were stabbed to death in London on New Year’s Eve alone.
Is it any wonder that the words of the drill crew Harlem Spartan ‘we all violent, man, back your city’ emerges as a motto from teenagers in that environment? Young people who have been forced up against the wall of their estate, boys in the corner, whose whole life constitutes a seemingly inescapable position. They are effectively under siege – not from tanks and air raids, but from poverty and youth violence, inequality, institutional and societal racism. Bank scams, street robbery, shotters, blotters or HMP. The power of grime comes from transmuting the anxiety, pain and joy of inner-city life into music. That power shifts and bends its form as the world around it changes, and it will continue to do so. Man, back your city.
This is an excerpt of Dan Hancox book Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime published by HarperCollins.
Banner: Emmanuelle Castellan, Propagan, 2021
This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.