For the photographer Ewen Spencer, the exhibition Open Mic: A Life of Grime is the culmination of a three-year project looking at the lives of teenagers in the UK. Spencer began photographing adolescents in youth centres and clubs across the country, later finding his way into the underground open-mic nights where rival MCs and their crews would go head-to-head, engaging in vocal warfare that could make or break reputations in seconds.
"Watching these battles I became aware of this social hierarchy," says Spencer. "These kids are having to vie for position all the time. It's not just about music, it's a lifestyle. They've got the look - the hats and the latest trainers - and use a vocabulary that's impenetrable to outsiders. It's an entire sub-culture that has grown up in the past three or four years."
Grime's first big star was Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal, whose Mercury Prize-winning album Boy In Da Corner described a disenfranchised youth on a Bow housing estate. Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, is also a central figure on the scene, a multi-million-selling artist who nurtures rising young rappers. Now 20-year-old Kane Robinson, Kano, a chisel-jawed ex-footballer from East Ham, looks set to follow Mills and Skinner into the limelight and take grime into the mainstream.
Spencer is a close friend of Skinner's, having produced the art work for both his albums, and their association opened many doors for him. It was through Skinner that he met Ratty and Cato, two stalwarts of the east London scene known locally for their documentaries, Lord of the Mics and Lord of the Decks. "If they were going anywhere, to a battle or a recording session in Leytonstone, say, they would take me with them," he recalls. "I would shoot and they would film. I started off taking pictures of the battles but then I started looking around at the people sitting on the sidelines, smoking and singing among themselves, and started photographing them instead."
Grime artists and their crews are almost exclusively young, black and male. Established MCs are usually in their mid- to late teens though some start as early as nine, "spitting" at raves with their older brothers. Instead of dwelling on the stars of the scene, Spencer's pictures depict the hangers on, the loiterers, the crews. These groups of teenagers stand huddled together, unsmiling, with their hats and hoods pulled low over their faces. In some instances the body language is defensive, menacing even, though in other cases they just look plain bored.
The majority of MCs are part of crews, groups of lads numbering anything from five to 15 who spit en masse and go by gangsta monikers such as Nasty, Deep Ops, Ruff Squad and Roll Deep. Rivalry is rife both between crews and within them. Each has a nominal leader, though there is often disagreement over who that person should be. Indeed, like UK garage, the genre championed by So Solid Crew, grime comes with an alluringly dangerous edge. Dizzee Rascal was famously stabbed in Agia Napa last year, allegedly by a member of a rival south- London gang riled by his sudden success, f though he lived to tell the tale. Gun crime is often glamourised in lyrics though more recently there's been a move to tone down the aggression and espouse peace between crews.
Grime may still be in its infancy but the scene has already started to sub-divide. As hip-hop has become a catch-all term for a variety of sounds in America, so has grime in the UK. Wiley, the producer, MC and member of Roll Deep, is the principal exponent of eski or eskimo, while Black Ops advocate sub low, so-called because of its low bass frequency. Despite Skinner's association with grime, his kitchen-sink realism and vocal style is in a category all of its own.
Though grime borrows much of its language and aesthetic from American hip-hop, it has its own distinct culture that comes directly from the streets. Record companies are homing in on MCs with potential mainstream appeal, but the culture itself is largely self-sufficient - the latest tunes will be burnt on to CD and on sale at raves long before their official release. Along with its specialist magazines, grime has its own version of MTV, Sky's Channel U, which runs homemade promos alongside glossy American rap videos. Artists get valuable exposure from pirate radio stations operating from cramped flats and abandoned shipping containers; now Radio 1 has got in on the act with 1Extra, its digital urban-music station.
So now grime finds itself at a crossroads. Can it make the leap into the mainstream while staying true to its roots? "It's already evolving very quickly," says Spencer. "But I think there are enough people at street-level to make sure it keeps its integrity. I really believe that it's the sound that will define the decade. It's not just about music, it's about identity. It's just what British black culture needs." F
Open Mic: A Life of Grime, is at Sony Ericsson Proud Galleries, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1, 15-21 July, www.proud.co.uk. An accompanying book is available for £9.99: call Marco Santucci Photography, 020-7226 7705