Cleaning up grime

Urban black music is having a torrid time in the British courts. Chris Mugan talks to the pioneers of a troubled genre

The Mercury Prize winner Dizzee Rascal complains that MCs are caught in a bind, seen as underground figureheads by the MC community and potential pop stars by the mainstream record labels that recruit them. "Majors don't fully understand the scene. They try and water it down and it doesn't work," he says. In response, the artist has reactivated his own label, Dirtee Stank, on which he released records before his discovery by XL. Dizzee's manager and label co-runner, Cage, explains that the label aims to reach out to artists who have attitudes to authority that might scare off more established organisations: "people who, through the conditions they live in, might not be stable," he has said.

Cage's vision is a stepping-stone between the insular grime scene and the mainstream record industry. He aims to give artists the time and space to create a decent body of work before they are let loose on the public.

His inspiration comes from the production companies and managers that helped establish the US hip-hop industry. "In America, it's very normal for there to be several entities between the major label and the rap star," says Cage. "Someone will have got in there and done the development: a management company, a production company or a label." He is convinced it could be made to work on a smaller scale in the UK. "The same fundamentals apply. With Dizzee, we sold tens of thousands of records on the underground. We did the groundwork and built up a nationwide following. You have to get that support, because a label can't get it for you."

Yet other players continue to persevere with the establishment. Both the MC collective Roll Deep and Kano earnt their stripes with the pirates, though both have chosen to move away from the edgy sounds that they were associated with. On his album Home Sweet Home, Kano merges boastful rhymes with a more welcoming, conversational approach. Roll Deep, meanwhile, take inspiration from the R&B of US hip-hop for In At The Deep End.

One of the the Roll Deep's prime movers is Richard "Wiley" Cowie, once a mentor to Dizzee, who has already been burnt by the record industry. He left XL after his debut album Treddin' On Thin Ice failed to do the business. He believes record companies are under so much pressure to get a quick return that they do not have the time to give new artists a chance to make an impression in the way that house and techno producers have been allowed to develop. As for the idea of dysfunctional artists who fail to get on with "men in suits", Wiley sees fault on both sides. "Most of the kids from the estates aren't stupid, but they get lost in a world where they think they have to please people. When you go to a record label, you're not meant to try and impress them. They're supposed to look into you and see if they want to invest."

In At The Deep End is several steps away from the music he and his crew had made in the underground, though this had nothing to do with record company machinations. "We couldn't get a deal originally, so I spent £30,000 on studio time to make a record that would please people who weren't ready for grime," he explains.

But, halfway through this process, Lethal B hit the Top 10 with the uncompromising "Forward Riddim", which was proof, if it was needed, that the country could accept grime in the way it had taken to UK garage. "That made me feel sick, because my grime mate had come through with his tune. So I tried to change it, but no one really cared and they went along with what we had."

At the same time, Kane "Kano" Macmillan feels fortunate to be on the Warner Brothers subsidiary, 679 Recordings, that masterminded the rise of The Streets. He has, though, already seen the challenges in dealing with a multinational. "679 are happy with my music, but Warners doesn't understand where I'm coming from," he comments. "I might have a video idea and 679 might be feeling it, but Warners will say it won't play it. Like, I can't be seen drinking."

Kano, though, is more happy than Wiley to move away from the underground MC scene. "I've been doing the MC-ing thing at raves and on the radio and people criticise me by saying I'm an MC, I'm not an artist. I want to show I can make songs. I've worked with producers who have challenged me to write something more detailed, less straightforward."

On Home Sweet Home, Kano has progressed beyond the standard 16-bar rhymes. But, while the rapper is keen to move on from his underground roots, he still needs greater understanding - from the industry at large, and from the authorities.

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