Partners in grime
Using technology found in their bedrooms, a new generation of young DIY musicians is creating a whole new sound. Some describe it as 'eightbar', others 'grime', but whatever it's called, it's about to turn a posse of aspiring kids into chart stars. Kevin Braddock reports on the schoolyard MCs
Sunday 22 February 2004
Did last year's Mercury Music prize-winning album
Boy In Da Corner sound to you like a kid hammering away on a cheap keyboard while jabbering into a microphone? If it did, that's because that's exactly what it was. The Brits-lauded album is by the poster boy of a new generation of bedroom music producers - 18-year-old Dylan "Dizzee Rascal" Mills - and it was made on his home computer; his top-30 debut single, "I Luv U", took half an hour to record.
Did last year's Mercury Music prize-winning album Boy In Da Corner sound to you like a kid hammering away on a cheap keyboard while jabbering into a microphone? If it did, that's because that's exactly what it was. The Brits-lauded album is by the poster boy of a new generation of bedroom music producers - 18-year-old Dylan "Dizzee Rascal" Mills - and it was made on his home computer; his top-30 debut single, "I Luv U", took half an hour to record.
A fundamental shift is occurring in British music culture. And it's not just the way music is being made that's changing; so too are the people making it. It's a sound coming from the imaginations of the first generation to have grown up surrounded by digital technology - from gaming consoles and computers to mobile phones, CD burners and MP3 players.
Today, any teenager with a few pounds and a good idea can become a star from their own bedroom. Technology has made it possible to compose and record a song on a standard PC, or a Sony PlayStation gaming console, burn the track on to a rewritable CD, pass it to a DJ and hear it played on a pirate radio station within hours. A process that would until recently have taken months, can now be achieved in a day.
The PlayStation "game" that has made this possible is Music 2000. It's an elementary, intuitive tool: using the PlayStation's handheld controller, samples of drumbeats, basslines and strings are sequenced across a number of recording tracks.
The music that's emerging is so new, inventive and atomised, it doesn't have one name but five. "Eightbar", "sublow", "dubstep", "eski" and, most prominently, "grime", are all being touted as descriptors of a uniquely British music that descends from the garage sound that launched Ms Dynamite, Mis-Teeq and So Solid Crew.
The characters involved define themselves as "street", anti-fake and pro-"real". Grime's exponents are multi-ethnic and, invariably, young and inner-city. And behind the names that are breaking through - Wylie, Roll Deep, Lombardo, Medasyn, Durrty Doogz, Tynchy Stryder, Plasticman to name a few - thousands more are just waiting to emerge. For years, the bedroom was where teenagers listened to their music. Now, they're making it there too.
For 18-year-old MC Lady Sovereign, it began, as music careers so often do, in front of the bedroom mirror. "Four years ago I was in my bedroom MCing in front of a mirror with a can of hairspray for a mic," says the Londoner (born Louise Harman in 1985) as she twirls her hair round a finger, chews gum loudly and flashes bright, excited eyes all over the East End café where we meet.
"I was listening to MCs on pirate radio, and thought, 'Let me have a go at this,'" adds the diminutive rising star, her hands stuffed into her pockets. But four years on from her bedroom-mirror days, Sovereign's position as a key MC in the male-dominated grime underworld is confirmed: she's worked at Radio 1, regularly performs for crowds of thousands at raves, supported the Streets on their recent UK tour, starred alongside a trio of other MCs on the recent single "The Battle" (by grime outfit Medasyn) and her fiendishly catchy debut single * "Blah Blah" arrives later this year. She's arguably the biggest music star you've never heard of.
"Times are changing," she theorises. "You don't hear acoustic instruments in urban music no more. It's all about being an MC." Initially, the spur for Sovereign's career choice was Ms Dynamite - the 22-year-old Brit-award-winning singer who was an underground celebrity before breaking through to the mass market. In an world of manufactured pop puppets, Dynamite was a new kind of star - street-tough, honest, entrepreneurial and naturally gifted.
"When I heard Ms Dynamite's track 'Booo!' in 2001, it inspired me to push myself forward," Sovereign says. "I hadn't heard a female MC before that. She's real. Her presence, her image, the way she does everything... she opened so many doors for us girls. A lot more are coming through now - MC Shystie, Lady $tush, Miss Reckless..."
But high-street fame isn't Sovereign's motivation. Rather it is "to have people hear my music, understand what I'm saying, agree with what I'm saying". An aspiring self-starter, Sovereign put the spare time she had on her hands after being excluded from school to good use, penning rhymes in the bed-room of her mum's house and promoting herself through e-mail and the Internet.
Meanwhile, at her dad's house she schooled herself in Fruity Loops, a PC-based music application, mastering it in a fortnight. "It's very easy to use," she explains. "Plus, I'm always on the Net. If you type in my name on Google there are pages and pages of Lady Sovereign. Forums, chatrooms, I didn't make no fuss about it; I just did it really."
Sovereign's brand of notoriety may seem virtual, operating as it does without the "official" endorsement of institutions such as Top of the Pops and mainstream music media. Yet, using new digital channels of information exchange and influence, it taps a culture that values a more substantial notion of what's "real". A one-woman stance against fakery in all its forms, Lady Sovereign chronicles a perspective on what it is to be young and misunderstood in 2004 that you won't read about in Heat magazine or hear about on Fame Academy.
"I don't agree with those shows," she tuts. "Maybe if they had an Urban Idol, or an MC Idol. But not manufactured pop. MCs are real: they write their own stuff, they rap about what they know, the stuff around them. I could never have someone write my rhymes or change my image. It's fake."
Young, talented, determined and sure where she wants to go, it seems Lady Sovereign's days of hairspray MCing are over for good.
Several years ago, the Leicester-based Class A began their rudimentary forays into composition - not with traditional instruments, nor in a recording studio, but right there in the hostel that the crew's lead rapper, Ruuds, called home. Like so many other British crews, outfits and MCs, their tool of choice was Music 2000 - a Sony PlayStation game that is to today's music what the guitar was to the pop boom of the 1960s, the default instrument for amateur musicians everywhere.
"PlayStation is how I started," Ruuds, now 24, explains in an East Midlands accent full of flat vowels and patois inflections. "I've progressed off that and make music in a studio, but I still love Music 2000. You have an idea in your head and within half an hour you have it down. It's so easy - there's a beat sequencer, a bassline generator, you can create a whole song. Anyone can learn it in a couple of weeks."
Class A's current single "The Clash" - a high-octane mix of angered, discordant rhymes syncopated with high-velocity beats - is an evolution on the rough audio sketches Ruuds made with partners Tips, 23, and DP, 24, six years ago. It tells the story of the formation of the crew which, like many of the others which emerged in the wake of the London outfit So Solid Crew (a band as well known for the controversy that surrounds its 29 members as for their number-one records) got together at a "clash".
These are adversarial contests at which MCs go head to head with their rapping skills. This particular clash was at a party celebrating rapper Tips's release from prison following an incarceration for assault.
Class A's music continues to present frank lyrical accounts of violence and gun trouble. And many of their tracks exemplify why Home Office minister Charles Clarke has accused "idiot rappers", such as So Solid Crew, of glamourising gun culture.
But the way Ruuds see it, Class A are highlighting harsh truths about their lives and neighbourhoods "This is grime, it's UK street music, and we're just writing about what's going on around us," he says. "In the Midlands as a whole there's a lot of gun crime - I know at least 20 people who've been shot. Most people I know have been shot at. It's dangerous, man. There are so much guns on the street."
Despite being unemployed and living amid a culture of petty crime, guns mercifully proved less seductive than videogames for the members of Class A. And PlayStation's Music 2000 turned messing about with music into a productive pastime. "You're not playing it off a keyboard," says Ruuds, "so it's a whole different way of making the song, like you're playing a game."
This easy-to-produce music may sound trashy and ill-formed to many, but that is exactly why it is perfect for aspirant music-makers brought up in a world where everything is seen as disposable. Much of Dizzee Rascal's music, for example, was made on technology as rudimentary as that of Class A's, suggesting it is perhaps only a matter of time before the first PlayStation-powered number one arrives.
Music 2000 is unlikely to make a Tchaikovsky out of anyone, but in the case of Class A, it has certainly taken a group of young criminals heading for another spell at Her Majesty's pleasure, and turned them into artists heading for the charts. "When I left school I got into a lot of bother and did time," Ruuds reflects. "I went down for burglary, GBH, loads of charges. But now I'm sorted out and all I want to do is to keep trying to make music. That's what it's all about."
A poster on the wall of room 207 of Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham, north London reads, "Caution - Extreme Noise Levels". The warning is as appropriate today as during most schoolday lunchtimes, when the room is filled with up to 12 wannabe superstars.
Next to an overheated sound-system, the Animaniacs - members include MCs D-Dan, Tails, Skimzee, Gambles, Sway Kid, Teacher, Chaos, Mac B, Ripper, Trigger and DJ Klass-E - are huddled together in baseball caps, hoodies and school ties, busily MCing an adrenalised racket into three microphones. Each namechecks another, excitedly hammers out rhymes for 20 seconds or so, and then passes the microphone on. This is "eightbar" in action - so called because each MC takes the mic and lays out his rhymes for eight bars, before relinquishing it to a colleague.
Over an instrumental version of Dizzee Rascal's "I Luv U", Gambles, 15, raps: "When I clash you're gonna get tore/Bust up your jaw, it's gonna get sore/ Boy, don't let me get raw/Cos If I get raw there's gonna be war." It sounds edgy, excited to the point of hysteria, and given that the sounds they make here are likely to contribute to their music GCSE, it also has the ring of a revolution in the making.
Tottenham's schoolyard answer to the So Solid Crew is paradigmatic of inner-city teenage aspiration in 2004. Their role models aren't guitar heroes or even the highly paid so-called superstar DJs. Instead they are MCs such as Dizzee Rascal and east London's emerging Wylie - performers who have alchemised the rough rhyme skills and elementary PC-based music production into the kind of success that brings respect and money.
"We do it to get respect," says 15-year-old Desmond "D-Dan" Oguh, a serious-minded kid whose entrepreneurialism shines as conspicuously as his diamond earstud. "You look at Dizzee and think, 'If I could do that, I'd be proud of myself. Maybe get some money and maybe get some rope [gold chains].' It might take a long time but you still gotta work at it. Dizzee took a long time to come from the underground. He gets respect. We're all going to college after school, but we're gonna be together - for life!"
Animaniacs is a project organised by Oguh and made possible by the group's teacher, Greg Parker, whose music-technology course grew out of a lunchtime DJing tutorial. Almost instantly, its popularity outstripped the available resources. "There are about 12 kids here everyday," Parker notes, "but there could easily be 100 of them. Most of the lads in the school want to be MCs now. These guys are dedicated; they might not exactly be the finished product, but they get to make the music they like best."
Since the early days of Animaniacs, money has come from the school's Gifted & Talented pastoral fund to foster the talent. Future sources of money may include the police's youth anti-crime fund - designed to keep trouble-prone teenagers occupied. Even the Animaniacs themselves know they'd be their own worst enemy were it not for the music. "The thing about us MCing is that we won't be getting in a lot of trouble," says Oguh. "It takes us off the streets."
Initially, the Animaniacs busked on a karaoke machine; today, DJ Klass-E spins grime CDs on a pair of CD turntables. They're also beginning to produce their own tracks using both a PlayStation and the school's computers. At break, lunch and after school, they're feverishly writing the rhymes they hope will bring them fame.
"We're trying to get on pirate, but it's hard," says Trigger, the tallest crew member. "We're making our own productions and beats, but we don't have the equipment, so we come to Mr Parker. We need to do that before we hit the next step."
It may be difficult to see how "the next step" could generate overground success on the level of, say, Justin Timberlake. After all, the ghostly drum patterns and murmuring basslines of most grime tracks hardly have an equivalent appeal to the sheen of, say, "Rock Your Body". Nevertheless, the drive, independence and DIY ambition that fires Lady Sovereign, Class A and the Animaniacs reflects closely the groundswell of youthful energy that was punk, Britain's last great revolution in youth culture.
Either way, you may never look at your PlayStation or PC in the same way again.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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