Partners in grime: The marriage of grime and punk

Black urban acts and punky white bands are getting together in a way not seen since the late Seventies. Ian Burrell reports
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Not since the days of the seminal Covent Garden club, The Roxy, where 30 years ago the dreadlocked resident DJ Don Letts played plaster-cracking reggae basslines to an appreciative audience of prototype punks, has their been such a love-in between Britain's young rockers and the black music of the inner city.

The roots of a new trend are clearly visible, winding their way right back to those punk years, as the London grime rapper Lethal Bizzle last week combined with the raucous young Watford band The Gallows to release "Staring at the Rude Bois", a fresh take on the reggae-influenced punk classic by The Ruts. The rapper has also cut a grime version of The Ruts' "Babylon's Burning" and added his own rhymes to The Clash's "Police on My Back", having assembled an indie backing band consisting of members of Babyshambles, The Idle Lovers and The Rakes.

Other British rappers are at it too. The grime trailblazer Dizzee Rascal featured, on his recent album Maths and English, collaborations with Alex Turner (the singer with Sheffield indie group Arctic Monkeys), and Lily Allen. Dizzee's recently concluded UK tour included support from indie bands The Pistolas and Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong. Franz Ferdinand guested on the new album by rap pairing The Mitchell Brothers, while Kano, another East London grime rapper, worked with Damon Albarn and Kate Nash on his most recent album London Town.

Speaking to The Independent this week, Lethal Bizzle says the fusion has given his music an extra dimension. "I think people are getting more open-minded and are becoming fans of different genres of music, that's what has really helped me. A lot of the people I have been collaborating with have been into me and the stuff I do and likewise, though I'm not predominantly an indie rock'*'roll fan, I appreciate a lot of the songs."

The idea of a British rapper stepping out of the shadows of the urban high-rise heartland and working collaboratively with guitar-based bands would have been shocking a few years ago, when a gulf emerged between the indie and urban genres in Britain. "In the Nineties it was really divided," recalls Bizzle. "I think people were scared to cross over but me and a few others have just thought, 'You know what, fuck it! Let's try and do something different.' That has made it easier for others to say, 'I've always liked that'. It has opened the doors for both parties."

Bizzle has become a favourite featured artist of the NME, even appearing on the its website with a video message posted from the quagmire of this year's Glastonbury festival. "I'm loving the mud, man, it's really working for the toes," he told indie fans, before expressing his desire to catch sets from The Twang, The Killers and Arctic Monkeys. This year he has performed at five indie festivals.

"In the hip-hop game it has got really repetitive and that has inspired me to try something else with the indie thing. It wasn't trying to break a new audience or anything – I was just trying to bring something different into my music. It happened to be indie rock and it just took off," he says, observing that he is mirroring earlier American rap/rock collaborations, such as Run DMC's "Walk this Way" hook-up with Aerosmith in 1986.

"With the collaborations I have always been me – I'm not going to compromise my style as an artist. I think that is what has kept my core audience on side because I'm still the Bizzle, even when collaborating with The Rakes or Pete Doherty or whoever, you are still going to get that UK grime/hip-hop vocal. I'm not going to start trying to do Pete Doherty or Alex Turner's voice. And I think it really works. People are getting bored of hearing the same thing and are open-minded to new stuff."

Alan Donohoe, the frontman with The Rakes, worked with Lethal Bizzle on a re-mixing of the London indie rock band's hit single "22 Grand Job". The project came about after a MySpace message to the band from Bizzle's producer, Statik. The two grime artists have since become friends of the band, joining them on stage at the Reading Festival in 2006. "Lethal came on and literally spat all over my mike, figuratively and physically speaking," says Donohoe. "It worked well and spiced it up. I don't think at the time many of our fans realised who Lethal was but now he seems to have crossed over loads. Lots of his songs seem to have samples from the likes of Babyshambles, so he's popping up more in NME than in Mixmag."

The Rakes' singer says that he was conscious of the divides in music genres when he was a college student. "If you are turning up at a hip-hop club in the West End wearing a shirt and tie, a purple cardigan and cords, then it's a bit hard to fit in."

But he credits Mike Skinner of The Streets for having built the foundations for new bridges. "He was getting the front page of the NME and everyone that was into guitar-based music knew about him. Even if you weren't into the music you could relate to a lot that he was rapping or singing about."

Emerging indie bands with a faster tempo and a less "A-level poetry" lyrical content than their predecessors share a similar energy to some of the grime artists, he believes. "I feel that where urban and indie music crossed over for us was that we are writing songs which are not typical, shoegazing, limp-wristed indie stuff. It's more about getting a bit of money, going out and encounters with the opposite sex. We have upbeat tempos so to a degree it ties in, both the music and the lyrical content, with what the urban people are doing."

Among the punk crowd listening to those Letts reggae selections three decades ago was the Sex Pistols's John Lydon, who was himself at the forefront of punk's love affair with roots and dub. The balding and paunch-carrying punk veterans who came out in their thousands for the Pistols's recent series of reunion shows should hardly have been as surprised as some of them clearly were to see the the drum'*'bass stalwart Goldie behind the decks and providing the support for Johnny Rotten and Co. A blogger, Dave Cross, captured the mood afterwards, writing: "The Sex Pistols fans were not enjoying Goldie one bit. But he ignored our obvious dissatisfaction and continued to the end of his set. Whoever decided that Goldie was a good choice of support needs their head examined."

Goldie himself sees it very differently. He has struck up a good friendship with the Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, through their shared interest in art, and, besides, he is a long-standing fan of the punk pioneers. "If U2 asked me to support them, I don't see what the connection is. But the Sex Pistols, yeah, I see the connection," he says. "A lot of people [back in the Seventies] were probably so intoxicated they didn't realise how good they were. Considering they only really made one album they've lasted a really long time. The Pistols came out of what was going on in this country at the time, it was about Thatcherism. Look back at the films. Arthur Scargill and the miners' strike, what was that all about? We don't riot anymore, everyone is too controlled by E-numbers. But look back at that era and it was a pretty mad time."

The graffiti-artist/DJ/music producer/actor was once a young punk himself. "Thinking of my own teen spirit, I remember buying the "Public Image" picture single [by Public Image Limited] and it came in a newspaper sleeve you could fold out. I already had my 18in Dr Martens and was part of a little group where whenever they played punk music I was the black kid in the middle getting a kick in the back. I liked it," he says.

So he claims to understand why his performances on the turntables invoked a reaction of hostility from the Pistols crowd. "Playing at the gigs has been hilarious. I'm playing cutting-edge drum'*'bass and people are giving me the 'fuck off' sign. I'm like 'That's it! A bit of response! You used to be punks, so get out of your prams and throw your toys a bit!' That's why Lydon loves drum'*'bass, because it irritates people, doesn't it?"

He says he would like to work with the Pistols, musically and artistically. "If I did something [artistically] with them it would be some mad portrait stuff, which would take it beyond the [legendary punk graphic artist] Jamie Reid stuff. I'd love to rework some of their music stuff, not the old stuff but some of their new material and take it somewhere dynamically."

NME, which had moved away from urban and dance music genres in order to sharpen its identity as the indie bible, has recently become more sympathetic to grime. This year's Love Music Hate Racism on V2 records, which recalled the punk/reggae anti-Nazi movement of the late Seventies, highlighted urban acts such as Lethal Bizzle, Statik, Akala, Natty and Roll Deep, alongside indie groups including The Enemy, The View and Babyshambles.

Jamie Fullerton, a news reporter on NME, has watched the trend unfold, pointing out that Dizzee Rascal has introduced an interlude into his live set where a DJ plays music from Nirvana and other rock acts. He believes the interest of grime artists in embracing indie music is partly artistic and partly commercial. "Lethal Bizzle is someone who has just absolutely bulldozed into the indie scene. He is on our Rock'*'Roll Riot Tour, which is traditionally an indie tour. He's a breath of fresh air – he likes touring, which not all urban acts do, and he loves the rock'*'roll lifestyle."

According to Fullerton, the music policies of major British radio stations have been influential in encouraging broadmindedness. "In the States, radio stations are straight genre titles – they might play pure R&B or just soft rock. Our main radio stations are very diverse and you hear Dizzee one song and Babyshambles the next and that reflects taste."

In America, rappers have also been experimenting. Lily Allen appears on the new album by Chicago's Common, for example. But their tastes are not as rocky as their British rap counterparts, as evidenced by the collaborations done by both Jay-Z and Kanye West with Coldplay's Chris Martin. The urban-music specialist Hattie Collins says she has been shocked by the desire of many US rappers to work with Phil Collins.

As editor of RWD magazine, which features British urban music, Hattie Collins has felt the need to give greater prominence to indie music artists as they have become increasingly relevant to her audience. "In the last two years we have gone from being exclusively hip-hop, grime and underground music to covering acts that are perhaps outside our remit, like Larrikin Love and New Young Pony Club."

Although she says that the term "grindie" was introduced to describe a crossover grime-indie music scene that has never really taken off, the collaborative work of artists and the breaking down of musical prejudices cannot be denied among a generation whose tastes have been shaped by iTunes and MySpace. The new harmony is also reflected in dress styles, with rap fans casting aside their baggy clothing in favour of tight jeans, bright coloured T-shirts and fashionable jackets by Bape.

At clubs in London such as StyleSlut, Yoyo, RWD in Stereo and Dirty Canvas, DJs – including Peaches Geldof – play a selection that would make Don Letts proud, throwing grime and punk together. "Peaches plays grime, nu-rave and indie, one after another," says Collins. "It's like having 'shuffle' on when listening to your iPod."

Lethal Bizzle plays the Carling Academy Islington (0905 020 3999), London, on 29 November