thu 18/07/2024

Riot music: we should have listened harder | reviews, news & interviews

Riot music: we should have listened harder

Riot music: we should have listened harder

Were we warned?

Gangsta rapper Giggs, telling ugly truths loudly

I'm not claiming some major prescience or insight here. I am as guilty as anyone of dipping into the music of the sink estates for a small dose of frisson then returning to art and music that confirm my own worldview. But maybe, just maybe, if we had all paid more attention to what was being said by young British men and women from those estates over the last decade, the events of the past few days might not have come as such a horrific surprise.

After all, French rappers had been explicitly predicting the riots that took place there in 2005 for a decade beforehand, as I noted (with, naturally, 20/20 hindsight) in The Telegraph that year.

Grime, of course, was and often still is angry music, and it was noted when Dizzee Rascal first exploded onto the scene that his harsh poetry reflected the bleakness and crushing of emotion in underclass life even more than it was about classic rapper's self-aggrandisement. His erstwhile sparring partner Wiley's productions, too – the most influential in grime by quite some distance – were bipolar, flicking from rambunctious aggression to frozen, empty stasis in a second; the latter quality reflected in his instrumentals' titles - “Ice Rink”, “Eskimo”, “Avalanche”.

I recall one piece by the great music blogger and journalist Martin Clark, which visited Wiley's Roll Deep Entourage in the Limehouse estate where they lived, and made explicit connections between the brutal contrasts there – between the poverty of the estates and the glaring symbols of wealth like Canary Wharf that towered over them – and the cold ambition in their sound and lyrics.

But grime still remained of a part with the UK's history of rave music, energetic and funny as well as cold and strange. Much nastier still has been the development of “road rap” or UK gangsta hip hop over the past few years – this sound is rarely upbeat or cathartic in any way, but simply psychopathic in its delivery and content. It is also often harrowingly brilliant.

The producer El-B, who engineered many rap tracks, described the scene to me thus in 2009: “It's not grime, it's hip hop. It's rap. BUT it's not getting touched with a bargepole by the industry because it commands - not even influences, but commands - the kids to go and do bad things, it's real bad, man. The rappers say "I'm just reflecting the neighbourhood" or "I'm reflecting my life" or "I'm just telling you what I see, what I've been through" - which is cool, but the kids love it, and it tells you that life is about selling cocaine, and about having your gun to shoot it not to have it in the cabinet, it's about being about your tings and shooting it, if you've got it shoot it off and do that [flicks Vs] to the police.”

In fact the figurehead for road rap, Peckham's Giggs, has since been signed to a large label and enjoyed some success, but the bulk of the tracks are released on self-pressed CDs, given away online or simply posted on YouTube. A few of the leading artists, like Blade Brown, have a smart if grim wit and insight into the life of drug dealing, but the majority are the “youngers”, teenagers who will film “hood videos” on camera phones consisting of litanies of threats, byzantine detailing of gang rivalries and acquisitive nihilism.

For me, the summing up of this scene's apolitical grimness came in Blade Brown's line from one online freestyle: “I don't rap about black power/ I'd rather hear a Mac shower”, that is, he is not interested in raised consciousness or social change, he would rather hear the sound of the shower of bullets from a Mac 10 machine pistol for the sheer love of power and violence.

Watch Blade Brown's performance for SBTV

That is the mentality behind what we have seen these past few days, and it is also a stark warning of worse if Britain doesn't deal with its problems and fast. I'm ambivalent as to whether music really influences people: as El-B says, these tracks certainly try to command the living of a lifestyle, and the participation of gangs in making online rap videos shows it is a part and parcel of that lifestyle. But no record can create the horrific withering of the human soul – the cold, dead-eyed attitude to violence – that comes with the ubiquity of drugs, a failing of institutions, and from the exclusion which, as Camila Batmanghelidjh writes in today's Independent, “grows when a child is dragged by their mother to social services screaming for help and security guards remove both; or in the shiny academies which, quietly, rid themselves of the most disturbed kids...”

Clearly, nobody knows what is going to unfold in coming days, weeks, months, years, and there are no easy solutions at all. But perhaps our policy makers - and we in the media - would be less at a loss if we had spent just a little less time trying to curry favour with smiling pop stars for their PR value, and more time taking in and trying to genuinely understand the bleakness of early Wiley and Dizzee, or latterly the fury of Tempa T and the shark-eyed sardonicisms of Blade Brown. So many of the voices out there on CDs and online are teenagers - attention-seeking kids - and maybe, just maybe, if we gave them the attention they craved, we might have realised how bad the malaise in our cities was growing.


Tempa T isn't full of rage. You make the mistake because he shouts a lot and has a lot of angry and violent lyrics. His lyrics aren't about poverty, society, or anything like that. They're about what he'll do to rivals on the street, because he (like the rioters) thinks crime and violence are fun and funny and cool. Pretty much the entirety of the Grime and Road Rap scenes do. They're all living some cartoonishly exaggerated gangsta fantasy. That's why Road Rap rappers like Konan and Krept, Giggs, Jonny Gunz and the rest are falling over themselves to come up with the coldest punchline pun about how they'll kill someone, how much coke they sell, or how great their swagger (meaning range of expensive material possessions) is. There's VERY rarely any social commentary there that doesn't just come down to trite clichés about how "It's a cold world / so you've got to sell coke well / you could might end up in a cold cell / or get blasted with those shells" and about how life is a "struggle". Everyone is talking, but nobody is saying anything, except about how much Gucci/Ralph they own and what they're going to do with their nine. I listen to this music (wondering why, over the last three days) but I'm a grown man and I take it as entertainment, same way I'd play GTA or watch Scarface. It's gratuitous, negative, ignorant, but that's the nasty kick that it gives: there's nothing nice or good about this, it's an insight into minds that have taken a decision to go bad and be as bad as they can be. It's a transgressive pleasure, the lure of the extreme, the indefensible. I grew up with hiphop music and Garage, which were much more benign and conscious influences for the most part in those days. I do wonder if maybe the ultraviolent, narcissistic and amoral stuff that kids are lapping up these days doesn't have a really negative impact on their worldviews and behaviour. Because this ISN'T life, it's not a reflection of reality for the majority of ordinary people in London, it's basically crimeporn.

@A. Londoner thankyou very much for that sharp and informed comment... however I must disagree about Tempa T: his lyrics are not ABOUT social conditions, but they REFLECT the frustrations of those social conditions. If you see my earlier article specifically about grime, and the comments below it, I've addressed this ambiguity at some length:

Also... You are entirely right that for many or most of the kids who engage with grime and rap culture, they engage with it on the level of a game - but there is a very, very significant proportion for whom the "struggle" is real, who have been brought up in second or even third generation hard drug using households, who experience extreme brutality and have to become hardened and brutal themselves from childhood. And I do believe that this, just as much as the demand for poverty porn, is what drives the lyrical themes we're discussing here.

Honestly, there's no anger there. Not really. Not righteous anger or frustration, not real anger. Tempa's still shouting even when he's on tour with Chase & Status and having a jolly time performing at student unions in front of lots of cheering middle class white kids. It's the delirium of ultraviolence (even just talking about it) and loud, hard music. It's like getting hyped up on a game of Call of Duty - Black Ops. SHOOT, MURDER, KILL, STAB. HIT MAN OVER THE HEAD WITH A CHAIR. Heart racing, blood pumping, going a bit nuts. Not catharsis to blow off steam from a harsh urban reality. Tempa shouts like that, and chats all that violent shit, for the same reason his fans like to hear him do so: because violence and crime give them a buzz. Transgressive pleasures. Rebellion without aim or need or sense. You can rationalise it all you like, but it's something much darker, much simpler, and much more potent. And ultimately much more negative.

Sure, again I agree for MOST of his audience... and for Tempa himself, who by all accounts is a sweet guy and whose performances are an act. But that act is an encapsulation of a particular strain of grime, and that sound itself DID come from a world of endemic violence. The lyrics of "Next Hype" do reflect a particular sort of random violence that happens to real people... Also... as you bring video games up, one could say that Black Ops etc reflect the violence of a country engaged in multiple wars, too. The coldness and aggression of culture is not limited to the estates!

Can I ask you this: What's scarier: getting beaten up by an angry person or a gleeful one? Tempa T's an arsehole. He genuinely enjoys fighting. Go and do some research on Youtube and Grime forums and elsewhere if you don't believe me. There've been all kinds of instances of him just smacking people up pretty much for the hell of it. And the Grime fans love it. He's a "badman". This is the mentality of a rioter. Watch some Road Rap videos. Look at the smiles when they deliver a punchline about splattering someone's brains all over the room "like spag bol". There's the pleasure of a "witty" line (standards are quite low) well delivered, but also there's that nasty kick, the buzz Road Rap listeners and rappers get out of it. Clockwork Orange had nothing on this shit.

I knew he had slapped a few other MCs about in his early days but didn't know that it was serious, I will look into what you say further... However I honestly don't think there's any contradiction between what you're saying and what I am. "Gleeful" and "angry" are not contradictory. People who are brutalised DO feel gleeful when they are violent, it is often the only stress release they have. Yes, they may be goaded on to it by the drooling response of their audience, but that doesn't mean that grim social realities are not part of the cause of what they do. The entire point of my article is not that all rap is "real", nor that we need to sympathise for or share the viewpoint of rappers - but that we can understand more about the coldness, selfishness, ugliness and greed of mentalities that pervade this country, both in poverty-stricken areas AND in the middle classes, if we pay attention to it... and it seems to me that you kind of feel that way too, if perhaps a bit uncomfortably. It's a fine line between voyeurism (aka riot porn) and understanding though, of course, and that is why a discussion like this is extremely useful.

(Of course the flip side of it is that there are dickheads and bullies who get power and recognition and followers in every walk of life and every industry, and always have been. Therefore we must be very wary of believing too much hype and going "oh we are entering a time of nihilism, everything's going to hell in a handcart" which plays into the hands of the daily mail massive. Remember during the Blitz in WWII - the time that is always held up as when we all stood together, before all this awful rap music came along and turned everything nasty - looting happened on a spectacular scale... people cut the fingers from corpses to steal their gold rings even as bodies were being pulled out of bombed buildings. People have always been nasty bastards.)

Just as a possibly interesting aside, we don't really have any gangsta rap / road rap in South Africa. There isn't one simple reason for this but I've always believed that it's partly because the violence and crime in society is too real and has too damaging an effect on society to even consider glamourising it. It would draw too much condemnation from the community and society as a whole. Our rappers, who are often from the most deprived ghettos, tend to rhyme about social justice rather than glorifying crime. Our gangsters are too busy doing crime and trying to survive to make music. I follow the UK road rap scene and it's hard not to feel that so much of the lyrics are just nihilistic fantasy. How many of these rappers are really committing the crimes they talk about? Go on to SBTV and you can find hundreds or murderers and big time drug dealers who aren't afraid to clap their guns in broad daylight. I'm not trying to suggest that there are no UK road rappers who aren't involved in crime, but there seems to be more posturing than reality in many of the lyrics - and this is what is interesting. Why is it that, when you're not surrounded by real, crushing poverty and horrific, everyday violence (like the kind we have in South Africa), the youth in the UK feel the need to invent it?

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