Partners in grime - INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY 22 Feb 2004
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
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.
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.
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.