If you can’t get in, climb the fence. – Skepta, 2016.
June 24th – the day after the referendum. A crowd gathers in Altab Ali Park for a migrant solidarity demo, called by revolutionary socialism in the 21st century (RS21), the London Anti-Fascist network, and radical jewish diaspora group, Jewdas. It’s a moment for all of us to spit out the poison of a referendum that offered vicious anti-migrant politics on the leave side and worse from remain. As a left-leave voter, after months of defending a position most viewed as inescapably allied with racism, it feels like a chance to breathe out. The crowd is 800-1000 strong; modest by historic standards, but decent for a demo called by small groups of militants. We catch up with old friends, hug those who took the opposite view to us in the referendum, take red flags and banners, and move into the street. “Tories Out! Migrants In!” echoes through Whitechapel.
Soon, the sound system starts up. In the struggles of 2010/11, the odds are it would have been playing dubstep, but dubstep’s brief moment in the sun has long since passed, struggling on a journey away from Burial’s South London Boroughs and finally collapsing underneath the commercial brostep hammer-blows of Datsik and Skrillex. Now it’s grime. As we reach an underpass, the speaker plays Tempz, Next Hype; a daft, hyper-aggressive tune which some clubs, absurdly, chose to ban even in its instrumental form. Three of us, a woman in a hijab, a goth girl, and me, shout the lyrics to each other:
CLEAR! All the things in your house
CLEAR! All the food in your fridge
SMASH! All your plates on the floor
CLEAR! All your kids’s toys
CLEAR! All your CD rack – won’t get none of your CDs back
Why grime? Why did it make us grin? What was a gleefully mad and apolitical track like that doing on a migrant solidarity demo? The answer lies less in the direct lyrical content, which is just clowning, and more in the social context of grime music at the current conjuncture.
The Police vs. Grime.
If you’re playing a violin string quartet you’re not going to get a steaming gang turn up. These people go to certain places and they are attracted by the music. If the music being played is attracting a certain type of crowd, don’t play the music.
Sergeant Mick Meaney, Met specialist S019 firearms unit, April 2007.
The police don’t like grime. Naturally this is never stated openly – they prefer the strained innuendo of ‘certain places’ and ‘certain people’ – but it is a barely concealed fact. For about ten years, they have attempted to strangle the genre in Britain, principally through use of the notorious Form 696. The form masquerades as an innocent risk assessment for live music events, which the police assure venues is only voluntary, except when it isn’t. Even where they do not make use of the form mandatory, the spectre of license-loss is ever present, and venues feel a strong pressure to voluntarily comply in order to avoid being seen as problematic by the police. The form demands the full names, addresses, dates of birth, contact numbers and other details of all performers. In its first version the form asked what type of music was going to be played, and whether it would involve DJs and MCs. They helpfully offered some example genres, all by total coincidence associated with black and asian communities; bashment, rnb and garage. Eventually the form stops messing around and directly asks the promoter to comment on which ethnic groups are likely to attend. These questions were removed in 2009 after public pressure forced the police to cave, but the changes to the form are merely cosmetic. Its racist core is still alive and kicking.
Venues that fill out the form have frequently been subject to insane last-minute ultimatums. Performers have been forced to submit to full searches by the police, in view of the crowd, before they go on stage. The police have demanded, for example, on the same day events were due to take place, that venues shell out thousands of pounds in order to pay for a presence of armed police. The alternative is to have the night completely shut down, which has been the fate of gig after gig, including JME and Big Narstie’s Just Jam event at the Barbican, which both the police and the venue simply refused to explain. The police have never produced a shred of evidence that shows Grime nights have any extra risk factor compared with other genres, but this hasn’t stopped them threatening the genre’s right to exist. As JME points out in the Vice documentary The Police VS Grime Music, you only need to take a few nights down for the scene to asphyxiate, as venues start avoiding the risk of police interference as a matter of course. Cargo, the club where Skepta launched his first album in 2007, has now banned all grime gigs, and, farcically, even the playing of grime records.
They only shove a sub-culture’s back against the wall like this in specific circumstances. There is no pressure to shut down football games, despite the de facto guarantee of violence, and the existence of football firms that exist primarily to beat the shit out of each other for fun. The police and the wider establishment will only spring into action when the culture has an oppositional character – and especially when it is black.
The point is established with a quick look at the history of riots. In 2011, commentators right across the press had one causal factor in mind. Not the police murder of Mark Duggan (a personal friend of Skepta’s), not the constant drip-drip of stop and search harassment in black and ethnic minority communities, not even material poverty. Instead, they wanted to pin the blame on hip-hop and black people. Here’s the Daily Mirror’s Paul Routledge:
I blame the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs.
Or the always-wrong historian, David Starkey:
The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion… Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together. This language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England. This is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.
This kind of moral panic around hip-hop and black culture is not new. It has a long historical pedigree. In the 1950s, the genre was rock n roll, but the demographic in their gun sights was the same:
It is deplorable. It is tribal. And it is from America. It follows rag-time, blues, dixie, jazz, hot cha-cha and the boogie-woogie, which surely originated in the jungle. We sometimes wonder whether this is the negro’s revenge. (Daily Mail, 1956)
All this means that grime, at its heart the music of London street corners, of the marginalised, urban, and frequently black working class, is formed, and continues to be formed, in a context of perpetual tension with the existing state of things.
We want rebel music, street music, music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Now music, crisis music. Music that knows who the real enemy is.
Front Cover of first edition of Temporary Hoardings, Rock Against Racism magazine, 1977.
But can grime be described as rebel music? Do grime artists know who the real enemy is? Do the fans? Well, yes and no.
It would be stupid to get misty-eyed about the scene. Let’s be clear, grime is riddled with misogyny, and sometimes dedicates entire tracks to unalloyed bigotry, as in the case of Skepta, JME and Jammer’s transphobic track ‘Disguise’. There is no need to overlook this stuff in the interests of clinging to a romanticised view of grime as a bastion of progressive politics. Our goal is the same as Spinoza’s; neither to laugh nor to weep but to understand.
Self-aggrandisement is the MCs’ bread and butter; a Janus-faced phenomenon that can embrace both the politics of the left and those of reaction or political apathy. In one form, it’s an act of defiance. In a society that tries its level best to leave you to rot in a sink estate or throw you in prison, the command to ‘stand up tall’, to not only survive the system but to thrive, is a command to fight back. But perhaps most of the time, this defiant self-assertiveness is distinctly entrepreneurial in spirit, a swaggering declaration of having made it in the sense of the american dream; of rising, not alongside your class, but out of it. The real enemy then, sometimes seems to be other MCs, at worst people exactly like the vocalist, only from another postcode. This trend was mocked ruthlessly by Akala, perhaps the most politically radical MC on the scene:
Get em’ to the point where some are so lost
They actually believe that if they don’t celebrate killin’ themselves off
That it’s because they’re soft
Was Malcom soft?
Was Marley soft?
Tell me was Marcus Garvey soft?
Well? Was Mohammed Ali soft?
But even as this trend surfaces, it co-exists with another, which is a very high level of consciousness that the police, and increasingly neoliberal society as a whole, are the common enemies of the ordinary person. JME, the producer of countless bleakly amusing videos of police harassing him for no reason, speaks to this idea: “Where I grew up, we viewed the police as bad. If you were in trouble, you’d call your neighbours, your friends – not the police.” Skepta’s famous ‘Shutdown’ gig was an illegal one held under a railway overpass. It saw Skepta wearing a trench coat with ‘Anarchy is the key’ emblazoned across the back and a crowd chanting “Fuck The Police”. MCs like Stormzy, Novelist and Little Simz put politics front and centre. Stormzy, with admiration for Corbynism,“My man, Jeremy! I feel like he gets what the ethnic minorities are going through and the homeless and the working class”; Novelist who takes this still further by publicly joining Labour and leading chants of “Fuck David Cameron” at his gigs; and Little Simz, who begins her videos with quotes from Frantz Fanon – “What matters is not to know the world but to change it”.
Again, noting these characteristics of the scene is not an attempt at a love-in. Grime is its contradictions: from its sharp hostility to the police to its dim-witted misogyny; from its spasms of pointless internecine warfare to its instinctive rejection of neoliberalism. It is a complex mess of elements, just as all culture is. In some ways, this is a good thing. We would not want a world where music was simply another vessel for the propaganda of a leaflet; one vision of hell is a youth culture that sounds like a Trot newspaper. Grime, in both its political contradictions and its precarious, threatened existence, echoes previous oppositional cultures, and there are lessons to be learned from them. Punk has perhaps been the counter-cultural genre par excellence, overlapping significantly with anarchism; and yet it has also been a home for fascists. The nazi element had to be actively beaten out of the scene. And a similar case can be made for rave music, which fought heart and soul against its own Form 696; the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.
A succession of repetitive beats.
There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. – Margaret Thatcher, 1987.
(b): “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats. – Criminal Justice Act 1994.
The Criminal Justice Act, introduced by Tory Dracula Michael Howard, was a massive salvo fired in a long war against free parties. It gave the police the power to disperse raves (events with a succession of repetitive beats being played), seize the equipment and prosecute organisers. Following on from Thatcher’s Public Order Act 1986, which had begun the process of squeezing out alternative music culture, the CJA was aimed unequivocally at one particular glass-eyed, cheek-chewing threat to the nation’s youth; the UK’s illegal rave scene. The sense was of something precious being destroyed. As Vice author Frankie Mullin writes:
The joy and unity the clause aimed to destroy was something rare. All of it was exciting: the wait to hear where the party was; mass congregations in a service station; dropping a pill before joining a convoy of cars, tail lights glittering into the distance… stumbling – butterflies in your stomach – towards the lights and into dancing mayhem.
Rave culture took off in the late 80s and 90s, perhaps the period of lowest ebb in a generation for the class-struggles of the left. It gained ground amidst the right’s triumphant declaration that society did not even really exist, that the world was simply the aggregate of atomised individuals out to maximise personal gain, or at most that of their nuclear family. Against this dark background, the subversive character of raves stood out. Despite an ostensible apoliticism (an ambiguity amplified by the lack of lyrics), the very fact of what a rave was flew in the face of Thatcher’s principles. This is not to say there were no political problems. Misogyny reared its ugly head in the scene through generic descriptions of female ravers as “Acid Sharons” in zines, a stark lack of representation for women among the artists, and clubs offering free entry to girls in hotpants. But on the whole the scene strived to create a space where the opposite values prevailed; collectivism, equality, the de-emphasis of personal identity, or even self-loss; a utopia of a few hours, away from the gaze of the state and the ruthless ethics of capital’s self-valorisation.
Those participating were well aware, and proud, of what their culture was achieving. Boy’s Own, an acid house zine, heaped praise on the collectivist aspect of rave culture: “people from the most heterogeneous backgrounds were transformed by a single entity – music – it gave everyone a common language, a common cohesion”. In British music and culture magazine, The Face, Sheryll Garrett and Lindsay Barker noted the inherent resistance of ravers to the shallow egotism of selective clubs, cutting sharply against the Thatcherite imperative to live one’s life as a project of self-promotion:
They don’t want to be the Chosen Ones, ushered in through the doors of small West End clubs because their clothes are sharper than the plebs in the queue. They like the power felt in numbers: the point is not to be noticed, not to be more knowledgeable or stylish than anyone else. The point is just to be there, to share in the euphoria.
The limit of all this, of course, was that rave provided not a challenge, but an escape. The goal of rave was not to get back in the ring and knock capital out, but to cherish, as much as possible, the time spent recuperating in between bells. This could well reflect the political realities of the time; a battered and bloodied working class, still licking its wounds from multiple defeats, worst of all the miners’ strike. With no clear means for our side to make gains or even hold the line, it perhaps comes as no surprise that rave was less the working class’s call to arms and more a prisoner’s dream. But as novelist Michael Moorcock puts it, “Jailers love escapism. What they do not like is escape.”
If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.
Nonetheless it was a dream they fought like cats to defend. There was strong resistance to the bill, and networks of anti-Criminal Justice Act groups were quickly built. Virtually every rave flyer came with mockery of the act in its copy. The music itself started to reflect deep bitterness towards the state’s repression of the culture, reaching an apotheosis in The Prodigy’s ‘Their Law’ – a moody, snarling track, structured around a single contemptuous sample; ‘Fuck em and their law’. Like grime, ethnic minorities were strongly represented in the rave scene. Once again, it is interesting to note the establishment’s treatment of any minority-led culture deemed as alien to the goals of the state. Invariably, it is called violent, even in a culture like rave, where the idea of violence is almost laughable. Here’s the Daily Mail on the ‘Revolt of The Ravers’, a major demonstration against the CJA in the winter of 1994:
the flashpoint came when thugs opposed to legislation against raves tried to turn the park into a giant party…The ravers who call the tune – behind a front of legitimate protest, the underground party organisers who have spread misery throughout the country – music that became a rallying cry for violence.’ (Daily Mail, 10 and 11 October 1994).
Fight for the right.
The movement against the act proceeded through organised marches in London, which tended to end with a street party rather than the usual parade of speeches. It produced groups like Advance Party, and eventually Reclaim The Streets, a movement which quickly internationalised and aimed at a more general reclamation of public space. The first big party took place in Camden High Street in May 1995, which saw around a thousand people block the road and party. A bigger event was ‘Rave Against the Machine’ on 23 July 1995, with a sound system housed inside an armoured car, and thousands of people dancing on an occupied Upper Street in Islington. They were a far-cry from the free parties that took place before the act – in 1992, 40,000 assembled in Castlemorton for an unlicensed festival that the police were powerless to control – but their political reverberations were deep. The global anti-capitalist movement that developed over the rest of the decade had significant roots in these groups and demos. This movement perhaps reached a pinnacle at the ‘Battle In Seattle’ World Trade Organisation protest, which was widely heralded as bringing an end to political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s famous declaration that history had ended, with liberal capitalism the permanent victor. Not bad for a bunch of glassy-eyed gurners in a field.
Operation Lenor and beyond.
Fast-forward to today. Fabric, a cornerstone of London’s night life has escaped Operation Lenor, the police’s secret campaign to close down the venue, by a whisker. This is a remarkable and against-the-odds victory. Fabric is an iconic club, and one of grime’s few allies in the city. But even though the campaign to save it has succeeded, what has been saved is itself a product of defeat; Fabric is a highly managed, policed and contained space to party in. The commercial side of the scene, met with great resistance in the 1990s, is now tolerated with little complaint. And even this was nearly taken away from us.
And yet, the new oppositional music, grime, has the potential to go further than rave did as a threat to capitalism. It has grown up in a different context to “there is no such thing as society” Thatcherism. The working class, though pummelled by attack from New Labour and the worst cuts since the 1920s from Tory governments post-2010, has not suffered a major defeat in the same way they did during the 1980s. Movements like Stop The War, the student movement of 2010 and Occupy, though failing in their direct goals, signify our class staggering to its feet, in fits and starts, after a long sleep. Now, a rejuvenated left-reformism poses a threat through Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Grime houses its own form of escapism through the hero-worship of those who strike it rich, but it’s also far less preoccupied with trying to live in the brief spaces where capitalism will leave you alone, and much more prepared to turn and face the enemy head on. In artists like Akala and Lowkey this is so developed as to be a form of, more or less, direct anti-capitalist agitation. But just as exciting are those only a few steps behind, struggling towards the realisation that the world has beaten them down from day one through their race and class, and solid in their conviction to do something about it. The best moments in grime come when an MC is stalking the mic, coiling like a live-wire, every bar cutting through bromides and bullshit. In these moments, it’s music to storm the treasury to. Whether we storm the treasury or get washed away in the Operation Lenors of the world remains to be seen, but the tension cannot be dissipated. Like the time-frozen revolutionaries of China Mieville’s novel Iron Council, “we are always coming”.