Why Grime Beef Might Shake Rap Awake This Year
A string of disses from the UK’s grimiest artists have ignited the scene—and are worth your time.
If you're curious, skeptical, or even apathetic about the UK offshoot of dancehall and garage, let Skepta's "Nasty" be your grime entry point. This needled, frenetic diss track was released in late March and recorded over Wiley's "Morgue" instrumental, a beat that sounds like sudden-death on a masochist game show: your wager's set, and you have 30 seconds to scribble an answer before your bet is null and void. "Morgue" was released in 2005, but it's still worthy of repeats some ten years later, because a vet like Skepta stabbing fingers at arch-rival Devilman over vintage Wiley drips and kicks might be one of the more exciting things going on in music right now.
Since the top of 2015, grime MCs in London have been firing freestyles and diss tracks at each other, fueling and responding to the style's global resurgence. Here's the non-comprehensive cheat sheet: Tinie Tempah threw thinly veiled subs at Chipmunk this January, and in response Chipmunk called out everyone in grime and ignited the scene's gatekeepers and newcomers. Bugzy Malone ate Chip up and Devilman bit at the scraps—but the strays Devilman popped at Skepta left the Tottenham spitter confused. I don't know why Chip mentioned my name, Skepta ponders on "Nasty," but Devilman's tryna get attention again.
Devilman and Skepta's rivalry goes back almost a decade, to 2006's Lord of the Mics 2, one of the seminal clashes that first gained grime global fans (including at least one in Toronto). Back then, producers churned out riddims influenced by parallel London movements like garage and dub, and the beats burst open in clashes, where artists made names, and where borders around the exclusionist genre were drawn—sure, fans could trade DVDs and dubs, but unless you were in the clubs and out on road, you weren't living it.
It's that same tension between observers and participants that's both catalyzed the grime scene this year, and is poised to dismantle it. After a decade's worth of dashed crossover attempts, grime's proprietors are taking attendance: abandoners are being held accountable, and longtime stalwarts are demanding their due props. In the wake of Tinie Tempah and Chipmunk laying respective claim to the "origin of grime" in February, independent artist Big Narstie appeared on BBC Radio 1xtra, in the video above, to offer much needed context for the debate that's ignited his city: "Tinie and Chip even trying to beef on the hardcore grime level is like Boyz II Men and Dru Hill. They're both commercially gone that way," Narstie clarified, indicting Chip for signing with T.I.'s Grand Hustle in 2011 and recording songs with Chris Brown. Narstie then offers a history lesson for anyone listening in: "Dice Records, the label that I mess with, the independent label—large up Kevin Legend—they put out the first grime song, in 2002: Skepta, 'DTI.'"
Narstie pointing squarely to Skepta should come as little surprise to those that have followed the genre. Alongside Wiley and Dizzee Rascal, Skepta has spent years DJing, producing, and battling his way to recognition as a global ambassador of grime. Now, after those pioneers spent years laying groundwork, American rap sounds and styles have been stretched wide enough by a trend-hungry internet generation to finally accept the genre on its own terms. In 2015, Skepta has aligned with stylish New York crews like A$AP Mob, the Flatbush Zombies, and Ratking, lent a bar to Drake, and joined Kanye West onstage in London at the Brit Awards, a symbolic moment that shed light on his city. His singles "That's Not Me" and "SHUTDOWN" have enjoyed healthy rotation on British airwaves and racked up views online, and if there's anyone poised to bring the music global, it's him. On "Nasty," it's Skepta's jabs from this height that land heaviest: Think cause I'm up there sitting on the plane that I can't really hear what people are saying?/ Talk about music, me and my bros are killing it all over the globe.
The free-for-all beef is exhilarating to watch from afar, and truly makes you wonder what's going on over here in America. Why does Lil Wayne hate Young Thug but hasn't said his name on record? Why does Kanye seem to throw shade Drake's way on "All Day"—You a Rico Suave nigga, riding round listening to Sade nigga/ If you ain't with us you in our way nigga, you a actor you should be on Broadway nigga—but give him gushing props in the press? How did one verse from Kendrick Lamar "fuck up the game," as he taunts on To Pimp a Butterfly, simply by saying other rappers' names? Why was the best diss of the year so far a Funk Flex rant about Jay Z texting him?
Maybe rappers in the UK have a sense of ownership American rappers have lost. At the core of their conflict is credibility: who has the right to claim grime? Who was down from the beginning and stayed down to the end? And who skipped away while the fans were growing older, the label deals stalling, and the money drying up? The most damning dig may be Devilman's overnight reply to "Nasty," wielding Skepta's ambassadorship against him: What you doing with them USA guys? That's the kind of thinking that keeps underdogs under, but keeps fringe scenes pure. For better or worse, grime's barriers-to-entry might have crystallized the genre, ultimately producing one of more uncut strains of rap on the market today: hungry kids draped in black, rapping for a rep like it's 2005.
For all the folks that threw their hat in the ring, the big winner from this latest rash of disses might be relative newcomer Bugzy Malone. The Manchester spitter pulled up to Chip's native Tottenham with Narstie and squad, berated him for five minutes in front of a chicken spot, and did 1.2 million views in three weeks, the most of any response. "Ayo Chip, how you gonna get your career ended like that?" Malone asks as the dust settles. "Since when the fuck did a pop star send for a real grime MC? Especially one from Manchester? I don't know what's going on in the pop premiership, but this is the grime premiership, bro. And I'm relegating you fam. There's a new kid on the block. Trust me, daddy." A full crossover may be a tougher hurdle, but if nothing else, 2015 grime is trustworthy.