How A DVD Series Helped Shape A Decade Of Grime Culture
Ahead of its 10th anniversary, Boy Better Know’s Jammer tells the story of his legendary MC battle clash series, Lord of the Mics.
Clashing is a fundamental building block of the grime scene, one that follows in a lineage of mic culture all the way from UK garage's club MCs to dancehall's masters of ceremonies. In grime’s early days, reputations could be made or broken thanks to these live lyrical battles held on pirate radio or at underground raves. MCs had to come prepared to battle with a head full of war bars. Win a clash against another MC, and your profile could skyrocket—but flop, and you’d struggle to live it down.
One of the first people to take advantage of grime’s love of clashing was Jammer, an MC and producer formerly of the legendary NASTY crew, but best known for his work as part of Skepta and JME’s collective, Boy Better Know. Jammer’s pet project, Lord of the Mics, is a grime scene institution: a DVD series that pits MCs against each other in one-on-one clashes. Like so much in the grime scene, Lord of the Mics has humble beginnings: an idea that started among friends in 2004 in a claustrophobic east London basement, it has gone on to help shape one of the U.K.’s most significant musical cultures.
The first edition was released in 2004, featuring a now-legendary clash between grime’s Godfather and pioneer of the genre, Wiley, and an up-and-coming, teenage Kano, who went on to become one of the UK’s biggest MCs following his gold-selling debut album Home Sweet Home (not to mention his stint as Sully in U.K. drama Top Boy). Since then, Lord of the Mics has transformed from a street DVD sold out of the back of Jammer’s car and in local record stores to one of grime’s biggest brands, with live clashes around the country and even a clothing line.
Lord of the Mics has borne witness to some of the most memorable moments in the grime scene’s history, including the aforementioned Wiley vs Kano clash, as well as Skepta’s classic battle with Birmingham MC Devilman, aka Drake’s favourite clash. When grime was at its lowest point around 2011, with many MCs—including Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Skepta—tempted away from the grime scene by major label deals that resulted in watered-down releases, the release of Lord of the Mics 3 captured the imagination of grime’s core fanbase once again and refocused artists on developing the sound rather than chasing after commercial success.
With Lord of the Mics celebrating its 10th anniversary this year—and the upcoming release of the seventh edition—The FADER caught up with Jammer to hear, in his own words, how Lord of the Mics 3 helped kickstart grime’s unlikely mainstream revival, his plans for the future, plus what he really thought of some of the series’ biggest clashes.
JAMMER: It all started in the basement of my house with some of my friends. We were playing around, having a cussing match. My friend was at the top of my stairs and I was at the bottom and we were going back and forth. He was saying there’s 10 of you in NASTY Crew and you’ve only got one car, and I was cussing him back. At the time I used to always have this camera with me, so I asked my other friend to film it; everyone in the basement was laughing and catching vibes. I watched it back on the camera and thought that it was actually a great concept for a clash. That was where the idea first stemmed from.
Later that day I said to Kano that it would be good if he clashed Wiley and asked if he’d do it. I thought the clash would be a good platform for him to show how good he was. Wiley called me the next day when he came back from America. I was in the basement with Kano, Skepta and a few other people. I didn’t even ask him about the clash, I just invited him down to the studio. He said he had met Damon Dash in America and he had given him some advice and vibes that he wanted to spread with the MCs in London. I asked how he’d feel about clashing Kano and he said “yeah I’m on it” then asked for a second to go to his car. Knowing Wiley, that usually means he’s going to his car and not coming back. Everyone knows how elusive Wiley is. As it happens, he went to the car to get some DVDs that he had brought back as a gift, then said “where do you want to do this clash?”
“It all started in the basement of my house with some of my friends. We were playing around, having a cussing match.”—Jammer
In the clash, Wiley used Kano’s name a lot and it seemed like he was really getting at him, but Kano’s performance on the day was phenomenal. To me, they both won because they created a historic moment together and that’s going to live forever. Lord of the Mics didn’t even exist at this point, nobody says “Lord of the Mics” in the clash because we didn’t plan to make a DVD. We watched it back and I thought the format was crazy and I wanted to get more people to clash on the stairs. I got Slix from Ruff Sqwad to clash Domino, and Wiley enjoyed himself so much that he got Scratchy from Roll Deep to clash Footsie from NASTY Crew. Once we had the first three clashes, we started going to radio stations, and that’s where Ghetto and Napper had their clash. There was a number to text to vote for the winner of each clash, but we never released the winners because we thought it was better if the public could debate on it.
At that time I’d just put Kano in NASTY Crew and released his single “Boys Love Girls” on my label Jahmek The World. Not a lot of people know this but I had to pick between Dizzee Rascal and Kano, to put one of them in NASTY crew. I picked Kano because his style matched my production while Dizzee’s matched Wiley’s eskibeat production.
Because I was producing a lot of records at the time, [my friends] Ratty and Capo set up Hothead Promotions and they would distribute my records for me. So they already had this infrastructure in place and when I made the DVD [in 2004] they just used that. The reaction was crazy, before that you could only ever hear artists on a tape pack and radio, you’d never know what they look like. When they got the packaging back they were impressed, they said we’d done something really good and made them worth something. Everywhere I was going people were recognising me. I was already big as a producer and as part of my crew but the impact that Lord of the Mics had was something else.
After that, doing a second was a no brainer because everyone wanted to be involved. Wiley got a deal [with XL Recordings to release his debut album Treddin’ on Thin Ice] straight off the back of Lord of the Mics and so did Kano. Even when Kano was on GMTV [a breakfast-time television program in the U.K.] promoting his Home Sweet Home album with “Brown Eyes,” people were calling in asking about Lord of the Mics and the battle with Wiley. That’s when everyone realised the power of the product, so getting the MCs involved second time round was easy.
At the time [when I was preparing Lord of the Mics 2], Skepta was really on the come up, and when he heard about Lord of the Mics 2 he said he wanted to do it. I asked who he wanted to clash and he said Devilman from Birmingham. He thought it would be competitive and bring out the best in him. The clash was one of the most important and pivotal moments of Skepta’s career. He’ll tell you himself, after that clash everyone knew who he was and wanted to hear what he had to say.
Clashing is the most important thing in our scene. Without clashing the scene was getting lost. People were trying to be pop stars and shooting these videos with Bentleys and Lamborghinis in the background. That’s not our culture. People liked grime because it was music that reflected a culture from the streets and represented the people of London. When I brought back Lord of the Mics 3 [in 2011], grime was going through a very bad time and a lot of the iconic people who put the grime scene and the culture on the map were doing different things, cringe-y things. I’m not having a dig at anyone, but what they were doing didn’t represent grime culture. Lord of the Mics 3 brought back the competitiveness, the culture, the slang, the talent. It brought back a fire and a buzz to the streets.
The day that Lord of the Mics 3 dropped [12 December 2011], Wiley phoned me up and said “you’ve done it, you’ve brought the grime scene back, I’m going to bring back Eskimo Dance” [the grime scene’s flagship live event, named after the classic Wiley beat, “Eskimo”]. He brought back Eskimo Dance at Proud 2 [in early 2012] and it sold out. After that, other people started putting raves on, and MCs were coming back and MCing again. At that time Skepta had a run when he was doing tunes with N Dubz [a U.K. pop trio] and those tunes didn’t sound like grime. The final piece in the puzzle was [last year] when Skepta asked for my old keyboard and he wrote the instrumental to “That’s Not Me”. He was driving around in his car for days with the instrumental on, and just that one line, that’s not me. He didn’t have the lyric yet but he was going around with that one line in his head. When that tune dropped with the flashback video in Rhythm Division [a record shop which was popular in grime’s early days but sadly closed in 2010], that showed people what we really used to look like. He had that old school Wiley cap with the eyes on. Suddenly everyone was back, everyone remembered why they loved U.K. music. A lot of MCs aspire to be like Skepta, he’s one of the greatest lyricists to come from the U.K., so when we had Lord of the Mics and Eskimo Dance back, then Skepta came back with a full grime look and sound, grime was back in full effect.
Lord of the Mics has always been about finding new talent. Some of these talents have broken through, some haven’t done too well, but it’s a platform to give you the opportunity to show people what you’re saying. [After Lord of the Mics 5] Grim Sickers’ rise has been amazing. I got so much stick for putting that clash together, because people thought he was shit, but I saw the talent in him. I thought he was like a WWE character, because he says amazing things and you can see in his face how much he loves grime and the culture. His “Black Bin Bag Him” bar is an amazing lyric; everyone’s saying it and trying to remix it now. It’s a real, authentic grime lyric.
Lord of the Mics 6 was historic. Clashing is intense, especially when MCs don’t like each other. Devilman and Skepta both respected each other as MCs, while Fuda Guy and Rage wanted to wring each other’s necks. P Money and Big H weren’t mates; both of them thought the other one was shit and they were both out there to body an MC. They didn’t want to shake hands afterwards; they were there to battle and fuck each other up. That’s why that clash was the biggest since 1 and 2. Everybody felt the real hatred they had for each other. I spend hours putting clashes together and sometimes I don’t get to enjoy them as much as I’d like to, but when I get an adrenalin rush, that’s when I know that it’s real—and the adrenalin rush that I got in that clash was amazing.
“P Money and Big H weren’t mates; both of them thought the other one was shit and they were both out there to body an MC.”—Jammer
The plan from now on is to start moving live, and to still have clashes on the DVD that don’t have a crowd, but we want to do live events and street clashes and brand collaborations such as the Niketown and Billionaire Boys Club event. I want to bring the new Kanos to the forefront, the new Wileys to the forefront, because I know that the DVD puts artists in the place where they can go and make money, sell out shows, and collaborate with other artists.
I want to work with up-and-coming talent to give them a platform with the brand I’ve created over the last 10 years, and to give them opportunities; then [use] the money we make to make it bigger, rather than spending the money on six artists to battle on a DVD. The Big Mic Man battle league [a series of live clashes that Jammer is planning] is going to happen, but there’s a lot of work to do. I’ve stopped smoking and drinking so I’ve got a clearer vision and I’ve got more time on my hands, so now I can get Big Mic Man up and running. I’m so confident in it that I’ve got the words “Big Mic Man” tattooed on my skin.
We’re celebrating the culture. Respect to every MC that’s taken part over the last 10 years. Boy Better Know.