Pardon me, good lady, but what is grime? "UK garage with rapping on it," explains an expatriate Brit at the Element Lounge in SF. Um, okay, but what is garage? She looks at me as though I'm completely daft, a recent émigré from under a rock, or someone just returned from a seven-year stint in Irkutsk. You'll have to forgive C2tE for not being up on ultracurrent British pop-cultural trends; it's hard enough remembering the names of all four Beatles. But I digress.
"Garage started with Chicago house," the Brit explains, slightly patronizingly. "Pirate radio -- that's where the grime comes from." Oh, right. Of course, pirate radio in Britain is completely different from pirate radio here. Across the Atlantic, it's an accepted, if illegal, cultural institution that continually breaks new music and boasts some of the best DJs in the Commonwealth. Here, it's called "micropower" radio, and is typically symbolized by tree-huggers tweaking their noses at FCC regulations with widely inconsistent content -- everything from obscenity-laced rap to ultrapolitical neofolk to whatever the rookie DJ happens to like.
She goes on to note grime's other influences (hip-hop, ragga, broken beat), which, she says, all come from East London, parts of which are an underprivileged ghetto that is basically England's version of the South Bronx. Sorry, but what's broken beat? I ask. "Like house music, but more interesting," she explains.
The conversation takes place during the Element's brand-new weekly party, The Grind, which promises plenty of UK flava, including grime, the genre that already has soccer hooligans and glow-stick hotties all fired up about artists like Dizzee Rascal, Lady Sovereign, and Terror Danjah. Grime is even beginning to win the hearts and minds of jaded American music critics bored with crunk and long since over indie rock. A new compilation, Run the Road, scored a laudatory review recently in the New Yorker, which covers rap music about as often as Rudy Giuliani visits the family of Amadou Diallo. To these ears, the comp didn't seem that different from some of the underground hip-hop out in the States right now, except for some barely decipherable Cockney accents. Still, if grime is the next big thing, you don't want to be the last to know.
So here we are in a sake bar turned DJ bar on Geary Avenue, watching Japanese b-boys hog the small dancefloor with sweeping full-body spins, twists, and turns, waiting patiently for the grime to happen.
11 p.m.: No sign of grime yet, but the breakers are dancing to Jamaican dancehall singer Wayne Wonder as the Brit chick goes on about Dizzee Rascal and where he's from.
11:15 p.m.: DJ Rascue, a resident at The Grind and member of the Future Primitive Sound crew, walks over and shares his views on the subject. He thinks the Cockney talk could actually help grime get over in this country. "Americans, we're all about slang," he says. Maybe it's not for everybody, but "people that are into the latest stuff will pick up on it."
11:35 p.m.: Okay, mate, here comes the grime! No, wait, false alarm -- just a house bassline on a garagey track playing on the speakers. Meanwhile Rascue, waiting to take his turn on the decks, pontificates more about the new genre: "With grime, it's so new, people won't necessarily know what it is." Still, he's intrigued by the possibilities, noting the mash-up combination of Dizzee and Bun B (of Texas gangsta rap legend UGK), who recently recorded together. "It's definitely a trend that's waiting to see where it's gonna go," he says.
11:45 p.m.: Rascue is now on the decks, playing everything from classic hip-hop and dancehall to newer, presumably UK material, but has yet to launch into a full-on grime attack. Maybe it takes a while to work up to it or whatever. Good set, though.
11:50 p.m.: I'm introduced to an English producer named Des. Unfortunately, the music he makes is called "new soul" (or is that nü-soul?), not grime. Bollocks! According to Des, grime followed in the wake of the two-step movement, which happened about five years ago in England (remember Craig David?). So what's the difference between that and grime? Grime, he says, is "a little harder, more techno, more hip-hop, stripped down" -- a reaction to the commercialism that watered down two-step. "Kids went in another direction, made it harder, took it back to the streets." The Streets? You mean the bloke who told me "I like soup" when I interviewed him last year? Bloody hell! (The Streets does appear on Run the Road, but is mercifully limited to a verse on a posse cut.)
"Grime will definitely be around in a year," Des predicts, although he too admits it's a "sound in development," and goes on to note, with sage wisdom, "Things seem to be changing all the time." Brilliant, mate.
12:15 a.m.: The grime has finally arrived on the wings of a thumping 808 drum beat. You can tell it's grime because the rapper's Cockney accent is thicker than pea soup. Meanwhile, Des is explaining that the movement is made up of "kids who grew up on American hip-hop," but are doing their own thing. The b-boys are still doing their thing as well, but now there are more new bodies on the dancefloor.
12:30 a.m.: The grime has come and gone. An electro hip-hop classic by Just-Ice and Mantronik from, like, 1986, is playing on the decks, its heavy bass sounding every bit as dominating as it did then; the only difference is it doesn't sound ahead of its time anymore. The brand-new UK flavor is all but forgotten as Rascue kills it with a high-energy dancehall set, which echoes and reverbs into the night air as the crowd slowly dwindles. It is, after all, Monday evening, and extreme late-night chillin' is only for the jobless.
If you wake up Tuesday morning hungering for the sound of the future, you'd be better to swoop up something like Roots Manuva's new album, Awfully Deep, which trades follow-the-crowd uniformity for originality and uniqueness. Grime is gonna wash away come next rain, but hey, if you prefer a fad whose egg timer is already counting down its fifteen minutes, by all means snatch a copy of Run the Road -- quick, before it's passé.
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