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URBAN LEGENDS

From Bow E3 to MBE, grime’s ascendancy has been seismic and ferocious. Sam Willis explores the story behind the UK’s 21st-century punks…

Every punk fan will remember the January 1977 issue of Sideburns in which the fanzine taught its readers three chords – A, E and G – and told them: “Now form a band”. That DIY self-governance resulted in one of the most influential forms of music ever created on either side of the Atlantic. Fast-forward to East London at the turn of the millennium and an unlikely descendant of punk was being forged – in a melting pot of poverty, disaffection and a similarly belligerent selfdetermination – and heralded by many as the most original frontier of UK urban music for decades: grime.

2017 was the peak of what many called a renaissance in the genre and, after a significant dip in quality and consumption at the tail-end of the 2000s and into the early 2010s, the numbers certainly seem to prove that it has arrived once again, with a vengeance. Last year saw grime streams reaching an all-time high of one billion a week and a 109% increase in physical album sales, according to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). Although many of these second-generation releases were predominantly CD and download only, they are now also widely available on wax, reflecting the format’s renewed authority.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GRIME

In the same year, we also witnessed the first ‘pure grime’ UK No. 1 in Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer, and a Drake album – More Life – celebrating grime through featured artists, foregrounding its sonic footprint and the typically West Indian dialectal reference points that have become synonymous with grime and the wider culture.

So, how did we get from Bow tower blocks to Wiley receiving an MBE, and an album that generated 89.9 million Apple Music streams on its first day of release and went on to breach the Top 10 album charts in five countries? Culturally and socially, the story starts with the arrival of the Windrush Generation in 1948 – but sonically, the genre is undoubtedly rooted in UK garage.

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