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Tower block boy

The WileyKat and Dizz, Bethnal Green, 2002

Maybe all forms of music have their symbolic numbers. Plotted against a conversion table, the letters of J. S. Bach’s surname (2 + 1 + 3 + 8) equal 14: double the seven days of creation – a cipher of perfection that structures many compositions by “the Old Wig”. John Cage used the duration 4’33, apropos of nothing. As three is the magic number for De La Soul, so it was for punk: “THIS IS A CHORD / THIS IS ANOTHER / This is a THIRD / NOW FORM A BAND”, instructed the infamous 1977 cover of the DIY punkzine Sideburns.

Technically speaking, grime’s magic number is 140 (beats per minute) – the preset tempo in Fruity Loops, a freeware digital audio workstation that many of the genre’s innovators, chief among them Wiley, aka Eskiboy, used to construct its unorthodox sound around the turn of the millennium. Halve the magic number and you get “halfstep”, music with a tempo of 70 bpm that, with broken beats, inches grime almost indiscernibly towards dubstep. For several thrilling years, before the formalization of genres, beat-based music for MCs to spit lyrics to mixed and hybridized. These hybridizations have their now synonymous actors: DJ Slimzee pushed “dark garage”; the producer Youngstar’s track “Pulse X” was known as “8 bar”; Jon E Ca$h produced “Sublow” with his crew, Black Ops.

Wiley made “Eskibeat”, a sound defined retroactively in opposition to other genres, in his clarion 2004 track “Wot do u call it?” “Here in London there’s a sound called garage”, he spits, “But this is my sound, it sure ain’t garage . . . . The Eskimo sound is mine recognise this it’s mine”. Two years earlier, as WileyKat, he’d produced “Eskimo”, the first in a series of extraordinary instrumental grime tracks – “Frostbite”, “Blizzard” and “Igloo” would follow – characterized by earth-splitting tubular bass and strident syncopated snares accented by contrapuntal ratchets and fidgety high hats.

“Eskimo” was an event in the history of electronic music in general, let alone in the marginal grime scene. Emerging from east London’s tower blocks and estates (occasionally Wiley referred to himself as “Tower Block Boy”), Eskibeat was stark, repetitive and inhuman. If it was, and still is, frequently described as alien-sounding, it was certainly born out of alienation: “We grew up with a very negative attitude”, Wiley explains in his autobiography, Eskiboy, “and it continues to this day. All the arrests, all the suspicion, all the violence just builds up and it makes you feel very cold-hearted inside.”

Since 2003, when Dizzee Rascal’s seminal album Boy in Da Corner won the Mercury Prize, grime has shuttled over- and underground several times until, in 2014, it began to dominate popular music. In 2015, the Tottenham-based MC Skepta beat both David Bowie and Radiohead to the Mercury Prize. When Stormzy re-recorded the single “Shut Up”, originally a viral YouTube video, it entered the 2015 Christmas UK Singles Chart at number eighteen. Its background instrumental track, “Functions on the Low”, had been made over a decade earlier by XTC, a producer affiliated with the east London crew Ruff Sqwad (not to be confused with the 80s Swindon band XTC). Since then, grime has soundtracked the so-called youthquake that, among other things, has been credited with blocking Theresa May and the Conservatives’ hoped-for landslide in last year’s general election. During the campaign a YouTube mashup superimposed Jeremy Corbyn’s face and manifesto promises onto Stormzy’s in the “Shut Up” video. Using the social media handle #GrimeforCorbyn many of the genre’s younger MCs – among them Novelist and AJ Tracey – explained the consequences of Conservative policies for people like them to their considerable social media audiences. Grime, Wiley urges in Eskiboy, is a black man’s punk. Youthful and disaffected, but perhaps more enterprising than nihilistic. In a freestyle rap at this year’s Brit Awards, where he won best British album of the year and best male solo artist, Stormzy used his platform to ask “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?”

If in those brief excursions overground grime had needed to “popify” its sound (spawning, in the early days, for example, “grindie”: grime and indie), figures such as Skepta and Stormzy could be raw and un­compromising – as grime always had been – and find commercial success. It’s in this context that Wiley’s most recent music release, Godfather, is his highest-charting album. On a record that has been critically acclaimed as a return to the grime sound he shaped, “Speakerbox”, its standout track, was produced using the “Gliding Squares” preset on a Korg Triton synth, a favourite of the Eskibeat days.

As grime has entered into a wider cultural arena so its origins, history and meaning have been wrested from those who shaped it, mostly now in their early thirties, still active on the scene, and willing to talk. For predominantly black, inner-city youths grime provided a voice for a generation. In 2016, Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose’s This Is Grime was a comprehensive oral history of the genre – the first of its kind. Arranged thematically, not chronologically, it gave voice – slang and cadence intact – to protagonists alive and dead – MCs, producers, DJs, promoters, editors, writers – while tracing the prehistory, history and future of the genre. “As told to” has a long tradition in musical autobiography: voice as political agency, as “speaking for oneself”, conflates with the reproduction of authentic, intimate subjectivity. (Grime for Jeffrey Boakye in Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime, 2017, is a vehicle for understanding what it is to be a black man in Britain today, as its hybrid sound mixes in with the verse of Kayo Chingonyi’s poetry volume Kumukanda, 2017. In the case of Eskiboy this is complicated by the fact that it was ghost written by the journalist Ash Sarkar, a British Muslim woman with Bengali heritage. )

Conspicuous for its absence in This Is Grime, Wiley’s voice, as if speaking to an interlocutor, is to the fore in Eskiboy. It is complex and contradictory, multiple, fidgety like Eskibeat high hats, and fragmented in a way that relies on the concert of others’, including his father’s, sister’s and those of key collaborators. “How can anyone have just one story?” Wiley asks in his introduction. “My sister will tell you I’m four different people.” He continues:

‘You all know me as Wiley, the wickedest grime MC, jumping on stage going apeshit, popping off on Twitter. There’s Richard, the boy following in his father’s footsteps, climbing out of his crib to bang on the drums. There’s Kylea, the lost kid, the wild child who had to learn how to become a father. Then there’s Godfather, the don who was there at the beginning, and is there still. And beyond them all, there’s Eskiboy, who I can’t even really explain. The boy who likes to help people, but has coldness in his heart.’

Assigned a part of the book each, the four people narrate a life, from Richard’s childhood in Kent, where he was sent to live with his grandmother after his parents split up following the murder of his mother’s brother; Kylea, the street kid, raised around kidnapping, extortion and robbery, whose love of music and hustle enabled him to build a scene from the ground up; Wiley, the temperamental hitmaker who invests in fellow artists and fills shoeboxes full of cash, while keeping record executives at arm’s length, sometimes by violent threats; and Godfather, the architect of a global sound who wants to buy a desert island and call it “Nowhere”. Spanning the four parts, ninety-six brief, quick-fire chapters are punctuated by lyric interludes of his own songs and summative dialogues between his father and sister. Perhaps it’s the awkwardness of these that belies deeper familial tensions. How absent was Richard Snr? How does his sister, his closest ally, really feel about the sacrifices (and gains) she’s made to accommodate Wiley’s testing impulsiveness?

Ninety-six is not an arbitrary figure. Like 140, it might also be a grime magic number. Since being released in 2006, the grime artist JME’s instrumental track “96 Bars of Revenge” has become a standard on which MCs take ninety-six lines to set the record straight on pressing issues. Contrary to media stereotypes of violence in grime, revenge here is exacted in bars and in lyrical clashes, which Wiley defines in Eskiboy as “a cussing match on a beat, but it’s also a sport just like boxing . . . . It’s not even a bad-mind ting . . . . We’re not going to fight or nothing”. “When you go to war”, he observes elsewhere in the book, “it’s about lies, truth and rumour.” By conflating musical structure and literary genre Wiley advances the long tradition of autobiography as a form of revenge. (When the Guardian published Dan Hancox’s profile of Wiley last year he vowed over Twitter never to allow Hancox access again. Later this spring, HarperCollins will publish Hancox’s history of grime, Inner City Pressure: The story of grime – the first not to be narrated by one of its actors, or from a first-person perspective. His earlier little-read but excellent e-book on Dizzee Rascal, Stand Up Tall, reads grime through New Labour’s demonization of inner-city London estates.)

Autobiography is a genre characterized by forgetfulness. Testimony might promise proximity to its subject but it makes the omissions more frustratingly felt. Memory in Eskiboy appears in several guises. There are those expected limitations of memory – “I don’t really have many proper memories of my childhood”, Wiley acknowledges. There are clear omissions that honour criminal and street code, things he cannot tell us, but also just cannot help hinting at. These moments of not “snitching” stage a familiar (dis)identification of anyone who has elevated: “You can’t come to my door and rob me. I’m the same as the people on the street, but I’m not”.

Memory appears as trauma, too. Two weeks after sustaining seven stab wounds Wiley was stabbed a further seven times. Later, in 2008, when he began earning serious music money, he became “so paranoid about being in Bow, about certain people that wanted a part of me. Not just the money or the fame, but actually people who wanted to do me in”. When he brushed off a “proper old-school East End gangster” who wanted help getting his son into the music industry, an associate slashed Wiley’s face from ear to chin (there’s a certain obnoxious Kray-style nostalgia that emerges in the book). Wiley returned to Kent and laid low for a while, before moving to Cyprus.

Grime is a music of defiance – thrilling new music that emerged among working-class black boys. Wiley’s 76th bar in Eskiboy, “Nowhere”, perhaps his most introspective, draws several threads together. The redemptive path of Afronationalism joins the self-determination of wealth and is concentrated on his longed-for island called Nowhere. “I want to be nowhere”, he writes, “so no one can pinpoint me. It comes from growing up and people are wanting to rob you, to kill you, to extort you. Being famous is the same. You’re hunted.” Caught between being a pop star and the architect of one of the most innovative sounds to come out of London for the past twenty years, between trauma and a skittish attention deficiency, maybe Eskiboy is the fictional counterpart to Nowhere.