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Publication: The Independent, 2005

Grime DVDs and Street Media: how the urban entrepreneurs are making money through music

Emerging music scenes traditionally generate exposure through their own DIY media formats. The mixtape remains the key vehicle for breaking hip hop artists, and underground indie continues the punk protocol of self-promoting through fanzines. For the new MC stars of Grime, this year’s breakthrough urban genre, the phrase ‘straight to DVD’ isn’t so much an pejorative as an aspiration.

A raft of DVD titles like Lords of the Decks, Practice Hours, Risky Roadz and Aim High currently sell in thousands through independent record stores like Rhythm Division on East London’s Roman Road. Combining shaky csamerawork, amateur promo shorts, explosive MC battles, ad-hoc interviews and in-situ documentary, their production values are million miles from the lavish of US hip hop videos they superficially appear to mimic. More Nick Broomfield-goes-ghetto than the P Diddy-goes-to-The-Hamptons fantasia of ‘Bad Boy For Life’, the soundtrack is routinely muffled or blaring, footage is of the wonky holiday-in-Lanzarote kind and the backdrop is inevitably a rave, record shop or council estate thronging with kids in hoodies and pitbull terriers. Credits are hardly up there with the opening of Star Wars. Grime DVDs are the opposite of glamorous, yet their embedded immediacy and combination of moving image and music is precisely the key to their appeal. They function as audio-visual albums the viewers can almost become part of.

On Troy Miller and DJ Target’s ‘Aim High II’, for example, we trade rhymes with producer Jammer in his studio, join MC Flow Dan interviewing MC God’s Gift through ganja fog the back of a Peugeot 205. In a thrilling sequence, incensed members of Wiley’s Roll Deep– east London’s answer to So Solid Crew – are marched out of the Victoria Park’s Respect festival by a ring of coppers. On ‘Conflict’, Dizzee Rascal battles MC Kano in a pirate radio studio, eventually spilling out onto the towerblock roof and into a near-fight at the climax of an unbroken 40-minute shot. The sense of energy, danger and fun is tangible and intimate.

Grime artists increasingly know that a direct route to their audience is via DVD, and are eschewing traditional artist album for appearance of the leading titles. Twenty-eight-year-old Troy Miller’s MediaGang Inc is one of a number of outfits producing titles. He began by filming Eski Dance, a rave organised by Wiley, the leading grime MC, producer and scenester. ‘My girlfriend gave me a consumer-level DV camera for my birthday,’ Miller say. ‘First thing I filmed was Eski Dance on night – the next day, everyone who wasn’t there wanted it on disk. The day after Heartless Crew’s Slimzee told me Rhythm Division wanted to sell some.’

The DVD format shares a deeper synergy with grime, since it’s both an exhibitionistic, oral culture – MCs just need a beat and an audience to showcase their skills – and it’s a milieu populated by larger than life characters with a substantial claims to their ‘realness’. Roll Deep Crew’s MC Riko, who looms throughout Miller’s ‘Aim High II’, rapped many of his ‘bars’ literally from behind bars in HMP Brixton. Playing up to the limits of available media, they want to be seen and heard at a time when the music business remains shy of investing time and money in grime.

Their appeal at a time when returns on traditional music-only LPs are falling is clear. Cheap-to-film and cheap-to-reproduce DVDs eclipse LPs since they show how an MC sounds, what he looks like and, in the era of reality TV, where he lives, what car he drives and how his mates skin up. They also provide sociological insights into Grime’s inventive language, where ‘jawside’ describes excellence, colleagues are ‘brehs’, where people no longer rap but ‘merk’ , and everything un-grimy is ‘nekkle’, no less. But that’s perhaps less interesting to fans than identifying Tinchy Stryder from Crazy Titch, Danae’o from Kano, or Dogzilla from Flirta D, the scene’s proliferating dramatis personae of pin-ups.

As its name suggests, grime fetishes street-level life, anti-glitz localism and the notion that anyone with a clever line in rhyming skills can be the next Dizzee Rascal. DVDs are one way of breaking down artificial barriers between artist and audience.

The same idea comes powerfully alive on Channel U, Sky TV’s urban music-oriented channel that is increasingly eating into MTV’s audiences share with an agenda to showcase the best, but also the realest of ‘UK tings’. Alongside the regular diet of clips from the US commercial rap machine, a proportion of U’s programming features videos of Grime DVD-like quality, and lower, a glimpse into a kind ‘Urban Idol’ underbelly of aspirant MCs who shoot their own videos in stairwells, youth clubs and bedrooms. A unique paradigm of two-way TV in that its viewers are substantially the same as the people on the other side of the screen, new ‘street media’ channels like U realise the notion anyone with a half-decent flow and a grasp of video production can showcase their skills on the box. ‘It’s just like talking to a mate about music rather than to you dad,’ says MC Ace, one of U’s presenters. ‘People don’t want to be told what they should like by some big record company – they want to decide for themselves.’ The same definitely can’t be said of ailing institutions like Top Of the Pops.

Music’s future, for now, looks shaky, amateur and handheld. It looks grimy, but sounds all the better for all.

© Kevin Braddock 2005


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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