In this extract from his new book, Inner City Pressure, Dan Hancox explains how grime's canon of classics is full of music made by producers who were unwilling or unable to do things "properly," from So Solid Crew to Dizzee Rascal to Youngstar.
In this extract from the book, Hancox looks at the origins of grime's earliest hits, many of which were rough-around-the-edges and banged out on basic music software.
Grime, in its first years, sounded as if it had crash-landed in the present with no past, and no future—a time-travelling experiment gone horribly, fascinatingly wrong; a broken flux capacitor glowing amidst the smouldering wreckage, a neon light pulsing in the mist. While on one side of the A13, Canary Wharf's tenants enriched themselves to dizzying new heights, the sounds emanating from the tower blocks barely a mile away declaimed through the airwaves that there was more than one east London. There was an alien futurism to a lot of the computer-generated aesthetics—the reason why some of the bleeps and bloops sounded like noises made by spaceships from computer games was because they were in fact made on games consoles: most famously a piece of software for the first PlayStation, called Music 2000. A lot of So Solid Crew's first album was built on this very elementary software; as was Dizzee's "Stand Up Tall." Producers like Jme and Smasher made their first tunes on it, recorded them to MiniDisc, and then had vinyl dubplates cut straight from the MiniDisc—without going anywhere near a recording studio.
Mixdowns are usually seen as a crucial stage of the recording process even for the most entry-level producer, where the elements created are refined and balanced out to create a clean and coherent whole—but with grime they sometimes didn't happen at all, before the tunes were cut to vinyl and released, either as dubplates or for general release to record shops. This applies even to the instrumental frequently cited as the first proper grime tune, Youngstar's "Pulse X." The spirit of the period echoes the famous punk mantra, 'Here's a chord. Here's another. Here's a third. Now form a band.'
DJ Logan Sama, for one, was happy enough with the devil-may-care approach to technical proficiency. "I don't give a shit if a record is mastered well or not," Sama said to me back in 2006, then a new graduate from the pirate-radio scene to the legit world and new sofas of KISS FM. "All I care about is the reaction it gets when I play it in a club. How technically well-made art is doesn't matter: it's art. Why would you want to analyse it on its technical merits? It's not an exam. My white label of 'Pulse X' still has the hiss from the AV-out cables from the PlayStation they took it off to record it onto CD, when they took it to master it. You can hear it! The 'bawm's are all distorted. That record sold over 10,000 copies; it was fucking massive. Half of So Solid's first album was produced on Music 2000, they then took it into the studio on a memory card to re-engineer it. That album sold over one million copies. A lot of people loved jungle when it was shit—when the quality of it was shit! Personally I like 'jump up' stuff, and if I get that out of a technically well-made record, then cool; if I get that out of a record that's been made on FruityLoops and not mixed-down properly, so be it."
Grime's canon of cult classics is full of music made by producers who were unwilling or unable to do things "properly." One of Ruff Sqwad's most famous instrumental productions, "Functions On The Low" by XTC, took on a life of its own when, 11 years after its release, Stormzy used it as the instrumental for a freestyle recorded in his local park. That freestyle, "Shut Up," would go on to take the charts by storm and propel him to pop superstardom. XTC is one of many of grime's ephemeral geniuses: for most of the crew's existence, he was barely even in Ruff Sqwad; more just a mate from the area who made a few tunes and spat a few bars, and the older brother to MC Fuda Guy. XTC finished only a handful of tracks, and only ever released one 12-inch of three tracks with "Functions" on the B-side—it just happened to be a masterpiece. It's a breathtaking five minutes of longing, like a fleeting glimpse of the love of your life disappearing into the Hong Kong night—neon lights seen through a torrent of tears. It's so heartbreaking, and yet so addictive, so humane, that the moment it stops, you're desperate to have it back. It took him half an hour to write, on FruityLoops, one morning before college, while the rest of his family were still asleep. He used the computer keyboard in place of an actual keyboard, never got it mastered, rendered the audio file, burned a CD, and took it straight to the vinyl pressing plant. And that was that.
Other more prolific producers, like Dexplicit, who made the instrumental "Forward Riddim" that would be used for Lethal Bizzle's "Pow!," an underground smash and later a Top 10 hit, began writing music on even more basic equipment: a pre-app, pre-internet "brick" of a mobile phone. "When I was in secondary school, everyone used to get me to create ringtones of their favourite songs on the old Nokia 3310's," he laughed, when I interviewed him for a piece about "sodcasting," the much-maligned mid-2000s phenomenon where people (usually young teenagers) would play music on their phones on public transport. Grime's birth coincided with the popularisation of new kinds of cheap, low-end, unsophisticated audio technology. Of course there had been TDK cassettes and home-taping off the radio in previous decades, but the explosion of rapidly evolving mobile-phone technology, mp3 players and cheap ear-bud headphones skewed a lot of listening towards treble-focused audio—a paradox for grime, with its "bass culture" lineage through reggae, jungle and UK garage.