Skepta’s Mercury Prize win brings grime back into the mainstream, and in doing so shines a spotlight on the ever-changing language of Britain’s urban youth. Perhaps this is the beginning of a more linguistically tolerant age.
Grime is a style of music that developed out of early 2000s East London, and spread through mixtapes, word of mouth, and London’s vibrant pirate radio stations. Sometimes mistakenly viewed as a subgenre of hip-hop, its real roots lie in UK garage, bashment, drum and bass, jungle, and dancehall. Yes, there are similarities to hip-hop – both involve rapping for a start – but grime has a specifically British flavour, both in style and attitude, that separates it from its US-dominated cousin.
For some, grime, by its very nature, can only really exist at street level; enjoyed and shared by a like-minded community of urban youth, a disenfranchised community who can relate to each other’s experiences, struggles and realities. “Selling out” by gaining commercial success at the perceived expense of the art form is, to put it mildly, frowned upon among certain established artists.
For a grime artist to win the Mercury Prize, therefore, is a potential double-edged sword. Can an individual ever really stay true to their roots (and continue to rap about those shared experiences) when success has elevated them into the mainstream?
In Skepta’s case, the likely answer is yes. Skepta preaches a message of independence and self-belief; independence from the music industry, and a belief in one’s own abilities and entrepreneurship that goes beyond making music. In this, above all else, he embodies an important and recurring theme of the genre.
Skepta’s winning album, Konnichiwa, is resolutely British in style, both in terms of content and language. And it is this language of grime – the Multicultural Urban British English that can be heard in cities across the UK – that adds a whole extra layer of interest to the genre. It’s not just the words, such as bro, bruv, fam, bare, peng, gwop, that can be heard throughout grime that serve to identify it, but the pronunciations, too – the “t” for “th”, the “flatter” vowel sound in words such as “like” and “price”. Often mistaken for a faux Jamaican accent, it is in reality so much more complex.
Music of the streets
There is always a question around the extent to which musical performers of any genre “put on” the speech style in which they sing, be that in relation to The Beatle’s accent experimentations, or Iggy Azalea’s “blaccent”. Yet grime, for the most part, is performed using the same linguistic repertoire as the source material – the language of the streets and neighbourhoods of multicultural urban Britain.
This is not to say that there is not an element of linguistic performance when rapping, or that Bugzy Malone talks to his mum in the same way that he talks to his mates. Far from it – this is all part of the natural stylistic variation that we all possess, and grime artists are no different. But what sets grime apart from other musical genres is the participatory nature of what is, essentially, a social practice. Grime is, for the most part, not something that is passively consumed, it is something that is actively engaged in and interacted with. In many ways, it is one of the most democratic and equal forms of music there is, open to anybody with a phone and access to YouTube.
The history of grime is one of young men going round to each other’s houses and making tapes of themselves spitting lyrics, and it is no different now. The people I’ve worked with through my own research into the language of young people who have been excluded from mainstream education are doing exactly the same. But more than this, the spitting bars (rapping) is part of their everyday interaction, with the more accomplished individuals switching seamlessly mid-conversation.
Break-time can see them huddled around a tinny phone speaker trading lightning-fast lyrics over a familiar beat. It’s no wonder, then, that speech styles are so interwoven. With no clear line between “normal conversation” and “performance”, it’s impossible to assign particular speech features to either style. After all, isn’t all speech “performance” to some degree?
This participatory nature is often negatively portrayed in some sections of the mainstream media. The narrow-minded will then likely maintain the link between language and criminality that is so often (and so thoughtlessly) made, and continue in their belief that there are good and bad (or right and wrong) ways of speaking.
But the broad-minded, and those who take the time to engage with the young people themselves, will appreciate how articulate, eloquent, and linguistically inventive many of them are.
Skepta winning the Mercury Prize is a good thing for him as an individual (definitely), for grime in general (probably), and for increased awareness and acceptance of the language of young people (hopefully). So next time you hear some spitting in the street, pay attention and show some respect – you may be listening to the next big thing.