I’m a huge fan of grime music. Though it’s been around for more than a decade, I discovered it only a few years ago & fell in love instantly. If you’re not into grime &/or are not sure what I’m referring to, you may have heard of Dizzee Rascal & Lady Sovereign, some of the only grime artists ever to reach international fame. Other popular artists include Skepta, Wiley, Tempa T, & Kano. To put it as simply as possible, it is underground UK hip hop with roots in dubstep & garage.
The first grime track I ever heard was Ghetts’ Artillery. It is freakin’ terrifying. The music is violent, the lyrics are violent, this entire song & the man behind it just oozes, nay, vomits violence. This song is one of the most effectively intimidating pieces of music I’ve ever heard, so much so that I had to giggle at it upon first listening.
On the whole, grime is a violent genre. So violent, in fact, that it has often been banned from TV, radio & even in venues in both the UK and USA. Popular icons & government officials have offered heavy criticisms, describing artists as “creating a culture where killing is almost a fashion accessory“. Of course, no amount of public criticism or censorship could destroy this underground music scene; lyrics got more reactionary, raves became more intense, & the entire culture just blew up. (NB: Of course I don’t really know what goes on in the scene, cos I don’t live in the UK, I’m just piecing together what little I can find online & following my favourite artists).
The lyrics are exceptional. The main theme seems to be violence &/or intimidation. Examples as follows, all from Ghetts’ Artillery:
“I’m engaged to a gun so I’m marryin’ a whore / Nonstop lettin’ off when I draw black bags outside like a charity store / But there ain’t no clothes in ’em, just bodies with holes in ’em / One, two, three, loads o’ them”…
“I can make a man disappear for a grand, be aware”…
“I’ll fill a n***a in like an application”…
“When forensics got to the scene & saw the bruise they said ‘It must be a tech / Yeah, must be a tech – name’s GH & I’m fucked in the head”.
Other prominent themes are very similar to hip hop as a whole – money, sex, status, drugs, parties, gang affiliations, racism, politics, working through socioeconomic disadvantage, authenticity as an artist, criticising rivals, & shouting out to allies. However, there are some important points of difference. I don’t have to mention the beats themselves are entirely unique, sounding much closer to dubstep, garage or dancehall than to US hip hop. The vernacular is completely unique as well, with patois being employed frequently, as well as London/UK-specific slang (NB: link included is not nearly exhaustive). Finally, the culture, while conveniently comparable to US hip hop, is much different. There is really nothing else quite like grime. It’s innovative, it’s real, it’s provocative, it’s completely unapologetic, it paints a vivid & potent picture of life as disadvantaged young people (often Nigerian &/or Jamaican migrants) in London. The whole thing is incredible.
That’s not to say I agree with everything grime artists are promoting. Without falling into the same overly critical traps (no pun intended) others have, I will simply state that I find the lyrics pretty problematic on many levels.
Which is why I love JME. Out of all grime, JME for me stands miles (nah, kilometres) above the rest.
The second grime track I ever heard was his ‘96 Fuckries‘. The beat remains true to grime’s sonic aesthetic, & his flow is provocative, with so many golden lines in there. My favourites include:
“You man swear on your life too much / Careful, or you might die too much”
“…now my badboy megazord whip’s got more features than iOS5”
“Any man that chats poop, I will take out your eyeball with a bamboo skewer”
“Frequently I get stopped by the gammon / Cos my whip looks like it should be owned by Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Hammond”
“I had a doo-rag straight at birth / God sent me here to make shit worse / Nobody wants a punch in the face, cos when you get punched in the face, it hurts!”
“You’re not a badman cos you robbed someone fam, you’re just poor & brave.”
First things first: JME is a true lyrical genius. Watching him freestyle just confirms that, & his written lyrics are almost always flawless.
But most of all, I love JME because he’s so badass, so very grime, & so un-grime all at once. I have even started referring to his work as borderline anti-grime. You could argue it is even anti-hip hop.
He spends a lot of time on the mic challenging many aspects that are central to grime (&/or wider hip hop) culture. The above line about break & enter robberies being a show of desperation, rather than badass-ness, is just one example.
He doesn’t seem to openly condone violence, stating that robberies “[sound] like quick P to me”, preferring to make “money legally” through dedication to his art. From the same track (96 Bars of JME), he provides his take on in-scene violence: “When I’m a hothead I don’t get lyrical / I get serious, lyrically physical”, and that “all this war and clash is trash / I’ll make a tune“, which seems to state that he prefers to express his anger through his art rather than through physical violence. When he does threaten ‘rude boys/derkheads’, however, he avoids full-on violent lyrics, instead opting for threats such as “I’ll phlegm in your face“, or at the very worst, that he will start headbutting or uppercutting. For the most part, though, JME prefers to just reiterate some of his famous catch phrases, such as “don’t get rude“, or “shut ya mat” (‘Shut your mouth’, for those not familiar with the technical jargon). No mention of guns, & his only reference to a ‘sword’ that I’ve found is when he plays real life Fruit Ninja.
Which reminds me – JME “reps for the nerds“. With countless references to computer programming & video games in his music, this man is not afraid to be his beautifully geeky self.
He doesn’t need to be a misogynist either, & is able to “sell music without a pop feature or naked chicks”. I can’t recall any JME line that is even vaguely misogynist, to be honest. If you find one, let me know – but I think it’s fair to say that on the whole, he’s doing a lot better on the sexism front than someone like Ghetts, who has some pretty creepy songs – such as Feel and Caress – or lines suggesting that his wife is mistreating him by withholding sex, or that despite his love he still frequently cheats on her (from Still Singing).
JME is also not afraid to just get silly – it’s clear he doesn’t take himself, or the scene, entirely seriously (the line in 96 Fuckries “Stop chattin’ shit, poo poo chewer” should be indicative of that). At the same time, he is clearly loyal to the scene, to his crew, & to his art. He even goes to far as to not belittle his rivals – “The other MCs… I used to hate them / see, nowadays I rate them / Not cos I think that they’re down / But for simply stickin’ around” – alluding to that the survival of the scene is more important than any individual’s rise to the top within it.
JME, for all his unapologetic self-promotion, can actually be pretty modest sometimes. He raps “For those who don’t know me – Hello“; I can imagine countless other less humble ways he could have written that line.
But perhaps my favourite part of JME’s music is his almost Stoic attitude. First of all, he’s straight edge. Secondly, he’s vegan. He incorporates these aspects of his life cleverly into his lyrics, & is completely shameless about it, if not overly proud.
In his track Eat Junk – which begins with JME leading an aerobics class – he advises against the self-destructive lifestyle he’s surrounded by, advising that people “Take care of your body / You only get one body“. This track is overtly preachy, with the prominent line being “Everybody, please, listen to me & look after your body“. He’s obviously passionate about health. But the best part about this track, & all other JME, is that – at the same time as it condemns fast food, smoking, alcohol, & weed – it completely & utterly retains its grime as fuck sensibility; the beats are still heavy, his flow is still brutal. It stands in such extreme contrast with so much of grime music whilst working through it; it reminds me of this song as response to YOLO culture. Genius, genius, genius.
His most recent release, entitled Work, is all about – you guessed it – working. Here’s JME, repping uniforms of all different kinds of occupations – firefighters, surgeons, lawyers, labourers, mechanics, garbagemen, accountants, even policeman – with his crew behind him all the way. The beat is incredible (thanks Deeco), a true grime beat in every sense, featuring jackhammer samples & all. Every lyric is amazing.
“Hard work pays off / If you want something, work towards it – work hard”
“The only day that I don’t put in no work is the 30th of February”
“You want that Beema, you want that Merc? / Money, cars, clothes, those are the perks / But to get there you gotta put in that work.”
I don’t know a single other grime artist who is openly rebelling against their culture’s own pitfalls in so many ways other than JME. What’s more, he does it with such finesse & some degree of subtlety; his music, regardless of its content, is catchy as fuck – within a bar of almost any JME track, you want to get out of your seat & dance.
JME is one of my heroes. He is a self-assured, street as fuck, straightedge vegan rapper; he is loyal to his friends & family, he does what he loves & loves what he does; he holds a mirror to his culture, to his nation & sometimes to himself, & openly criticises them. He is a seriously deep breath of fresh air within grime & wider hip hop culture. I mean, what kind of grime artist does not condone violence? What kind of grime artist is not a misogynist? What kind of grime artist owns a mobile phone network? How can a grime artist be all these things & still remain so very, very grime?
By being JME, that’s how.
Boy better know.