Tuesday, May 29, 2018

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Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & The Meaning Of Grime

Christopher Owens with a review of a book that is a celebration of grime.



Masculinity gets a bad rep these days.

In the era of #MeToo, and cultural Marxism deconstructing everything, men are subsequently being told to both "man up" and "stop behaving in stereotypical male fashion." A time for questioning and reflection.

But for young black males, who are being celebrated and condemned for their "hyper masculinity", as well as being targeted by police and politicians, it's a time for righteous anger. Something that this book taps into.

First and foremost, however, this book is a celebration of grime. Now over 15 years old, the genre is something that Britain can be proud of. By taking the formula established by hip hop in America, adding both a dance element to it through jungle/drum n bass and the patois of reggae, grime has built a lasting legacy around the world.

With its roots in the streets and council flats where pirate radios would broadcast battle raps and soundsystem clashes, grime is a culture just as much as punk, heavy metal and hip hop. A uniquely British genre, with British rules and regulations, it has recently begun to be celebrated via retrospectives. And Hold Tight is a worthy addition to the conversation surrounding this music.

Growing up in East London, author Jeff Boakye had a front seat view to the rise and rise of the genre. With Hold Tight, he lists 60 odd songs that are essential to the development of grime. Here, the reader is taken through an alternative history of modern Britain. Starting off with reggae, going through UK hip hop, jungle/drum n bass and 2 step and then the early songs that constituted grime, Boakye gives concise and passionate commentary on each track and why these particular ones are worthy of attention.

As a 32 year old white Irish male, I have very fond memories of hearing some of the songs listed in here for the first time: '21 Seconds' by So Solid Crew really was a song that stuck out among the homogenised American hip hop and R'n'B that was dominating the UK charts at the time. Sounding like the music had been put together on a Playstation 2, it was a track made for clubs, but not glitzy VIP clubs the way Craig David as well as Shanks and Bigfoot were. This was club music for the streets.

So Solid Crew's subsequent notoriety in the media (MP's singling them out for blame in the war on gang culture) was something that stretched back to the "video nasties" and any other moral panic you care to remember: pin the blame for vast socio-economic and political issues on an easily identifiable target that can be contained.

'I Luv U' by Dizzee Rascal was another event. Although it was three years since So Solid Crew, it felt like a lifetime ago. This song took the basic blueprint of what we'd been hearing, but making it noisier, bass heavy and almost nihilistic. But clubby at the same time. Quite a remarkable feat.

And it's no surprise that the album it came from (2003's 'Boy in Da Corner') remains a landmark record, not only for grime but for 21st century music. Very much of its time, but still sounding futuristic.

It's nice to see Skepta get a few chapters devoted to him. From hearing him on 'Intensive Snare'  (easily the definitive dubstep tune for me), I've loved his coarse delivery but also the speed of his raps and the intricacy of his wordplay. Even if he has, at times, seemed desperate for a mainstream breakthrough (working with comedy pop/hip hop act N-Dubz for example), Boakye contextualises these missteps and points out that the guy is one of a line of grime artists who pulled similar stunts (Skepta would subsequently be rewarded with the Mercury Music Award for his 2016 LP, 'Konnichiwa')

As a celebration and examination of a genre that has sustained itself for nearly twenty years, and is seeing a commercial renaissance in 2018, Hold Tight is an exceptional read. As a study of black masculinity in the 21st century, it has its moments but it tends to be episodic and it's only really when we get towards the end that it is discussed in a linear fashion.

Nonetheless, what is offered up (the notion of the hyper masculine black man, the fetishisation of guns etc, notion of race vs realness) is thought provoking and makes you reinterpret what you'd traditionally thought of the genre. Boakye makes a link between New Labour's post September 11th obsession with CCTV's, ASBO's (remember them?) and how these correlate with grime's rise to prominence in the same period.

It's clear that young black males, who have been stereotyped and criminalised by police since the SUS laws in the 70's, growing up in Blairite Britain had to fend off other attempts at the state outlawing their main avenue of expression (the infamous Form 696, only scrapped last year, is discussed). Boakye is clear that educationalists are the people who can help challenge preconceived notions, and his essays at the end of the book demonstrate Boakye to be someone who is up for the challenge and someone who can make a change.

With scene godfather Wiley publishing his autobiography and This is Grime hitting the shelves in recent years, it seems the contributions are going to continue for a long while. Long may this continue.

Jeffrey Boakye, 2017, Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & The Meaning of Grime Influx Press, ISBN-13: 978-1910312254

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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