Gone To A Rave: An Incomplete History Of Grime Comedy
PR consultants from Saatchi to Goebbels will tell you that brand cohesion is the be all and end all. If you wanna sell something, you need your customer to have a solid idea in their head just what it is they’re buying into, and you repeat that idea again and again. Any deviation from that one core identity weakens the message. This rigid message discipline has proved incredibly successful at marketing everything from Hitler to iPhones. Unfortunately, it’s also used- sometimes consciously, often unwittingly- to make music marketable by making it predictable. The recent collective decision that grime is commercially viable (indeed, is arguably the only commercially viable homegrown youth subculture we’ve currently got) has seen the genre’s potential shrink under a mainstream spotlight. To sell the culture, we narrow the culture. No one buys a sprawl. Between major labels, mainstream radio, festival bookers, PR firms and uncomprehending press, the grime scene has been boiled down to an easily told set of signifiers, that – like Don Simpson’s bullshit high concept movies – can be summed up in a single sentence; angry urban man rages over aggressive beats. (You’ll note that the weasely use of ‘urban’ makes plenty of room for highly marketable white grime MCs).
This means that despite the amount of column inches generated by grime in the last four years, the content of these columns has been pulled from a tiny check list: council blocks, dispossessed youth, anger, tracksuits, slang, crooks, ‘it’s-the-new-punk’. I mean, I should know, I’ve written my fair share of this bollocks. When I wrote up a Lethal Bizzle interview in the Guardian Guide, the sub editor decided to title it Super Ferrari Animal – a headline that managed to be moderately shitty twice in a mere three words; by bafflingly referencing an indie band who mean nothing to the grime scene (can you imagine them doing the reverse of this headline and titling a Liam Gallagher interview 'More Ire Crew'? cos I can't…) whilst simultaneously conflating a black man with being an animal. Not bad going for a handful of syllables. I'm probably being over-sensitive, but it felt typical of the urge to keep grime as a thinly defined artform; thrilling savages in your colour supplement.
The thing about this reductive constantly raging form grime has been defined as by outside media is that it's just inaccurate. It denies two of the major themes that have run through the genre for years- one, which I’ll deal with another day, is the sense of mournful sentimentality that inhabits so much of the music (Big Narstie is probably the don of this – at either end of his career you can find lyrics and beats drenched with sorrow, regret and nostalgia). The other is the sheer amount of grime that has been written as laugh out loud comedy. The scene has had a rich vein of funny as fuck songs and videos, and all this skinny visioned chat about gritty inner city misery hides the fact that plenty of grime MCs are out here catching joke and enjoying their life – and the fact that most outsiders can't tell the difference between rage and satire tells you more about the audience than the performer.
The first comic grime record I can remember (and I know someone else will have something to add to this or prove me wrong) came from Boo Kroo and may not strictly speaking be grime at all. Boo Kroo are pretty much forgotten now – they started life as a comic strip that appeared regularly in RWD Magazine. Three useless MCs trying to ride the garage wave, Boo Kroo were essentially a proto version of People Just Do Nothing. After proving a popular feature in the magazine, they levelled up to real world status by recording a track produced by a peak form Sticky.
Admittedly Boo Kroo Theme may not be the funniest record grime ever produced, but, if nothing else, the Sticky produced beat bangs. Released in 2003 – around the time Dizzee was pushing out his Ho! And Go! white labels, Boo Kroo Theme is unusually prescient in where the sound is going, with bratty MCs barring over a track that’s little more than mean bass hits and cheap synth brass. A few years later Boo Kroo were given their own show on Channel U – which is how this video for the track came about. Episodes of which can be watched on this long defunct Boo Kroo website – after that, who knows? Any info on the creator would be appreciated… Classic or not, Boo Kroo Theme set the tone for the grime comedy that followed; stupid threats from over gassed road men. Gloriously, this Resident Advisor review from 2003 sees the point of the track whooshing over the reviewers head “what's with those weird ass vocals,” he complains, bewildered “sounds like it's the work of one impressionist pulling off about 4 different personalities.”
This confusion highlights my favourite feature of the best grime comedy; to the casual observer it seems exactly the same as normal grime. The RA reviewer above didn’t clock that Boo Kroo was a pisstake, he just thought (not entirely unreasonably) that they were three wack MCs trying it. Comedy grime uses the same slang, the same beats and, crucially, the same amped up, seconds-away-from caving-your skull-in mayhem as straight grime. This closeness probably explains why it’s so absent from the populist 2017 representation – newbies read songs that are being played for laughs as entirely serious. Of course this says something about the pathologising of inner city kids who are widely assumed to only have one setting: attack. The reality is far more complicated, and there are a whole bag of songs where the line between serious and funny is so blurry that a song manages to be both simultaneously, a genius, nuanced state (Schrödinger's reload?) that’s rarely given the credit it deserves.
Almost the entire early career of Mr Wong falls into this camp. The self-described Chinese Boy spent his videos playing up to every shitty oriental stereotype he could think of (and had most likely encountered). In Whoz Dat Boy he refers to himself as a chink, starts the video shotting DVDs on a street corner, blue screens himself onto the Great Wall of China, and despatches an enemy with a woefully rendered cgi Hadoken. At the same time, Whoz Dat Boy is Grade A classic grime, with a beat that sounds like it was made to be banged out on school desks and Wong spitting with more fire than a man wearing an ill-fitting Spiderman outfit has right to. Even now there are comments on the Youtube video asking if it’s serious or a joke – the answer is it’s both.
On the follow up Not A Hater Wong is slightly more serious, although only just. On the video he gets meta, having an audience of grime fans disgustedly watching the video to Whoz Dat Boy on a small screen. As they throw shit at the screen, Wong gets increasingly hyped up – but even the footage of him rolling crew deep through East London is hard to take seriously – you can tell that Wong is treading this line between acting like a hard fucker, actually being a hard fucker, and all the while laughing at the idea of being a hard fucker.
On a side note, working hand in hand with comedy grime there has always been – in the early to mid 00s anyway – a strong strand of surrealism that has kept the sound satisfyingly weird and more than a bit silly. Jammer’s Murkle Man video will always be famous for the bizarre, hideous purple and green superhero spandex Jammer dons to become the Murkle Man. The thing is, you can’t help thinking he’s not really playing it for laughs, he’s just being a fucking weirdo. But I guarantee you’re not about to see AJ Tracey or Stormzy doing anything similar, a fact that only makes me sad. The same with Bearman on his Teddybear’s Picnic sampling Brown Bear Picnic. Despite being delivered straight faced throughout, it’s a track that asks a lot of questions; why is Bearman sweating it out in a fullsize cuddly bear suit? Why is he mixing nursery rhyme samples with all-out assault basslines? Why is he spitting lines like “cantakerous, grumpy / you know I like my porridge lumpy”? Why? Why? Because he could, that’s why.
In 2007 the pinnacle of grime comedy videos was released; Red Hot Ents’ ode to chicken box meals everywhere; Junior Spesh. Junior Spesh can be seen as ground zero for the tongue-in-cheek veneration of the chicken shop that grips UK society. It can claim to have sowed the seeds for everything from Chicken Connoisseur, to Chicken Shop Date, to Balamii hosting raves sponsored by Morley’s, to the fucking god awful smugness of Example and Ed Sheeran singing about Nando’s (incidentally Bridget Minamore put together a far better article than I ever could about the complex, problematic significance of chicken shops in London over here). As with all the best comedy grime, the potency of Junior Spesh is that it’s played absolutely straight. The MCs of Red Hot Ents are on ramped up war settings as they spit bars about serviettes and mayonnaise, managing to turn a list of menu items into a what sounds like a death threat. It transpired that the beat was legit – it was written by drum n bass/ dubstep DJ Krissy Kris (step son of the legendary junglist Kenny Ken) – apparently the beat got leaked from Krissy’s studio and he had no idea anything had been done with it – let alone that it had been used as bedrock for one of grime’s all time classics. Whilst Red Hot Ents could never repeat the magic of Junior Spesh, Gracious Nappa Man K was a breakout star of the group, recording his own zany UK Funky banger Migraine Skank 2 years on.
A couple of years on in 2009 – and bear in mind that this is the period when grime was supposedly ‘dead’ – Tempa T laid down the definitive mixture of comedy and violence. Next Hype is one of the greatest grime tunes ever written. On one level, Tempz is really, really fucking angry. He’s going to take your life apart in every last method he can find. But the pettiness of the threats render the whole thing ridiculous. The moment where Tempz is screaming GET OUT THE CAR til the veins pop out of his massive neck is pure Basil Fawlty, and should be mentioned in whatever bullshit ‘best moments of British Comedy’ clip show Channel 5 are cobbling together this week. Tim from Next Hype video directors Tim & Barry (themselves no strangers to documenting grime’s surreal and silly sides) has pointed out that shooting the video they consciously tried to get across the fact that Tempz is both joking and not joking – this is the reason why parts of the video are shot on wobbly, comical handicam, and parts are shot with Tempz submerged in the darkness of a blacked out gym.
Some mention should be made here of the Tinchy Strider & Chuckle Brothers collaboration To Me To You, but I can’t help thinking that while it’s heart was in the right place, there’s something a bit forced about it. It felt like SB:TV had decided to plug into that grime silliness that had long been missing, but done so in a way that lost the anarchy of the past, and just ended up with a video that felt focus grouped and vaguely cringy. Unlike true griem comedy, there's never going to be any confusion about whether it;s serious or not, so for me it just doesn't qualify. If you have to watch it, help yourself over here. I've got the same reservations about the Lethal B / Judi Dench team up that's currently doing the rounds- it's cutesy and obvious rather than bizarre and funny, tho I guess it's several steps up from Bizzle being described as an animal.
Thankfully grime (or at least drill, it's bastard child) may be organically finding it’s playful side once more. This week has seen a freestyle from comedian Michael Dapaah take over twitter, entirely because of one passage of phonetic madness. Performing as MC Quakez / Road Man Shaq on Charlie Sloth’s 1Xtra Show, Dapaah takes the current fashion for firing out kinetic syllables (see Skendo & AM who are current masters of dropping 'sk-dudududu' bars), and, over a beat that drill pioneers 67 and the Godlike Giggs have already made famous, hurtles it along to an insane conclusion. There’s arguments about the spelling, but the rough consensus is that Dapaah's line the ting go skrrra pap pap ka ka ka skidiki pap pap is one of the bars of the year.
Its both beautiful and terrible, and delivered with the true conviction of a road man maniac. Like all good comedy grime, the tune has smudged the lines between a joke and a banger to the point where Dapaah can come out at a Suspect show and deliver the freestyle to a crowd going crazy – it's complex and stupid and a moment of genius. It plugs into all sorts of sensations simultaniously, and is one of the many, many reasons why I will always love UK MC culture…