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UK Grime & US Hip Hop: Long-Lost Brothers, or Complete Strangers?

Sometime in the 1970s, New York City gave birth to the Hip Hop movement. The inner-city culture quickly embraced this fresh genre, and DJs from all over The Bronx became local legends for their party music. By crafting early funk, house, and electro beats, artist Afrika Bambaataa pioneered in this arena, helping to lay the foundations for what was to follow.

A perfect example of this was Bambaataa and Cosmic Force’s early 80s single “Zulu Nation Throwdown”, which fused dance instrumentals with rhythmic rap. Soon enough, Hip Hop hooks became more creative, and lyrics began to carry weight through stories of inequality and racism. The rise of this phenomenon resonated with like-minded communities across the nation, and Hip Hop spread from coast to coast. Throughout the 90s, Los Angeles became a hotbed of gangster rap, the East Coast identity flourished, and the rest is history.

Afrika Bambaataa and Cosmic Force - “Zulu Nation Throwdown”.

How exactly did this unique style migrate abroad, and more specifically to the UK? Rap clearly originated in the US, but where is the link? Why does Grime sound so different? This is an investigation of these very questions.

At the core, Grime is dark and aggressive like New York’s rap scene. But that really is where the similarities end. Grime evolved from jungle and garage in the early 2000s, and as a result the UK underground has revolved around distorted bass and electronic beats for over 15 years. To show this, US Hip Hop is widely considered to hover around a pace of 100 beats per minute (bpm). Grime sits higher at about 140bpm, which is closer to the tempo of techno and house tracks.

The influence of garage here is clear, and the fact that it took so long for the UK to catch on and accept rap probably explains part of why Grime sounds like it does. All music derives from somewhere, and garage coincided nicely with a fed up and passionate London youth. Sure, it was mentioned earlier that US rap came from electronic beats, but these were inspired by funk and soulful samples. London instrumentals sounded industrial.

Dj Luck & Mc Neat’s “With A Little Bit of Luck”. The drop from 1:45 onwards showed the seeds of Grime growing commercially back in 1999.

Another reason that Grime expresses such a rare sound may actually be down to the environment that it came from. You can understand this idea through a comparison of American rap. Comedian Romesh Ranganathan runs a very cool podcast called “Hip Hop Saved My Life”, and not too many episodes ago he made one comment of genius. His theory concerned the range in style between West and East Coast rap (mainly between L.A and New York). He said that the wide and open spaces of sunny L.A. fit the West Coast genre perfectly, but that New York is “claustrophobic” and this is reflected in the city’s music.

Ocean Wisdom & Dizzee Rascal – “Revvin’”. Electronic inspirations are still easily found in 2018.

For the uninitiated, you can understand this difference in musical design with a simple comparison. Take a listen to Dr. Dre’s 1993 West Coast classic “Let Me Ride”. This tune is laid-back, melodic, and Dre looks like he’s having the time of his life. Now compare that to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Method Man” from the same year. This New York City track is gloomy, snappy, and more aggressive. Even the video is a world apart from “Let Me Ride”; the camera is filled by the group, rapping downwards at the listener, in the setting of an abandoned and derelict building. Obviously, the contrast is stark between these branches of Hip Hop. In just a few seconds, Romesh Ranganathan managed to sum up how rap can be a product of its immediate environment.

Wu-Tang Clan – “Method Man”.

It can be argued that Grime originated in the same way that the New York genre did: in areas of a sometimes claustrophobic, dangerous, and impoverished inner-city. There is no attempt to be pretty; the expression “grime” is literally another word for dirt. These factors, coupled with a background in jungle and heavy basslines, have produced the unique and hard-hitting genre that is ever-growing on the UK consciousness.

It’s even seeping into US culture, going full circle in a sense.

On multiple occasions we’ve seen the likes of Giggs and Skepta collaborate across the pond. American Hip Hop is taking notice, but most still don’t understand UK rap. A video released earlier this year showed Stormzy battling another rapper in The States, but after one verse this guy was baffled. That’s not to say, however, that US and UK rap are not family. They were born in similar environments and share the same structure at heart. They are both mediums that the youth can understand and use for expression. This comes out when you see successful collaborations between the genres. It’s probably fair to say that Grime and Hip Hop are destined to become increasingly linked, which says a lot. These two styles of rap really are long-lost brothers, and Grime is just the mental younger sibling.

Stormzy battling an American rapper.

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