‘The future of grime’ seems to have become a frequent topic of debate this year. For one thing, producers like Mr. Mitch and Yamaneko are releasing ambitious album-length statements that seem to have more in common with ambient and electronica than with ‘Pulse X’. Some have written about a ‘gentrification’ of grime, which seems well off the mark given that this is just one facet of the genre. Still, it’s an interesting trend to take note of. Secondly, it’s no longer just an insular London sound – grime has permeated the music of new producers as far flung as Houston and Sydney, and more importantly, those shifts are being reflected back. A globalisation of influences is apparent in tonight’s Just Jam programme, which features performers from all over the world; from Chicago to Syria, from Norway to Lisbon, from New Jersey to London. Despite being held at London’s Barbican, a huge concert hall more used to orchestras than grime MCs, the show definitely leans towards the rowdier end of the spectrum. Thankfully, the product hasn’t been diluted, and the artists seem thoroughly unfazed by the novel setting.
“The underground brought overground, for one night only”, as the programme notes would have it. But it almost wasn’t to be, after the original event, originally scheduled for February this year, was cancelled after the police put heavy pressure on the venue. Enough has been written recently about Form 696 and the Metropolitan Police’s relationship with black and Asian music for me not to have to go into detail – this excellent documentary presented by JME tells you everything you need to know. Thankfully, the event was finally allowed to go ahead with an even better lineup – here’s what went down.
As the lights fade, Novelist strolls on stage right to the opening beats of ‘Take Time’, his first collaboration with Mumdance and quite possibly the song of 2014. The guy is all of seventeen, and yet he commands this huge auditorium with the relaxed cockiness of an MC ten years into his career. Needless to say he tears through ‘Take Time’ before Mumdance then drops ‘Shook’, the pair’s forthcoming track on XL Records, very much in the same vein. Finishing up with two great pace-shifting freestyles, the set is over all too quickly. Novelist comes into this show off the back of being nominated on the BBC Sound of 2015 longlist, alongside fellow upcoming grime artist Stormzy – just one of many important steps forward for the scene this year. Whether Nov can find the fame that’s eluded so many grime artists unwilling to compromise on their sound remains to be seen, but his talent certainly cannot be doubted.
Drippin, a young producer from Norway, plays next. His set sticks closely to the militarised grime beats of his Silver Cloak EP for Lit City Trax. Clips from some classical hack ‘n’ slash film play in the background, the flashing rows of spears and shields acting as the perfect accompaniment to the aggressive soundtrack. Drippin’s reach is broader than grime though, drawing on the industrial Night Slugs/Fade to Mind template, and feeding in some hip-hop towards the end of his excellent set, one of a couple tonight that really make the Barbican feel like a club, however briefly.
The next performance is a real treat – grime star D Double E onstage with legendary jungle MC General Levy, and garage producer Sticky on the decks. Levy throws out copies of his new mixtape and gets the whole room on their feet for ‘Pull Up’, his new tune with Sticky. His delivery is still lightning fast as he bounds around the stage. Everyone stays dancing while D Double E runs through ‘Bad to the Bone’ (his version of S-X’s ‘Wooo Riddim’) and ‘Streetfighter Riddim’, before the pair team up for Levy’s 1994 classic ‘Incredible’, which gets perhaps the biggest audience reaction of the whole night. Big ups.
Performing alongside visuals that look like the missing link between Second Life and Minecraft, Maboku is one of a number of DJs (see also: Marfox, anyone on the Princípe label) popularising the style known as ‘kuduro’. Mixed in with house and grime influences, it’s a sound that reflects his background – Angola by way of Lisbon. And like so much else tonight, it hits hard. A great set, and a name to watch out for.
After a short interval (an interval? At a grime show? This truly is next level) we kick off tonight’s second half with a synth jam from Alexis Taylor and Brian DeGraw (of Hot Chip and Gang Gang Dance respectively). I close my eyes as the vibe shifts from birds chattering in the rainforest canopy to sticks clattering around a tribal fire. It is, to be quite honest, pretty tedious given the energy of the first half. Not even Taylor’s giant wooden ampersand necklace can save proceedings, although the set picks up some momentum towards the end when he picks up the mic and coos over a more dance-friendly 4x4 beat. Someone kindly points out to me that this is a version of a track called ‘(F.U.T.D.) Time of Waste’ from DeGraw’s recent solo album. Despite being a fan of both bands, I won’t be rushing to check it out on this evidence.
UNiiQU3 brings the bass-heavy Jersey Club sound, with edits of some of 2014’s biggest hip-hop bangers – ‘Stoner’, ‘We Dem Boyz’, and ‘Hella Hoes’ all in the mix – but out of all tonight’s sets, it feels the least well-suited. Despite her enthusiastic presence on the mic, willing the crowd on, UNiiQU3’s set never quite translates to the Barbican space in the way that, say, Drippin’s atmospheric music seems almost to be tracing the contours of the architecture. On the other hand though, fuck that – this is pure fun, and the visuals are great too, hopping between YouTube detritus and lava-lamp Ceefax shapes.
Chicago DJ Traxman has brought along Litebulb, a talented footwork dancer who takes centre stage and wows us with his convulsions. “Take ‘em to the Chi!”, Traxman yells into the mic, his face beaming with pride in his city’s output. The frenetic juke rhythms cascading out of the speakers are undercut with a tinge of sadness – it’s still only eight months since dance music lost a legend in DJ Rashad. Traxman is one of many DJs carrying on his legacy, and we get plenty of Rashad cuts tonight – ‘Double Cup’, ‘We on 1’ and ‘Brighter Dayz’ are all warmly received, as is Traxman’s own ‘Blow Your Whistle’. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a footwork set with a live dancer, and it feels very special – although in Chicago, of course, this is simply the norm, the two having evolved together. Here’s hoping the sound that Rashad and Traxman worked so hard to shape continues to get twisted in interesting ways as it travels around the globe.
JME. Big Narstie. Preditah. Two incredible grime MCs + one shining new producer = the ingredients for the best set of the night. And that’s without even mentioning Skepta, the inevitable special guest. Between them, this lot have clocked up some serious tunes, evident from the moment Big Narstie kicks things off with ‘Don’t Fuck Up the Base’. JME follows up with ‘Serious’ and ‘That’s Not Me’, halfway through which Skepta runs out for his verse and the crowd absolutely loses its shit. It feels like a real moment, a victory lap for the breakout grime track of 2014. Finishing up with ‘It Ain’t Safe’ and ‘Too Many Man’, Skepta and Big Narstie throw out t-shirts while JME descends into the crowd and raps into some guy’s phone. I can’t stop grinning.
Omar Souleyman’s celebratory set is the perfect way to end the night. The Syrian wedding singer may be an unlikely star, but his ‘dabke’ sound ups the tempo and keeps the party going. Replete in khaki robes, a red and white keffiyeh and his trademark sunglasses, Souleyman walks the rim of the stage performing tracks from his Four Tet-produced album Wenu Wenu. His presence is mesmerising, his face unreadable. He shakes the hands of those in the front row, hands out miniature Syrian flags. The music easily transcends the language barrier, and draws a line under tonight’s firmly international character.
Hats off to Just Jam, then, for programming such an eclectic and exciting bill, and for overcoming the event’s original cancellation – tonight was a huge success on a pretty ambitious level, and everyone involved should be very proud. Proof that the underground can flourish when given a bigger platform.