Home Sweet Home
t’s likely that within a decade “grime” as a term unto itself is going to be the footnote of a footnote, a single crumb in our track out of one forest into another. Primary poster boy Dizzee Rascal told New Times in April 2005 that “Grime is a rough, urban-music scene in the cities of the U.K…based around pirate radio stations and harsh raves.” Dizzee, having remixed sometime pomo balladeer Beck and designed a shoe for Nike, clearly isn’t only thinking in East London terms anymore, nor should he be. After moving into export status with Vice’s U.S. release of 679 Recordings’ Run the Road compilation and hearing artists depart from the original futuro-ferocity of producer/MC Wiley’s Eski-beat that became synonymous with “grime,” the term feels increasingly awkward and ill-fitting. It’s heavy-breathing stylistic growing pains—none of its practitioners want to betray the underground, but everyone wants just desserts. And despite the sniffing press and the near-rabid fandom, “grime” hasn’t become a commercial success. Instead, it’s perpetually on the cusp: terminally cool but grossly inaccessible—a snarling wolfpack next to the bland puppy mumble of most commercial U.S. hip-hop.
While “grime” connotes grainy DVD ciphers filmed in abandoned railway stations and white label singles issued in runs of 50, the occasional substitute of the term “U.K. hip-hop” doesn’t convey the specificity of the “grime” aesthetic. While “U.K. hip-hop” pigeonholes the artists less, it also awkwardly attempts to shuffle a very tight-knit and localized scene onto a global marketplace, to commercialize it and potentially sap it of what made it distinctive and exciting. Kano, one of the region’s most visible MCs, recently told the grime-attentive British underground music magazine RWD that “I don’t think I’ve gone to hip-hop…but I don’t intend to be a ‘grime’ artist, that’s just another box.” Kano’s decidedly not-all grime debut record Home Sweet Home is definitely an attempt at assimilation, but the effect of Kano’s democratic style-hopping could change the tone of the East London scene. If a crossover succeeds, “grime,” as a term, will be used incorrectly to tag Home Sweet Home, and that it isn’t a “grime” record will only destabilize the term. Furthermore, it would drive artists into a difficult decision between underground ideals/steadfast obscurity and compromised or diluted success. Questions will arise: is it theoretically impossible for grime to have widespread commercial success? If it hits big, is it even grime at all?
Kano’s flow and tone is a lot easier on the ears than most of his peers, like a river rolling comfortably between jagged mountain ranges of cockney slang and garbled second-hand Jamaican patois. Lyrically, his indecision about the future and potential fame flips back and forth between confliction and confusion—he wants to wear the regular guy making music for fun hat (“it’s just for de’ respect”), but also seems to want the standard hip-hop world domination hat. Catch is, he wants it tailor-made: “thinking could the underground go mainstream?” Well, it seems unlikely on paper, but throw the lyric against a smoove post-Tupac slab of nighttime introspection (“Sometimes”), and Kano falls into eerily unintentional irony—if the underground goes mainstream, the song comes off like a thorough crisis of self. Still, his anxieties seem pretty warranted when you’ve got RWD’s new AAA mix beginning hastily with DJ Logan Sama saying “A&R’s, get your checkbooks out, 2005, this is the real U.K. underground sound.”
Kano moves quickly and comfortably through a lot of recognizable territory: post-“99 Problems” vacuum-sealed Black Sabbath-based blip-hop (“I Don’t Know Why”), Latin-esque open-Cuban shirt and gold chain blotto-grind (“Remember Me”), and even the textbook grime of his breakout single “Boys Love Girls,” a slice of toylike nursery-rhyme acidity recorded in 2002 when he was only 16 years old. The most exciting and compelling moments on Home Sweet Home are generally forward thinking, but hardly grime. Tow-headed sound ambassador Diplo aids on the exceptional “Reload It,” a dazzling mess of yawning Eno-noise and sassy brass samples buttering up the rhythmic straddle of change-jingling jungle hi-hats and big-gym drums. It’s here that Kano’s poised and palatable flow (for better or worse) gets set in relief to his rawer and more frenzied peers. After two twinkling minutes, Demon’s feral staccato comes off like a choppy-connection cell-phone chat in Cantonese (which is to say, awesome, but completely different). “Ghetto Kid” does a shuffle and tap with concrete shoes, boasting an industrial-buzzing bassline so thick that it almost edges Kano’s vocals out into siren-soaked streets, and “Signs In Life” is pure action-movie bombast, all floodlights and helicopters smeared with operatic-apocalyptic strings. It’s less oblique and twisted than “grime” is supposed to be, but rhythmically, the stuttering and innovative production by Kano, Fraser T. Smith, Mikey J., and others is still light-years away from most American radio hip-hop.
On “P’s and Q’s,” featured here and on grime’s time capsule, Run the Road, Kano made a statement that was partial brag and partial hope: “I ain't even got punchlines, I got kick lines, and I ain't commercial, but I got hit lines.” It’ll be interesting to see whether this proves true; Home Sweet Home is good enough that it could work in a wider context, but whether it does or not will help determine whether U.K. hip-hop/grime/whatever will get major media attention or continue to be a high-quality cottage industry caught between its own idiosyncrasies and hungry money in search of the next big thing. Kano has spent the last several years making “grime” records, but for better or worse, Home Sweet Home isn’t one of them.