The origin story of any musical movement is often murky. It might have been Wiley who started grime, by flipping the garage sound into the “Eskimo” instrumental and laying the foundation for a new genre. Or maybe it was Ruff Sqwad, featuring a baby-faced Tinchy Stryder and his friends, who would cut class to make beats in the basement.
There are a few generally accepted facts: Grime was born in London, in the early 2000s, and it’s undeniably British. Depending on who you ask, popularity waned for a few years before grime came upon its current renaissance in the past two years. Cosigns from pop culture heavyweights have helped to pique interest in grime abroad. Drake signed with the genre's flagship label, Boy Better Know, about a year after Kanye West brought grime’s old and new guard on stage with him to debut “All Day” at the 2015 BRIT Awards. With this renewed interest amongst North American audiences, all eyes have been on veterans like Skepta and JME, plus newcomer Stormzy, who’ve all released either full-length albums or popular singles in the past year.
Yet for all the hype surrounding grime’s current wave, not enough of it is devoted to the scene’s women, who are every bit as impressive in their skills. Lady Leshurr is the most visible of grime's women at the moment—for good reason—but her melodic shit-talking is nowhere near as known as it deserves to be. Croydon MC Nadia Rose recently put her own spin on the “Eskimo” instrumental and made it sound as fresh in 2016 as it did in 2002. Ms Banks sets booths on fire, packing mentions of politics, financial aspirations, and female empowerment into one slick verse and wondering if anyone who might question her talent is “feeling alright.”
To be sure, the disparities in recognition stretch across an ocean. In 2014, British broadcaster Channel 4 teamed up with Dazed for Open Mic, a documentary that chronicles grime from its origins through its two waves of mainstream recognition. It’s a short doc but rich with vintage clips of OGs like Skepta, Wiley, and Kano from when they were earning their stripes in east London. We’re offered glimpses of a few raves, including one under the command of two female spitters, though we never learn who they are. During the concert scenes we see several young women either standing up front near the stage, or braving London weather in lines outside the clubs waiting to see their favorites perform. They are the kind of fans who memorize all the lyrics and recite bars effortlessly in front of the MC that wrote them. Still, the only woman to get any facetime in the documentary is a journalist. Make no mistake, she knows her grime. But she’s neither an MC nor a product of the marginalized communities that fostered the genre, and several women have ticked both boxes over the years.
Take Shystie, the Hackney native who first gained fame with “I Luv You,” her take on Dizzee Rascal’s breakout track “I Luv U.” In Dizzee’s tale, the female protagonist is nothing but a whore who trapped her partner for life because he dared to say three magic words to her. Shystie’s version serves up a fiery riposte. Given that grime was an underground genre for years, it’s noteworthy that Shystie was the scene’s first MC to be snapped up by a major label, signing with Polydor in 2004 for her full-length debut.
By the late 2000s, reinforcements had come by way of Roxxxan and future Wiley collaborator Mz Bratt, to name just a few. These MCs traded heavily in bravado. They undermined their enemies’ realness, adding in enough detail to make it clear that all threats were personal, and bragging that they were the best at everything.
Airwaves were the ideal media for freestyling and airing out grievances, and radio sets played a huge role in the early days of grime, when pirate stations like Rinse FM and DejaVu FM were some of the only platforms available for spreading the music to a larger audience. The unfortunate consequence of these guerrilla methods is that it’s challenging to find some of the earlier grime recordings online. Some kind souls found ways to rip the sets so people could download them. Others would film freestyle battles and put them on DVDs, bits of which resurface from time to time. One such outtake (seen below) involves Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch, engaged in battle. In it, you can see Lady Fury standing right behind Dizzee as he literally spits 16s, before the whole thing devolves into a fight about halfway through the clip. When Wiley and others step in to calm the tension, Fury does too, as an equal in the dimly-lit arena. She became an MC in her own right, joined forces with JME, Skepta, and Tinchy Stryder and lived through her own beef, trading diss tracks with Shystie. Then she vanished from the scene.
After Shystie, it took more than a decade for another female MC, Amplify Dot, to sign with a major label in the UK. Lady Sovereign is widely acknowledged as the first grime artist to score a hit, as well as a deal, in the states but the success was short-lived. This Ladies Night set (below), from 2009, features four of the best from grime’s first decade: London’s original bad girl NoLay, Lady Chann (a dancehall queen who is just as good over grime beats as she is on bashment riddims), Lioness, and Lady Leshurr. These four are all still active (though sadly NoLay is on the mend after a serious car accident this spring), but many of their peers record infrequently or seem to have stopped entirely. It’s hard to pin down what happened to make so many of grime’s female MCs call it quits.
The charged-up and at times aggressive nature of raves and clashes couldn’t have made for the most welcoming environment, and it’s not hard to see why the sexualization of women in grime lyrics could be discouraging to the scene’s ladies, leading or otherwise. In a recent interview, Stormzy said that misogyny wasn’t really associated with his genre, or rather that it was more prevalent in hip-hop. The latter point is debatable: Of course misogyny in hip-hop culture has long been a topic of discussion, but if you listen to enough grime, it won’t take long to notice that one of the easiest ways to shut down another contender is to liken them to part of a woman’s anatomy. It took a trifecta of raw talent, determination, and shrewd business sense to propel Nicki Minaj to the top of the rap game, but if she looks around, her cohorts are overwhelmingly male. Even if female grime MCs were to truly crossover and reach great heights in North America, it’s hard to tell whether mainstream audiences would be ready to see more than one of them hovering near the summit, especially if that isn’t the case back home.
Ultimately, hitting pay-dirt in foreign markets will boil down to marketability. Viral success is unpredictable, but there is still something to be said for “breaking” America. So many British artists have crossed over to North American markets and achieved near-unthinkable heights of success: Adele, One Direction, those four gents from Liverpool. Even dubstep, another UK export and perhaps a closer sonic relative to grime than even hip-hop, made it to the Grammys. But those sounds are more palatable in many ways; having to work to decode a lyric like “I’m behind tints with the leng in the car / I jumped out the car, put the leng to his heart” or what it means to be “nang” might not be worth it for a potential new fan.
As grime continues to grow in popularity outside of the UK, the trade-off between commercial interests and authenticity will be of chief concern, as it so often is in underground musical movements gone mainstream. But if its boundaries must be redrawn for it to gain wider acceptance, men certainly aren’t the only ones who can translate grime. Rappers like Paigey Cakey and Stefflon Don are versatile enough to float on either trap or grime beats with their accents intact, while Lady Leshurr’s “Queen’s Speech 4” created enough natural buzz before being picked up for a Samsung advert last year.
Regardless of the format, British urban culture is having a moment beyond its borders, from the Drake-led revivals of funky house, the TV show “Top Boy," and yes, grime to a certain extent. The relatively young genre still has room to grow, and there are numerous women who can help make this happen. After all, they make music that breeds good energy—a concept that's never foreign.