Mykaell Ryley Interview: How Grime outwitted the musical establishment

Mykaell S. Riley Principal Investigator of Bass Culture Research

Black musicians have had a profound effect on British popular culture since the 1960s.

But of all the genres that have developed over the decades – from ska and British reggae, to jungle – it's the new sound of grime that has the power to be the most significant yet, according to Mykaell Riley, director of the Black Music Research Unit at the University of Westminster.

“What makes it so important and significant is that the artists involved have succeeded in creating a popular art form against the odds,” he says.

“They’ve managed to create something that has succeeded commercially, artistically, politically, despite the challenges black British communities face. They've done it in spite of the schools, in spite of the system, in spite of the state and the police.”

Although Riley sees grime as part of the longer narrative of black British music he is constructing through his Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Bass Culture project, which explores the history of Jamaican music’s contribution to the culture and heritage of Britain.

Mykaell Riley's ten most influential songs for black British music

1. Aretha Franklin – Respect
2. Marvin Gaye – What's Going On
3. Bob Marley – War
4. James Brown – Say it loud I’m black and I'm proud
5. Jimi Hendrix – All along the Watch Tower
6. Llinton Kwesi Johnson – Sonny's Lettah
7. Steel Pulse – Ku Klux Klan
8. The Specials – Ghost Town
9. Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy
10. Stormzy – Shut Up

He argues that grime differs from what has gone before. While the poverty and racism that plagued the communities in which grime emerged also shaped reggae, ska, two tone and jungle, grime has gone further than other genres to transcend its circumstances and achieve mainstream success.

And this is despite being largely spurned by the mainstream music industry. “The grime scene stood up to the industry that rejected it by going out and making their own success by working with technology, with social media,” says Riley.

“In getting that success they've outwitted the establishment. They've outwitted major multi-million pound marketing campaigns by running their own on a shoestring. They've taken over spaces that the industry said they couldn't inhabit, like festivals. And they've done it all outside of the education system – and that represents a real challenge to the education system and its relevance to the outside world.

“How long will it last? No one knows, obviously. Success certainly brings with it challenges.

“But so far many artists have brought their community with them. Most still don't see themselves as distinct from the people that live around them, and that shows tremendous maturity for artists who are, in many cases, only in their early 20s.”

However, it's not just the fact that Grime artists have beaten the system and made money doing so that interests Riley. It's that they have also shown the struggling music industry what the future looks like.

Just as record labels as struggling to make money and stay relevant, grime has stepped up and shown them exactly what they have been doing wrong – and how to fix it.

“The music industry looked at grime and assumed that there was no money to be made, because they didn't see it,” says Riley. “It wasn't going through their channels so therefore it didn't exist.

“But they were wrong. Grime has demonstrated you don't need traditional channels to make an income. They have evidenced the future of music sales and music promotion. Rather than just saying 'I'll get a manager to do that', these artists have embraced a 360-degree, DIY approach.

Inside Peckings Records in Shepherd's Bush, London

“They are operating as professionals outside the professional world. They haven't done apprenticeships or gone to college. What they have done is study on their own using online resources.”

Some would also argue that they have shown politicians how to be relevant to young people in the 21st century – as the success of the recent #Grime4Corbyn campaign demonstrated.

“What we saw there was artists standing up and saying 'yes' they would vote and 'yes' they would vote Labour,” says Riley. “Young people saw that and started their own campaigns – and then the politicians cashed in. But it was ground-up. It was organic and that meant that no one felt like they were being marketed to, it felt authentic.

“Now the music industry, the politicians, are all looking back at what grime artists have achieved and trying to work out what it means for them.

“I think some of them still see grime as 'immigrant' music. But it's not. It's British. Proudly British. The fans understand that. The artists do. But does everybody else?”

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