On the 12th of August, 2001, So Solid Crew struck the top of the UK charts with "21 Seconds" (their second single and first #1). This was three and a half minutes of 21-second sections featuring the bravado, sleaze, malevolence, feigned malevolence, violence and sex of So Solid's frankly mad 30-strong crew. It was the culmination of a progression for garage from underground, street-level dance music to overground, high-street-level pop fact.
The move towards MC-oriented garage was just beginning to take in 2001, and was
furthered in 2002 with the release of proto-grime crazy-good mixes Garage
Rap Vol. 1 and So Solid's Fuck It. I remember coming across a copy
of GRV.1 in Selectadisc Nottingham, cradling it with mixed feelings of
awe and "£16?!," a faint memory of Simon Reynolds' "2002 faves" rave gnawing
at me, attempting to seduce me into buying. (I didn't come across another copy
of this until just last month in Aberdeen Fopp's relocation clearance sale, its
price having dropped £13.) This was also the year of pop awakening for me
(and a lot of other kids) at the behest of Freaky Trigger and its poptimist militants.
It felt like there was an air of possibility and as-yet-untapped potential in
Britain's homes and commuter trains, on Britain's streets and radios. Tom Ewing
managed to nail this fire to the head of a match in his epochal Sugababes article, "Freak
Like We," and suddenly it felt like 1968 all over again (only better!) 2002's
key moment for grime would come after summer though, with the re-animation
of "21 Seconds"' jouissance and puissance in the leaked Dizzee Rascal's "I Luv
U." 2003 was relatively quiet for the genre, with the exception of, oh, you know,
Dizzee Rascal's 100,000 sales of Boy In Da Corner and the official release
of Wiley's seminal "Eskimo," grime-comp Lord of the Decks 1 and the Lord
of the Mics DVD. My favorite grime anthem I'm an indie sucker for
wispy elegiac, as ever was released too: Sharky Major's "So Many Days."
We don't live in an attention economy and attention is not the new money. There is, however, a political economy of attention, and in 2004 the blogunculus powered grime's push from "sonic-innovation lunatic-fringe division feted calf" to "subcultural capital draft pick #1." 2004 was the massive year for grime. (I still don't like the name, 'cause it doesn't fit peoples' mouths, but we're stuck with it now.) The sound of young England and the future now, a lot of the tracks on Run the Road originated in 2004's East London, where a lot went on. The MCs stepped up to the plate and claimed the scene for their own; a systematic whisper campaign for the hyping of albums began (Roll Deep, Kano, Tinchy Strider); Wiley finally released his own album (after he'd masterminded Dizzee's Boy… and the scene's genius sonix); and, Channel U (Sky TV, channel 167) started screening the mediocre and majestic both, bringing faces to account for the tunes. Deuce magazine had also helped achieve this earlier in the year. (Oh, oh, and important note: the Deuce cover-mount CD by Jammer and N.A.S.T.Y. Crew was released to fevered attention and is essential listening for anyone interested in the scene.)
So, history lesson over, now it really is the future (2005!) and your guess as to grime's potential success in America is as good as mine. Could Run the Road be a hit in America? The video for Lethal B's "Forward (Pow)" could trick you into believing it possible. But it's highly improbable; subcultural cachet doesn't translate easily into market success and the cadence of English MCs is likely to alienate a large proportion of American listeners. It's a shame, because there's a lot American audiences could see in and take from the music ("the Yankee man dem just cock back!") not least the fact that it's the most exciting music being made on the planet right now.
In terms of pure sonix, the tunes here have abandoned any trace of 2-step's clean
ghetto sheen and settled for the enforced murky cheapness of the sounds churned
out in their cracked software a dirtiness of sound that has historically
been all the worse for anyone living outside of London, relying as they must
encoded MP3s and envois (pirate radio tapes, etc.) from mates in the city.
This is one of the great benefits of having these tunes anthologized on an album
like this, of course. Here are quality versions of the best big hits within the
scene: "Cock Back," "Ps & Qs," "One Wish (Terror Danjah Mix)." What's amazing
about these tunes tracks as at-heart spacy as N.A.S.T.Y.'s "Cock Back" for
instance is their sheer busy-ness. The MCs crowd in one after the other
with in-your-face jokes ("Think you're big boy 'cos you got beard/ But it just
makes your face look weird") and boasts ("I'm sicker than you could ever be!") the
vocals transporting the riddim from steady-tempo Terror Danjah cut to erratic,
jacked-up mic fight. There's a real crazy raved-up feel throughout. The Streets' "You're
Fit But You Know It (Remix)" is a pleasant palate-cleansing jaunt that
is, until Lady Sovereign deigns to look into your heart. (Mike Skinner sticks
out like a sore thumb here as an MC whose flow haha is almost counter-rhythm,
all choppy and awkward and fighting against the track's rhythmic momentum.)
The MCs here step beyond privileged limits into their own self-mythologized realm, free of self-doubt or fear, where each enjoys legend-level fame. There's a bravado, a bluster, and a hero-in-their-own-head swagger charm to their lyrical boosterism that sits ill-at-ease with the actual economic and popular standing of the scene. And it's here at the nexus of this disconnect that the energy and power of the music leak free: that they are great and that they should be legends and that the music sounds like that. And that it should beat the world but won't, and so the producers (Terror Danjah, Jammer, Wiley etc.) won't achieve their rightful, earned place as chart topping demigods (Pharrell, Timbaland, Max Martin etc.). This is sad and infuriating. So as it stands, released on boutique label Vice, Run The Road will at best achieve college-campus-level recognition and "success," and sadly the American charts will remain an asymptote too far.