In 2007, grime was everywhere, and yet nowhere. The MCs spitting and battling on cable curio Channel U, or the Risky Roadz and Lord of the Mics DVDs, became A-list famous on the streets of certain areas of London, but were seen as intimidating in the eyes of the mainstream. Gang warfare was rife, and Operation Trident set up to tackle it; the recently withdrawn 696 form, where promoters had to state the ethnic makeup of their anticipated crowd, stifled black music events. Stars such as Skepta, Chip and Tinchy Stryder were rushed into the mainstream, given pop-dance tracks, and bled of what made them so unique in the first place. In this hostile environment, black music moved away from mainstream media, and headed online.
Fast forward a decade, and black British music is at an all-time high, thanks to a new generation of artists – Stormzy, J Hus, Daveet al – who have broken into the charts, awards and demographics way beyond the inner cities. This is thanks in a large part to SBTV, GRM Daily and Link Up TV, the online music platforms that propped up and launched this new generation of MCs.
On 16 and 17 December, SBTV celebrates 10 years in the game with a giant weekend of events at Printworks in London. Founder Jamal Edwards recalls a determination to make the scene seen and heard on a wider scale. “Ten years ago, there wasn’t anything online I could find that covered the artists I wanted to film,” he says. “They weren’t being represented in mainstream media or platforms; I saw a gap in the market and wanted to fill it.”
Edwards picked up a camera and first filmed his friends rapping outside the Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham. Rashid Kasirye, who in 2008 co-founded Link Up TV, the second-biggest rap channel in the UK after SBTV, had a similar beginning. “I never had enough money to produce DVDs, but the bigger Jamal and SBTV got, the more I started to think, ‘Let me do my own thing with my friends’,” he says. “Obviously, I had no idea where it was going to go, but I just wanted to keep [coverage] moving.” Following in their footsteps a year later was GRM Daily, previously known as GrimeDaily. “I wanted a platform that did what we’re doing now for myself, just as a consumer,” says its co-founder Koby “Posty” Hagan. “I wanted to be able to check out British content every day, so I waited around hoping someone would do it, but no one did, so I jumped in.”
These were young black boys making the most of modest resources to document a scene they loved. There were no big industry budgets or any kind of formal training, just enterprising kids with the graft to showcase what the mainstream had yet to understand: the fervent talent and energy around a multifarious community of black Britons. The method was simple: contact an artist via social media, film a freestyle or music video, and then post it online. Kasiyre would sometimes publish stories from a minicab rather than waiting to get to an office or studio – this responsiveness gave these entrepreneurs an edge over a lumbering mainstream. “It was just me nagging everyone, squeezing in the back of a car and going to events,” he explains. “I just wanted to champion these artists – I loved them so much.”
Hagan also remembers a consistent work pattern that went into building GRM’s website. “It was called Grime Daily because we put out content every day,” he says. “We would meet a rapper, speak to him for about 20 minutes, break it down to five pieces of content lasting about four minutes long – one interview from Monday to Friday. People were interested in knowing which trainers the artists were wearing: so we would film a “Crep Check”. Then a freestyle, so all in all we would have seven pieces of content.”
With a no-days-off mentality, Edwards, Hagan and Kasirye built healthy relationships with artists who would become household names. Stormzy laid down legendary freestyles on Link Up before becoming the people’s champion, while Dave was dropping knowledge in an SBTV Warm Up Session aged just 17. Edwards is still connected to many of the rappers who put SBTV on the map. “I tried to champion as many people as possible,” he says. “Like, in 2009, I filmed behind the scenes at Boy Better Know’s Too Many Man video; I got Krept and Konan’s first freestyle on their estate. People started noticing that I wasn’t just filming people from my ends.” He took a chance on a little-known singer-songwriter from Suffolk in 2009, who strummed his guitar on one of their most popular videos before becoming one of the world’s biggest musicians: Ed Sheeran.
The trio have had to grow with their audience, morphing hobbies into businesses. Acquiring investment hasn’t been difficult for Edwards who, in 2013, was able to secure financial backing from Miroma Ventures, who valued the brand at £8m. Hagan has proven to be a sharp businessman too, partnering with soft-drinks brand Ka to devise the annual Rated awards, launched in 2015 to celebrate the best of each year’s grime scene. Its inception is timely given the current landscape of award shows – think back to the #BritsSoWhite scandal of 2015, when just one black British artist received a Brit award nomination. “We won’t be branching out,” Hagan states firmly. “We just want to acknowledge grime and UK rap.”
“The fact GRM have an award show speaks volumes about how far it has come,” says Caroline Simionescu-Marin, A&R manager for XL Recordings. “There was no one covering this scene like them – they made everyone stand up and take notice.” Simionescu-Marin worked as GRM Daily’s editor from 2013 to 2015 and as a result of her knowledge of the scene, was snapped up by XL (home to Jack White, Radiohead and, until recently, Adele), signing artists to their New Gen offshoot and releasing of one 2017’s best UK rap albums, Nines’ One Foot Out. So it’s not just artists – these platforms have nurtured industry players who understand how to present and market the talent.
But Kasirye says these channels have not been recognised enough for their impact, and that they still struggle for legitimacy. “I still think a lot of people don’t really understand what we do – they don’t respect it,” he says. “They still see us as underground because of the content we put out. Lots of brands don’t want to mess with us; no one likes helping things they’re not involved in.” The kind of partnerships that brought about the Rated awards or SBTV’s £8m backing have so far eluded Link Up despite the channel being on the verge of 1bn YouTube views and Kasirye’s words speak volumes about the tensions between mainstream and urban culture. He fears that despite the rise of Stormzy and others, the establishment – of major labels, advertisers, and media channels – will ultimately never fully embrace or understand black British culture, merely co-opt it.
But the new generation of MCs are increasingly rejecting major labels anyway, as well as the album cycles beloved of the industry, instead favouring EPs and singles; new players such as Spotify’s playlist brands Who We Be and Afro Bashment are increasingly more important in breaking new artists. The original proponents are looking to diversify and stay relevant in this new climate. Edwards, who has already made a start with a recent documentary exploring mental health in the music industry, has big plans, aiming to increase SBTV’s visibility in the US and chase more brand partnerships. GRM Daily itself is increasingly appearing as a credited artist on tracks such as Calling, which features the MCs Kojo Funds and Chip, as part of a deal with major label Parlophone – but Posty and Rashid are tight-lipped about their futures.
They say they prefer to have their actions do the talking – actions that have been talking for a decade to a subsection of British society that has needed it most. “We want to be remembered for being a pioneering company by young people that made change for British music and create opportunities for young people to make music,” says Posty. “All while having the most swag doing it!”
First published on theguardian.com