What did Top Boy do for grime?
The idea of a ‘grime renaissance’ is better understood as an increasingly mainstream recognition of the genre rather than any specific musical development.
As Skepta explained in his RBMA talk last year, while grime in 2014 appeared to respond to the sound and aesthetics of an earlier time, it was by no means an attempt to return to the past, and in 2016, the overarching framework of a cultural “renaissance” has taken on a literal meaning for the rapper. Sitting down with Beats1 recently, he explained, “We want to do bigger things than our crew… It’s like I’ve run out to have a fight or a battle and I’ve turned around and everybody is swinging, whether its entertainment, football, boxers; Anthony Joshua… all of that stuff.”
With grime fast achieving transnational status (not to mention Joshua’s heavyweight champion title), it’s black Britons who are currently putting home-grown talent on the world stage. Specifically, Skepta addressed Top Boy, the Channel 4 urban crime drama that fans have been awaiting news of since it was mysteriously decommissioned, despite critical acclaim, in 2013. Four years after the series ended, following cryptic Instagram posts and a reference to the show in the lyrics to his single Know Yourself, it was revealed that Drake had offered to finance the return of the East London drama and while there were initially rumours that the series would relocate to Chicago, Skepta recently rebuffed these claims stating that the show’s significance lies with “the whole style what’s going on in London, the sound. Everything about it is real.”
The alignment of social realist drama and grime is by no means a new phenomenon: Kidulthood, Adulthood and the lesser-known TV drama West 10 LDN all featured grime-fuelled soundtracks. Kidulthood’s Menhaj Huda even invited grime artists to advise on the film’s soundtrack, explaining where they are “coming from lyrically and sound-wise is the same place the film is coming from culturally.” In Top Boy, however, the grime stars are placed in front of the camera while a BAFTA-winning and intensely brooding score from Brian Eno soundtracks their lives. With MCs Bashy, Scorcher and Kano at the show’s forefront, Top Boy provided a drama debut for most of the MCs and showcased some of grime’s biggest names through an entirely different medium. Instead of appropriating the genre, as Skepta mused, the show is simply “another edition” of black British talent.
With its dialogue partially improvised, and cinematography more reminiscent of a Ken Loach film than its fast-paced feature-length predecessors, the show doesn’t need a grime heavy soundtrack to prove its authenticity to the culture it feeds from. Perhaps the show is even more organic that its musical counterpart, as Ashley Walter, the show’s leading man remarked: “You make your first album, it takes two, maybe three years of blood, sweat and sometimes, tears. And then the label forces us to go and make something new straight after the first album, which is a lot of pressure. But with Top Boy it hasn’t really been like that.” Although the show was nominated for several BAFTAs, it has also received criticism largely focusing on its uncompromising realism. Hackney Council banned filming to protect the Borough’s reputation and rappers such as Slew Dem’s Chronik criticised the show for its all-too-realistic depiction of the drug economy.
With its capacity to shift focus from gang rivalry to gentrification and mental illness, Top Boy’s blend of unapologetic realism and gritty urban life differs from its more stylised rapper-led US counterparts, but it is possible that the series may do for grime what John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood did for US rap culture. Indeed with funding from recent BBK signee Drake and creative direction from Skepta, it’s looking increasingly like the new series of Top Boy could be the international break through moment grime’s been heading towards. And with one of the genre’s foremost spokesmen at the helm, it looks like it could well stay true.