Grime Stories: Jammer’s basement, pirate radio and the genre’s legacy

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In the early 2000s, a basement in Leytonstone, east London, saw Kano and Wiley go head-to-head in what would become one of many historic MC battles in the space. This basement, in the family home of MC, producer and Boy Better Know member Jammer – aka Jahmek Power – also had the likes of Skepta, JME, Devilman, KDot and Tinchy Stryder come through for legendary grime clash series Lord of the Mics.

A new Museum of London exhibition, titled Grime Stories: from the corner to the mainstream, charts the genre’s emergence, delving into the story of Jammer’s basement and the pirate stations, youth clubs and sites across east London that were integral to the birth of grime. Co-curated by grime documentarian Roony ‘Risky Roadz’ Keefe, the free entry exhibition explores the enduring impact of the genre and its footprint in youth culture today.

The exhibition is open now. We spoke with Dhelia Snoussi – co-curator of the exhibition – about the link between grime and gentrification, and working with Roony.

Willkay, Jammer and Roony ‘Risky Roadz’ Keefe © Museum of London

How did the Grime Stories exhibition originally come about?

Originally it came about as a R&D for a wider music project. Technically my role is Youth Culture Curator and I work within this project called Curating London. Each year, we have a theme that we work to and the idea is to collect the contemporary experience of Londoners basically, to diversify the museum. I was researching to do a music R&D, to pitch music as this way that we should be trying to understand the lived experience of Londoners and that wasn’t specifically just grime. There were a number of genres attached to it but one of the research pieces was around working with Roony, especially because I was interested in the fact that he was a cab driver. So combining that experience of his as a cabbie with this experience of him being a grime documentarian. The projects all sort of emerged and evolved in whichever way, and then the one that we continued working on was with Roony, and then that developed and emerged into this idea of a display. He’s got production companies and so we thought maybe we can build around those films. He helped us to connect with other people including Jammer, who’s another important part of the display. It was never originally supposed to be an exhibition in that way. It just sort of evolved.

You mention working with Roony. What was it like working with him and co-curating the exhibition together?

It’s been a really interesting process. In the sense of how it’s evolved originally, again, it was supposed to be this one film commission and now he’s become a co-curator of this display. He’s been really generous with his contacts and with his knowledge. We’ve gone back and forth on who should be involved and what story we should tell. We were really clear that it wasn’t supposed to be an encyclopaedic exploration of grime, it’s not supposed to be the chronology of grime or everything in grime, it’s supposed to be some handpicked stories of lesser known parts of grime’s history. So rather than telling the narrative that’s already been told, we try to explore grime through, for example, his background as a cab driver. That specific film that we ended up working and making with him is exploring grime, and visiting locations that are important to grime’s history through his cab. A number of kinds of visitors get into the cab, a number of people from the grime scene, and they go on this journey which also explores a lot of the places that don’t exist any longer. For example, Rhythm Division is now a coffee shop. Deja Vu pirate radio station is now the Olympic Park. So it’s using the stories to also talk about gentrification.

We wanted to tell grime but in a completely different way. People don’t necessarily associate grime and gentrification with one another. So it evolved from there and Jammer was in the car. Then we decided, actually, there’s a really interesting story around Jammer’s family. So that emerged as a separate film, which I can talk about, as well.

Jammer’s family home © John Chase, courtesy of the Museum of London

What is this story around Jammer’s family?

The story with Jammer, it was really interesting, because obviously his basement is a well known place where every grime MC has come through. What we didn’t realise – what I certainly didn’t know – was that his dad was a musician as well, and had a reggae band that was downstairs in that basement. And then having met his son, who was also a drill artist, I had no clue. There was this story emerging about the fact that there’s generations who have used this basement to record music. It’s not just Jammer, it’s not just grime. So that was really interesting.

We managed to interview his mum, his dad and his son in that process, and also speak about what is it about that house or that family that has produced generations of this music. Then from that, we realised when we were interviewing his parents that they set up this organisation called East London Rastafari Information and Community Services from this basement. So seeing his parents as activists as well and seeing his work as a continuation of their legacy. They were talking about, in their house, if you wanted to do music that was fine, but you also had to do your Maths and English. Between those two stories of Roony in the cab and then this activist group in Jammer’s basement, we’re trying to explore a different angle to grime that people don’t associate it with. People think of grime as young men and just young men. It was important to also think about the parents that have enabled what Jammer does. In the film Jammer generally gives a kind of homage to his family and says it wouldn’t have been possible without his parents.

Was there anything that you learnt or found particularly interesting through the process of curating Grime Stories?

Those two things that I mentioned but more specifically, the relationship between this pirate radio station and the Olympic Park. That these guys were literally, without knowing it, producing this really important genre in this place that would be so significant to London; it would be regenerated and it would be the home of the London 2012 Olympics. They had no clue that they were sitting on this goldmine.

In the film one of the co-founders of Deja Vu goes back to that space in Hackney Wick. They attempt to try and find which rooftop they were broadcasting from but, obviously, it’s completely changed and been massively gentrified and the space where they’re at is now a coffee shop. It’s them reckoning with this disorientation of like, this is where we created this genre. That was interesting, to specifically look at those locations.

Also, the third film that we’ve worked on is a piece with a group of young people, and it’s looking at what has changed since the time of grime. Funnily enough it’s not specifically about grime, but it’s for this generation. Young people that don’t have as many youth clubs, don’t have pirate radio stations, don’t have record shops. What does that mean for music production today? What does it mean for cultural production for them? It’s supposed to track the difference between Jammer and Roony’s time against the lived experience with these young people. Some of the contributors who are 13, 14, are living in a completely different context. Hearing their perspectives was really, really interesting.

Left: Roony and his gran Marie Keefe
Right: Jerry Power, Jammer’s father © John Chase

You worked with Ruff Sqwad Arts Foundation for the youth culture aspect of the exhibition. Can you tell me more about working with them and the youth culture aspect of Grime Stories?

Ruff Sqwad Arts Foundation helped us to be in touch with some young people to get their perspectives, specifically as Ruff Sqwad are some of the most important producers of that time but they also work as youth workers. That’s not dissimilar to a lot of people who’ve mentored; Jammer is considered a mentor by many people. There is this link between music and youth work. So they’ve set up this Arts Foundation that does incredible work, trying to upskill the next generation of young people, and use their skill set to develop the next generation. They helped us identify a few young people that they thought were promising but also to speak to them about what they feel are the barriers to the work, to becoming successful musicians. The display really tries to focus on east London as well; how east London is important to the music that they make. And how does the lack of youth clubs impact the kind of music that they make?

Ruff Sqwad are also developing a learning and engagement programme with us. Alongside the exhibition, they are working with a group of young people and upskilling them in MC skills across this intensive programme, and then they’ll have an opportunity to perform in the museum to an audience.

That’s really interesting and great to have the exhibition engaged in the community, and it acting as part of a much wider context.

Most definitely, we see it as a starting point rather than an end point, in the sense that this is just the beginning. We hope to acquire these films into the collections. We’ve already started acquiring some of Roony’s DVDs so that grime has a small part in the museum’s history. We’ve only been able to tell a small part of the story. Even working with Jammer, I told him that the film is seven minutes long where it could be a feature length, in the sense of how much archive they have as well. In one of the films, there’s some footage of D Double E, maybe one of his first performances in the community hall, by Jammer’s parents. And Jammer’s sister gets on the mic and is like, “That was D Double E and my brother made this beat,” and everyone gives him a round of applause. This is just the stuff that we digitised. We just picked up any VHS in their house. We didn’t know what was on it and we just found this material. They’ve just got tonnes of it.

It really is their feature length film in the making. And that’s just one family. What we learned is that Jammer’s family knew Footsie’s family, knew D Double E’s family, and they all have these stories to tell. So I hope it’s the beginning of trying to unravel those stories as well as everything we know about grime.

Jammer’s basement studio © John Chase. Courtesy of the Museum of London

What has been your favourite part about working on this exhibition?

My favourite thing is working with Roony. He’s been super generous, collaborative and it has been an amazing process. I hope that we get to work together more closely. Definitely that, and producing these films has been really interesting. We hope it’s a model for how we’ll do things in the future. Hopefully, the films will have an afterlife after the exhibition. And definitely Jammer’s family archive. I don’t know if you’ve ever digitised anything. When it’s my stuff you get that excitement of what’s on it, but this footage from the 90s of his family talking about Rastafari culture, it’s this stuff you don’t expect to see necessarily, but it was amazing.

How does it feel, after working on the exhibition for a while, having it open now for people to come visit?

It’s crazy. When you think how long things take to put on, when you see people interacting with things that you’ve worked on it’s really surreal. Especially because the museum has a mixed audience, it definitely could have a more diverse audience and that’s part of what this work is about, but also we have a lot of children that come through. It’s really weird to see primary age children who are on a school trip interact with something completely different. You know they go for the Great Fire of London or the plague, they come for something that’s on their curriculum, and they get to interact with something that they don’t know about yet but maybe relates to their lived experience. It’s been interesting to see kids run about and interact with the space and jump on Jammer’s basement stairs, because there’s a mini reconstruction.

© John Chase
Courtesy of the Museum of London

More generally in your role as Youth Culture Curator at the museum, what other projects and work are you involved in?

It’s a really interesting role. It’s about collecting contemporary London specifically from a youth perspective. But sometimes things go outside of that box, like what is a young person? What is the youth issue? Gentrification is a young person’s issue and it’s also everyone’s issue, so diversifying the collections and making sure that young people’s perspectives are in the museum. Not just as engagement projects but actually as objects.

In terms of other projects that we’re working on: I recently did a project called Collecting Ends in Ladbroke Grove. It was a takeover of a space underneath the motorway and it was working with young people to collect their own lived experience. A lot of it is co-producing to work with communities that we’ve not worked with before, and collect what it means to be a young person. This year, as I mentioned, the music R&D – we ended up not doing music as the theme, we ended up doing food as the theme. So we were exploring food as a way to explore London.

We’ve also been working with an academic – Dr. Joy White, who wrote TerraFormed – to write a more academic piece that contextualises what is being said. Specifically in the young people film, which is them just expressing themselves, but it’s for her to use all of her knowledge and her PhD – she did a PhD in grime – to contextualise it. We’ve tried to have a type of engagement for everyone: there’s reconstruction, there’s film – which is a very sensory way of engaging with something – and then we’ve tried to have this way of contextualising it through this academic piece. There’s hopefully a bit for everyone.

Grime Stories: from the corner to the mainstream is now open at the Museum of London. Admission is free and the exhibition runs until 4 December 2022.

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