10 Essential Books That Chronicle British Underground Music

Words: James Keith

Beginning today, TRENCH will be sharing deep and insightful guides on the commentators who have documented, photographed, filmed, promoted and supported the various modes of underground music and culture within the UK.

It goes without saying there’s no substitute for being right in the middle of a scene or subculture. If you live in London, New York or even Manchester, that’s relatively straightforward. If you’re from a smaller town or city, however, those pilgrimages to far flung clubs to catch your favourite MC, DJ or band become much rarer. In those circumstances, you’re often left to hungrily devour any and all writing you can lay your hands on.

Fortunately, musicians and journalists take just as much pleasure from talking about these things as you do reading them. What’s more is now that grime has reached a certain level of mainstream respect, out come the publishing deals, and now we find ourselves in the blessed position to see names like Wiley and DJ Target on our bookshelves (the latter's Grime Kids book drops in June). Just as grime’s independent streak stripped away the power of major labels, the scene’s key players also found themselves with a powerful bargaining chip in the literary world: their own narratives, unblemished by outsiders, and an audience with an unquenchable thirst for history.

We haven’t stuck solely with grime, but a good chunk of this list does focus on some of those stories. Still, even if grime’s not your thing, there’s plenty to read on the histories of acid house, reggae, UK garage and the fabled ‘Bristol sound’. So, without any further ado, here is the official TRENCH Reading List.

Wiley — Eskiboy (William Heinemann, 2017)

Obviously, we had to include this one. Not only was it voted ‘Book of the Year’ by The TimesThe Sunday TimesThe Telegraph and The Evening Standard, Wiley’s autobiography lifts the lid on the countless myths and legends surrounding grime and answers more than a few questions that have plagued us for years. Okay, so maybe one or two questions remain in the ether of grime’s mythology, but like all great magicians, Richard Kylea Cowie MBE was never going to reveal his biggest secrets. Rumour mill aside, this is a rare opportunity to hear from an artist who seldom gives interviews and can be notoriously difficult to pin down for any extended period of time. A rare sit down with a great.

Hattie Collins & Olivia Rose — This Is Grime (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)

Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose’s This Is Grime was THE book to own when it came out (and still is). Those who were there in grime's formative years wanted to relive those treasured moments through Olivia Rose’s stunning photography and newer fans were keen to snap up Hattie Collins’ exhaustive collection of first-hand accounts and probing interviews. Funny, fascinating and not without moments of tragedy, This Is Grime was arguably the first printed literature to catalogue the history of grime in one place.

Lloyd Bradley — Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King (Penguin, 2001)

Possibly one of the greatest books ever written about music, ever, Lloyd Bradley’s Bass Culture begins with the earliest seeds of reggae in the post-WWII era of Jamaican artists imitating post-war rock & roll and R&B and takes us on a world-changing voyage through the decades, closing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. What's most valuable about this isn’t Bradley’s own well-informed insight and recording (and it really is excellent), but rather the first-hand accounts from the likes of Buju Banton, Burning Spear and Jimmy Cliff (to name just a small few), as well as a foreword from Prince Buster no less. On top of that, Bradley also fleshes out the story with an insight into some of the socio-political elements that shaped the culture: the Rastafari movement, Jamaica’s political upheaval, post-colonialism in the Caribbean, and the influence of reggae on the UK.

Jeffrey Boakye — Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & The Meaning Of Grime (Influx Press, 2017)

One of the more academic books on this list, Boakye’s Hold Tight… looks at grime’s history through the lens of black masculinity and the constant state of flux we find ourselves in as human beings. He starts with 50 classic grime tracks—including “Moschino”, “Creeper”, “Next Hype”, “Too Many Man”, “Rhythm & Gash” and “I Can C U”—and looks at the way masculinity is expressed in each track. He keeps it light and he’s engaging and likeable throughout and, despite claiming to have never been an ‘insider’, writes knowledgeably about every subject. Whether you agree with Boakye or not, this book is still an engaging analysis and a reminder of grime’s cultural significance.

Goldie — All Things Remembered (Faber, 2017)

Unlike the previous tome, Nine Lives, which was written in close collaboration with Goldie, All Things Remembered comes straight from the mind of the jungle pioneer himself. Goldie could turn the phone book into an adrenaline rush. Fortunately, his own tales of Blue Note, Metalheadz and the rise of jungle and D&B are already entertaining. 

In his words, “All Things Remembered is not just the story of how and why, it’s everything from the children’s homes to the Whispering Wheels roller-disco to rolling with the graffiti kings of New York to writing with David Bowie to reinventing myself as the Dorian Gray of fucking breakbeat.”

Says it all, really.

Mike Skinner — The Story Of The Streets (Corgi, 2012)

Unsurprisingly, The Story Of The Streets won the NME Best Book Award in 2012, and rightly so. This came at roughly the ten-year anniversary of Mike Skinner founding the epoch-making band The Streets. The book credits Ben Thompson and Skinner as co-writers, and if that’s the case, Thompson has done an impressive job of letting Skinner’s inimitable voice guide the narrative—a prime source of anecdotes that take us from playing pool and PlayStation to the farthest reaches of the planet. Skinner was once described as “half Dostoevsky, half Samuel Pepys”. Hyperbole aside, few can tell such stories quite like The Streets.

Peter Hook — The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club (Simon & Schuster UK, 2010)

As with a lot of stories that enter the mythology of music (or indeed any subject), hard facts become a little flexible over time. Fans of the late ‘80s acid house, the ‘Madchester’ scene or just a good old-fashioned tea spill would do well to read this one, even if they think they’re up to speed with the story. To give you the upshot: Joy Division became New Order after the passing of singer Ian Curtis. They remained signed to Manchester label Factory Records and had a massive hit with “Blue Monday”, however the vast majority of their royalties were ploughed straight into the label’s Hacienda club, a club which flew in the face of every good business practice. Though Hook’s versions of events may have been coloured by bias, you can’t say they’re not entertaining.

Dave Haslam — Manchester, England: The Story Of The Pop Cult City (Fourth Estate, 2000)

Dave Haslam, if you didn’t know, was a resident DJ at the Hacienda for years and saw the club rise up from cash furnace to cultural epicentre and back again. The phrase “pills, thrills and bellyaches” (coined for the Happy Mondays’ third album) was even more fitting for the club than the famously shambolic Mondays. Haslam’s take on the Factory/Hacienda debacle is a nice balance of first-hand history and wild debauchery from someone detached enough from the financial implosions to still be able to look back fondly. He also does an admirable job of never making the story about him, though it’s not as if he was short of larger than life characters.

Side note: Factory and Hacienda boss Tony Wilson’s account of the whole story is also worth a read, but for entirely different reasons. He essentially wrote a novelisation of a film written about him. He was a weird guy.

Haslam’s new book Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor: Music, Manchester, and More: A Memoir comes out next month and will no doubt be another banger.

Terry Turbo — King Of Clubs: Sex, Drugs And Thugs: The One Nation Story (Monday Books, 2006)

The Garage Nation empire is no stranger to the pages of TRENCH. For years, Terry Turbo and his band of promoters threw raves of staggering proportions. Filling out warehouses and arenas, Terry’s One Nation and Garage Nation brought rave to the masses whilst remaining true to the scenes they represented. To say Terry Turbo’s journey to the stop is a wild story would be a huge understatement. We don’t want to give too much away but parts of this read like a gangland memoir. Although there’s been talk of a film being made of The One Nation Story for a couple of years now, we’re more than happy to wait patiently for what would be a truly unbelievable film.

Dan Hancox — Inner City Pressure (William Collins, 2018)

Journalist and grime commentator Dan Hancox has been documenting grime for over a decade. Though he’s mainly written for the Guardian and Observer, he’s also written about the scene for The New York Times, London Review of Books, Newsweek, Vice, The FADER, New Statesman, Dazed, Frieze and XXL. His book, Inner City Pressure, pulls together roughly 12 years of interviews with the scene’s most important figures. Even one of the other authors on this list, Jeffrey Boakye described it as “unputdownable and bristling with insights about grime and the city it was born in.” Inner City Pressure is an essential look at the birth of grime and its relationship with London, setting it against the backdrop of pirate radio, gentrification, urban protest, riots and police harassment. 

Chris Burton & Gary Thompson — Art & Sound Of The Bristol Underground (Tangent Books, 2009)

Given Bristol’s continuously invaluable contributions to UK music, especially the underground, there are criminally few books written about the city’s numerous shifting scenes. Using a staggering collection of interviews and club night flyers, Chris Burton and Gary Thompson tell the story of the converging cultures and sounds of the 1980s that would end up being poured into the city’s various drum & bass, trip-hop, dubstep, soul, dub and hip-hop scenes. Through speaking to various MCs and DJs, as well as graphic artists like FLX, Inkie and Nick Walker who created the flyers, they look at the era that saw Bristol's youth take over abandoned buildings and shake them to their foundations with their glorious homemade sound systems.