The Slippery Slope Of Switching Musical Lanes

Words: Yemi Abiade

“Just don’t call me a grime artist,” grime MC AJ Tracey said in a recent interview, a statement of intent ushering in a new stage of his career. Or, possible famous last words from an artist with a chip on his shoulder. The jury is still out, but with grime and other forms of black British music on the rise, artists are spreading their musical wings into different verticals on a regular basis. AJ himself made his name spraying bars in a resurrected grime milieu, and has shown with recent track “Mimi”, an Afro-tinged vibe, that there is yet more scope to his talents. But with his comments, he may be in danger of alienating himself from the scene around him.

The Ladbroke Grove MC’s heart is in the right place; he must feel that the ‘grime artist’ label restricts his perception to a wider audience, minimising his ability. A talented young man yet to reach his prime, he is well within his rights to experiment with genres and find a pocket for himself, and he is adept enough to slay any beat he’s on. This is also true of the cool kid Loski, UK garage-loving Jorja Smith and others treading genre lines, but there is a fine line to be towed between trying something new out of creative desire and completely disregarding the scene that made you famous.

We’ve all heard the cautionary tales of Dizzee, Chip, Tinchy and others (they’re almost myths at this point) of grime stars becoming pop superstars and never looking back. Albeit Chip was the one to be able to redeem himself and reclaim a status as one of the scene’s greatest, but even now, his past life as a pop star most likely continues to be a sore point for fans, but the same cannot be said about his peers. Dizzee, to put it kindly, operates on the fringes of grime to this very day after stating a desire to make music his fans could dance to, sticking a nail in the coffin of a scene in which he was its prodigal son. Meanwhile, Tinchy is a grime original and still fosters respect, but he arguably hasn’t captured the imagination of grime fans since his No. 1 with “Number One” in 2009.

Even Kano, one of our country’s finest lyricists, wasn’t averse to trading radio sets for the pop charts, collaborating with Craig David and Blur’s Damon Albarn on 2007 album London Town—the follow-up to classic grime soundtrack, Home Sweet Home. In hindsight, this experiment can be seen as yielding little in the crossover department. Fast forward to 2016’s Made In The Manor and he returns to his origins without a trace. But this is a privilege that isn’t always afforded to MCs. Even Wiley, who is held in such high regard in the scene, still cites the electro-leaning “Wearing My Rolex” as his biggest chart success. Clearly, the trajectory of an artist varies from case to case when they crossover but, much to the disappointment of grime fans, transcending the genre is a debate that is very much alive and well today, especially as it threatens to tamper with the image of said artists in their eyes.

Little did these men know that their decisions would turn an entire scene against them—a narrative that artists such as AJ Tracey should try their best not to be enveloped in. Especially as young musicians emerging from a scene that the mainstream, historically, have not understood. ‘Leaving’ the comfort zone and safe spot of grime for pastures new is a risk in and of itself, from both a musical and literal standpoint. The pop world is a well-oiled but problematic machine, equally producing and then spurning talent at a whim. There is no love in it, unlike the feverish following a grime artist can attain simply by spraying bars in a clash. When grime has your back, it really has your back, and this somewhat familial support can foster loyalty to the movement.

That’s why Skepta can command the adoration of grime fans and venture out into collaborations with Mick Jagger and Goldie without losing his aura. But by disregarding the scenes that birthed them, artists such as Dizzee and Chip cut off that bond and were left on their own, which can be a daunting proposition if the pop thing doesn’t work out. Chip learned the hard way, and Dizzee—despite a partial return to grime with 2017 album Raskit—doesn’t seem to care about his status among grime fans. And as much as young artists today don’t want to be boxed in given the dynamism of the UK music scene, these tales must warn them of the dangers because, as easy as it is to gain support, it’s just as simple to lose it. This is a predominantly black, DIY-inspired genre—where pride has always been a factor—and a perceived ‘betrayal’ (ala Dizzee, Chip and Kano) proves, on a general scale, to be unforgivable.

But perhaps the musical landscape of the UK is altogether different now, compared to the days these stars switched allegiances. After all, Stormzy is a fully-fledged pop star now after having one of the best years the grime scene had witnessed last year, and he has organically transcended the genre, maintaining a balance between staying true to the sound and spreading his wings in a way deemed acceptable. He is as much grime as he is mainstream without ever needing to compromise himself, which may speak to the fact that, in 2018, grime is the mainstream. His is an example for newer artists to follow, and perhaps AJ Tracey’s comments mirror an intention to walk the same path—particularly in a musical space that allows for young black men to experiment further.

Paradoxically, Stormzy’s is a unique case, and his endearing personality has played its part in his ascension also. It would be difficult for him to replicate his 2017, let alone another artist getting close. And if AJ is up for the challenge, then more power to him, but presenting himself as a worldly artist without compromise will be his next challenge: to let the scene know that they haven’t lost one of the most established MCs of its new generation.

Posted on April 16, 2018