Pay As U Go Crawled So That Grime Could

Words: Yemi Abiade

In the year 2000, UK garage was at the epicenter of British underground music and culture. Anywhere and everywhere—from the block to the barbershop—you couldn’t walk past a corner of London where the sound wasn’t blaring out of speakers. Slowly pollinating the clubs, radio and charts of the day, it had captured the imagination of Britain’s youth towards the end of the 1990s, who then channeled the phenomenon into the champagne-toting, Moschino-copping days our olders gleefully tell us about in 2019—an era firmly entrenched in UK music folklore. But by the turn of the millennium, garage was gradually watering down, leaving a space in the underground to be filled by a generation more in tune with spitting bars than singing their emotions out.

In amongst this new breed were the likes of Heartless Crew, So Solid and, perhaps the most influential, Pay As U Go Cartel. These were younger men disillusioned with garage’s current and future direction, who had developed a flair for intricate lyrics over darker, moodier production than the sun-kissed sounds of the time, and were ready to kick UK garage (or ‘grimey garage’ as their version would become loosely known as) up the backside. So Solid were undeniably the most successful—not much more needs to be said about their story—but Pay As U Go represented the most fascinating and, arguably, most important journey, laying down what was to come next for UK black music. Sparking a change for garage that would inevitably create a division between the older UK-G’s and the new upstarts, the Cartel were instrumental in carrying over the spirit of the darker garage they represented into the sound’s now-distant relative, grime. This impact was twofold: by becoming a force in and of themselves in the garage scene while simultaneously contributing to the end of its reign as a bonafide movement, the Cartel swung over garage’s future like a sword of Damocles, ready to pick up where it left off in the UK underground.

Pay As U Go’s roster read like a who’s who of future grime royalty: Wiley, Maxwell D, Flowdan, God’s Gift, DJ Slimzee, DJ Target, Geeneus, Breeze, Plague, Bubbles and the late Major Ace. They were heavy hitters who would constitute major moves in grime, from music to infrastructure. “Pay As U Go was like a crew of headliners,” Wiley wrote in his 2017 autobiography, Eskiboy. “Each person was important and had their own skill. Every individual could hold down a set on their own, could probably have made it on their own. It was like a supergroup.” This is not to say they weren’t an out and out garage crew, able to switch up the more lyrical material for party bars at a whim.

Following the trend set by DJ Luck & MC Neat, PSG, DJ Pied Piper and countless others, Pay As U Go’s impactful “Champagne Dance” broke yet more barriers for mainstream garage, charting at No. 13 on the UK singles chart in 2001. Here, they followed a formula—memorable sung hook, bouncy, summery production, and party video—and ran away with it towards success.

Only a year before, in 2000, the Cartel were testing future waters on the classic “Know We”. A prototype for grime, it was conspicuous thanks to its ominous string riffs, harder-hitting drum sequences and the bars of Major, Wiley, Maxwell and God’s Gift. This was not a tune soundtracking a night in the dance hoping to find a spice and whine for the night. The track’s mood is more in the vein of a rap cypher in a rave, where mandem stand by the side, scoping out any potential madness. “We were just about spitting and making beats, that’s it,” Wiley continues in his book. “All the majors were signing pop and 2-step, and we were coming out with a grimey Eski sound.”

“Know We” was grime energy personified, but with garage at its height, it will have fallen by the wayside, falling on the deaf ears of a scene immersed in tales about love, fun and enjoyment. With hindsight, we can look at “Know We” as a pivotal one for the era. Pay As U Go carried their cypher energy into radio sets, Sidewinders and their expansive 2001 self-titled compilation album, fostering a new community of like-minded fans and revelers, but much to the chagrin of the older generation of garage musicians who were trying to keep the symbolic garage party going, not hear the hard bars. A single moment doesn’t define this tension quite like 2001’s infamous Pay As U Go/Heartless Crew clash, during which Wiley reacts to Heartless’ indifference with the now-notorious quip: “Lyrics for lyrics, calm.” When the garage-grime split was at its most tearing, Pay As U Go were front and centre, ready for battle against any crew and confident of coming out on top. The crew’s nimble balancing act was noteworthy; levelling the grittier sonics of tracks like “Know We” with the friendlier, mainstream-worthy “Champagne Dance”, they kept the garage flame going until its dying day.

From the ashes rose grime by the onset of 2002—by which point, Pay As U Go had disbanded, the remnants of which would later form Roll Deep—and each member was able to consolidate their buzz and acquire significant positions within the obnoxious new sound. Wiley became The Godfather, while Flowdan, Maxwell D, God’s Gift, Breeze and Major Ace became respected MCs in their own right. For Geeneus and Slimzee, their impact is permanent as Rinse FM, the radio station they co-founded, continues to thrive, and Target is now a respected author and BBC Radio 1 host.

Power players from grime’s beginning to the present day, they ensured a cohort of young black boys had a musical space and voice to take them into the decade of the 2000s and beyond. Instead of turning their nose at a new path, they embraced grime and moved it forward, leaving their garage contemporaries chasing shadows. It’s not a coincidence that many of the genre’s older generation slowly faded into obscurity once it had its day.

It is difficult to imagine grime in 2019 without the baby steps initiated by the Cartel. More than just the members and what they would go on to achieve, this crew’s arrival was a punch in the gut for what was garage at the time. They had the scene on the ropes, scaring it half to death at a time when wider British culture was beginning to accept UKG. And while signifying the genre’s downfall, Pay As U Go were able to contribute at the peak of garage’s 15 minutes of fame, while initiating the next evolution of black British music. Grime generations new and old are walking on a road paved by them, and to talk about garage and grime is to talk about the Cartel. One time for the true originators.

Posted on June 12, 2019