The Longtail Impact Of ‘Lord Of The Decks Vol. 1: The Fellowship Of The Mic’ 🎤🔥

Words: Son Raw

Jammer’s Lord Of The Mics is legendary. Across eight separate instalments, grime’s flagship clash series has sparked beef, engendered controversy and fuelled more online and barbershop debates about who really won between various contenders than a reasonable person would want to put up with. It’s become so ubiquitous in the culture that until you mention it to an outsider, it’s easy to forget the name started as a cheeky Tolkien reference, at the apex of the Lord Of The Rings films’ popularity.

But what of Lord Of The Decks? Before Wiley and Kano clashed in Jammer’s basement and before YouTube even existed, grime’s first Lords project was a CD celebrating and highlighting the best of the genre as it was just emerging from the garage scene, at a time when studio recordings simply weren’t available to fans, hungry for the latest styles.

To set the stage, let’s step back to late 2003: garage’s reign is long over and promotional copies of a young Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner were taking critics by storm, forcing the establishment to contend with the grassroots popularity of this newest form of London emceeing, even as the well-heeled would rather be covering The Libertines. Outside of Dizzee’s debut and More Fire Crew’s self-released CV however, the average listener had no real way to access the latest in grime music. Turntables were pricey and increasingly reserved for DJing, meaning the 12’ singles sold at Rhythm Division weren’t making their way to general audiences. Pirate radio and the ensuing MP3 rips were your best option if you could get them, but while the choppy, staticky recordings had a charm all of their own and the livewire emcee performances were sure to get the open-minded hooked, not everyone was down with listening to something quite so rough. That left the occasional mix CDs by pioneers such as Slimzee, but those offered one man’s beat-centric perspective of the scene, rather than an overview of grime barring as it stood. Enter Lord Of The Decks: The Fellowship Of The Mic, a CD quality (well, of sorts) platter of exclusive dubplates and big riddims that sought to do for East London mic-men what New York’s Canal Street mixtapes did for 50 Cent and Dipset.

This mixtape connection is both crucial and a red herring. Just as the Lord Of The Mics drew from both dancehall clashes and New York’s Smack DVD series, Lord Of The Decks was heavily influenced by New York DJs like Clue and Kay Slay (R.I.P), even as it twisted the formula to grime’s ends. That means multiple airings of the then red-hot “Ice Rink” riddim, lyrics from Dizzee’s newly minted classic, and plenty of rhymers that would be hotly debated on now long-dead message boards, even if not all of their music industry dreams panned out. Despite its DJ-centric title, the tape emphasized bars from the start, with minimal mixing and a cheeky presentation that reflected Wiley, Dizzee, Jammer, Kano and host Sharky Major’s importance to grime’s audience: the world may not have known it yet, but these artists were superstars.

Looking back 20 years on, Lord Of The Decks is a bit of a relic—a dodgy CDR from an era where even that served as priceless documentation of a scene on the rise. With that in mind, listen to the (even lower quality) version on YouTube and there’s plenty of value to be found, both musical and historical. First, it’s an incredible time capsule of the sounds, slang and trends that shaped Black London’s music as the early noughties began to recede. Whereas Dizzee’s debut combined self-produced grime classics to the sort of daring experimentation that would soon define his career-path, LOTD is pure uncut grime, even as the genre was still figuring out what that meant.

Wiley’s production immediately stands out, and even though his Eskimo sound has been rinsed and still features in edits and new music to this day as a shorthand harkening back to early grime’s authenticity, listening back to these barely mixed freestyles, it’s easy to hear what made his sonic palette so revolutionary. Beats like “Ice Rink” and “Igloo” as positively spartan, jamming Lenky’s dancehall minimalism, Swizz Beats’ percussive noisiness, Timbaland’s halftime/double-time polyrhythm and The Neptunes’ millennial Korg Triton popfunk in a blender with what was left of garage, before pulsing at 140. His own solo track, “You Just Don’t Get It”, even feels apiece to the mid-tempo electro minimalism found in Bay Area Hyphy and Atlanta Crunk—a fact more than a few scene-savvy listeners were quick to point out at the time, even if this seems like a coincidence sparked by an overlap in early 21st century studio equipment. Elsewhere, Sharky Major’s “So Many Days” is a perfect example of sinogrime, with JT The Goon later paying tribute to it on his epochal “Twin Warriors”.

Rhyme-wise, the evolution from jungle and garage feels just as stark, with emcees eyeing the international superstardom of American icons but also building on the skippy 8-bar flows dominating radio. Chief among these highlights is D Double E’s all-time classic, “Birds In The Sky”, a haunting dirge of a tune made up of drums, bass, a wailing vocal sample, strings and little else—the perfect bed to introduce N.A.S.T.Y Crew’s finest. Ruff Sqwad—still in school!—also acquit themselves nicely on the evergreen “Tings In Boots”, a preview of the mayhem they’d drop with their Guns N Roses tapes just a few years later. Peaking at the tracklist, it’s still shocking to see just how many future superstars had an early showing here, and that was just a portion of the rising scene.

It all adds up to the sort of groundbreaking release that just doesn’t have a place in an era without CD or DVD players, as access to artists feels frictionless via social media, and culture is shaped not only by local fans but also international music industry forces. Nevertheless, for anyone seeking to understand grime music’s roots, it’s an essential listen, and for everyone else, it’s still one of the rawest hours of bars you’re ever likely to hear. Pardon the photoshopped album cover.

Posted on October 24, 2023