The Scene Needs Chip.

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Jahnay Tennai

In the midst of a UK music scene brimming with superstars old and new, you’d be hard pressed finding a figure as polarising as the man called Chip. Whether you love him or hate him, the North London star’s trajectory is unlike any of his peers, his rise, fall and rebirth the subject of incessant CSI-style forensic study. Respect can sometimes be finite in grime and UK rap, as he has learned, but that he’s been able to earn it back speaks not only to his character but the fact that he’s really good at what he does.

At this point, after over 15 years in the game, Chip feels like a family member, one you grew up with and saw make the transition from baby steps to adulthood. He has lived out his career in the public sphere, his every success and misstep on full display. The more things change, the more they stay the same however, for Chip has been used to the spotlight from a young age. It was in 2007, when grime’s first generation were household names, that a 16-year-old Chipmunk began making waves, combining raw, youthful energy with lyrical nous and showcasing his talent on platforms like F**k Radio and Tim Westwood’s BBC Radio 1Xtra show. The olders around him were sure of his powers and, set after set, faith among grime fans grew. I was in my not-really-into-grime phase by then, but his name regularly rang around the ends. Later seeing ‘Chip Diddy Chip’, a young man close to my age exuding such swagger, I was quickly drawn in. This was the future of grime, the next stage of a genre still finding its feet in British music at large.

Chip’s self-proclaimed status as ‘The Grime Scene Saviour’ was telling in a couple of ways. Firstly, by the time of his breakthrough in 2007, the scene had already begun its descent to its oft-maligned ‘pop’ stage. It wasn’t a full divorce from grime’s roots just yet; more like an awkward separation as the likes of Wiley, Tinchy, Dizzee et al slowly but surely embraced the ‘promised land’ of electro-pop to line their pockets. So, to many, including Chip himself, the young buck was en route to keeping the spirit of the genre alive. Secondly, it was prophetic, as his return to grime eight years later—via a series of feuds for the ages—would indirectly give grime a much-needed jolt in the arm. He was a legit star by the time 2009 brought about debut album I Am Chipmunk, packed with the likes of “Diamond Rings”, “Chip Diddy Chip” and the infamous “Oopsy Daisy”. But while his lyrical chops were never in doubt, it was the sonic direction that would signal years in the wilderness.

Nothing was the same for Chip once he leaned towards the mainstream. Success was abundant as collaborations with Chris Brown, Keri Hilson and Trey Songz followed, increasing his visibility in America and beyond. But his position among the purists back home—the staunchly anti-pop dons deriding commercial gain as Chip ‘abandoning his roots’—slowly eroded, the ‘sell-out’ label hurting his credibility. By the end of 2015, however, he had rapped his way back into our hearts, clashing for supremacy against Tinie Tempah, Yungen, Big Narstie and Bugzy Malone. No one could have been ready for what would follow, but this was the Chip we missed and longed for, the incendiary MC brought back from the brink. He may have recognised the chance of a lifetime to re-establish himself and he took it, proving the naysayers (including this writer) wrong, to the point that it sounded silly to ever doubt him in the first place.

In 2021, Chip is arguably at the height of his musical powers, inexplicably reaching new lyrical heights. He shined on 2020’s Avengers-style link up with Skepta and Young Adz on the joint album Insomnia, keeping the project alive with scientific bars, effortless delivery and show-stealing verses. His hunger for the war remains, as his campaign to draw out Stormzy, ongoing since last October, shows. Meanwhile, new mixtape Snakes & Ladders sees him attempt to achieve further artistic balance: between the dubs and the introspection, the lyrical exercises to more uptempo grooves encompassing grime, bashment, drill and UK rap. At this point, he’s having fun with it.

Despite this, Chip is perhaps not yet the finished article musically. Across a discography spanning four albums, a dozen mixtapes and a slew of successful singles, there may be a missing piece to his puzzle, namely a classic project. While contemporaries such as Ghetts and Kano boast hall-of-fame catalogues that will stand the test of time, there is a lingering feeling that Chip’s album-making chops leave a lot to be desired. There’s a lot to negotiate, to be fair; lyrical tunes with more accessible ones, swaying subject matter and a desire to experiment artistically. Perhaps this has worked to Chip’s detriment up to now and, where Snakes & Ladders may stand as his best offering yet, elements of this tension remain. The good shines brightest on this new drop, though, and maybe he’s on his way to delivering the potential classic his prowess deserves. Until then, the MC is still the young prodigy we saw develop into an icon—despite the controversy, despite his direction.

Chip has determined his own path unapologetically, and his mere presence in the scene is evidence that he cannot be broken. It’s also telling that, despite going to the world and back, he still reps his roots to the fullest—a sign of a true living legend. “I am grime, full stop,” he recently told VICE. “And no matter what I spit on: you know it, they know it, he knows it, she knows it.” Yes, indeed: we do.

Posted on February 03, 2021