Why ‘Crews’, Especially In Grime, Were Important Pieces To UK Music’s Puzzle 🎤💥

Words: Son Raw
Photography: Roll Deep by Sam White for i-D (2005)

Grime, particularly in its genesis, was a hyper-social scene, a fact that eluded the straightlaced music executives puzzled by the genre’s initial hype. Sure, its antecedents like UK garage and jungle emerged through similar networks—DJ-run pirate radio stations, independent record shops stocking self-produced white labels, and a network of promoters outside of traditional industry channels—but there were still barriers to entry. Participating in these DJ-led genres required turntables and other assorted equipment out of reach for younger listeners, and while gigs could stuff their line-ups with back-to-back sets, DJing remained a mostly solitary practice.

Late era UKG and grime’s foregrounding of the emcee changed all of this, as mic-men went from accessories to superstars. By expanding the emcee’s role from hypeman to main event performer to chronicler of life on road, suddenly anyone with something to say could become a local celebrity, or at least anyone with an 8-bar flow and a good voice. And so, just as the late ‘90s superclubs and the media that covered them were revelling in the excess of the Superstar DJ, across London schoolyards, a new, more democratic expression of English musical culture was arising—one built around ‘the crew’.

To be clear, jungle featured plenty of DJ Crews like Metalheadz and Ganja Cru, but these DJ collectives/labels rapidly became serious enterprises, businesses seeking to synergise record sales and club attendance. On the other hand, proto-grime entities like Pay As U Go Cartel, More Fire Crew and Musical Mob were mostly radio-centric affairs, neighbourhood friends paying for time on local stations and sharing the mic—with So Solid Crew becoming the principal exception, thanks to their record industry backing. Much has been made about the early-00s split between garage and grime, and how garage events used dress codes and anti-emcee policies to create a wedge that would (at least temporarily) split the two genres apart. But while a ban on caps and trainers might have kept grime’s earliest generation out of the club, early radio sets were already incubating a second cohort of emcees, in the schoolyard.

On bus rides and during lunchtime, over instrumentals taped from pirate radio and later ripped from file-sharing services like Kazaa and Limewire, kids—primary school aged and older—spat their first bars for their mates, and soon their friendly competition and camaraderie coalesced into something more formal; not quite the band and vocal groups that the industry understood, but a loose association of emcees and DJs borrowing both from the olders they heard on radio and American rap antecedents like Wu-Tang Clan and Ruff Ryders.

While there’s no line in the sand dividing garage and grime crews, Roll Deep deserves as much credit as anyone for pushing UK emceeing from club hype to more serious bars. Evolving out of Pay As U Go and Ladies Hit Squad, this Wiley-led collective became a short-hand for grime’s aesthetic: London council housing, American streetwear colliding with UK football attire, and an emphasis on quick, 8-bar verses alternately bigging up the crew, threatening opps and chronicling street life. A group of emcees often grew and evolved across several crew names with shifting rosters: while Roll Deep rolled deep in East, SLK kept it bless in West and Essentials held it down for South, North London’s Meridian Crew—made up of future stars including Skepta, Jme, Prez T, Big H and Meridian Dan—were doing the same, before reconfiguring as Boy Better Know (also occasionally featuring Wiley) and Bloodline.

Rivalling these titans, N.A.S.T.Y. Crew incubated names like Kano, D Double E and Ghetts, the latter two eventually splitting off to form collectives like The Movement and Newham Generals, which would interestingly take opposite paths. The Movement bridged the divide between American groups like Dipset and grime’s underground, switching up tempos and focusing on songwriting. Newham Generals, meanwhile, operated almost as a traditional group, with the duo of D Double and Footsie keeping things tight-knit and mostly focusing on festivals and club appearances.

While most grime crews coalesced around a common approach, one of the genre’s strongest features was just how many unique voices emerged out of the scene, both within a crew and across the wider landscape. Roll Deep, for example, would find room for Wiley’s provocative commentary, Dizzee Rascal’s charismatic screech, Flowdan’s gravelly patois and Trim’s abstract poetics—even if the last two would eventually fall out in epic fashion. Meanwhile, it’s hard to think of two more different collectives than Ruff Sqwad and Slew Dem. Despite both coming from East London, Ruff Sqwad’s best songs were practically teenaged symphonies—earnest, melodic songs, often over well-known samples. Slew Dem, on the other hand, were almost cartoonishly extreme, spraying an onslaught of over-the-top threats atop atonal bass blasts and broken rhythms.

More often than not, grime crews weren’t built to last, but that was a feature, not a bug. After all, how many schoolyard friends do you keep in touch with? Nevertheless, crews that started as after-school hobbies were able to launch quite a few careers. From Wiley’s extended reign as a grime’s godfather, to Skepta’s superstardom, to Jme’s underground reign to names like Flowdan collaborating with Skrillex, the UK music industry is full of talented artists that started out by pooling their money with friends to hit the studio or radio station. Old-school grime heads still lament the crews that could have been contenders—a quick Google search will unearth a plethora of Reddit threads extolling names like 2 Tuff Crew, Cold As Ice and Unusual Suspects, among others, with fans trading recordings of their radio sets to this day. (At this point, I’d like to single out Slew Dem’s Sidewinder Raw studio set as one of the greatest recordings in human history, one more intense than any noise metal concert or experimental recording, and far, far more entertaining.)

So why has the crew mostly vanished from our musical landscape? In large part, it’s down to the money: why split the profit 5-10 ways in an era where recording is cheap and a solo song can blow up on YouTube? Then there’s “personal differences”: during grime’s second wind in the mid-2010s, there was an uptick in collectives thanks to the success of acts like The Square, but ultimately ego, differing visions, and the natural process of growing apart meant that this era is best remembered for soloists as well. The same could be said for the cloud-rap outfit Piff Gang, and even the soul-rap trio Hawk House. Today, while UK drill crews like 67, Moscow, Harlem Spartans and 150 (among others) have seen success, police have used draconian laws to slander these musical acts as gangs while doing precious little to solve the epidemic of violence targeting the young Black men making up such collectives.

Nevertheless, despite industry incentives and over-policing, crews will never die, because there will always be a generation of kids who just want to touch mic with their friends and impress their peers because making music together is just more fun than recording alone. Plus, grime and drill have barely scratched the surface in terms of the crew format’s artistic potential: to my ears, a crew of emcees improvising over 1-2 DJs going back-to-back could be the most impactful improvisational music since jazz, if pushed even further. Whether looking back at the greats and the could-have-beens or looking forward to the next generation, if you want to hear where some of Black British music’s best ideas come from, look to the crew.

Posted on January 19, 2023