Dan Hancox lays down the intricate underground connections, youthful energy and rebel nature of grime in the prologue of Inner City Pressure, his meticulously ordered, alternately widescreen and close-up view of the hip-hop phenomenon that sprang out of Great Britain at the turn of the millennium. Describing a rooftop pirate radio broadcast, Hancox notes a dizzying number of rappers assembled ready to hop on the mic to freestyle, with each forced to cram all their inventiveness into less than 30 seconds of furious rhyming. It’s a perfect snapshot of grime at its creative rise, a gathering of many of its brightest luminaries whose ambition and knowledge spreads from their lyrical gifts to their ingenuity in maintaining illegal, underground radio. That the average age of the participants is, as Hancox notes, merely 17 serves as a testament to the wholly youth-driven culture that lent grime its irrepressible energy.

The book traverses the history of grime in mostly linear fashion, tracing the genre’s outgrowth from the UK’s jungle and garage scenes into a mutated form of homegrown hip-hop. Hancox details how future grime luminaries attempted to bridge the divide between the pummeling tempos of drum ‘n’ bass and the more danceable cut-up soul of UKG, with some DJs even playing jungle records at the wrong speed to approximate the tone and tempo they wanted. Hancox underscores how many members of the grime scene got to know each other when they were still children, with many attending the same schools or living on the same council estates, and as such they were feeding musical tastes and ideas off each other well before anyone made music. As the author puts it, “The story of grime in east London in particular is a dense family tree of friendships that initially preceded music, and then as the protagonists’ teenage years proceeded, developed because of it.”

Hancox follows the usual beats of a genre’s rise and fall, tracking grime from its modest beginnings through its rapid proliferation on pirate radio, the breakthrough moment of Dizzee Rascal’s canonical Boy in da Corner and its subsequent Mercury Prize win through to the genre’s awkward, largely self-defeating entrance into the realm of pop and into its modern resurgence as a leaner, meaner back-to-basics movement. Yet even in this typical arc are numerous surprises and quirks of grime’s humble origins. Hancox digs up numerous stories from grime legends about how they first broke out, including a humorous bit of hard financial data in Wiley figuring out that he could stop dealing drugs and instead raise cash by cutting instrumental singles for use by other MCs, turning a profit of £3 for every dubplate sold. In the MC-heavy scene (it being far cheaper to be a lyricist on a mic than a DJ with needs for expensive equipment), Wiley and other artists turned a tidy sum providing the backdrop for endless freestyles, further bridging individuals and crews together in a tight group.

For all the interesting material that the author relates from his long history covering grime and interviewing its luminaries, Hancox’s most fascinating insight in the book lies in his constant foregrounding of London’s political landscape. The shadow of Tony Blair’s New Labour movement hangs over the early sections of the book, wherein a host of grime’s stars recall living in council estates deliberately abandoned by Britain’s supposedly progressive party in favor of neoliberal investments in high-rise, luxury towers that loomed over their own homes in Ballard-esque visions of concrete horror. Of particular mention is Canary Wharf, a kind of all-in-one housing project that promised comfortable living and self-contained shopping and whose colossal structure lied just out of reach of the likes of Dizzee Rascal, where Hancox argues it took on properties akin to the green light in The Great Gatsby. Hancox covers myriad other topics of both the Blair and subsequent Tory regimes and their various social failures and bristling response to the poor, predominantly black areas where grime took root, but nothing save the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire makes as vivid an impression as Canary Wharf, which seems to trigger subliminal aspiration and fury in equal levels in nascent grime stars.

Inner City Pressure crackles with the infectious energy of both the music it covers and the author’s deep, passionate love for it. You can feel Hancox’s view of grime as almost utopian in its ability to translate the racially and culturally mixed living conditions of council estates into music that clearly, boldly addressed the failures of Britain’s social contract at a time when the government acted as if they had solved all pressing societal problems. When Hancox notes how the issues of cultural appropriation that plague white involvement in black music in the US did not really apply to grime (amusingly he notes that the money was too modest for anyone to make the music without love), or when he notes a particular artistic breakthrough achieved using something as primitive as cell phones to record, the author puts genuine awe into his prose. Likewise, the times when beefs spill out into violence are communicated not with hand-wringing nervousness but honest lament for the disruption of grime’s close ties. The book ends in a fit of mounting rage at the May government’s utter failures, yet Hancox sees grime’s arc coming full circle, with both a rejuvenated old guard and a fresh new generation of grime artists giving the genre its second wind. Hancox’s sense of hope in the face of massive issues is one of the finest testaments to the power of music.

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