Photo taken by: Adam Horton
2020 was a trip, right? Despite the pandemic dominating everything and a government not willing to look after it’s citizens; grime carried on moving, its artists remaining steadfast in their creative process and still putting music out. There were full-length albums from big-name emcees, live-streams to replace the shows, lots of radio and a dedicated set of producers releasing great instrumental music. In last years edition of this piece, I felt that Stormzy’s Glastonbury slot, D Double E’s advert and the growing Brazilian grime scene proved that the people who keep saying grime is dead were totally wrong. This year, I don’t think you could tell me grime is dead ever again because staying creative in a global pandemic goes down as a massive achievement.
This list is strictly vocal grime, but there was a lot of fire from the instrumental side of the genre in 2020. Whether it was ten-minute epics from Grandmixxer, sound-system inspired joints from Becky On The Beat, modern takes on classic tropes from Lewi B; space-age transmissions from the 1000Doors label or melodic epics from JT The Goon, the instrumental grime world had something for everyone. From my relatively distant point of view, it seemed like producers and DJs were actively supporting each other, so it’s nice to see some community in a time where things feel so fragmented.
Like last year this list isn’t ranked and is comprised of tracks that I found myself coming back to over the year. Buy them, stream them, show them to your friends or use the list to catch up on music you might have missed this year.
Manga Saint Hilare – Safety In Numbers (prod. by Raheim)
This year has been Manga Saint Hilare’s best yet. He released “Make It Out Alive” to near-universal acclaim from the grime scene; while regular singles and a foray into production kept the wheels turning later in the year. In truth, many of the tracks from “Make It Out Alive” could’ve wound up on this list, but I returned to ‘Safety In Numbers’ continuously thanks to the buoyant production and uplifting lyrics. Manga raps about people getting caught up in the cycle of road life, underlining the importance of keeping your energies intact and not showing off for the internet. The message of ‘Safety In Numbers’ is clear: choose your own destiny by tuning out the external noise, but don’t forget to take pride in the gifts that define you as a person along the way.
GHSTLY XXVI – Flex (prod. by Filthy Gears)
GHSTLY XXVI was one of the stand-out names from the internet radio era of grime. This year he returned to the scene, dropping a run of singles that eventually culminated in the release of his debut tape “Rudeboy Paradise”. ‘Flex’ is a lesson in delivery. He hits you with machine gun one-line flows and overhangs on certain words, cutting them off at just the right time and fluidly transitioning from one verse to the net. The result? a grime track teeming with energy, showing that nailing down the basics can yield exhilarating results. Throw in the booming AMS lines from Filthy Gears, and you’ve got a sharp burst of the organised musical chaos the best grime tracks can bring to the table.
Razor ft. Reece West – Standby (prod. by Noble)
Razor released “The Sharp One” back in March. Although he’s been around the grime scene for a while, this project felt like his most complete to date. There are a few tracks could’ve made their way into this list – namely ‘Run’, ‘Beware’ and ‘OverThinking’ – but the nimble riff and dynamic lyrics of ‘Standby’ were in constant rotation for me this year. Razor cuts through the beat with bars that rally against low-rate emcees; while Reece West calls out the emcees that can only force the reload by way of shock-value, his guest verse delivered with understated confidence reserved for the most assured emcees.
Travis T ft. Lyrical Strally – Borrow & Lend
Grime DJ and producer Travis T debuted his new label Street Frequency Music this year, pooling in YGG affiliate Lyrical Strally to make sure that the debut release was a suitable speaker-breaker. ‘Borrow & Lend’ is a bracing tune that draws its power from water-tight percussion, synapse frying synth lines and a vocal from Strally that aims shots at copy-cat emcees who wouldn’t know an original idea if it fell over them.
D Power Diesle ft. Skepta – Sniper (prod. by Silencer)
Grime as a genre tends to be self-referential a lot of the time, with emcees name-dropping places of underground legend or tweaking the flows of other emcees as a way to pay homage or place a classic set of lyrics in a new context. For some, it can be a turn-off, but it’s also a reminder of the rich history this music has and when you understand the references, can be pretty fun to pick out. ‘Sniper’ pays tribute to Deja Vu FM, as D Power and Skepta conjure up images of microphone rallies and the immediate quality of grime, where it feels as though anything could happen throughout a set. Add in a scorched-earth beat courtesy of Silencer, and you’ve got all the trappings of a powerful grime track.
P Money ft. Mez – Bumbaclart Riddem (prod. by Mez)
The best grime music leaves you with a buzz. Sometimes that buzz can leave you feeling breathless from all of the intense flows and fast wordplay that the emcees have thrown your way. ‘Bumbaclart Riddem’ is one of those tracks. P Money and Mez eat up every pocket of the beat, firing out bar after bar over a pretty bruising instrumental. No hooks or introspection needed here – just straight energy and fire from two generations of grime music.
Shay D ft. Capo Lee – Time + Patience (prod. by A Class)
North London rapper Shay D only released two tracks this year, but volume doesn’t matter if the records are quality. ‘Time + Patience’ takes us on her life journey, as she details the challenges of moving to a new area at a young age and revels in the milestone of being able to move her Gran out of the estate. Her verse starts out and never stops ascending, as she calls out clout chasers with an acid-tongue, finally reaching a peak with the brilliant self-brag: “Smelling like sex and stinking of money”. Capo Lee provides the hook and guest verse, proving why the MOBO Awards chose to nominate him for their first grime award this year.
D Double E – Catch Of The Day (prod. by Diamondz)
Some people might see it as strange that D Double E has had a twenty-year career and only released two albums. But grime emcees have never needed mainstream ideas of musical accomplishment to succeed; with D Double, in particular, the best example of cementing a legend-status via underground channels. The increased visibility of rap based music in the U.K. has enabled him to move into a different phase of his career, but ‘Catch Of The Day’ proves that D Double E hasn’t lost any of the qualities that endear him to fans. I love this track because he takes the perspective of a fish hunting down prey and declares his love of seafood, using the latter to mark himself out as the best emcee in a general sense. It’s funny, and in among the sometimes self-serious world of grime music, that kind of personality is very much needed.
K9 – Exo (prod. by Missingno & Evian Christ)
K9’s ‘Exo’ – produced by Missingno and Evian Christ – pulls back the curtain on the West London emcee’s experiences on the road. The track is a trip from start to finish, and the fact that K9 keeps the messages clear and never gets lost at sea by the instrumental is a testament to his ability as a spitter.
Jawnino – State Of Play (prod. by 3o)
If you’re tuned in to PK Brako’s BrakFM show on NTS Radio; then you’ll be familiar with Jawnino. An up-and-coming emcee from South London, he hasn’t released a lot of tracks, but the ones he has released follow an intriguing sound: wandering melodies that are signed off with a subtle delivery, where the weight behind every word feels considered. ‘State Of Play’ – released via Bandcamp back in July – conjures up images of night-time solitude where the bright lights of buses, shops and street lamps flicker into your vision as you walk home with only your thoughts in tow.
Kamakaze, Big Zuu, Capo Lee & Eyez – 180 (prod. by Swick)
As solo artists, Kamakaze, Big Zuu, Capo Lee and Eyez each had successful years in their own right; whether it be the steady release of solo tracks, longer length projects and in Capo Lee’s case an end of year MOBO Award nomination. My favourite release from these artists was the joint EP “Royal Rumble”, a stacked project that brought the four together for both collaborative and solo tracks. ‘180’ – the fourth track on the project – features a frosty bassline, piercing square wave riffs.
M.I.C & PK Brako – Witchclart
The bars for M.I.C and PK Brako’s ‘Witchclart’ were first heard on a Just Jam set back in 2018; eventually being beamed into the consciousness of the Twitter feed thanks to a viral post that was shared by everyone from JME to Lethal Bizzle. It’s safe to say, then, that M.I.C had written a set of highly anticipated bars. The drop didn’t disappoint, with M.I.C’s ode to the people that have wronged him ringing out over a beat that riffs on his love of shoegaze and dream pop music.
Luciferian – Hashshashin (prod. by Zgjim)
Grime label Kenyon Sound made their name for instrumental grime releases this year; ‘Hashshashin’ marking their first foray into vocal-based grime. Over a backdrop of evil-sounding squares, Luciferian raps from the perspective of one of the ancient Hashshashin, swapping out standard grime hype bars for lyrics about chopping a rival’s head off with a sword.
Taliifah – Keep Up Freestyle (prod. by Jammz & Gesher)
I Am Grime has been a home for Jammz’ music for a few years now, but with the label’s radio show on Rinse FM and subsequent releases; 2020 felt like the year things really got going. ‘Keep Up Freestyle’ – the fourth record in the catalogue – features Taliifah barring hard over a murky beat produced by Jammz and Gesher. Much like P Money & Mez’s ‘Bumbaclart Riddim’ there’s no-frills needed for this one – just fire bars and sick adlibs over a crazy beat.
Gesher & Jammz ft Mayhem NODB – Change
I wasn’t joking when I said it felt like I Am Grime really got going in 2020. The instrumental for ‘Change’ has been knocking about for a few years, previously restricted to the radio and the dedicated rippers that want to get a hold on tunes from the archives of grime artists. The track has finally gotten a release, with a vocal courtesy of Mayhem NODB, who laces the beat with a set of reflective lyrics that muse on the transition from road life to regular life.
Ezra Collective ft Swindle & JME – Quest For Coin II
The worlds of jazz and grime have crossed over in the past – see ‘Just Know’ by J.D. Reid, Henry Wu and Venna; Moses Boyd’s set with Big Zuu, Trim and Novelist and Swindle’s ‘No More Normal – but ‘Quest For Coin II feels like the most concrete mixture of the two genres. The track brings together Ezra Collective, Swindle and JME; reworking the original ‘Quest For Coin’ for JME to spit about lessons passed on from his parents, interactions with the police and the path to building generational wealth for his future descendants. JME flows effortlessly over the instrumentations, the collaboration feeling seamless rather than a hackneyed attempt to mix two styles. Long live the grazz, and let’s hope that other artists can find the same fluidity across two great genres.
Faultsz ft. Elf & DeeJillz – Chattin’ & Braggin’ (prod. by Freeza Chin)
Faultsz, DeeJillz and Elf won’t win any awards for innovation with ‘Chattin’ & Braggin’, taking an oft-used phrase in grime as the jump-off point for their track. It’s the chemistry, the hook, beat and the ability of the three that makes this track so good, though. The emcees’ trade bars like it’s nothing, while the instrumental falls into an intriguing grey area between grime and drill that I’d like to hear more emcees experiment over. There hasn’t been much music from DeeJillz and Elf since they made their name as part of The Square, but on ‘Chattin’ & Braggin’ it sounds like they never put the mic down once.
Footsie ft. Frisco & Durrty Goodz – Hills Of Zion (prod. by Footsie)
Footsie’s 2020 comprised of an instrumental tape, his debut album “No Favours” and the three-track EP “Earth Project”. Not bad when you consider the situation of the world around us. ‘Hills Of Zion’ – track ten on “No Favours” – caught my ear thanks to a Yabby You sample and three of the best emcees in the game. Reggae’s influence on grime is on show in its full glory here, in both the sample and subtle reference from Durrty Goodz. Elsewhere, Frisco comes with a blistering guest verse; while Footsie goes hard with a brilliant lyric that compares his microphone ability to the combined impact of X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Ross Kemp On Gangs.
Frisco ft. Skepta, Jammer, JME & Shorty – Red Card (prod. by Trooh Hippi)
Boy Better Know don’t release tracks as a full collective often, which is a shame, but it makes the times that they do come together that little bit more special. ‘Red Card’ is a crew cut taken from Frisco’s latest record “The Familiar Stranger”, featuring all five going hell for leather over a dark beat produced by Trooh Hippi. My stand-out verse goes to JME though, who spits some banging one-line flows that manage to reference Skepta’s shoe line, comedian Mo Gilligan and TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’.
Just Geo ft. Flirta D – Be Direct
I came across ‘Be Direct’ while randomly digging through Bandcamp, and the track quickly found its way into my regular rotation. Flirta D blesses the beat with all his trademark vocal calling cards. ‘Be Direct’ feels primed for the dance, but I love how Flirta’s vocal meshes with the instrumental around the 1:28 mark.