Whether it’s pirate or internet, radio is a format intrinsic to grime. It’s something that sets grime apart from other rap-based music. You can’t hear five of the best rappers live on a Thursday night, but you can listen to five of the best grime emcees on any given weeknight, live streamed directly to whatever environment you’re in. The radio station serves as a battle arena, a practice environment, a meeting point for emcees, DJs and producers, and it’s been the breeding ground for some of grime’s most memorable moments. A period of downtime has given me a chance to binge on radio sets, old and new, with plenty of thoughts on the format coming to mind.
Radio isn’t called practice hours for nothing. While musicians from other disciplines perfect their craft behind closed doors and under the watchful eye of a teacher, grime emcees sharpen their swords in real-time. If an emcee needs to learn the nuances of breath control, get match-fit after a long lay-off, or find their voice, radio is there to facilitate that. This craft improvement can take place over a series of sets or throughout one show. After all, how many times have you heard an emcee stick the landing on a new set of bars, only to clear the hurdle and deliver them with clarity minutes later, a reload and plenty of hype in tow?
It’s a vulnerable space for artists to place themselves in. Mistakes can and will happen on radio. While listening numbers aren’t freely available for online stations, letting fans and potential newcomers to your music directly hear your potential trip-ups is undoubtedly bold. Most artists come to the listener fully formed, yet as grime fans, we can follow artists from inexperienced moments to future success. The fact that listeners are privy to this side of an artist’s development is a privilege in itself. Seeing grime’s class of 2015 reach new heights through mainstream success or by adding to their back catalogue with fresh grime music hits that little extra. We were locked into those early radio sets, hearing the bars get better with time.
A place where perfection isn’t a requirement naturally lends itself to moments of excitement. Radio is grime at its purest form, where streaming numbers, chart positions, views and sales become obsolete. For that hour, the floor’s level. If you catch the drop at the right moment, nail the delivery, control the pitch of your voice and sync with the DJ; it doesn’t matter if you have ten or ten million streams. A moment is created, shared equally between those in the room and those at home.
Those moments matter. Music is awash with statistics, and it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, confusing high view counts with success. By fostering an improvisational, unpredictable space, radio goes against that. DJs help this by controlling the vibes at a miraculous pace and curating combinations we might never think would work. Sian Anderson’s set with Jack Dat, Big Zuu, Footsie and SafOne brings together a cross-generational selection of grime artists, with only Zuu and Jack Dat connected through their sets at the time. It’s the last line-up you’d expect, but the four provide bars, laughs and chemistry in unbridled amounts.
Much like grime itself, radio can be many things at once. Communal, improvisational, and exciting, the format is a strong part of what makes the genre so great. Long may that continue.