Grime figurehead Skepta was awarded with the 2016 Mercury Prize for Konnichiwa. While the album itself was a deserved winner in its own right, Skepta's abilty to beat the likes of David Bowie and Radiohead to the title lays further emphasis on the record's cultural significance. As the aftershocks begin to settle, Andrew Kemp investigates how the the structures of the UK music industy have been shaken by the result.
Skepta’s victory at the Mercury Prize might have come as a surprise to those still stubbornly failing to acknowledge the rise of grime as a force in UK music, but it extends far beyond the scope of a mere stamp of quality upon his latest album Konnichiwa, instead marking Skepta out as a figurehead for grime’s refusal to be compromised. Support from Kanye and Drake might have thrown the Tottenham-born rapper back into the focus of audiences overseas, but his latest LP should be celebrated as a sign that he, as well as the grime movement that he represents, will not be diverted from the local and DIY foundations that give the music its unmistakeable identity.
Konnichiwa was released in May on Boy Better Know, the label that Skepta started with his brother, fellow grime artist JME, and marked a significant shift away from the chart-friendly wrapping that Skepta had found himself somewhat suffocated by under the thumb of a major label. Scathing of the state of the music industry that he found himself tangled up in after releasing Doin’ It Again on Island Records in 2011, Skepta’s latest effort marked a rejection of the shining lights of the showbiz factories, its significance heightened by its position as his first LP to chart worldwide and enter the top ten at home.
Where the album excels - and what makes it so important - is in the way that it captures the real spirit of grime, with overtly political messages, cultural stamps and distinctively London instrumentals accompanying the braggadocio that comes almost as standard in hip-hop influenced music. Whilst tracks like “Rolex Sweep” saw Skepta drawn into the trap of the kind of soulless commercialisation that saw dubstep stripped of its context, sterilised and sold to the masses, Konnichiwa is, as Pitchfork’s Kevin Lozano succinctly put it, “full of sneering contempt for popular culture’s industry of image, the press, the police, and the government at large”.
Jumping through major label hoops has rarely yielded inroads into the oft-courted American market for UK rappers, and Skepta’s rejection of such attempts can be viewed as a statement of intent on behalf of the grime movement that he had run the risk of losing touch with. Whilst dubstep was distorted beyond recognition during its globalisation at the hands of Skrillex, Skepta has taken grime outside of its box without sacrificing its character, as exemplified by the Tokyo Boiler Room session at which he first previewed the album live. Courting the US audience with the autotuned functionality of tracks like “Ladies Fit Squad” may have proven lucrative, but ultimately would never have held its value. The same cannot be said of the protests that ring out in Konnichiwa’s “Crime Riddim”, nor the partly self-directed critique of “That’s Not Me”. Instead, the album represents the desire for grime to continue growing organically, reaffirming that those original principles will not be subject to change.
(Turing point. Skepta's illegal Shoreditch rave was a pivotal in the second coming of Grime. Photo sourced from here)
Of course, the Mercury Prize success shouldn’t be mistaken for a turning point in grime’s reception; Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner had brought the genre into the mainstream spotlight way back in 2003, and the latest London sound cannot be accused of lying dormant in the years since. 2014 saw grime recognised as a genre in itself at the MOBO Awards, a significant landmark in freeing it from the disingenuously cast shadow of hip-hop, and the latest development should act as a reminder that dismissals of its importance are becoming evermore outdated.
Konnichiwa is a great album, and undoubtedly among the most important grime releases since Dizzee’s debut, but Skepta laid the groundwork for this victory long ago. His illegal rave in a Shoreditch car park set the tone last year, asserting that he hadn’t forgotten that grime is a uniquely localised urban phenomenon, not to be stripped of its London character or its rebellious attitude. Konnichiwa’s success confirms that that won’t change even as grime’s rise becomes an international point of interest, and perhaps it is this that the industry expects behind the Mercury Prize have sought to impress upon us.
Words by Andrew Kemp
Photos courtesy of Skepta