Few names are more synonymous with or carry more weight in UK grime than Risky Roadz. In the early 2000s, Roony Keefe (Risky Roadz) and his contemporaries defined and curated the visual aesthetic of what would later become the most dominant genre in the country. His legendary DVD series of quick-fire freestyles established the careers of artists like Ghetts, Skepta, Wiley and Kano whilst documentaries like The Movement captured the genesis of a new genre as it came to life.
After more than 10 years spent producing hit youtube series like Grime Nan and developing Risky Roadz into a fully-fledged production house, Roony has once again picked up the camera and returned to the streets under the Risky Roadz name. Although no official Risky Roadz content has been released over the last decade, infatuation with Risky’s work has only grown as new generations continue to discover his eclectic collection of one-of-a-kind archival footage – or as he calls them – ‘visions from the birth of grime’.
0121 is the story of today’s budding Birmingham grime scene and the organic way in which local underground music continues to be created and flourish without investment from large corporate entities. Risky travels to Brum to meet the MC’s, producers, event organisers, pirate radio hosts, painters and promoters that make up and uphold the wider Birmingham grime identity to see if their grime origin story is comparable to the London story he knows so well. We sat down with Risky and Toby Robson, Director and Producer of 0121, ahead of their UK premiere to find out more about the in’s and out’s of the documentary and to catch up with Risky following his highly anticipated return.
First of all guys, how are you both doing? It’s obviously been a crazy couple of years for everyone that depends on the entertainment and events industries and I wanna check in and see how it’s all been for you both, particularly trying to create during this time?
Risky: “For me personally, it gave me five minutes just to put my company into a place And figure out what I’m going to do next moving forward your conditions and obviously finishing this incredible project. Toby and I really took the time we needed to get this document through to where we wanted it to be and find its home. In hindsight, it was a much-needed break to recenter and get back into what I wanted to do and what I needed to do.”
Toby: “To be honest the first nine months of the year last year was just all about getting this documentary finished. It got stuck in a sort of a period of paralysis for us for a while until we managed to find some very kind individuals to help us finish the film. We raised some new funding and hired the best people to help us in post-production which hopefully comes across in the film. It was really a case of me just getting my head down and cracking on with this. One benefit we did have whilst not having any money was time. The pandemic really gave us every available opportunity to comb through the film with a fine-tooth comb and make it better, and with this being the return of Risky Roadz we knew we had to make it perfect.
“During the latter stage of this doc, Amazon music approached us about a partnership which, off the back of that introduction, allowed me to begin working on my next production. So as much as I hate to say it, personally for me it’s been quite a fruitful lockdown. It’s been awful to watch a lot of friends of mine in the industry who work in more fixed production operations, such as on the sets of things like Peaky Blinders, really struggling while all filming has been on hold.”
Risky this is your first documentary since The Movement came out 10 years ago, despite the absence, your work has continued to grow and influence a whole new generation. Why was 0121 the story you wanted to tell in your first documentary back? Had you missed the process of creating a documentary in that time, even though you’ve still been producing shows like Grime Nan?
Risky: “I just feel like it’s really important to start celebrating the other cities. When grime was quiet in London it was carrying on uninterrupted in Birmingham, they continued to do their thing by building their own infrastructures so they no longer had to keep coming to London to find opportunities in music. Over time doors were open enough to enable another story to be told and their contribution to the grime scene is just as important.
“The artists that are coming through now, with grime, with drill, and with rap are bringing the genre forward and that’s the story I wanted to tell. I could’ve come back and told the story of London again, but I feel like some of the smaller counties aren’t always celebrated and it’s crucial that we celebrate their story too.”
Back in the early days, you were just as heavily involved in the Birmingham music scene as the London one. Was the story of Brum grime something you wanted to dedicate more attention to back then, but couldn’t because the public interest in Birmingham and Manchester rap wasn’t there?
Risky: “To be honest, it was more of a case of, at the time of the Risky Roadz DVDs I actually didn’t drive, so to get to Birmingham was an absolute mission. So a lot of the artists would come through to Rhythm Division on Roman Road to film and network. This documentary actually gave me my first opportunity to go to them and film them in their local area. It’s funny to think this whole doc has come from a conversation Toby and I had at the pub about the Midlands and forgotten counties of grime. It was actually Toby’s idea to call it Risky Roads: 0121, I have never been one to centralise myself as the subject of my work, and hadn’t considered reviving the Risky Roadz documentary series. But, here we are ten years later with Risky Roadz part three, which I always wanted to eventually do but just couldn’t ignore when Toby enabled it all to fall into place.”
Kicking it back to you Toby, from a storytelling perspective how did you balance telling the story of how Birmingham grime came into fruition with your desire to focus on the movers and shakers active in the game today?
Toby: “Obviously, the nostalgia that surrounds the era of the Risky Roadz DVD series is undeniable. So when I approached Risky about bringing back the Risky Roadz franchise, I knew that it would be essential to incorporate that nostalgic element into it. I also knew if we were going to do this subject matter justice we would have to dissect the infrastructure that existed in Birmingham back then that has faded away since, such as pirate radio. Additionally, somebody like DJ Mikey from SunCity Radio had to be included because of the legendary contributions he made to the scene becoming what it is today.
“Conflictingly though, I wanted to make the objective to tell the story of how all the cogs and machinery of underground music culture continues to turn today in a place where there is no mass commercial investment. In Birmingham, everything is kept in-house whether it be video editors, promoters, merch manufacture or album cover artists, everyone is creating off their own back and without the funding of a major organisation.
“So there was a definite balancing act of finding the right combination of past and present but the main message I wanted to get across was that if you have an idea then go and execute it, you don’t need to wait around for commercial interest as long as your willing to put the work in. That’s what all these guys in the Birmingham grime scene have done.”
Who did you guys make this film for? Was it for the original grime scene fan, the young yute that doesn’t know about the beginnings of the scene or everyone in between?
Risky: “Everyone! The first thing we said when we sat down was that we wanted to create something that told the real history of the scene but could be accessible to anybody that watches it. We wanted anyone that stumbled across this on Prime to watch it and be engrossed by it and feel curious about it. However, we did want to make sure that we had enough elements inside of it, like the freestyles, where old school Risky Roadz fans or new fans of the grime scene could watch and get gassed up by seeing that era in detail again.”
Risky, you mention in the early scenes of the doc that you were reluctant to join the youtube movement as it emerged, adding that it could have been potentially detrimental to your career. What was it that turned you off about the way YouTube operated? Did you feel it cheapened documentary films?
Risky: “The issue was that we had a clear business model at the time. We knew how it worked with DVD, you spent your time making a product and then you sold it. I was at an age where I had to prioritise earning money. I couldn’t be a kid running around with a camera filming stuff and giving it away for free, and at the time YouTube just wasn’t a reliable source of income.
“I did approach some companies about starting some YouTube ideas but sometimes other people just don’t see your vision. In many ways, that decision has opened up a new lane for me.”
Mist mentions in 0121 that in the early days he associated playing on the radio with earning bare money when in reality that just isn’t the case. For documentarians and filmmakers like yourself, does Youtube sell that same dream that getting views means you have lots of money? Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers that aren’t seeing a financial return even if their videos are getting views?
Risky: “That is exactly the case! Even now, people will see this documentary on Amazon Prime and assume that Toby and I are multi-millionaires which couldn’t be less true. The key to getting over that is to keep trying and sticking with it. I can’t even count how many times we’ve had to throw something at the wall in the hopes that it will stick. Eventually, once you’ve been trying a while you will build up a name for yourself that then begins to draw more and more people until it begins to snowball.”
Toby: “The secret really is that age-old cliche that you have to keep banging on the door until somebody lets you in. Absorb everything, be a sponge and be honest with yourself about your own abilities. Learn as much as you can from those that are higher up the food chain than you are. Especially, if you are trying to get into something like TV, get to know the commissioning editors and then listen to what they want from an editorial perspective.
“Most importantly, just keep making films man! The worst thing you can do is stop, and we are in an age where you can hone your craft and make films without going through the long process. My usual advice is to try and figure out what department or area of filmmaking you want to work in as soon as possible and then just do it. Things eventually start to fall into place, you just have to have big cajones, and be prepared to be told no.”
Risky: “In regards to trying to figure out what department you want to work in, I tried to dip my toe in a bit of everything. I was a DOP for a bit, and then moved on to directing, but I think that you learn a lot more and pick up different tips and tricks that can help you along the way if you try different parts of the industry.
“The important thing is that so many people ‘learning’ isn’t necessarily on paper or in the classroom, you can learn just from being a fan of something and then immersing yourself in that culture and working out what your role is going to be within it.”
Later in the doc, P110 founder Adam Williams states that there’s no better feeling than being the one to find the next up and coming MC and helping launch their career. Is that the same thing that motivated you to pick up a camera and start documenting? Who was that one MC that helped make Risky Roadz a household name?
Risky: “Ghetts! There was definitely a few others like Tempa T as well! But that was definitely a big motivation because it’s amazing to become a part of that person’s journey, and them be a part of yours. Finding the next one was always a massive motivation, but I was primarily motivated by the fact I was just a massive fan.
“It was the idea of going to places I probably couldn’t unless I was doing what I was doing. Getting to witness new parts of London and England as a whole, as well as the experience and moments I got to be a part of all helped keep me motivated. I was a DJ for a short time, and I fell in love with the pirate radio environment. Without Risky Roadz there wouldn’t have really been a reason for me to be in there once I stopped.”
0121 doesn’t just focus on the MC’s but also the fashion labels, pirate radio stations, influencers, painters and promoters that make up the wider Birmingham grime identity. Why was this a key priority for the film, and how did you go about narrowing down the creatives you wanted to showcase?
Toby: “For me, when I was growing up in the North East, there was nothing like grime. So whilst I couldn’t necessarily relate to the music, I saw a lot of similarities in the creative network of the grime scene with a lot of the genres I loved growing up. I think there’s a real commonality between grime and the underground sounds of past British eras like the Punk era, or the music that was coming out of Manchester in the ’80s with Acid House and the Factory Records scene. Independent bands like The Stone Roses, Joy Division and grime artists all share this sort of symbiosis having all been born out of the same ‘backs against the wall’ sentiment in British music.
“With that, I thought if we are going to focus on grime we had to do it differently and not just focus on the artists themselves. I thought it was crucial that we docs on finding out how underground music exists today without commercial money. Birmingham’s music scene now is the most comparably to how London was fifteen years ago so we instantly knew we had to go there.
“From there it was all about finding the little avenues and industries that all branch off from Birmingham grime and continue to feed into this larger network. Then it was just a process of combing through Rooney’s black book of contacts to find the people we wanted to go see.”
Risky: “It was really interesting for me to see this sort of mirrored effect in the Birmingham scene. Back in the day all the London Mc’s used the same network of graphic designers and artists for their mixtape covers and the same structure is happening there all these years later.”
Risky how different was the process of approaching this project as the on-camera presenter and as an interviewer rather than being a fly on the wall?
Risky: “I actually really really enjoyed it! It was a real thing of personal growth for me. That shy kid that made Risky Roadz is now long gone and I’ve had more experience interviewing with things like Pirate Mentality where I was also on camera. So doing that again was like rubber stamping myself into Risky Roadz. Before a lot of people were always shocked to see who Risky Roadz was so it was nice to be in a Risky Roadz project.
“Getting to sit down and interview these artists and ask them questions that allow them to open up and feel comfortable talking about their stories. That was a fun part of the challenge because with London artists they already know me and know that when I’m behind the camera nothing is going to come out that shouldn’t come out. So this time I had to build that trust and do it from in front of the camera.”
There’s a great piece of archival footage in the film where Scratchy says, “I don’t really like cameras” straight at you. How did you get artists to relax and trust your process in a time where it was still weird to be constantly filming people?
Risky: “I think a lot of it was down to the fact they knew who I was. I used to say to guys that they could come back to my mums and watch whatever we had recorded that day so they knew that nothing would come out that they weren’t happy with. I also used to say that I was learning just as much about the process as they were, so don’t worry about being on camera because I’m worried about holding it! It comes down to the fact that they know I’m never going to put something out unless it makes them and the scene look good.”
You mention in the doc that the original Risky Roadz DVDs were like ‘visions from the birth of grime’. Now that grime is a fully established genre that’s dominating the charts, what keeps drawing you back to the camera today and what stories do you see yourself exploring in the future?
Risky: “My aim is to continue telling the stories of places that don’t always get told. Toby and I have both said that we would work on another grime documentary together, but we also really want to continue building Risky Roadz to tell other stories that aren’t grime or aren’t even about music. Whether it be cooking, sports or anything else we want to continue growing Risky Roadz into a fully-fledged production company without pigeon-holing ourselves. However, within the grime world, we have already begun speaking about completing our grime documentary trilogy”.
Do either of you guys have some favourite music documentary recommendations that inspired you?
Risky: “I really liked The Defiant Ones. Again it’s that classic story of coming from nothing to having everything. I really like any documentary that can leave you feeling inspired by the end of it. I also really loved Searching for Sugar Man.“
Toby: “Risky is absolutely right, I think The Defiant Ones is the absolute pinnacle of how you should film a music documentary. In my opinion, there will never be a better music documentary ever made than The Defiant Ones. It really is that good. In terms of others, I really like Manchester-based ones like Supersonic or Lord Don’t Slow Me Down. There was also quite an abstract one about Kurt Cobain called About The Son which was a compilation of a 20-hour interview done with Cobain over the phone that really goes into a lot”.
Lastly, you always have your ear to the ground about up and coming talent. Is there an MC you’re watching at the moment that you think is set to pop off?
Risky: “If you had asked me this during the first lockdown I would have said Pa Salieu, but now he has gone off and done that. Right now the guy I listen to a lot is BackRoad Gee. Although he’s already started to pop, I find myself gravitating to everything he’s putting out at the moment. I think he has got a really long future ahead of him.”
Risky Roadz 0121 can now be watched on Amazon Music app and on Prime Video.