Exclusives 24 November 2020
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GRM Exclusive: Where are we at with grime’s crossover to the US?

24 November 2020
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Travis Scott has got U.K MC’s talking. Ms Banks, Jammer and Lethal Bizzle all taking to Twitter to air their views on how the American trap stars new track “Franchise”, featuring Young Thug and British rapper M.I.A, is inspired by grime. 

The Houston rapper is back on top with “Franchise” being his  third No.1 debut on the Billboard Hot 100 in the past year, making him the first artist to debut three consecutive songs at No.1 on the Hot 100 within a year.

Looking at the music itself, you can understand why both UK fans and grime artists rushed to comment that the track could be a Skepta production. From its inception, your ears are greeted with a grime type beat and drum pattern, the type of overriding beat we would expect to hear under Skepta’s versatile flows, honed from years spent in the raves, booths and clashes of the UK scene. 

On top of this, M.I.A’s verse proves to be a clear injection of British culture, not just because of her unique sound amongst the American rappers, but also from the lyrical content. The London born singer refers to a cultural dish which black British listeners of Afro-Caribbean heritage would be familiar with, the tasty ackee and saltfish dish: ‘Trippin’ like I’m trigger happy; saltfish, ackee, ackee.’

Combined with the fact she goes on to shout out her hometown: ‘London city, left the town (Ah) Thug and Travis be the fam’, her feature is a big nod to London and UK multiculturalism.

Despite excitement from grime fans on social media, and glowing praise from a stalwart of the scene itself (Jammer), the crossing of the musical bridge between American rap and hip hop with the UK scene has been met with serious scepticism before. 

The best place to start with this is probably the Wiley-Drake feud in 2019, where Wiley called the Toronto rapper a ‘culture vulture’ for bringing out various UK artists such as Krept and Konan, J Hus and Dave as part of the Assassination Tour. Although Wiley is not the voice of authority for all grime fans, a position he is way off with his extreme views and idiocy, he was not alone in criticising Drake for riding the UK wave. During a For The Record panel discussion, American cultural critic Seren Sensei seconded Wiley’s cynical take, claiming: “Drake sees stuff that’s already bubbling and then he sort of inserts himself.”

Drake responded to the criticism on 1xtra’s rap show with Tiffany Calver, saying that he doesn’t understand what culture vulture even means, and asked why people would rather he didn’t acknowledge and support the scene. Although undoubtedly, artists like Skepta, Giggs, and Dave receiving cosigns and features from someone like Drake must only boost their profile, it is not just this which has made people feel uncomfortable with Americans taking from UK genres.

In Drake’s 2017 album More Life, you will find Drake co-opting Jamaican and London accents, sprinkling patois and British slang such as ‘bruv’ ‘peng’ and ‘pagan’ throughout his lyrics. 

To accuse someone of being a culture vulture is to suggest that they are swooping in and taking what they want without giving proper recognition to the true origins of what they are repurposing.

In 2020, with a world that’s woken up a bit more to the issue of appropriation as essentially a symptom of capitalism, it is not all that surprising that people are ready to discuss or accuse Drake of vulching. Is he unfairly reaping the benefits of using other cultures for his own work?

But is it really all that deep? As well as Jammer’s positive reaction to Travis’s track, various UK fans commented online that they loved the track and it’s grime influences. Similarly, popular UK rap review YouTubers Dan & Kaz reacted positively to Drake’s track “War” off his 2020 release Dark Lane Demo Tapes, excited by Drake emulating the UK drill flow and using a beat made by East London producer AXL Beats. 

So where are we at with Grime’s crossover to the US? Another artist who springs to mind in all of this is Tre Mission. Toronto born like Drake, Mission is an acclaimed grime and dubstep producer. He is a longstanding member of the renowned UK collective Tizzy Gang, and has received little if any backlash for his lack of British roots. 

Maybe Mission, who has even worked with Wiley himself, differs from Drake. He has never been a king of the US mainstream, having made the move to England ten years ago and primarily producing in UK centric styles. Perhaps grime fans view Mission as appreciation not appropriation, as he has always preferred the UK sound, way before replicating it could gain him any clout back home. 

It is true that the UK sound is starkly different from the US. Firstly, grime’s tempo of 140bpm means that genre lies firmly within the realms of electronic, a pace which American audiences would not be used to when making sense of lyrics. Secondly, as mentioned earlier concerning Drake’s More Life, the UK scene is nothing without its British slang. On top of this, there’s a sense of humour in grime punchlines which could easily get lost in translation. Do American’s have that connection to British street culture to really understand and enjoy grime?

Regardless of whether British street culture holds any relevance to American’s, it does appear that the British sound is proving a hit. Before Travis garnered attention for delving into the UK scene, we should remember the brief but illustrious career of Brooklyn born Pop Smoke, who switched the New York drill wave on its head after being gripped by the distinctive UK beats of Ilford producer 808Melo.

If UK fans can accept that US artists are not always jumping on UK culture for clout, but they’re genuine admirers of the UK sound, then maybe grime can make a well-celebrated crossover to the US.

Whether or not US audiences are willing to accept it into their mainstream is a different issue, but if prolific artists like Travis and Drake keep doing what they’re doing, they don’t have much choice.

It looks like this UK-US crossover is far from over. Now it’s just a matter of seeing whether it sticks. 

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