Today we are here to talk about grime music. Don’t turn over, readers. London grime, having grown out of Bow, East London, in the early 2000s, is probably the most intriguing music scene I’ve ever encountered. From one tiny borough of London emerged a sound and means of achieving success dissimilar to anything else in the music industry. A typical grime sound borrows heavily from hip hop, and is then fused with drum & bass, dubstep and garage. Success is reached first on the underground scene, in what is a largely informal economy, where artists make their debut on independently-produced rap battle DVDs and mixtapes sold out of barbershops and on street corners, which then make their way around the city. Support of Pirate radio stations is also essential in breaking an artist. The amount of successful grime talent Bow has produced – Dizzee Rascal, Ghetts, Tinchy Stryder, Roll Deep, Wiley, Skepta, and now RASCALS, who I’m talking to today – is so disproportionate that I wonder whether fame-hungry families will start moving to Bow just so their offspring will have a better chance of getting a number one.
Although all four of RASCALS are still in their teens, they have been working in the music business for an astonishing nine years, first as the group Mucky Cubs, then Little Rascals which finally evolved into (the now EMI-signed) RASCALS. At the tender age of 12, half of the collective – Tempz and Merkz – were part of a track called Bang Your Headz, which stayed at the top slot of the Channel AKA video chart for 13 weeks. Shizz, short for Little Shit, and the most outspoken, has been MC’ing from the age of nine. He, along with Kay Willz, the charismatic vocalist, complete the group. All four have been making music pretty much full-time since before their voices broke, so while it may seem as though the group have come out of nowhere, they can really only be described as industry veterans. “Everyone in Bow knows each other,” Tempz explains, and they would see all the grime stars listed above hanging out at local youth clubs. “If you wasn’t doing music, then what you doing?” says Kay Willz. “People like Dizzee winning the Mercury Award gave us hope that we could actually make something out of what we were doing. They took it out of Bow, to another level”.
The same dedicated manager has mentored them for nine years. Back then, the kids all went to a recording studio and were “spitting rhymes” when someone videoed it. “He obviously saw the session, and was like, ra! So it all came together from there”. “Ra”, I might add, was probably said more than any word while I chatted to the RASCALS. Much to my relief, they were not repeatedly pointing out my Surrey accent, which I solemnly associate with the phrase “rah”. Apparently, “Ra!” is the new “like” or “woah”. You can gauge how old you are by whether this surprises you or not. In fact, I must admit there are entire sentences of my interview transcription left as [indecipherable youth vernacular]. This is not for want of trying, and the boys do attempt to school me in some key vocabulary that is evidently essential to get by in London nowadays. My favourite is probably ‘flames’. When asked to expand on its meaning, Tempz explains matter-of-factly, “I don’t like water, so water is a bit flames”. I am confused by this. I would think that ‘flames’ would make it seem hot, and therefore good? “Nooooo!” They laugh in unison. “That’s what you’re supposed to think.” So you’re tricking my mind? “Exactly. I can say, oh yeah, she is flames, but she won’t even register it.”
After building their name on the underground scene with DVDs and mixtapes, an avid fan base began to grow, culminating in the release of their “Launch Mixtapes”, which caused an inner-city download frenzy. With this success, college inevitably took a back seat, but even the teachers were on side. “My head teacher used to mark me in when I wasn’t there because he liked my music,” laughs Kay Willz. “But I had to make a promise that when I get my Ferrari, I will drive him around in it”. Students, take note. The graft paid off, and they signed a major deal with EMI. Even then, Merkz was still underage, so his mum had to accompany him to the label party. “It was a bit embarrassing, yeah,” he mutters, smiling.
They now share a roster with Professor Green, who features on their infectious debut single, “Fire Blaze” – somewhat of a coup for an underground act’s first official release? I ask. “Professor Green’s been showing us love since we released our mixtapes. He got Zane Lowe to play our song, he tweeted it, he even got us supporting him on his shows in Hackney, so we asked our manager, like ra, we want Pro on the tune!” The single (and accompanying video) is very, very slick and showcases each of the group’s clear star potential. The sound is certainly more accessible than the straight rap tracks on the mixtapes – this is grime music for the masses. Shizz animatedly describes the track as “like when you put your hand in the oven and it’s on, so you do that little shake”. The intro (which you may well instantly recognise as it sound-tracked the MTV Sound of 2013 promo) has a menacing, exhilarating quality as it builds alongside echoes of sirens. This is reflected in the video, which features status dogs, firecrackers and gangs carrying baseball bats, ready to smash various objects.
All of this you would expect from a grime collective calling themselves RASCALS. But in a way, it contradicts what the boys are really about. In person, they are funny, friendly and very polite. The biggest misconception about them, they say, is that they are cocky, which they were not – just self-assured and in control of their own musical project. And I was taken aback that at such a young age they have already launched a project called CLASS 90 which not only supports up and coming entertainment talent, but includes a trust offering financial backing to young entrepreneurs in their home area. It highlights a very mature side to the foursome – one which they are keen to showcase with their debut album. “We want people to understand us more as individuals. There are four of us, and each of us has different things to say. Musically it’s very broad. We’ve got grime in it, but we all listen to all types music, so it includes hip hop and soul. It definitely shows how we’ve grown and matured”.They have been working with the likes of Davinche (Tinie Tempah, Kano, Wretch 32), Smasher (Maverick Sabre, Devlin) and Bless Beats, best known for producing Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex”. I ask them whether they have lived enough to have something powerful to say. In a charmingly un-media trained way, they all reply “no”. But they do talk about what they’ve been through, which is more than many teenagers. Shizz interjects, “I want to say something to all musicians out there. Musicians, you need that balance. You can work hard, but you also need a break or holiday, just to live a bit. When we first started working on the album, we all took a trip to Magaluf. We came back, felt refreshed, and had taken in new experiences.” The others smirk, clearly recounting the good times of Magaluf. Clearly, you can’t take the rascal out of the RASCALS.
Written by Holly Rubenstein for Notion Magazine