The language around grime has always been about progression. Great tunes are “next level,” the best MCs “elevate,” the most exciting producers “push things forward.” When the sound first exploded out of London a decade ago — a hybrid of British dance music and Jamaican sound system culture with double-speed MCing — its energy was infectious, and some of the main protagonists, like Dizzee Rascal, became U.K. household names. But thanks to media disinterest and a continental drift of the biggest talents to a more chart-friendly sound in the late 2000s, grime returned underground.
Grime today exists as a self-sufficient scene typified by Butterz — a club and label run by DJs Elijah and Skilliam, who tour the world and regularly run Room 1 at London superclub Fabric despite being a two-man operation. More recently, it’s their fellow travelers Boxed, an instrumental grime night run by DJs-producers-label owners Logos, Slackk, Oil Gang and Mr. Mitch that has been drawing the eye. While there is no clear “Boxed sound” beyond a fondness for running things cold and murky at 140bpm, vanguard tracks like Slackk’s “Blue Sleet,” with its space-age sheen and artillery-fire drums, and Logos’ sinister, darkside “Kowloon 1” sketch out the parameters: minimalistic, melodically beautiful, rhythmically tough.
Since its foundation in March 2013, Boxed’s raves have grown from a small coterie of producers, DJs and grime nerds nodding heads, checking track titles and skulking in the shadows, into a dedicated and unpretentious fan base skanking out to gutter-crawling sub-bass and throwing hands up for giddy rewinds. Drawing on their own networks of almost entirely new producers, and guest DJs like Mumdance, Bok Bok, Murlo and Spooky, this micro scene is coming to signify something far beyond these four walls. If Boxed was to blow up, it wouldn’t be the first time that the new sound was incubated in a dark room in London. Almost exactly a decade ago, the club nights FWD and DMZ laid the template for dubstep. A decade before that, Metalheadz Sunday Sessions did the same for drum ‘n’ bass.
It’s a wet Thursday evening and I’m sitting at a table in Vortex Jazz Bar in Dalston with Logos, Oil Gang and Slackk. All three are grime nerds, self-effacing, but speaking with the evangelical zeal you’d expect from people who’ve been banging the drum for years and are finally being listened to. Oil Gang, real name Simon Hiscocks, is careful to explain that Boxed’s “instrumental grime” tag is a misnomer — it’s just grime, full stop. “The tunes I’m playing, the tunes I’m putting out on the label, they weren’t ever written with an MC in mind,” he says. “It’s not like ‘ah, but it’s missing a layer’ — it’s not missing a layer: That’s the whole tune!”
Dive back into the rich history of London’s 140bpm club music, and you find a period of red-hot creativity around 2002, before grime was called grime, when U.K. garage twisted into darker realms, before the MCs were anything more than hosts, and tracks like Musical Mob’s “Pulse X” ruled the pirate radio airwaves. There is a definite kindred spirit reaching across the generations. “That early period where it was halfway between dark garage and grime,” says Logos, real name James Parker. “That moment, I love that.” The three cite the productions Rinse FM cofounder and Dizzee Rascal collaborator DJ Slimzee as an inspiration, along with Mac 10 of NASTY Crew and the Rude Interlude mix by Mr Bump as early forerunners of their sound.
A decade or so later, the digital revolution has swept through U.K. dance culture, but while some of the physical infrastructure has changed, the Boxed guys reckon the mechanics remain the same.
They still meet future collaborators while hanging out in record shops, and in place of freshly-cut white label dubplates, the digital equivalent get the most explosive responses in a rave — recently, Murlo’s punchdrunk remix of Rebound X’s “Rhythm and Gash” was debuted at Boxed, and became an instant club anthem, rewound three times. The pirate radio stations have been replaced by legal online stations like NTS, which now hosts Slimzee’s shows — a position of relative respectability for the DJ, who was once issued an ASBO, or “antisocial behavior order,” for putting up illegal pirate radio aerials.
As if to prove the durability of the U.K.’s underground infrastructure, Boxed has this month relocated from one dark, intimate, sub-bass heavy, low-ceilinged basement venue — Birthdays in Dalston — to another, Rye Wax in Peckham (which as its name suggests, also doubles up as a record shop).
“Boxed is quite old-fashioned in a way,” reflects Logos. “You promote it online and everything, but it is all about the club night, and what happens in that room.” Slackk, real name Paul Lynch, agrees: “That thing you sometimes see, I guess more in house nights, where the moment the club’s finished, bang — here’s 100 fucking photos of it on Twitter or whatever, I can’t stand that. It’s not something we aspire to — Boxed is just a dark room with tunes in.”
And it’s the tunes that make Boxed — unreleased classics in the making, aired for the first time to a barely-lit room of acolytes. Current anthems include the heartstrings-tugging “Sweet Boy Pose” by Dark0, the rowdy jump-up of Hi5Ghost’s “Kung Fu Kick,” Finn’s R&B-tinged “Keep Calling,” DJ Milktray’s funky chop-and-paste “Hotel” and, says Slackk, “pretty much any Spooky tune.”
The tunes, Slackk continues, explain why Boxed had to happen in the first place: He had too many great unheard grime records to play, and he knew the other three were being similarly inundated. “The night came together because you just had all these amazing tunes coming through that stood up on their own, without vocals. Boxed is — or certainly was — the only place you could hear all of these tunes. For a while you had to be at Boxed to hear them.” Now, though, there’s a proper label infrastructure too. Oil Gang’s eponymous label and Mr. Mitch’s Gobstopper have been putting out records since 2010; Logos and Mumdance have just founded a new label, Different Circles, debuting with the compilation Weightless Volume 1; and friends of Boxed like Keysound and Local Action are meeting the soaring supply and demand for this new generation of producers.
Later I catch up with Boxed’s fourth man, Mr. Mitch — real name Miles Mitchell — who has recovered from a bout of tonsillitis and is excited about the release of the debut album he has been quietly plotting for years. For Mitch, the nucleus of a small, dark London venue is vital to Boxed’s success, but the easy interaction and distribution of the tunes digitally carries its spirit much further. “I feel like Boxed lives just as much online as it does in the club. We play a lot of producers from around the world, people that aren’t able to get to Boxed for geographical reasons but they feel just as much part of it as all of the producers who come down on a regular basis. Sometimes it just takes a focal point like Boxed for people with similar interests to come together.” (Asked to estimate what proportion of the records they play come from producers in London, Logos and Slackk go for 60 percent, with other vital contributions from Manchester and Bristol, Ireland, the U.S., Germany and Australia. The digital age — in particular the leveled playing field of platforms like SoundCloud — has widened the room.)
For Mitch, the generation that grew up on grime are increasingly realising they need to innovate themselves, rather than just standing on the shoulders of giants. “In the last couple of years there have been a lot of producers taking influence from grime itself.,” he says. “Gladly, on the most part we’re past the stage where people were just using a lot of Wiley samples. Now they are creating their own sounds and there is some amazing stuff coming out of it. My album, for example — to many purists is as a far removed from a grime album as you can get. But I think I will probably always call my music grime. As long as it’s pushing forward, to me it will always be grime.”
The crew’s own productions — and the labels behind them — are a vital part of this surge of energy: Logos’s aptly-named debut album Cold Mission came out last year on Keysound, Slackk’s Palm Tree Fire followed in September on Local Action, and Mr. Mitch’s Parallel Memories landed this month on Planet Mu. Meanwhile, the Oil Gang imprint is following EPs from such central figures as JT the Goon, Spooky, Darq E Freaker and Novelist with a show-stopping joint EP from Murlo and JT the Goon to finish the year, with a new album following next year.
Parallel Memories is quite obviously pushing far beyond the boundaries of grime, often doing away with beats altogether. But as with Logos and Slackk’s albums, which twist the eerie soundscapes of Wiley’s beatless devil mixes into more futuristic constructions of steel and glass, it’s this determination to stretch beyond the generic that actually keeps it in the true spirit of grime’s boundless invention. Tracks like on “Afternoon After” evoke the magical otherwordliness of a Studio Ghibli film. “What catches my ear is melodies and melancholy,” says Mitchell. “The way my head works when I listen to music, I get very real visions of scenes.” In “Wandering Glacier,” he explains, he’s “standing on top of a giant glacier that is acting as a boat, drifting through all of these broken polar ice caps. It’s quite beautiful though, everything is blue. It’s quite a blue song, color wise.”
Back in Dalston, we leave the Vortex Jazz Bar and heads down to the NTS Studios, where Slackk is doing a DJ set. NTS is really not that different to a U.K. pirate station circa 2003, except it’s legal, the studio is cleaner and the door (and sound) opens out onto Dalston’s Gillette Square, where the streetlamps are sparkling in the rain puddles of a London autumn. Over two hours, he lines almost all new material alongside another friend of Boxed, guest DJ Grandmixxer, and the crew gather around, nodding heads and checking track titles. Soon, Novelist — Boxed’s 17-year-old wunderkind MC and producer — turns up, and then later, Slimzee himself, who is playing the following set and has arrived early to check out what the next generation are spinning.
Novelist is buzzing. Only that week he’s been nominated for a MOBO for Best Grime Act, alongside legends like Wiley and Skepta. Novelist had announced the news on Twitter, and mentioned he would be wearing a tracksuit to the awards ceremony. Wiley’s response was “don’t make the same mistake I did” — a wise elder’s tip to play the game, dress smart, and leave the streetwear at home. “I’m a teenager, I’m going to wear what I wear,” responded Novelist — a surprising refusal to respect his elders, you might think, until you realize he was 6 years old when Wiley’s debut album came out.
By 9:30 p.m., the old men who normally sit on the bench outside the NTS studio chewing khat have stood up to do a enthusiastic old-man skank. “Hold tight for some energy,” intones Novelist, playing the host, rather than the MC, and letting the instrumentals roll out. Slackk steps down from the decks for a break and as Grandmixxer wheels up a new cut of jackhammer drums and gleaming synth, Oil Gang enthuses about new releases from Rabit, Glacial, Murlo — and gets lost further down the list.
“There’s just so much stuff coming out at the minute,” he says. “It’s like the whole scene is arriving at once. We’re even starting to get people moaning a bit that we’re not playing their tunes, but we can’t do everything,” he laughs, incredulously. It’s a good problem for a scene to have. “I mean, there’s only four of us, we’ve all got day jobs as well — do something yourself! Start your own night!” Slackk chips in: “That’s what we did.”