Inside a cramped Oxford Circus workspace, staff are making provisions for the impending dimness of another bitter London evening. Spotlights stutter into faint glows, auxiliaries to the dinged candle flames subtly flickering in the corners of the mellowed office complex known as Apartment 58.
Huddled on a chestnut-stained cushion, veteran grime producer Dexplicit (aka Dean Harriot) gazes through a smudged window. Beyond the glass, a cloaked sun concludes its bowed retreat over central London, dousing the heavens in shades of grey as it departs.
At street level, the capital’s habitual rush hour sluggishly stirs into motion, suited commuters emerging in spots and blotches, crawling over the splintered pavement, making plays for the Starbucks across the street or scuttling out of view into the adjacent Tottenham Court Road tube station.
Inside, Dexplicit’s demeanour is tranquil, his ocean-blue trainers extended over a checkered rug, while overhead the gentle melodies of African highlife saunter from coal-coloured speakers. By definition, Apartment 58 is a creative work space, an open plan office which, during daylight hours, is clustered with professionals from the creative industries. After dark, the first-floor dwelling mutates into an intimate live music venue for bands, singers and spectators.
- - -
DJ Mondie, ‘Pull Dat Up Forward’, Dexplicit Version (2005)
- - -
Enjoying a rare day off, Dexplicit is an innovator, influential in moulding a sound that 15 years ago had no convenient name. “Grime?” he remembers, “I saw its birth, just after garage,” a melding of American house and jungle that monopolised airwaves as the nation hurtled towards the new millennium.
Though garage thrived, away from the spotlight revolution was afoot. “Slowly, garage started to get darker and darker, until we started calling it ‘grimey garage’,” Dexplicit says. He witnessed this progression first hand, in the raves and clubs of East London. Unorthodox, jagged, spikey: grimey garage strayed from the pack, eventually wresting itself free from the genre that had given it life.
“You couldn’t call it grimey garage anymore, because it’s not garage, it’s definitely something else,” the producer recalls. “So it just ended up with the word grime.”
An indication of the route production would take in the new millennium, grime’s volatile sound did not evolve in professional studios and mixing rooms, but instead on the home computer. Dexplicit refers to that particular cluster of producers as “the FruityLoops generation”, named after the Belgian audio workstation which sprung to popularity in the early ’00s and meant the only obstacle preventing budding producers from experimenting with their craft was the ownership of a PC.
Getting hands on a functional computer was no issue for a teenage Dexplicit, who opted against working at the local Tesco during his school days, instead pocketing some change by building computers for friends. With that element handled, grime producers went wild.
“We didn’t know the rules. That was the beauty of it, we weren’t musicians, we didn’t know that these keys shouldn’t be played alongside these keys,” he says, stretching his arms wide. “No one was musically trained.”
This experimentation proved essential in the assembly of one of grime’s greatest anthems – and although Lethal Bizzle was the frontman, it was Dexplicit on production.
- - -
Lethal Bizzle, ‘Pow! (Forward)’, 2004 version
- - -
“‘Pow!’?” he grins, sitting up in his seat. “That was [done] in a bedroom. That tune I mixed on headphones, even though I didn’t know about mixing. So really I was just balancing it in headphones.”
According to Dexplicit, in the formative years only Wiley’s and DaVinChe’s mixdowns were up to par. The rest, including himself, attended the school of trial and error.
Now chuckling at his initial inexperience, he recalls: “With ‘Pow!’ I had no clue about compression, so I didn’t use it. No limiter, no reverb, absolutely no mixing down techniques except for levels: as in the kick should be this loud, the clap should be that loud and that’s all the info that I knew as a mixdown engineer. I was what? Seventeen?”
Lethal and Dexplicit originally met at a radio set, the former liking what he heard and taking the latter’s number, ringing him soon after with an idea to feature 10 artists on one record. “Never been done before,” Dexplicit beams. “But I was excited to have 10 artists who are all well-known on my tune. So I said, ‘Yes,’ and it just kind of worked out.”
- - -
To have a song not only become popular, but then to be banned because people couldn’t behave themselves when it came on, that was an achievement.
- - -
A coupling of Dexplicit’s spirited production and vocals from 10 MCs, ‘Pow!’ has now secured iconic status in pop culture. But while it peaked at number 11 in the charts, not all took to the Forward Riddim. With the track banished from radio playlists, numerous nightclubs took matters a step further, displaying “All Lethal B tunes are banned” placards in their venues. Though the heavy-handed method of censorship caused anger in many camps, Dexplicit took a different view.
“That was the best, man!” he exclaims. “To me, that was an achievement: to have a song not only become popular, but then to be banned because people couldn’t behave themselves when it came on.”
‘Pow!’ rose to prominence in 2004 but, the year before, one Dylan Mills had already thrust grime onto the main stage when his ‘Boy In Da Corner’ LP scooped the 2003 Mercury Prize ahead of Coldplay and Radiohead. Unlike many, Dexplicit remembers grime’s famed export when he was just the prodigal son, frequently popping up at youth clubs and pirate radio stations. After silently shuffling through a catalogue of Rascal-related memories, excitement consumes him and the words “Young Man Standin’, Stratford Rex!” eventually fall from his mouth, referring to a special night in the summer of 2002.
“There were like 30 people on the stage, Roll Deep, Nasty Crew, Pay As You Go, and they’re all doing their thing, the crowd is going absolutely crazy. Dizzee hasn’t touched the mic yet, and these times Dizzee is the friggin' man,” he says, animatedly. “This was when we was still on the road just winning, a young 15-year-old that was just winning.”
- - -
Dizzee Rascal, ‘I Luv U’, from ‘Boy In Da Corner’ (2003)
- - -
“The guys in the middle parted, and he comes through from the back to hold the mic, he hasn’t said anything yet… Fights everywhere just broke out.” After security restore relative calm, Dizzee, still a schoolboy, remerges. “They played Wiley’s ‘Eskimo,’ and Dizzee took the mic: ‘Stop dat start dat get dat what!’” He raps the passage from Rascal’s seminal debut album. “Bare fights erupt. I remember me and my friend just looking around and thinking, ‘This is crazy.’ I even saw girls fighting, it was crazy. I’ve never seen one artist command so much power.”
Grime has since moved on from its fledgling days of buoyant nights at The Stratford Rex and clashes on pirate radio. Dizzee Rascal and a host of others have topped the charts and toured the world, though not all have stuck to 140 BPM in the process. Dexplicit, however, has no intention of parting from his underground roots.
“So many people ask me, ‘Why haven’t you gone commercial, what is this passion about underground music? You should be doing chart music.’ But no… I don’t want do chart music. I’ve got a solid passion for edgy music and I always will have. I don’t think I could ever drop it out.”
- - -
Words: Aniefiok Ekpoudom (Twitter)