These days, it’s not uncommon to come across a grime riddim at a posh Brooklyn club, but this recent notoriety is the result of a very late global recognition for the genre, coming years after its high point in the streets of London. The music always struggled to find a voice beyond those confined borders, despite pockets of fame by the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and some others.
And yet there was a moment in the mid-2000s where the sound of London’s black youth could regularly be heard in Caribbean sections of Brooklyn. It was a moment in time nearly totally overlooked by anybody outside of the scene, where dances were commonly inspired by grime being played in parts of the borough where dancehall and rap reign supreme.
The story centres around an artist named Blackhart (pictured, main), who wasn’t even living in New York City at the time. He grew up in East New York, a Brooklyn neighbourhood that continues to resist the swift gentrification of a megalopolis now called the safest big city in the world. As a teen, he was a selector at parties in the area, and his crew, King Tribe Sound, continued to make moves there while he attended school in Philadelphia.
He was working on his production skills by making remixes of dancehall records, which he would send back home for his boys to play out. Then in 2004, he heard Nottingham MC Wariko spit over Wiley’s ‘Morgue’ riddim, and had the idea to remix it by blending it with a Vybz Kartel verse from ‘Real Badman’. The start was as simple as that.
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King Tribe(s) Sound – ’45 Shootout Sound Clash’
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Soon he was feeding the clubs with a steady stream of grime by placing popular genre riddims in a new context, mixing big grime verses with dancehall elements, producing his own tracks, and even sending out original grime 45s. Artists like Kano, Skepta and JME were getting huge reactions in Brooklyn when most of the world didn’t even know what grime was yet.
“When I’d come back home from college, I would hear and see the remixes shut clubs down, literally,” Blackhart recalls. “People would send me stuff in Philly, too. I’d get texts saying, ‘Yo, Black, your remix just flatten’ the place!’”
“They were go-to records for me,” says DJ Magic, a central member of King Tribe who now has his own show on Hot 97. “They always got a reaction.”
Eventually, the team gained a reputation for the grime they blended into their sets. And they were getting booked almost daily, often at the biggest Caribbean clubs in Brooklyn, where dancehall elite would make sure to stop when they came to the US – places like Elite Ark, Temptations, and C-Pac (which is now Pulse 48). And it didn’t stop with Brooklyn – they were spinning grime in Manhattan and The Bronx, even Baltimore and Philly. They were playing grime on the big Flatbush pirate radio stations as well, such as 94.7 Fiyah Station, 95.9 WaahGwaan, and more. Dance crews were hitting them up, asking for the music they heard the selectors play.
The tunes were so popular that they couldn't stop playing them sometimes. DJ Springer, another member of King Sound, who has since moved to Miami and has a show on the Power 96 radio station there, looks back in awe at the reaction he’d get.
“I remember once I was playing at The Ark in 2006 with Storm Love. We had this a cappella version of Ding Dong’s ‘Badman Forward Pull Up’ way before anyone else had it, which I played over a Dizzee beat. I got to play it for 10 minutes straight because they kept asking us to play it again!” King Tribe also included Daddy Stretch, Stryka Don and General O.
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DJ Springer: “Grime would have been a dominating source [in New York] had it taken a more professional route. Everyone talks about all these trap versions of songs. But I laugh and say, ‘No one’s gonna talk about grime?’”
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“No one else played grime,” Blackhart says proudly. “DJs were too scared to be different or too accustomed to playing the nightly sets. But grime made people listen to what was going on. I knew the type of forward I would get from a remix of JME’s ‘96 Bars Of Revenge’. It was kinda creepy. People appreciated the punch lines and the production – sound systems were in trouble.”
“At the time, Brooklyn was very receptive to the sound,” Springer explains. “It was hard to understand because they spat so fast. But they liked it because Jamaican lingo was put into the sound, even if they didn’t understand all of it. The way we played it, people just thought it was some different reggae stuff. In the 2000s, dancehall beats had a lot of hip-hop bounce to it. And all the a cappellas had that bounce to it too. That’s what made it so easy for us.”
In ’06 Blackhart released his first grime remix mixtape. It was the sixth in his ‘Shocking Versatility’ series, but the first dedicated to grime. It featured tracks like JME’s ‘Deadout’ and ‘Don’t Chat To Me’, Lethal Bizzle’s ‘POW’, and more. He followed that up with his second in the ‘Grime Salute’ series a year and five mixtapes later, which included beats and verses by the likes of Jammer, Blackjack NASTY, and others.
By this point there were other DJs bringing grime to Caribbean crowds in Brooklyn, like Mountain Doo from Tek 9 Sound, who back then was the main selector at an all-ages club named SeaBreeze Manor (now called Studio 10) in Bed-Stuy. One track that went viral there was ‘The Craziest Riddim’. This was Doo’s instrumental version of ‘Brooklyn Anthem’, produced by New York’s Team Shadetek, featuring vocals by Jahdan and 77 Klash. Both versions eventually became popular. “I threw parties in SeaBreeze,” says Max Glazer of Federation Sound, “and can absolutely confirm that ‘Brooklyn Anthem’ was massive in that scene.”
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‘The Craziest Riddim/Brooklyn Anthem’
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Soon thereafter, in early ’09, grime lost its potency in the scene, possibly due to the growing primacy of rap from the South. But while it was a brief moment, grime had a lasting impact on those involved, and many of the artists playing it saw those days as a high point of creativity. For Springer, it changed his perspective on music permanently, Magic says he hasn’t seen anything like it since, and Blackhart continues making his grime remixes.
Grime certainly didn’t exist in a bubble during this period. Many ravers familiar with UK sounds, like jungle and dubstep, were exposed to it, even in NYC. And Dizzee’s fame spread to New York on the weight of his name alone, performing in the trendy Williamsburg neighbourhood in ’04. But that was a “whiter” and more “hipster” crowd, as the reviews of the show put it at the time.
The sound’s embracing by Caribbean crowds in Brooklyn could be called more meaningful, as it was a scene populated by people with a similar background to the kids in London who were making it, and who were relating to common reference points and energies. But the isolation that allowed these scenes to become the unique pockets of creativity that they were was also why they didn’t rocket as many artists to stardom, like more connected genres did.
Despite that, it may have laid the groundwork for many of those after them, whether they’re credited for it or not. Springer certainly believes so: “Grime would have been a dominating source had it taken a more professional route. Everyone talks about all these trap versions of songs. But I laugh and say, ‘No one’s gonna talk about grime?’ It’s been happening. People don’t get how grime helped out all these festivals. It just wasn’t on the scale of what they’re doing now.”
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Words: Mike Steyels