Few documentarians are as much a part of the world they’re recording, as they are a part of documenting it. Standing on both sides of the lens.
Roony Keefe, however, is just that. His legendary DVD series Risky Roadz helped kickstart the careers of countless MCs in the early days of grime and galvanised the budding scene’s visual aesthetic, in a time before YouTube and Instagram.
This didn’t come out of a business plan; Risky Roadz came out of Roony’s genuine love for the music and a fan-boy like enthusiasm for what people around him were creating.
The series of films – which at first were shot on a camera Roony’s nan lent him the money to buy – showcased grime's main players, spitting bars and answering questions that hungry fans were desperate to get answers to.
The MCs Roony caught on film in the scene’s heyday now read like a who’s who of grime, including Skepta, D Double E, Kano, Lethal B, Ghetts, Wiley, Chipmunk and JME, and crews like Pay As U Go Cartel and Nasty Crew.
He was able to get these big names because he was living and working at the centre of grime: Rhythm Division in London's Bethnal Green. DJing old school garage while he was still at school, Roony was a regular at his local record store, and while crate digging he’d hear Slimzee and Marcus Nasty drop tunes, igniting his love of the new sound – grime.
A work experience stint there quickly turned into a Saturday job at Rhythm, where Roony met manager Sparky - his Risky Roadz cofounder - and MCs like Wiley selling early pressings through the store. "Everyone used to come through,” he remembers.
The store's walls lined with garage and grime white labels were soon to become familiar to a whole new audience of people, as the backdrop to Risky Roadz freestyles. Roony and Sparky came up with the idea of filming the new scene for RR when they realised there were still certain MCs that – visually – remained a mystery.
"There were a few DVDs already – A Plus [who put out ‘Eskimo Dance’ and ‘Run The Road’ among others] and Jammer had done some bits. And you'd seen a few faces, but not all. I knew that if I wanted to know what the MCs all looked like, then everyone must want to know what they all look like,” Roony explains. “That’s what Risky Roadz ended up being - the whole scene."
“It was the fan in me. I'd DJd old school garage, done pirate radio, and I played a warm-up set for EZ one night. I had PSG and Creed on my set, and I said to myself, 'That's the biggest I'm going to get DJing - I need something else'. And Risky Roadz was something else."
In a pre smartphone and social media world, real life connections and a genuine network were essential for finding MCs to film, and in those days – also pre Spotify – record stores were a hub of musical, creative activity. "It was lucky that Rhythm Division was our base,” says Roony.
“Because everyone used to come into Rythm. It was one of the first places that MCs started making any money - they'd just come in and sell their stuff. Then when people found out we were doing it, like word of mouth, we started getting phonecalls, or people just walking into the shop saying, 'We wanna do Risky Roadz'."
Kicking off their first ever shoot with J2K in-store at Rhythm and Riko Dan by Bow McDonald’s in East London, Roony and Sparky’s format usually followed the pattern of freestyles filmed at the shop and interviews shot in the MCs’ particular part of town.
"I wanted it to be a look in to everyone's world. And from a fan's point of view, I wanted to see everything too,” Roony enthuses. “I was like, 'I wanna be in this'. And you get respect as well, ‘cos sometimes I was in places I probably shouldn't have been."
As grime bloomed out of its East London home and MCs cropped up in all different postcodes, the pair would travel all over town for shoots. Occasionally it would lead to potentially tricky situations.
"Some places, at first were a bit edgy,” Roony remembers. “I got on the train once to Edmunton to interview Big H – I had to go on my own, Sparky was busy and none of my pals were about."
“I got off at the station and I remember there was just hundreds of boys…and I had to walk through this estate. And I didn’t’ know how it was gonna go, obviously I had my camera and everything… So I walked up to the estate and one of the boys said, 'Who are you and what do you want?' And I said 'I'm Roony, I'm here to meet Big H.'
'Meet Big H? Meet him for what?',
'Risky Roads – that’s me. I'm coming to do that.'
'You're Risky Roadz? And you come here on your own?? Nah I respect that!
“And they walked me through the estate, and after the interview the same boy said, 'You're not getting the train home’ and he drove me back to Bethnal. It could have gone either way. If I'd not been there to do filming, it could have gone a lot different."
The low-tech nature of the mid Noughties not only effected the way Roony and Sparky had to set up and conduct shoots, but it also had an impact on the other end of the process. News of the new films travelled word of mouth, rather than though a formal distribution network, and sharing came from real-life connections rather than clicks.
First the boys sold their DVDs at Rhythm Division, then other record stores got interested and would get in touch to get copies themselves. "Division was the hub,” says Roony. “There wasn’t YouTube or nothing."
For fans too, the format meant getting out in the real world. “Me and my mate used to get excited when we knew a new DVD was coming out and would travel to Rhythm Division in Bow from West to buy it,” remembers Fred Cassavetti who grew up in Latimer Road. “Then we’d buy some weed and spend all day watching it. We would take it in turns on who had to buy the new dvd, so he owns half of them and I own the other half."
“We looked forward to the big names like Wiley or Skepta, also to seeing the MCs you only heard on radio or at raves, and got to see what area they were in. Usually they would film it in their manor. Old school Discarda in his school uniform is a personal favourite, or one DVD had Trim and Scratchy D outside their local pub.”
This lack of YouTube also meant Roony had to use books to teach himself how to edit video, and in 2004 you weren’t just uploading digital files to share with viewers – you were pressing films onto discs. "The first Risky Roadz took about a year - I was editing it as I was filming it. I remember we had an appointment at a pressing plant to get it duplicated, and the disc kept failing and I didn’t know why...and it turned out there was one little box I hadn't ticked. Then once we sorted that out it took 48 hours to render, it was absolute madness, it failed so many times."
“Then we worked out that the blank DVDs we were using weren't big enough for the project., and we needed something called a dual layered disc – two DVDs layered in one. They were like 15 pound a disc, and I used three of them to try and burn this. My student loan was getting annihilated."
That’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate the low-fi days though. "It's all throwaway now,” he says of today’s tech world. “I’ve still got a DVD of a set from Jammers birthday bash – A Plus filmed it, And that there was one of the first grime things I saw. And it's the one thing I wish I'd filmed. You know that one bit of footage of somebody else’s that you wish you'd got? That's mine."
Working on Risky Roadz in such close proximity to the then-rising stars (and current royalty) of grime, then going on to work on videos like Skepta’s “It Ain’t Safe” – back on the now infamous Meridian Estate, home to Julie Adenuga, Skepta, JME and, naturally, the rest of Meridian Crew - and ‘Man’, Chip's ‘Scene’ and Kano's ‘3 Wheel-ups’, Roony has been a part of the scene basically since its inception.
"That’s the thing about grime - we're all one big, dysfunctional family,” he smiles. “We've all grown up together, 15 year friendships, you know? It's a mad thing. And it makes you feel proud that you've had an influence in that. My DVDs, A Plus' and Jammers' DVDs, have inspired people like Jamal Edwards [founder of SB.TV. All the media stream from grime that's spun off, it goes back to us."
The videos had an impact on the very music they were depicting, too. MCs would hone their aesthetic and delivery of their bars to look the part as much as sound it. Getting on a DVD was now just as much a break as getting on radio – with a DVD at least you could guarantee people would hear you, rather than risking listeners missing your slot on pirate.
"Everyone was so hungry, and it was their way of breaking into the scene too. You could go on radio but someone might not hear them on radio,” says Roony. “With Risky Roadz, the way we wanted to do it, was about everyone. Anyone could come in and freestyle, and if my ear said you were alright and Sparky did too, then you made it onto the DVD.
“Then all these households started to know who you were. Tempa T? - first time anyone ever saw him was on Risky Roadz 2. And as much as you wanted established names, my thing was always about finding new talent and giving them a platform.
"We had a big say in what fans ingested, you know? Like quality control."
So, who’s been the best 'get' so far for Risky Roadz? "For me it's got to be D Double E. D was just one of those MCs. And Wiley too, he was just elusive. I used to see him al the time in the shop, say hello and whatever, and knew him from the area, but filming him was different. So when we finally got him, it was like 'Yes!'. I remember we filmed D Double at Footsie’s house in the garden, and the first time we filmed Wiley was at Lime House Courts.
"Kano's another one too. And Pay As You Go and Nasty Crew. They were the reason I got into grime. When we got all of them, I was like - now I've done it, this is gonna be special."
Making these early videos and being part of developing a recognisable aesthetic has proven vital in the recent opening up of America to grime. Roony recently contacted Dave Myers, for example – a director who won Grammy for his video with Kendrick,and has worked with the likes of Drake and Travis Scott – to ask about a potential meet in LA.
"I got an instant email back from his office,” says Roony. “They were at that moment using my Skepta video as reference for a treatment. It was crazy, really mad.
"When I was young we were all obsessed with American stuff. It's funny to see how it's reversed."
Risky Roadz has also earned a fan in Drake. A few years ago Roony found he’d picked up hundreds of new Instagram followers, and scrolled through to find the source: Drizzy.
The two ended up meeting in Miami, exchanging VIP access and Risky Roadz DVDs, and there’s a plan to film together in London soon. "Between that and Dave Meyers it just shows how America is looking in," says Roony.
So, what next? Risky Roadz Presents The Lost Tapes came out in 2013, and was followed by a ‘best of’ documentary last year, as well as branching out into unexpected places like New Zealand and Kazakhstan (where Roony plans to visit soon) to find footage of high quality grime. Roony wants to make Risky Roadz 3, too: "It's been a long time coming, and there's such a story to tell.”
“I filmed Giggs first of all in 2007 or 2008, and now he's international. Skepta's another one opening doors to America, and when you see where he's come from. He'd phone me up saying 'I've got a lyric!’, and now look at him. That makes me feel proud too, there's so many stories to tell. To see your friends doing some amazing stuff, it's inspiring."
Would he ever film MCs working in other genres, say drill? "You've got to be in it. There needs to be a kid who grew up in drill the way I grew up in grime. It's one of them things - you have to be in it.” But then he enthuses about one of drill’s breakout acts, Unknown T: "He's special, he's just got something and changed the whole thing of drill - girls can dance to it now, which I think is going to be a pivotal moment in drill. Loski too."
There’s a feature length documentary in the pipeline too – ‘Risky Roadz 0121’ –dissecting the Birmingham grime scene, featuring some of its most exciting, dynamic MC like Mist and Jakae. And Roony event talks about making an album. It may have already played a leading role in the rise of grime, but Risky Roadz has still got a way to travel.
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