In August 2016, Grime artist Stormzy posted on his YouTube channel an Adidas sponsored music video that announced the signing of footballer Paul Pogba to Man Utd. For those that follow the sport, this was the climax to the football story of the season – would he sign, or wouldn’t he?
The video was quickly pulled down – giving the impression that Stormzy had ‘leaked’ the news unofficially before the official sponsor Adidas tweeted it. But it spread like wildfire amongst fans, and in doing so became one of the most successful uses of grime music for marketing purposes.
When you think of grime music, you may recall the heyday of artists such as Dizzee Rascal during the early noughties. Since then, the genre went quiet as grime artists spent a decade or so experimenting with different artistic routes – either going into other genres or building strong fan bases. But the last couple of years have seen the genre commercially re-emerge, with leading performer Skepta besting Radiohead and David Bowie by scooping the 2016 Mercury Prize.
It has been dubbed the voice of today’s generation. Our generations punk. For a project on behalf of Studio Output and BBC 1Xtra, we immersing ourselves in the subculture, and spoke to the people most familiar with the scene. Here are a few of our reflections on what we can learn from the structure of the genre.
Grime music has social media at its core.
As a genre that wasn’t recognised by mainstream music outlets, it had to use channels that allowed artists to speak directly to fans.
But it’s more than just that. Social media isn’t just a delivery mechanism for new tunes, it is an integral part of the structure and production of the music.
For example, if you’re making a grime tune – you might be aiming to get it played on the radio or by a DJ at a club. But there is just as much chance that you are making a recording with the intention of expressing yourself through social media.
Grime artists talk of being able to have a spark of inspiration one minute, being out on the street with their crew recording 15 minutes later, then editing, posting on YouTube, and sharing on Instagram all in a matter of hours.
With grime, social media is a natural part of its growth – rather than it being an afterthought. As such, the way it capitalises on and navigates the world of Instagram and YouTube is inspirational fuel for anyone wanting to innovate their use of social media.
A lesson in authenticity
Social media is one of the ways that grime performers create a sense of authenticity. Posting unpolished and raw footage of themselves at home or in the street presents an image that is real and relatable, as opposed to the polished mediated images you might associate with other genres.
Authenticity seems to be the lifeblood of grime music. Watch Skepta on Jools Holland and you’ll see an artist wearing the same tracksuit you might see him wearing at home.
This call to authenticity is reflected in the subject matter of the songs. Lyrics reflect the lived experience of the artists, and therefore the lives of the fans. In fact, this granular attention to the aspects of modern life make grime music lyrics themselves a way of researching culture. From iPhones and Instagram, to drugs and police harassment – all are fair game in colouring a grime song. As argued by Lee Barron in his paper ‘The sound of street corner society: UK grime music as ethnography’:
‘It is difficult to cite another contemporary mode of music which authentically achieves such a consistent geographically and socially distinctive focus on localised urban experiences’
Brands and the grime aesthetic
Despite a few lacklustre attempts by fried chicken giant KFC and cognac brand Alize, there aren’t many brands associated with grime music. But there is an appetite to see more involvement. The fans we spoke to interpreted brands getting involved with the scene as a sign that the world is starting to appreciate the music they feel so passionately about.
The brands you do see are sportswear brands – like Nike, Adidas and Puma. It’s the clothing that artists would have worn before they were famous, and therefore continuing to wear it is a sign of their authenticity.
These sportswear brands are streetwear brands. And grime is all about the urban environment. The genre started in the high-rise blocks of east London. Dark and gritty was the phrase that kept appearing in interviews. And it is intense. Live events can be charged to the point where it erupts into the type of mosh-pits you would expect to see at a Metallica concert. So it is a dangerous terrain for any brand to step into.
So to go back to the Man United and Stormzy campaign – it worked because it was real. It was an organic association between Adidas and grime, and between Stormzy and Man United (he was a vocal supporter). If any of the campaign felt staged, it wouldn’t have worked. This audience can sniff out when people like themselves haven’t been involved in the creative process.
However, grime-as-brand is coming together as artists are beginning to understand themselves as a brand. Grime labels are releasing lines of clothes, often with very limited edition runs. And it is merging with the graffiti-esque look of skater culture – a sub-genre with which it has a natural urban affinity – a move further reinforced by the fact that many grime artist names started life as their graffiti tags.
In conclusion, analysing the way grime uses social media, establishes authenticity, and depicts itself aesthetically can be a catalyst for helping innovate for an audience that only responds to authenticity.
Get in touch if you would like to hear more about the grime subculture, or about other subcultures that could help inspire thinking about your brand or organisation.