A Canadian in the Grimey Corners of East London
Caught in a strange and insufferable case of wanderlust, I embarked on a journey through Europe this past summer in search of inspiration. I wondered if the trip would fulfill my clichéd expectations. I felt like Woody Allen, wandering through the streets of Europe with a mental camera, daydreaming entire novellas and feature-length films with each city as the main character. I found history and culture in Paris. I found fresh air and the bluest possible waters in the French Alps. But my heart expanded a million times over when I stumbled into East London.
When I arrived, I immediately noticed how differently Londoners were dressed from Parisians. In Paris, life is all about elegance, subtlety and an aversion to primary colours. But in London, everybody looked like a rock star. It was refreshingly diverse, from the girls in Air Max 90’s wearing eight shades of gold, to the English gentlemen stepped in tweed, to the London gangster with the buttoned up polo and the pinky ring. Everyone looked like an extra for a Strokes music video or a modern day Blondie or a non-cracked out Amy Winehouse. It was an overwhelming display of strange put-togetherness. I was instantly inspired by everything I saw, and I felt creativity with an understated brand of rebellion all around me.
I was staying with my cousin, sleeping on a pullout couch in her music studio. She works as a producer and DJ and thus gave me a four-day tour of East London’s underground music scene. We commuted from place to place using a metro system that put Toronto’s only two subway lines to shame. She spent the better part of each trip telling me about the arts in London. She explained that artists were regarded with the highest respect and admiration. She insisted that those who graduated with the best grades in high school went on to be accepted into fashion design and graphic arts programs. She outlined the hugely popular phenomenon of the gay, black rapper in London. She spent the better part of my short stay bashing Skrillex, accusing him of commercializing the deeply cultural dubstep that originated from the UK underground. But I was most fascinated by what I learned and saw of “Grime” – an untamable beast of a music genre that formed in East London.
When we visited a flea market in Brick Lane, we were greeted by an Asian female street musician, who could not have been more than 18 years old. Her music was an aggressive, angsty, intense and occasionally humorous combination of hiphop, dancehall, rap and thudding drum patterns that I couldn’t quite shake off for the next few hours. I asked my cousin, “What is this?”
“Grime,” she responded.
As we walked through fresh produce markets, vintage record booths, and handmade tie-dye shirt sales she tried to define Grime and ended up going off in tangents with words like “8 bar,” “tension” and “2005.” Once we were home, we indulged in some Youtube digging and she played me Dizzee, Danny Weed, Eskimo, Spartan and P Money into the wee hours of the morning. We were no closer to a definition but I was left with Grime as a feeling, an ethos, a kind of gut reaction.
It was my first time in London and I had very limited knowledge about British history and politics. My research tells me that Grime developed as a direct response to the sociopolitical tensions being felt by interstate teenagers of East London. As a fairly ignorant Canadian in England, I felt strangely moved by this music and addictively engaged by its raw energy. Those same deep, thudding drum patterns reverberated in my ears on the plane ride home and I felt inexplicably reassured by its power and relevance. This totally foreign musical genre had somehow been the last step in finally curing me of wanderlust; it left me feeling exhilarated and inspired.