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Book Review: Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime by Simon Wheatley

Published 24 October 2011

It came from the council estates of East London and spread throughout the whole city and it is not garage. Yes I am talking about grime.

The time of grime has been upon us for some time now and Simon Wheatley has produced a photography book that takes us back to where it all started. To a time before Dizzie Rascal won the mercury music prize, before Wiley asked “Wot Do u Call It?”, before the More Fire Crew shouted “Oi!” and before Skepta showed the UK how to do the Rolex Sweep. Chronicling through images and prose grime from 1998 – 2010 Wheatley’s photography captures the dark soul of grime and the environment in which it developed.

The protagonists in his photos are not grime’s superstars although they make a token appearance. It is the run down estates of Elephant and Castle, Canning Town and Bow to name but a few places that Don’t Call Me Urban captures and the musicians who have and do call these places home. The idea behind the title of the book can be summed up in a quote from the book:

“I wouldn’t call myself an ‘urban artist’ or say the music I’m making is ‘urban’. I think it’s a way of segregating us”

Today Grime regularly makes its way into the charts threatening to take over the whole country. The takeover is not quiet complete for this genre but it has shown resilience over the years, although arguably the sound has been watered down in order for it to enter the mainstream.

Casual racism, run down estates and the promise of regeneration which often involves removing much needed youth centres and community spaces all feature in this book as well as the violence that Grime is well known for. It is shocking, jarring and tragic that Crazy Titch (real name Carl Dobson) whose face graces the cover of this book, and was a rising talent in grime is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Richard Holmes. So was it Wheatley’s intention to shock his audience by putting him on the cover,  “That particular image was not put out for that purpose, the book was put out for that purpose and the cover almost chose itself because of  Titch’s tragedy and the shot became so iconic as well, ……. but he was grime, he was so emblematic of that era and the fact he went to jail on a 30 year sentence  and he had that famous battle with Dizzie Rascal who on the other hand now is TV host and everything else.”

Stories of Wheatley’s experiences in the grime world as well as stories from characters such as Sinista, a ragga DJ,  River’s mother Ayiko, and the Street Life Kings crew support the grainy and blurry images which if shot perfectly in focus with the best lighting money can buy would have lost the point of what Wheatley seeks to capture, the lives behind the glamour of grime.

The Prose and the images seek to argue that it is in this period of London’s history that the younger generation became increasingly more violent and irresponsible. I do not agree with this sentiment as I recall well the period that proceeded grime, garage and the criminal controversy that surrounded such garage superstars as So Solid Crew.

A book of this nature begs the question is Grime over? Wheatley says “If you look at Grime just as a certain beats per minute technique then maybe it could be fading away possibly, but if you look at as a social era then that era is still going on.” Wheatley’s images go to great lengths to highlight those young MCs trying to break into the music business and portrays tender moments in their lives. Photos of bedroom studios and street battles feature heavily in Don’t Call Me Urban. It’s a side of London that everyone should be aware of and thankfully Wheatley has produced a concise body of work chronicling this sometimes tragic world of grime superstars, criminals and young MCs.

The real tragic heroes in this book are the street poets and the likes of Freddie Peters who saved a youth centre from the threat of closure. Why? Because then as they do now they struggle to get their positive messages out to not only the younger generations of MCs but the mainstream, in the din and glamour of grime musicians’ street, chart and internet omnipresence.

Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time Of Grime by Simon Wheatley is out now in hardcover at £30 RRP, or cheaper at Amazon or Waterstones.