The Museum of London gets grimey

When underground music features in a museum exhibition it’s either come of age, or become a historic relic, and this new exhibition at the Museum of London looks at both aspects of the grime scene and its roots in east London.

Co-curated by one of grime’s early documentarians, Roony ‘Risky’ Keefe, the display features a series of newly commissioned films that explore the community at the heart of grime’s success, a large-scale illustration from artist Willkay and personal artefacts from the MCs. and producers who developed grime’s unique sound.

A turn of the Millennium occurrence, Grime music emerged in the council estates and towers of East London, supported by an informal network of record shops, youth clubs and pirate radio stations. It broke out into mainstream success in 2004, when albums like Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy in the Corner’ garnered widespread acclaim.

It’s however, a genre very much of the time and place, on the cusp of the huge shake up in the area caused by the London 2012 Olympics and gentrification driven by the growing Canary Wharf estate. One of the original leading record shops, Rhythm Division has since closed down, to be replaced, of course, by a coffee shop. A large screen film about life at the beginning of the Grime scene sits on a wall surrounded by planning documents about how areas will be “improved”, for which read, “sanitised”.

One of the objects on the show is the camcorder bought by Roony’s gran, nicknamed Grime Gran, and there’s a fantastic photo of her sitting in her living room looking both a typical gran, and yet you can sense that east-end steel behind the eyes.

A second film shows the Leytonstone basement of UK grime pioneer Jammer, with lots of reminiscences from the people who used to congregate down there to make music. A home that now has a blue plaque on it, as the underground is lifted to the mainstream.

Not so mainstream was the pirate radio that was used to broadcast their music, with some footage of a camera guy getting really uncomfortable at one point when a radio operator takes him up on the roof of the tower block to look at the antennas. The police and radio regulators regularly shut the pirates down, and could be quite vindictive in doing so, going beyond simple enforcement of the law, as typified by an antenna that was twisted up by officials to stop it from being used again.

It’s very much a look back at a moment in time, when individuals used the underground scene to create their music for want of any other way of getting heard. Today, people can become YouTube or TikTock stars and get tons of coverage and attention. But it’s controlled by the computer algorithm, in a clean managed space that’s patrolled by media agencies and publicity scouts looking for the next 6-month wonder.

It’s a far cry from the authentically grimy origins of Grime.

The exhibition, Grime Stories: from the corner to the mainstream is at the Museum of London until the end of this year. It’s free, and can be found in the basement (where else!) In the museum.

The exhibition is part of the last chance to see the program at the museum’s London Wall site, ahead of its closure in December 2022.

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