With grime’s recent re-appearance in the mainstream of popular music a lot of articles have been written about where it came from and what it can be compared to. Amongst these comparisons a popular one is that grime is the modern day equivalent of punk. Whilst the two seem to have a lot of surface similarities (both centred on a DIY attitude and a lack of reliance on major labels) grime most definitely is not the new punk. But don’t worry, that isn’t a bad thing, the two genres are just incredibly different beasts, and to label grime as “punk for the 21st century” is to do both genres a disservice.
Punk emerged in 1976, with roots in the pub-rock scene in London’s pubs and the almost punk groups Television and The New York Dolls, both of which came from New York. Malcolm McLaren even managed the New York Dolls for a while, before finding fame with the original UK punk group the Sex Pistols.
From the formation of the Sex Pistols in 1975 punk quickly gathered strength, with The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Adverts, Subway Sect and The Slits all forming in the wake of seeing the Sex Pistols play. The Groups’ appearance on the Grundy Show in December 1976 was Punk’s big break though, with millions tuning in to see guitarist Steve Jones call Grundy a “dirty fucker”. The backlash was immediate, with most newspapers proclaiming punk as the end of civilisation and a harbinger of the apocalypse.
From this highpoint punk quickly degenerated. The Sex Pistols broke up, The Clash signed with a major label and changed their sound almost beyond recognition, whilst other groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees drifted towards a more pop sound. The sound split into the artier new wave and post punk scene (including bands like Joy Division, The Fall and Gang of Four) and the more violent, shouty street punk/oi! Scene (like Cock Sparrer, the Angelic Upstarts and Sham-69). Basically any unity that punk briefly had was quickly broken and split into multiple very different sounds.
Punk was also a fundamentally backwards-looking genre, with people like Malcolm Mclaren saying that the punk attitude was “the same attitude I think…that any real rock and roller had.” (NME, 27th November 1976). Despite The Clash’s shout of “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” punk was very much an attempt to return to what was seen as ‘real rock ‘n’ roll’.
This contrasts with grime’s rejection of garage and UK rap in favour of something more current, not harking back to a ‘golden age’ but trying to build something completely new. This is most obvious in early tracks likes Wiley’s “Wot Do U Call It?” which is basically 3:20 of Wiley making fun of everyone that can’t understand that he isn’t making garage, two-step, urban or anything else, he’s doing something new instead.
One of the main parallels that gets drawn between punk and grime is the DIY aesthetic of both genres, but again this doesn’t really hold up. “Doing it yourself” was such an integral part of punk that it really is the enduring legacy of the genre. Punk band Desperate Bicycles summed this up in their song “Handlebars”, which featured the lyric “It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it!” On the flipside of this The Clash were attacked for ‘selling out’ and signing to major label CBS, with many punks feeling that avoiding major labels was a prerequisite for staying punk.
Grime on the other hand was never about doing it yourself, the drop in prices for music software and the ability to easily acquire it was definitely a major force in the genre’s birth and rise, but it wasn’t what grime was actually about. It was easy and it was cheap, but that wasn’t why grime was being made and it didn’t become a rallying cry for grime artists. If a major label was interested why not sign with them? If you could up the production values of your songs why wouldn’t you? It wasn’t until 2013, a decade after the birth of grime, that artists began returning to their roots and shirking label support, in contrast a decade after punk was born we had Wham! and the Pet Shop Boys, not a resurgent punk royalty.
There might be some mileage in the argument that punk’s shift into the more commercial sound of new wave was mirrored by the slew of commercial grime around 2008/9, but this only really works if you cut off the timeline at 2010 and ignore everything that’s happened since then, which obviously isn’t ideal. The idea of trying to cut off parts of grime and punk to make them fit into the same box is a bizarre one anyway, and a narrative that involves ignoring parts of either genre really just points towards the fact that maybe they aren’t so similar after all
Whilst it might be fun to shoehorn grime into a “21st century punk” narrative, it isn’t actually all that accurate. Sure, both genres have certain things in common, but that doesn’t mean they’re one and the same, politically, structurally or musically. Grime is grime and punk was punk, without that much overlap. It isn’t as fun as the idea of musical history repeating itself, but it’s a lot closer to the truth.