Grime's Videogame-Flavored DNA

"The Levels Are Too High"

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Whenever there’s an article attempting to summarize grime as a genre, particularly in the mainstream media, its distinctive sound is likened to videogame music time and time again. And indeed, it’s hardly an unreasonable comparison. After all, the average grime instrumental has plenty in common with the aural landscape of a ‘90s-era arcade: energetic tempo, melodies driven by lo-fi synth, and often rhythmically punctuated with the sound of gunshots.

But the more you explore, the more you begin to notice the real depths of the connection here. And, in internet parlance, it can’t be unseen. JME beats inspired by Mortal Kombat, several MCs having their own versions of Street Fighter-inspired clash bars, DJ Charlie Sloth peppering the “Perfect” soundbite like a man desperately trying to create his own Westwood Bomb. Games have infiltrated virtually every aspect of the genre.

To try and get a handle on the root cause of this connection, in terms of lyrical content as well as sound, it was only right for DJ Logan Sama to be my first port of call. Not only does his position as grime’s most prominent DJ give him incredible access to MCs and producers, but he’s also a keen gamer.

“I’ve been playing games since I was a small boy,” he tells me. “The first console I ever owned was the NES when I was like 9. I was always a loyal Nintendo fan as a kid. Funnily enough I don’t really remember enjoying the music from games when I was little, but I got into it more as a teenager with Japanese RPGs like Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy. I’m a huge fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work.”

However, it’s Logan’s position as a passionate member of the Street Fighter community that truly intrigues me. Can he explain the scene’s collective love affair with that series, from D Double E’s legendary “Streetfighter Riddim” to Big H offering “£100 to anyone who comes here and beats me”?

Street Fighter is just a huge cultural thing that everyone experienced growing up,” Logan tells me. “The characters are hugely recognizable as well as the moves. Street Fighter 2 basically fathered the modern 2D fighting game genre all by itself. It had such a huge impact that it has just stayed in everyone’s consciousness.”

“I have a good understanding of high-level, competitive Street Fighter but not the gameplay time to execute it so I stick to organizing events and commentating,” he goes on. “On top of having commentated at Dreamhack, I also go to the world championships every year in Las Vegas called EVO and I have just started a weekly show with Capcom UK on Twitch TV showcasing the best players in Britain.”

With the grime scene having its foundations in lyrical clashes and face-to-face, bar-for-bar battling, the references to fighting games seem to tap into that same sense of cocky, pugnacious competitiveness. When D Double claims “I can murk your crew all day long / One by one, winner stays on,” he’s clearly bigging up more than his gaming abilities—stating that you’re the best, and being willing to fight in order to prove it, is a core tenet of grime’s culture and mentality.

“Let’s Play a Game,” a recent track from Eyez and Dubzy, is another great example of this, with a video which opens with the pair facing off in a competitive FIFA match. Here, the “game” is simply a vehicle for the bravado of both MCs: “I’m tryna play a game called Stacking / you’re tryna play a game called Look Cool.” Again, the significance of the videogame is in the head-to-head, the one-on-one, the winning and the losing.

But what of production? I bring up Deeco, specifically his Ring instrumental which was most famously vocalled by Chronik, and invite Logan to share any other game-inspired tracks he can think of. “Deeco makes this amazing music that sounds like someone going mad with 16 bit sounds and angry synths,” he says. “JME has remixed a few themes from games as well, like Baraka’s theme from Mortal Kombat or Riptor’s theme from Killer Instinct. And Dizzee [Rascal] of course remixing Chun Li’s victory theme from Street Fighter 2.”

“There was also a cool collab between David E. Sugar and Ears a few years back which I think was actually made on a Game Boy. I guess you can often equate grime to a lot of game music as it is so heavily riff driven and built around synths.”

As we go on, Logan makes an interesting comment about grime being “just one big mixing pot of culture,” and I think he’s right. Grime being a very young genre, the boundaries of its sound are still being tested, with fruitless debates about what does or does not constitute grime still echoing around the abyss of the YouTube comment section.

That’s certainly the impression given off by Preditah, the Birmingham producer whose relatively quick rise to prominence in the scene has been remarkable. When I contacted him, I was honestly expecting him to be more of a gamer than he actually is. His sound was quite accurately described by The Guardian as “full of 8-bit sproings,” and he’s even put out an EP called Gears of Grime, which riffs on the title and design of the Gears of War series. But while it’s impossible for me to hear something like his “Squares” instrumental without thinking of videogames, Preditah presents a view of a genre that’s simply open enough to accommodate such sonic influences—whether they be explicit or deep-rooted.

“It seems like [grime and videogame music] come hand in hand in some areas, mainly within the production side of things,” he tells me. “Because the genre is so open and diverse, the producers tend to find inspiration from pretty much anything, including their favorite videogames… it has the fun and experimental side that other genres may lack at times, so there are no strict rules for how a grime track should be or sound.”

However, Preditah doesn’t consider himself as a producer who draws influence from videogames, at least not explicitly. “I didn’t purposely compose ‘Squares’ with the idea in mind that it was to sound like game music. I just naturally compose fun music. Maybe that comes from all the games I used to play before I got into production.”

He presents himself as someone who is too time-poor to really get into games these days—not even Gears of War gets a look-in, with the EP design cribbed to showcase the versatility of the genre rather than any particular love for the game series— but says he “used to be a hard gamer when I was younger,” and lists Shinobi X on Sega Saturn as “one of the first games I paid attention to musically.”

As much as I, or any other bespectacled 20-something attempting to write about games in a cultural context, might wish it were different, the truth is that videogames still connote youth for many people. Take The Movement’s “Summer Days” for instance, a largely forgotten Buzzfeed-article-of-a-track in which the group fondly recount memories of childhood summers, mentioning the Sega Megadrive (Genesis in North America) in the same breath as fads such as Pogs and Thundercats.

Or indeed Big Narstie having an attack of gaming nostalgia while playing NES Remix 2 on Channel 4’s Two Players: “That’s my childhood y’know, cuz. Makes me feel so happy right now… you know them good old days when you could put, like, 22 hours on a good old Super Nintendo and feel justified with your life? You can’t do that at fucking 20.”

This, then, suggests that the game-like sounds lurking deep within grime’s DNA is a generational thing. We’re back to Logan’s cultural “mixing pot” idea, and The Movement’s misty-eyed summer memories, with the genre’s pioneers all having grown up around the blips and bleeps of Sega and Nintendo which now bleeds into their own music.

“People need to remember that musicians are normal people too,” concludes Logan. “When we get home, kick the shoes off and jump on the sofa we all fire up the console. We spent our childhoods hoping to open that new console on Christmas morning. Gaming is part of our national culture now… and grime is all about representing your culture.”

Matt Suckley is a writer for PocketGamer.biz and has contributed to Vice UK and IGN. Follow him on Twitter @PleasantPig.

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