(This piece originally featured in Issue 12 of MUNDIAL Magazine, which you can buy here.)
A response to the champagne-soaked decline of UK Garage, grime exploded from pirate radio almost fully formed. Building on the rich heritage of jungle and dancehall, crews of MCs, and bedroom producers nurtured the burgeoning genre while endlessly advancing it, experimenting and battling to see who could push things further, sonically and lyrically. Like derby day rivals, they took no prisoners on the pitch but loved and respected the game itself.
While its combative heritage is alive and well with underground raves and running battles rumbling on, grime has lodged itself firmly in the mainstream consciousness, and football’s cultural presence has always been there alongside it. Like that weird badge-covered guy who’s always on the official coach. But in a less sad way.
Whether it’s been to emphasise lyrical prowess, strike fear into the heart of the opposition or take the absolute piss out of someone, football references have been at the centre of some of grime’s best bars. With Stormzy and Pogba now BFFs, and AJ Tracey somehow turning the Spurs kit launch into a rave, the football and grime love-in may look shiny and new, but they’ve been shooting each other knowing glances for years, through over a decade of similes, streetwear, and Yannick Bolasie inexplicably not making an arse of himself on Lord of the Mics 6, the genre’s most prestigious tournament.
Just as terrace surges have faded into the gloss of the Champions League, grime’s flirtations with the mainstream have cemented a shift from Rinse FM operating illegally out of Wiley’s mum’s kitchen to Skepta headlining Glastonbury, and you could ask how this complex intersection developed… or we could look back on how our favourite MCs have used football in clever ways in their bars and make a sticker book out of it.
The second one, yeah? Let’s do that.
Skepta has grown into a force of nature. He’s one of the few British MCs who’s managed to put his stamp on the US, not just changing it up on a half-arsed collaboration. He’s done it the hard way, keeping his message intact in a manner that’s seen kids in American cities going absolutely ballistic on his recent tour. Mercury award winner with his own clothing line who kicked Coldplay off the Glastonbury headliner gravy train and his last LP landed at number 2? Doesn’t get much better. So why put arguably the most recognisable torchbearer for the grime scene in nets? It’s because of his consistency in a time of flux. The grime scene has flirted with mainstream culture before with… mixed results. But this is someone who’s done the graft—cut his teeth, stuck to his guns, and rarely wavered. We’ve gone with 2010’s ‘English Breakfast’, but he’s still referencing football in his bars like in the politically astute Flying High freestyle last year: ‘Everybody in the car better know that I'm failin' to stop, ‘cause like Luis Suárez, these police love takin' a shot’. He’s a safe pair of hands, defending the scene in its biggest game yet.
Weird one, CASisDEAD. His tunes are part compelling horror-fantasy and part edgelord, and our ‘All Hallows’ pick is no exception. But on bars alone, this multi-faceted, frustrated distillation of resistance to Tory rule is likely the most complex thing Nani’s ever been connected with, including five years under Alex Ferguson, so fair play for that. He’s Vinnie Jones grabbing Gazza’s balls, he’s lyrically adept at the dark arts and he’s got a mask on, so frankly most flash wingers would shit it by default. We’ve put him at fullback.
Wiley, man. Pioneer, originator, creator of the Eskimo sound, prolific MC and producer, occasional harasser of festivals on Twitter. He brings youth through but can still knock it about himself. He’s King Kenny, he’s Souness, he’s our perfect player-manager. For us lot, Wiley is the AMF don. It’s all well and good young MCs dropping Thiago Silva in your tune, but this is a bloke who’s not only namechecked the Dutch gods of the game but was parring off people for looking like Jan Mølby back in 2006 with JME on the tune ‘R U Dumb’. He’s a man that raps about playing football with Charlton legend Kevin Lisbie literally less than thirty seconds into his seminal third LP Playtime is Over in 2007. He’s grime’s dad and your dad, too.
Riko Dan is like that death-stare centre back on your Sunday League team that makes you whisper “I’m glad he’s one of ours” after yet another bone-crunching challenge. He’s a man who’s effectively ended the careers of MCs mad enough to challenge him in his battle days, growing out of the drum ‘n’ bass scene to being a core member of Roll Deep crew, honing a slower but never ponderous lyrical style that’s apocalyptically deep. It seems an abnormal situation to bring dear curly haired banter-maestro Ray Parlour into, but here we are, with Riko Dan namechecking the pub-bothering Arsenal legend in the surreal and spacey ‘Black Dragons’, despite him being a massive Manchester United fan. Now runs the fantastic ‘Verbal Volley’ footie show on NTS Radio with the unenviable responsibility of reining in fellow veteran MC and avowed Gooner, Discarda.
Hear me out, here. Big Narstie is the grime scene’s answer to Johnny Evans. Lovely Johnny captains a West Brom side that’s inglorious for functional, muck-and-nettles percentage football and he gets tarred with the sizeable Pulis brush. But he’s a smart, technical centre back with a decent pass on him. Meanwhile, Big Narstie is revered as a grime personality: larger than life in both body and presence, sniggered over for being that oversize, incredibly baked lad peering through the dank haze of his kitchen on YouTube. But it’s unfairly forgotten that he’s a very talented MC who’s grafted for years and developed a distinctive lyrical style. He’s a guy who eloquently gives his takes on both politics and the music scene, fusing the two to remorselessly boil the piss of the EDL with his sublime Bass Defence League schtick. And with all that, there’s maybe not a lyric on this list where the delivery and football reference mesh quite so powerfully, cracking the first verse of Gas Leak off the bar with the force and fury of Tony Yeboah in his prime. Well in, Big Narstie.
Bashy doesn’t so much slot into defensive midfield as slide in studs up and lay the ball off with the outside of his boot without losing eye contact. A fearless artists, part of the reason Bashy’s made the cut here is not just his #respect of the FA Cup while featuring in the Yungen’s ‘Ain’t On Nuttin’ Remix 2’, but more that he seems to be able to turn his hand to anything, so he’s probably annoyingly good at football too. He’s an MC with a formidable slew of mixtapes and has collaborated with the likes of Kano, Scorcher, and even them whiny cartoon lads The Gorillaz. His immensely important tune ‘Black Boys’ bravely challenged entrenched stereotypes, and he’s starred in Charlie Brooker’s macabre Black Mirror and is even in the bloody reboot of 24. TWENTY FUCKING FOUR. So can he probably boss it at defensive mid in the same aggressive, erudite fashion of his lyrics, then? Obviously.
JME’s one of the select few MCs who’s managed to obtain veteran status while still being relevant week in, week out, like a more cerebral and mobile Peter Crouch or Gareth Barry or something. From turning up for Heat FM radio sets in his school uniform and building the Boy Better Know brand to headlining the Astoria as an unsigned artist, he’s put his versatile hands to everything from nightclub ownership to mixtapes to pay as you go sim cards. We’ve given him our coveted (and, admittedly, fictional) captain’s armband here in a midfield role and with good reason. It’s not just his versatility or graft; it’s his sense of good humour and peacemaking that threads throughout his lyrics. The kind of bloke you want to pop a hand on the ref’s shoulder after your centre back’s gone in shin height, the one who can defuse a 22 man brawl with a quiet word and a bit of eye contact. Despite growing up in Tottenham, JME’s recently been sticking to his holistic, peaceful outlook by pledging his allegiance to ‘Earth United’. We support them now.
We’ve cheated a bit here. Kamakaze aka Matt Robinson is a legitimately proper footballer, plying his trade at Dagenham & Redbridge nowadays on loan from Luton Town. He’s not just dipping his toes in grime either, having carved out a decent chunk of respect for himself in a competitive and growing Leicester scene alongside the likes of Jafro and Skeez, representing the city in an East Midlands derby clash as part of the quite good but unfortunately named ‘Grime-a-Side’ battle series a year back. No mean feat either, considering the bodying Bradley Wright-Phillips took at Lord of the Mics, to the extent he was punished by having to play in the MLS forever. Good at football, good at grime, an absolute shoo-in.
NAME: Charlie Trees
Alright dad, yes, FIFA isn’t ‘real football’, and neither is Charlie Trees the first MC to reference the EA Sports turbo franchise in grime either. But just like the first time some 13-year-old goblin made you feel inadequate with a lobbed through ball on Seasons mode, the young Gravesend MC has already developed such a creative range of flows that it makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your life. This line about whipping a finessed shot into the top bins to show off his lyricism is decent enough, but in the context of his first appearance on arguably the biggest grime radio show, it’s reminiscent of little Robbie Fowler smashing his debut goal past hapless Fulham in ‘93. Just as Fowler let a big smile creep across his face as McManaman holds him in his arms and the significance of the moment sinks in, Charlie Trees’ riff on PS4 one-upmanship has the legendary Sir Spyro reaching for the rewind with his heads in his hands in laughter as the other MCs nod on in approval. Take a bow, son.
No one epitomises the fusion between football culture and grime like AJ Tracey: Spurs obsessive, emerging streetwear icon, and one of the most respected contemporary MCs about. His 2017 track ‘False Nine’ is a microcosm of how mad this link up has become—this ode to his beloved Spurs was even used for Nike’s latest kit launch for the Lillywhites. He’s a Ladbroke Grove lad so my heart says he should be QPR all day long, but he’s got family in Tottenham, so I guess I’ll let him off.
Scratchy is a man with a lot to be proud of; founder member of Roll Deep in 2002; regular sharer (and stealer) of sets with the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and Flowdan; managing to balance underground credibility while featuring on two number one hits; and having a top knot that somehow predates both Firmino and Ibrahimović. All good, solid stuff. But for us, it’s his verse with the Roll Deep lot on SBTV in 2010 that earns his place here. Never before have so many good football puns given their lives for the cause, all delivered with Scratchy’s inimitable flow. He flits from abrupt full stops to full Gatling gun patter, like stepover skinning a fullback and driving it deep into the box. He’s our evergreen, gazelle-like winger.
Kano was banging them in for Chelsea, Norwich, and his local side West Ham as a kid before an exasperated switch to music. It began with him paying 15 quid a go to hone his Cubase skills in a hazy East London studio after feeling unappreciated in the bloated football academy setups that didn’t nurture his renegade playing style, and he channelled that frustration into some of the biggest grime tunes of all time. Luckily we’re here to pop an arm round him and provide the footballing future that could have been. He’s an MC that’s maintained a high level of quality, whether that was at his rawest (and arguably best) in the old N.A.S.T.Y crew days to his flirtations at the top level of his craft with crossover hits like the storming ‘Ps & Qs’ and sad boy bangers like the there’s-something-in-my-eye favourite ‘Nite Nite’ with The Streets. I guess he’s sort of like a grime Glenn Murray. Or the opposite of Charlie Austin.
(This piece originally featured in Issue 12 of MUNDIAL Magazine, which you can buy here.)