Grime was birthed in one the UK’s sporadic inner city spasms, the regular bursts of crazy creative magic that swell up from insular urban groups, jealously guarded til suddenly the trickle turns into a flood, the flood gates burst, and the mainstream finds itself invaded with enchanting, confounding alien melodies. In grime’s case, there were few mainstream hits. Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Strider were both forced to file off the screeching synths and shotgun hand claps that won them their underground fanbase before they found daytime radio acceptance. The lumbering pop trance Tinchy now flogs seems like so much lowest common denominator crap, and a world away from the music contained in this round up of his first crew, Ruff Sqwad.
Ruff Sqwad, a teenage gang of school friends, were pirate radio royalty in the first half of the noughties. Along with a handful of others, they redefined the UK’s relationship with electronic music and hip hop, melding fast paced, aggressively delivered raps with freakish, skittering rhythms and nasty slabs of saw tooth bass. Over the20+ tracks on White Label Classics, a collection of previously hard to find and vinyl only releases from the bands creative peak, the musical invention is plain to see—early cuts Tings In Boots and Move 2 Dis are just bananas, the sound of cheap ass computers struggling to keep up with head drilling bass and rinky tink Gameboy melodies.
They have all the charm and hyped up immediacy of the classic punk singles of ’76, and burst out the speakers in thuggish technicolour. Elsewhere the melodies are surprisingly sentimental- always one of the under reported features of grime. The sorrowful neo classical styling of Functions on the Low recasts inner city blues as a baroque tragedy. It’s a high point in English dance history and should be recognised as such.
Unfortunately, there’s one major problem with White Label Classics. Presumably because of licensing and royalty hassles, the compilation is completely vocal free. Whilst the beats are fascinating alone, without the MCs riding them they are an incomplete story. It’s like listening to Yo! Bum Rush The Show without Chuck D and Flava Flav—yeah the production rewrites the rules, but the tracks are meant to be rhymed on. They’re repetitive beds, not finished products in their own right. The uninitiated probably aren’t going to be converted, and whilst fans will love getting their hands on these classic instrumentals, it seems that Ruff Sqwad’s legacy is still best heard in the same shitty bitrate youtube clips and radio rips as ever. A fascinating, if flawed, document. 7/10