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Behind the Beats: How UK Producers Created Grime

By Emma Finamore. Grime is one of UK music’s big success stories in recent years, but despite the accolades and big sales numbers, it was the low-fi, DIY techniques of young producers that first generated the unique sound.

London, UK—Grime is one of UK music’s big success stories. Thanks to the genre, British rappers are now being taken seriously across the pond by the likes of Kanye West and Drake. Ticket sales for grime events quadrupled between 2010 and 2017, while Spotify grime streams went from 89 million in 2016 to 206 million in 2017. Between 2016 and 2017, physical and digital album sales for grime grew by 93 percent, according to Dr. Joy White in The Business of Grime.

Despite the high accolades and equally high sales of today, it was the low-fi, DIY techniques of young producers that first generated the unique sound that would become one of the UK’s biggest home-grown genres. These early pioneers used the accessible tools they had—programs found on game consoles of the late 1990s, cheap technology plugged into their parents’ PCs—in order to reflect the sounds and atmosphere of their environment, at grime’s now infamous 140 bpm.

A true DIY genre, many of today’s biggest MCs came up as producers: present-day household names Wiley and Skepta, for example, both produced tracks for themselves and others before becoming better known for their skills on the mic. DJ Target—who helped shape grime in its earliest form—was childhood friends with Wiley, and the two discovered music production together before going on to found garage crew Pay As U Go Cartel (who had a Top 20 hit with “Champagne Dance” in 2002) and the grime-establishing group Roll Deep, who enjoyed a string of Number One singles and who count grime stars Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder as former members.

“I’d analyze the beat, right down to the small sounds in the background,” remembers DJ Target—who helped shape grime in its earliest form—in his recently published autobiography, Grime Kids.

He describes how, even as teens, he and Wiley were analyzing the beat of tracks while listening to their Walkmans or watching MTV’s first ever hip-hop show, Yo! MTV Raps. “New software enabled us to work entirely from laptops, or from much simpler studio setups, which made it possible for many more [people] to start making music. Even without a laptop or a recording studio, teenagers were using PlayStation programs to create beats,” says Target about how he and his peers started creating the sound of grime around the turn of the millennium.

“Ninety-five percent of the beats we made were on our laptops. Logic Pro with a bunch of MIDI plug-ins was all we needed to get the sound we wanted,” he adds.

FruityLoops—available on PlayStation—was a freeware digital audio workstation released in the late 1990s and adopted by many budding grime producers. Created by Belgium-based Image-Line, which specialized in games, FruityLoops 1.0 was developed as a MIDI-only step sequencer inspired by the Hammerhead Rhythm Station, an emulation of the TR-909 drum machine, and Rebirth 338. An early software synthesizer, FruityLoops was an attempt at merging the two into something new. At a time when Pro Tools was still seen as an industry standard DAW, along with Cubase and Logic, FruityLoops turned out to be an uncomplicated DAW for the masses—perfect for young people with no production experience, and an ideal tool for experimentation.

Recording in a Rolls-Royce, by Clive Young, Dec. 8, 2017

Known today as FL Studio, the software has developed on the Windows platform for 20 years and finally gained a Mac version this past spring, but back in the late 1990s, it was likely FruityLoops’ origins in gaming that made it so accessible—young people, accustomed to using game programs, took to it intuitively.

Grime producer Darq E Freaker, for example, has said in interviews that at his school, “everyone had FruityLoops on their computers at home, and making tunes was more like a game.” Many producers came to the program via video games, having spent hours on games like Music Creation for the PlayStation in the early 2000s. Image-Line had unwittingly created the perfect tool for a generation of beat makers.

Grime’s instantly recognizable “magic number” of 140 bpm finds its origins here, too, as the preset tempo in FruityLoops. “Godfather of Grime” Wiley has said this standard tempo in the program meant he created most of his earliest tracks at 140 bpm, and as one of the genre’s first success stories, other producers followed his lead.

DJ Plastician is one such producer, who started out making “dark garage” beats while DJing on south London pirate radio in the early 2000s, “before grime was known as grime,” he says. “Then I would say around late 2001 I started trying to make stuff that was based around what we now recognize as the very first grime records—stuff like ‘Pulse X’ and ‘Eskimo’ by Wiley.” His first album, 2007’s Beg to Differ, featured many UK rappers, including grime legend Skepta. More recently he’s worked with East London’s new generation pirate radio MC, Jammz.

“I was using FruityLoops 2.0 at the time,” Plastician says of his early experiments, developing his “dark garage” sound into grime, and using the same tools that DJ Target and Wiley were jamming with in East London—which he’d read about online, on internet forums. “I began writing on that solely out of samples I’d found on the internet or cut off of tracks in my CD collection, as I was such an amateur at recording I had no knowledge of synthesis at all. I used to trawl the internet for sample packs; we were on such a slow connection back then, so everything was pretty lo-fi as well.”

“I never even touched a MIDI controller until around 2004 when I went to college to do music technology,” says Plastician. “I literally just used to place WAV samples onto the drum pad—which was pretty much all FruityLoops was back then, barring a few basic plug-ins—and then used to play them in on the piano roll. I think the cleverest I would get outside of Fruity was bouncing loops out and opening them in Cool Edit to add some phase or flange effects and then import those back into Fruity.

“If you listen to all my old stuff, most of it is on the Plasticman Remastered album, you can hear it—there’s hardly any chords, nothing too musical, just stabs and stuff layered on top of each other. I guess that was a vibe in itself, but it really was just trial and error all the way.”

Part of that trial and error was swapping methods and ideas with other DJs and producers, across genres, in the south London and Croydon area, where the dubstep scene had been born and was thriving. “Through hanging with Skream and Benga [a dubstep DJ duo lauded by the likes of Radio 1’s Annie Mac] particularly, they put me onto using the TS404 in FruityLoops to create these weird, warping, wobbly bass lines,” Plastician remembers.

“When they showed me how to use that, I began bringing it into some of my tracks—not often, though, as I was still trying to keep my foot in the grime sound as well. That TS404 bass sound became the most iconic dubstep bass sound from around 2002 to 2005.”

Plastician’s experience and development as a producer demonstrates how grime’s sound—as well as associated genres—was directly shaped by the technology readily available to those making music.

That sound’s dominance didn’t last, however: “When FruityLoops 2.0 upgraded to 3.56, the sound of the TS404 was completely different and phased out of dubstep production pretty quickly because many of us started using 3.56 instead and discovered other plug-ins. I remember Junglist being a favorite; also Albino [a synth with 128 waveforms] was a massive one for me from around 2005 onwards. It worked perfectly for me as I was straddling the gap between grime and dubstep in my productions and I felt that plug-in offered some great sounds with plenty of bass weight.”

The Junglist plug-in is known for its waveforms with a complex, and organic quality, and its low bass type Bass FX section that creates ultra-low basses. The Albino plug-in (now discontinued) was voted number 12 in a 2011 poll about the best VST plug-in synths in the world. The popular synth from Rob Papen features a whopping 128 waveforms.

Despite Plastician discovering and using new tools to develop his sound, he still returns to the program that anchors grime, and in particular, the version of his youth. “I still have a working copy of FruityLoops 2.0 just in case I ever feel like revisiting that old sound of the TS404,” he says.

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Rude Kid began producing grime tracks later than Plastician. Just a teenager when Wiley and DJ Target were releasing their first records, he started out in 2007 but quickly made waves and went on to work with much-loved independent grime label No Hats No Hoods, as well as with some of the genre’s biggest MCs: Wiley, Skepta, Frisco and Ghetts. His track “One Take”—sampling Dizzee Rascal, Section Boyz and Wiley—has itself been reworked with freestyles by grime MC legends Chip and Stormzy.

“When I was still in school, I got shown a music program that changed my life. A friend of mine played a beat he made and it amazed me, so I asked how he made it,” says Rude. “A few days later, he gave me FruityLoops 3—that’s what it was called at the time—but he never taught me how to actually make beats, so I had to figure that out by myself. I used to spend hours and hours making beats from morning till night, sometimes even forgetting to eat. Since then, I’ve never looked back.”

Accordingly, FruityLoops had just as much an impact on second-wave grime producers as it did the initial pioneers, its simplicity lending itself well to young, creative minds.

Necessity is, of course, the mother of invention, and Rude Kid wasn’t going to let a lack of high-end tech get in the way of creating music: “Before I even knew how to sample or what programs to use to sample, I had a £1 mic connected to my PC and I had Sound Recorder, which came with the computer. I had a little CD player and some sample CDs—I played them on the CD player, put the mic on the CD player speaker and recorded all my stuff. It sounded rough, but at the time it was the only way to get other sounds on my computer. ‘Are You Ready’—my trademark sound on every one of my tunes till this day—was sampled like this, and I still use that very same rough sample.”

Rude still uses FruityLoops to create beats alongside newly developed skills in Logic, and he embraces EQ plug-ins like Waves and Ozone: “Using these few things made my tunes sound much cleaner and louder.” He insists that low-tech doesn’t have to mean low quality. “I always tell producers it’s not about what you have—it’s about how you use what you have.”

The biggest, most important names in grime agree. As Skepta said in 2014, “As long as there are 12-year-old kids turning on their mum’s PC with a cracked version of FruityLoops, making their own DIY sound, there’s grime.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Pro Sound News sister magazine Pro Sound News Europe.