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Behind the beats: How UK producers created grime

Though UK grime may currently be enjoying something of a commercial peak, the sonic blueprint of the nation’s most vibrant genre in decades can in fact be traced all the way back to the late ‘90s and beyond. Emma Finamore speaks to some of the producers who helped shape the scene and fire grime into the mainstream…

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 – 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%, according to Dr Joy White’s 2017 paper for the University of Leicester The Business of Grime.

But 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 homegrown genres. These early pioneers used the accessible tools – programmes found on games consoles of the late 1990s and cheap kit plugged into their parents’ PCs – they had to hand in order to reflect the sounds and atmosphere of their environment, at grime’s now infamous 140 bpm.

A true DIY genre, many of the biggest MCs of today also 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 analyse the beat, right down to the small sounds in the background,” remembers Target in his recently published autobiography, Grime Kids, in which he describes how – even as young teens – he and Wiley were constantly analysing the beat of a track 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 set ups, which meant it was now possible for many more [people] to start making music. Even without a laptop or a recording studio, teenagers were using PlayStation programmes to create beats,” explains Target, of how he and his peers started creating the sound of grime around the turn of the Millenium.

“95% 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.”

FruityLoops was a freeware digital audio workstation released in the late 1990s adopted by many budding grime producers. 

Created by a company called Image-Line, which specialised 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 synthesiser, FruityLoops was an attempt at merging the two into something new, and – at a time when Pro Tools was still seen as an industry standard for Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), along with Cubase and Logic – it turned out to be an uncomplicated DAW for the masses. FruityLoops was perfect for young people with little
or no production experience, and was an ideal tool for musical experimentation.

Interestingly, it might be FuityLoops’ origins in gaming that made it so accessible – young people, accustomed to using video game programmes, 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”, and many producers came to the programme 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 this generation of beat makers.

Grime’s instantly recognisable ‘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 programme 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, “before grime was known as grime,” he tells PSNEurope. “Then I would say around late 2001 I started trying to make stuff which was based around what we now recognise 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, and more recently he’s worked with east London’s new generation pirate radio MC, Jammz. 

“I was using FruityLoops 2.0 at the time – we now know that as FL Studio of course,” 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 touched a MIDI controller until around 2004 when I went to college to do music tech,” Plastician continues. “I literally just used to place WAV samples on to the drum pad (which was pretty much all Fruityloops was back then, barring a few basic plugins) and then used to play them in on the piano roll. 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 local 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] in particular, 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 2002-2005.”

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. “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 plugins. I remember Junglist being a favourite, also Albino 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 plugin offered some great sounds with plenty of bass weight.”

 The Junglist plugin is known for its waveforms with a complex, organic quality, and its low bass type Bass FX section that creates ultra-low basses. The Albino plugin (now discontinued) was voted No.12 in a 2011 poll to find the best VST plugin synths. The popular synth from Rob Papen features a whopping 128 waveforms.

Despite Plastiscian discovering and using new tools, and developing his sound, he still returns to the programme that anchors grime, and in the particular version with which he started working as a school kid learning about production. “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.

DJ and producer Rude Kid began producing grime tracks later than Plastician. Just a teenager when the likes of 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 programme that changed my life. A friend of mine played a beat he made, 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.”

Rude Kid’s early memories of production demonstrate how FruityLoops had just as much of an impact on second wave grime producers as it did on the initial pioneers, its simplicity lending itself well to young, creative minds. He used “just FruityLoops and a mouse”, as well as the PC keyboard to play notes. 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 programmes to use to sample, I had a £1 mic which was connected to my PC and I had a 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.”

To this day Rude still uses FruityLoops to create beats alongside newly developed skills in Logic, as well as embracing EQs like Waves and Ozone – “using these few things made my tunes sound much cleaner and louder” – and he still 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.”

And the biggest 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.”