Simon Wheatley’s Golden Boys follows the new generation of grime artists, as they explore debut albums, spitting bars on the Syrian conflict and never forgetting the endz
“I never went after grime, I was just there when grime happened,” says Simon Wheatley. “When I first heard it, I could see the music in the pictures that I was already making. That edginess, that angst, that waywardness: I realised these were reflective of a youth crisis that was emerging around the turn of the century, around 2002.”
Wheatley is the filmmaker behind Golden Boys, a documentary tracing the new generation of grime artists, like Lewisham collective The Square and Elf Kid, as they make their way towards debut albums, sold out shows and making their mark on the international music scene. It’s a DIY film project, made completely alone to echo the no frills, creative aesthetic of the genre. Wheatley's first major foray in recording the globally blossoming scene was with the photobook Don’t Call Me Urban!. The series became a platform for the definitive voices of grime, and Wheatley was shooting the boys in da corner, the private callers and the musical mobs of Tower Hamlets and Bow before anyone else.
He had previously explored the concept of architectural influence on new generations, like the brutalist buildings stabbing the London skyline since the 70s. Grime was founded in the airwaves of pirate radio stations blasting from Bethnal Green kitchens, under the blue lights of Lewisham McDonald’s, but it has as much place in London’s E5 as it does in American arenas. “It’s a paradox that the brutalist buildings were just being knocked down, when they weren’t 30-years-old yet. I've been interested in that logic, where this futuristic architecture was so unsuited to the future. When I first heard grime I thought of this, and it’s interesting to see how it’s growing and adapting as it gains more mainstream attention and bigger stages.”
Wheatley, to begin, was never intrinsically part of the scene, but soon developed genuine friendships with the older MCs. That’s continued with the burgeoning new generation, like The Square. The documentary brings to light “subtle differences” between the MCs of the turn of the century, and those hitting our Twitter feeds now.
“These progressions are the one reason I’ve gone back to make this film. I'm interested in that discrepancy between this hyped up status of the grime genre, and the fact that the roots are still in the same, raw place,” explains Wheatley. “In those days, like 2005, Dizzee Rascal had blown up and he was this great hope. It was zero to hero, it was a kind of MTV phenomenon. A lot of people are making a decent living out of grime. I remember Roll Deep would turn up somewhere and they'd be happy to sell a few mixtapes to the crowd. People want thousands for booking fees. P Money, who's not a huge name, commands decent booking fees – I saw him in Amsterdam, recently. I think that's instilled a certain professionalism, which wasn't seen before.”
“It's less raw than it was, photographically – can you photograph grime anymore? I don't know, the streets aren’t the same. Pirate radio was a big thing and the absence of that for me has in a way taken a bit of the soul out of grime.”
Where Roman Road was once the avenue for birthing the social activities that spurned grime into what it is today, social media is now the pathway. “Everyone used to be hanging outside Wetherspoons and people would be spitting on the street corner. It was the beating heart of grime,” says Wheatley. “People are still in the hustle though, although you don't get the conflicts that you used to have either. When you see all the young acts these days, like YGG and The Square, they’re close. You don't get the madness that you used to have with, say, SLK and Nasty fighting each other, and that’s a good thing. There’s a sense of togetherness.”
As a society, we still have certain expectations of our young people, most of which are sadly pigeon-holed by the boroughs they’re born into, and the marginalised or privileged spectrum they endure, or enjoy. In the documentary, Elf Kid poignantly notes: “It’s either the road or something else”, and luckily, the ‘something else’ was music.
Despite grime’s growing global takeover – shutting down Texas’ SXSW and Skepta’s album launch in Boiler Room Japan alongside local grime MCs – it’s a genre that’s commonly relegated to specific London postcodes. “It just happened that The Square were in Lewisham and those guys came together and helped to drive the resurgence of grime. It could have happened in Acton, or anywhere. I know people really identify with their area. The other day I was in Amsterdam with Elf Kid for a show. I met a Dutch grime group. I think that the potential for grime as a social commentary and a social protest is huge around Holland. I think as long as there are social issues, and sort of a discontent, then grime has a potential to flourish anywhere.”
Golden Boys picks up with Blakie, the newest member of the group, as he speaks to a Syrian man about the country’s conflict. From there, he riffs a few verses about their political and social unrest. It’s intriguing to see the growth of youth disillusionment with their own surroundings, growing into something much more spatially aware. “I happened to be on Telegraph Hill with Blakie. It’s a big part of the film, seeing how touched he was by it and what he created after in the studio. When the time comes to make the full version I’m gonna go in hard with it. I’m looking forward to its evolution, and seeing him progress.”
Wheatley’s ultimate aim with Golden Boys is escalate the power this genre has as a form of political and social protest. It has grown, it’s self-aware and it’s pushing for something better. And most importantly, it has a face. He explains: “I want to push this genre in a positive direction and work with people who are interested in broadening the conscious appeal. It’s a social documentary, and showing how it's got this conscious direction is important.”
Grime’s ability to flourish worldwide is promising: whether it’s the sense of community, the attitude or the prowess of its performers, it can most certainly travel. “I had a French journalist come over the other day, and he told me he likes grime, but he doesn't actually understand it. A lot of people in England don't understand their lyrics. Is it about the energy of the MC's, is it about the beats? I don't know. I think it seems to just have this worldwide appeal. I look at the rave in Amsterdam where Elf performed, and I'm sure there were a lot of people there who didn't understand the lyrics. But these are the teenagers who know all the lyrics to “Shutdown”.
Wheatley observes the “dark place” that grime spawned itself from: when social mobility was difficult, and youth were in revolt at the tired prospects an uncaring, ignorant state offered then. He says: “I would say it's similar to the work with, Don’t Call Me Urban: I just want to remind people that grime isn't just a joke or a throwaway thing. It's coming from a very difficult place socially. Grime originally came from a very dark place. It came from the ruins of post-Thatcherite Britain, a wasteland of broken down communities.
“Now it doesn't feel as dark as it did before. It doesn't feel like it's coming from such darkness, though it's still a very difficult place. There’s hope, and these people are positive.”
Golden Boys will be screened at Everyman music and film festival, find out more info here