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Ewen Spencer

Ewen Spencer on the Reebok Classic and the future of grime

The trainer is a staple of British youth culture – here we talk to Ewen Spencer about his new film, how the shoe stuck around and subcultures across the world

Grime is dead. At least according to photographer Ewen Spencer, who says that today’s scene bears little resemblance to the one that first sprung up in the early 2000s. Despite being white, in his 40s and a Geordie, there are perhaps few more qualified to make this assessment. He was there in the thick of it all, shooting photos of a pre-YouTube, pre-iPhone era where, if you weren’t actually there, the only window into this burgeoning London-centric subculture was through traded DVDs of frenzied battles. Today, you only need to flip on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch to see a grime superstar chopping veg and chatting to Tim Lovejoy.

Spencer’s success as a photographer has largely been built upon this unique ability to spot an emerging subculture in its formative stages and then ingratiate himself with the scene’s key players. There are perhaps few that have seen British – or European – youth culture first hand, in all its various vivid forms, over the past two decades as he has. From grime to garage, the halcyon days of The Face and Sleazenation magazine, and even further afield in Marseille and Naples, Spencer has set about documenting the scenes, the characters, the late nights and the inimitable style of those that typically fly under the mainstream radar.

Last week, British sportswear label Reebok debuted a new short film – shot by Anthony Crook with photography by Spencer. Backed by an exclusive track by Jesse Solomon, it looks at the evolution of London, the obvious gentrification of the city and, in a roundabout way, the evolution of grime – more specifically, what it will eventually become. “That’s down to a 16-year-old in Lewisham, it's not down to me,” says Spencer, adamant that while it’s not for him to decide, “nostalgia isn’t sexy.”

While 2017 will likely see a slew of brands aligning themselves with grime – no matter how tenuous the link – such is the scene’s current zeitgeisty, commercial appeal, the work of Reebok and Spencer somehow eschews that cold, corporate feeling. Most likely this is because Reebok Classics have genuinely been a mainstay of British youth culture pretty much since Spencer first began documenting it in the 90s. Once subject to the Daily Mail headline of “Beware The Reebok Classic Wearer”, it is a style that has remained resolutely un-gentrified and, as a result, enjoyed an enduring popularity amongst varying facets of British youth culture.

We sat down with Spencer to discuss the film, the future of grime and the similarities between Liverpool and Marseille’s youth culture.

Can you explain a little bit about the process of putting this film together with Reebok?

Ewen Spencer: We wanted to do a something on British music, looking at where it is right now and the history of where it has come from, with bass music in the UK. And I guess they saw me as someone who had a history in that scene, because I’ve documented it for quite a long period of time, since the Garage days in the 90s. So they asked us to just kind of follow it up.

We wanted to avoid the obvious really, and look for the the next thing. Because I mean, garage is dead, and it was kind of dead in 2000s. Grime’s dead, it was dead in the water in about 2006. And it’s obviously had some resurgence, but it’s all quite derivative, so the idea was really just to find what might be sort of happening next. And for me I guess that’s kind of it’s all unseen and undecided, so we were looking for something a bit more interesting. That was why we got Jesse on board for the music, because he is someone that is bridging the gap between where grime has come from and where rap is – and grime might go next. So we got Jesse on board for those reasons.

You’ve documented various music scenes for the past two decades. Why do you think that Reebok Classics seem to have this ability to span so many genres?

Ewen Spencer:  It’s that whole idea of creating an impression, isn’t it? You want to look clean, sharp; you don’t want to look scruffy. So I guess that’s where it all comes from. All the sort of genres that have got that outright authenticity, they’ve come from the dance floor. They all want that look, I think. While punk was scruffy and metalheads were scruffy, to be a mod or a casual was the kind of other alternative and that’s about looking sharp, clean. And I think that’s where Reebok maybe comes into it with the Classics.

But beyond the aesthetics of it all, it also seems to have this cross-genre authenticity.

Ewen Spencer:  Well, it’s the fact that it’s British, and that’s the point really, isn’t it? With something like garage and grime – or even jungle or happy hardcore – they were just unapologetically British and kind of celebrated the plurality of British culture. And I think the garms echoed that, you know. It wasn’t about looking American – it was about looking British and re-appropriating European style and British style in that way, you know. I mean, grime became probably a little more American with the tracksuits but garage was very much about that European kind of look, with Moschino, Versace etc.

“With something like garage and grime – or even jungle or happy hardcore – they were just unapologetically British and kind of celebrated the plurality of British culture” – Ewen Spencer

The majority of your work has dealt with youth culture in some form. What was it that first sparked your interest in that?

Ewen Spencer: Just my own interest really, just from being a youth myself. That manifestation of youth culture that’s been there since the 60s, it’s all a continuum of that. That’s all I’m trying to celebrate really: the power of British youth and how that’s affected things internationally.

At the moment I’m obsessed by gabber in Holland, I like the Paninaro culture in Italy and obviously there are loads of great subcultures in the US – but for me, being British and growing up  trying to dress and look sharp at the weekend when I was a kid – it’s just a continuation of that really. Because it’s what I know. I think you get success in photographing yourself and what you know, because there’s an authenticity to it.

You’ve also published a number of zines that explore various youth cultures outside of Britain – places like Marseille, Naples and Miami. When I visited Marseille last summer, it struck me that a lot of the kids didn’t dress all that differently from how the kids dress where I live in Glasgow. Have you noticed any uniting factors across various subcultures in Europe like this?

Ewen Spencer: For me, Weegies, Scousers, Marseillais, Neapolitans, they’re all for me completely connected, and they’re all connected because they’re multicultural ports – or working ports if you like – so they have that that mix of people and culture that creates a certain kind of look or an attitude. So for me, there’s a massive connection between Marseilles and Glasgow, or Marseilles and Liverpool. If you look at what the kids are wearing in Marseilles, it’s not massively different to what kids are wearing in Liverpool. Or historically what they’ve been wearing. It’s about that kind of re-appropriation of something that isn’t intended for them, like expensive sportswear or casual wear. Like, a Lacoste tracksuit wasn’t initially manufactured or marketed or considered for some kid from an estate on the outskirts of Marseilles, you know. But when you’re a kid in that situation, in Britain or in Marseilles, that’s what you want. You kind of aspire to look better than sum of your parts, if you like. And that’s why it sort of travels I guess.

I mean the Neapolitans are the same really but they’re just a bit more lairy, they wear mental stuff. Their jeans are just hilarious but then they wear an incredible sort of Moncler t-shirt or something, you know. But any city near a big port like that, it’s got the kind of nature – it gives you an interesting sort of person and an interesting kind of style immediately.

I guess that means you don’t subscribe to the view that the rise of the internet has lead to a death of subcultures, or even regionalised subcultures?

Ewen Spencer: Well, subculture’s not dead. It’s just living in another way. Subculture will always exist, there’s probably more subculture now but it’s just harder to visualise. Like in the way that grime manifested over ten years, you’re probably not going to see that happen again for a long time because subcultures went to live online.

I mean what have young people got to rebel against now, really? They’ve probably got a lot to rebel against but people are probably unaware because it won’t play out online not in the streets. I mean you’ve got kids queuing up for shoes outside Palace and Supreme, and that’s visually available – you can see it in the streets first-hand. But the rest of it seems to live elsewhere and that’s just the way it is right now. It’s going to change again, but right now that’s where it is and that’s why people who are used to seeing it on the street, in the club, on the dance floor or in a magazine aren’t going to see it in the same way – it’s elsewhere.

And in a way, that’s where it should be at the moment. There’s something exciting about that because it’s not as visible. The interesting thing is it’s still going to inform the high street and it’s still going to inform fashion, it’s just coming from different places, that’s all.

“I’m into Northern Soul but I don’t go to Northern Soul dos where I know it’s going to be really nostalgic because it’s just hard to be around. It’s just not very nice. It’s not sexy is it?” – Ewen Spencer

You started documenting the grime scene when it was still in its infancy and very much underground. Did you ever expect it to gain the sort of mainstream recognition that it has today?

Ewen Spencer: Yeah, I did. It took a long time but that’s because the people that were making the scene didn’t want to sell-out really. But there were a few factors I guess, in that it wasn’t about the dancefloor, it wasn’t about dancing, it was about the experience – it was kind of existential in that way. And it was it kind of about what it meant to be young in Britain.

It was done incredibly well for a short spell, and then it just obviously, the record companies get involved and it just goes very pop very quickly, and then it just sort of ground to a halt didn’t it? So it kind of went underground again and I guess they all know the story but for me, grime sort of died then. I think it’s come back, but for me it’s too derivative. It’s too akin to what it was and it feels like nostalgia. And personally speaking, that’s just the end… of anything. I mean, I’m into Northern Soul but I don’t go to Northern Soul dos where I know it’s going to be really nostalgic because it’s just hard to be around. It’s just not very nice. It’s not sexy is it? (laughs)

So how do you see grime evolving?

Ewen Spencer: I don’t know man, because you know what, that’s down to a 16-year-old in Lewisham, it’s not down to me. I think it’s going to be somewhere between rap and the kind of genesis of grime and where that originated from in like 2002/2003. And somewhere where rap is right now, but in a very contemporary sort of framework.

So for me, that’s where it’s going to go and hopefully it’s not going to be too saccharine and it’s going to be quite ugly and unlistenable, that’s what I want. That’s what grime was at 10 or 15 years ago and it was kind of unmissable, it was in your face. It’s not for me is it? It’s for 16 year olds. That’s what it’s for and it should really be about that energy and about that excitement. But I mean, who am I to say? I don’t know, let’s see what happens. I look forward to seeing it happen and hopefully I can be there with a camera.