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Why Drake signing to BBK was bigger than the Brits

A real moment for British music took place a world away from the Brit Awards, but just down the road

Last night was a huge moment for British music. And no, we’re not talking about the Brit Awards, which was almost entirely dedicated to white men and Adele. Instead, it was the announcement of Drake as “the first Canadian signed to BBK”, AKA Boy Better Know, the grime label founded by Skepta and his brother JME more than a decade ago.

It’s become almost boring to bemoan the lack of recognition for grime artists at the Brits, especially when those same artists have never needed an out-of-touch award ceremony to get where they already are. But it still feels a little grating to watch James Bay nab the ‘British Male Solo Artist’ award when this year has undoubtedly belonged to artists like Stormzy, Novelist, Skepta and JME, or to see Little Simz snubbed in favour of someone like Jessie J, who hasn’t actually released an album for two years. And so, when Drake left the award ceremony last night to perform with Section Boyz in Shoreditch, before revealing that he was now signed to BBK, it felt significant. To see Drake, one of the biggest international acts in the world, want a piece of grime is more than just recognition – it’s a sign of a huge shift.

For a long time, it felt like our international peers didn’t really ‘get’ grime. When the genre emerged out of London in the early 00s, it appeared organically as the darker, bar-spitting child of UK garage. Existing on pirate radio stations, and passed on hand-to-hand via CD-Roms, it was a genre from the underground for the underground, and it barely even touched the city’s suburbs.

However, after Dizzee Rascal brought grime’s biggest names into the spotlight following the success of his 2003 debut Boy in da Corner, the genre received a glut of mainstream attention. The media interest turned out to be short-lived, however, and its impact felt more detrimental than beneficial. As Dan Hancox noted of the era, “Several MCs who had been signed in the brief goldrush after Boy in da Corner had seen their major label deals flop. The mainstream press had totally lost interest, or reported Crazy Titch’s murder conviction as if it was an indictment of the music itself.”

The backlash against grime soon extended beyond mere disinterest, and spilled into discrimination – the kind that is surreptitiously tied up with race. “Form 696 was being used to shut down what few grime nights remained in London,” wrote Hancox. “MCs were being followed by police on their way out of raves and arbitrarily searched, promoters had had their passports locked away as ‘insurance’ against violent incidents, and nights like Straight Outta Bethnal had been killed off after police pressure for completely spurious reasons, after six months of trouble-free parties.”

“The backlash against grime soon extended beyond mere disinterest, and spilled into discrimination”

However, as Hancox points out, Skepta remained confident. In an interview in 2007 for Woofah zine, the musician commented, “People are running away from grime thinking it’s not working, but they’re the sell-outs, man. That’s why Boy Better Know is easily going to be the best thing in grime. Without blowing my own trumpet, I think we’ve got the whole thing locked.”

And now, nearly a decade later, Skepta has been proved right. The label is by far the best thing in grime, and Skepta and JME do have the whole thing locked. Sure, Skepta signed to Drake’s label OVO Sound last year, but to see Drake sign to BBK shows grime as something that artists are desperate to be a part of. Add that to the fact that Drake legitimately got “BBK” tattooed on his shoulder, and it seems that the label is spreading across the world’s shores.

Of course, it’s not just Drake that reps the genre. Lest we forget, it was Kanye West that performed at the 2015 Brits with a horde of well-respected grime artists in tow (an appreciation that was notably not reflected in the awards themselves), and it’s clear to see the influence of grime’s brutal, spitfire beats all over his 2015 track “All Day”.

Before then, it was Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky who name-checked Skepta during his talk at The Red Bull Music Academy, recognising grime as an influence on his recent work. Despite referring to it as a “subgenre of hip-hop”, he claimed that he and the other A$APs were the first US crew to recognise the genre’s importance and to say to Skepta, “We need to merge this shit.”

What last night points towards is the notion that British MCs might finally have the chance to get off London’s streets and achieve world domination, despite a history of being ignored by everybody but the UK underground. The fact that Drake ditched the Brits after his performance last night to go hang out with Section Boyz is further proof that the awards are an embarrassing, cultureless void – a smug, watered-down event that is supposed to recognise British talent, but instead ignores what’s staring (or spitting) them right in the face. Grime has never needed mainstream approval, but with artists like Drake, Kanye and A$AP singing its praises, it’s going to get it anyway.