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England's Dreaming

Photographer Ewen Spencer on documenting Lord of the Mics clashes between Wiley and Kano, and touring with The Streets

From climbing into a shipping container for a pirate radio show, or sitting in Jammer’s mum’s kitchen while the grime artist was on the phone to Missy Elliott, Ewen Spencer’s seen and photographed many an all-nighter. His upcoming exhibition ‘England’s Dreaming’ will be at the White Cloth Gallery in Leeds from October 4 to November 13, 2012. This show is a documentation of the empowerment of British youth and subcultures during the past 15 years. Grime features heavily, as a movement of raw creativity, which, for Spencer, is yet to be beaten.

Dazed Digital: Who have been the most interesting people you've worked with?
Ewen Spencer:
Making pictures around the grime scene for the Open Mic book was an exciting period. The music was unique and the sentiment was more about people's experiences, more about what is meant being young in Britain at that time. A true subculture. 

The commission to shoot the Skins cast came at a good time too. There was a great bond between the cast and the extras and they already had their own scene. This, we transported into the location house in north London. We had a sound system set up, the DJ was a French guy they all knew and respected. Within half an hour all bedlam let loose. The experience was pretty genuine and I think you can see that in the images.

Mike Skinner was great to work with. I shot the artwork for his first three albums. He has a great understanding of British youth culture and was working with loads of the MCs who would later become well known on the grime scene. Being on tour with the Streets was a lot of fun. 

DD: What was your involvement with 'The Lord of The Mics'?
Ewen Spencer: OK, let me explain what Lord of The Mics was. There were two fellas called Ratty and Capo who were responsible for capturing the formative years of grime on flip cameras. They would invite up-and-coming MCs to clash in different parts of London and then capture the proceedings. They would edit the footage from a dozen of these clashes onto a DVD and publicise the discs through record stores. It was sheer entrepreneurialism on their part but what it did was spread the language of grime nationwide. Kids weren't buying records anymore but they bought Lord of the Mics DVDs. The music was fresh and you were transported into the performances and therefore into the bedrooms, stairwells and makeshift recording studios to see exactly what was happening. 

I met Ratty and Capo early on, we became mates and I'd travel to clashes with them to meet with MCs and make pictures. If you haven't seen Lord of the Mics I'd recommend Wiley vs Kano on YouTube. It's an obvious clash but a good place to start. 

DD: So, tell us about your upcoming exhibition?
Ewen Spencer: The exhibition is my curation of the last 15 years work. What I discovered was not only the open mic (grime work) but dozens of different scenes that I'd been a part of and captured. There is continuity to the work and bringing it together for the first time makes sense. The hardest part is leaving so much work out of the exhibition. The next step is a larger showing of the work in the south of England. 

England's Dreaming, White Cloth Gallery, Oct 4 - Nov 13, 2012, 24 - 26 Aire Street, Leeds, LS1 4HT