BBC Proms 2020: 1Xtra Grime Symphony

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The Proms, an iconic symbol of British cultural life, usually reference a very narrow, and perhaps elitist, artistic milieu. This was blown apart – albeit momentarily – at a 2015 Late Night Proms when, following after Verdi’s Requiem, a selection of UK grime artists, including Stormzy, Wretch 32, Chip and Lethal Bizzle, performed alongside the Metropole Orkest, conducted by Jules Buckley.

The cinematic opening from the orchestra showcased their precise dynamic control.

Buckley, the composer-conductor behind the Ibiza Prom, described the night as ‘not bringing classical music to grime. We’re not doing any classical music; we’re doing grime, we’re remixing it in a new way in a large ensemble’. Emerging from the underground London scene in the early-2000s, Grime is characterised by grungy basslines, hard-hitting lyrics and typical fast tempos of 140bpm. Scepticism seems valid  when considering how two such powerful genres could possibly merge and mix. One of the performers, Fekky, expressed his initial thoughts: ‘What we do is very energetic, and I thought – How they going to bring energy out of a violin?’.  Listening to the performance however reveals that such misgivings were misplaced.  The orchestra multiplies the visceral power of the grime artists – witness the response of the mosh pits in ‘Pow’ and the chant of ‘F*** the feds’. There was also a palpable sense of the symbolical significance of the night, both for grime as a reviving genre and the historical institution of the Proms. As presenter Mistajam noted at the beginning of the evening: ‘I don’t think the Royal Albert Hall has ever seen so many black tracksuits’.

The night’s format of  ‘greatest hits’ gave each artist an 8 minute set. The cinematic opening from the orchestra showcased their precise dynamic control and acted as warm-up for the fast tempo and forceful beats which were to come. Then-newcomer Stormzy opened with Know me From where his bounding energy was somehow matched by the orchestra with the brass blasting weighty passages and percussive playing from the strings.  Stormzy’s expert playing to the crowd in ‘Shutup’ and Buckley’s animated conducting set the intensity for the rest of the night.

The climax came with ‘Pow’, a track famously banned in nightclubs in 2004.

Wretch 32 showcased  a more stripped back orchestral accompaniment complementing the lyricism and vulnerability of his rapping style, especially in ‘6 Words’. Other highlights included the only female rapper of the night, Little Simz, who at times was slightly drowned out by the orchestra but largely held her own with a flowing and animated freestyle in ‘Wings’, and Krept and Konan’s ‘Freak of the Week’ highlighting the precision and skill of the orchestra, particularly the low brass’ tonal and rhythmic control. Most memorable however was Lethal Bizzle’s entire set. He appeared right at home in front of the full orchestra, who by now had definitely found their stride and remarkably managed to not sound sluggish even when Buckley pushed the tempo. The climax came with ‘Pow’, a track famously banned in nightclubs in 2004 over fears of ‘public safety’ for the over-enthusiastic mosh pits it usually generated. How monumental then that in 2015 it was performed at a concert – an artform known for decorum and formality.

Overall, the unlikely grime/classical mash-up managed to capture the drama of the artists’ music with incredible skill – both from the orchestra’s tightness in matching and reacting to the dynamic unpredictability of each individual’s performance, and the artists themselves, who held their own in a completely alien and intimidatingly venerable environment. The boldness of Buckley largely paid off in a night showcasing the boundary-breaking possibilities of at the same time as grime’s accessibility and versatility; the significance of the BBC’s choice to rebroadcast this particular event in 2020 points to its breath-taking freshness and relevance for the British cultural scene for years to come, and generates a justifiable sense of pride in the vast multiculturalism of British music.

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