Theresa Ikoko on Grime Kids: ‘This was not just music. It was a way of life’ | Drama

todayNovember 19, 2023 1

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A Thursday in July 2018. I’m at my desk at the local authority where I work. Whenever the coast is clear, I minimise Outlook and speed-read the manuscript open behind. 1.25pm. I lock my screen, shake my usual lunch-buddy and set off down the high street. Relying on my peripheral vision, and familiarity with the roads, I keep my eyes glued to the pdf on my phone. I have a few pages to read. I arrive at a cafe. At a back table are execs from production company Mammoth Screen and DJ Target. I absorb the last lines of the manuscript – Grime Kids, by DJ Target. I head over to the table. Target and I are introduced. I take a breath and present my idea for a TV drama inspired by his book.

I admit I was a little nervous meeting Target (a DJ, music pioneer and grime royalty). I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to my vision. But I knew the story I wanted to tell. A coming-of-age drama, centred around a fictional group of friends (Junior, Bayo, Kai, Bishop and Dane) in east London. The world had already started dotting its outline in my mind. I told Target about the moments in his book I connected with: the friendships, families, community, the hope, the JOY! I confessed I didn’t know too much about the grime scene. In the words of Dane, I sometimes found myself “on the outside looking in” as a kid. But I had fallen in love with the stories the music sparked, the people who fanned those flames and the places the music set ablaze. That was the story I wanted to tell, one of people and place. Target smiled. Nodded. He got it. It seems people and place is grime music’s entire “why”. Not just grime, but the music that led to it. All the ingredients simmering away, before grime exploded.

One of these is jungle; the sound of people trying to find and take up space (I’ve seen videos of jungle raves, take up space they did!). Cyril, Kai’s dad, says as he turns up Shy FX’s Wolf: “This was the sound of places like this … ” The sound of a generation, from different backgrounds, figuring out a new culture, and a new voice. But one still connected to the music they heard growing up. I learned about, and heard, the influences in the homes these jungle artists grew up in; Caribbean parents blasting reggae, or older siblings dedicated to the rave scene.

In Grime Kids we spend time in these homes. From Primal Scream’s Rocks, to Sugar Minott’s Good Thing Going, the show is peppered with (as) many ingredients (as we could clear), to salute all the rhythms, melodies and basslines that spilled from windows, and harmonised in playgrounds below. Planting seeds in the hearts of kids playing kerbie (“stand on opposite sides of the road, throw the ball and it’s gotta hit the edge of the kerb and bounce back to you” – thanks for explaining that, Target).

‘The need for something that was theirs was palpable’: Tienne Simon, Shanu Hazzan, Yus Jamal Crookes, Gabriel Robinson and Juwon Adedokun in Grime Kids. Photograph: Hanina Pinnick/BBC/Hanina

There’s a Nigerian saying that goes something like: what a child says outside, they’ve heard at home. I think this is relevant when exploring the foundations of garage and grime. This is why Grime Kids had to be a multigenerational show. Parents who came from the Caribbean in the 50s-70s brought over sound system culture. Those booming speakers were more than a vibe creator, they were a talisman. A flag in the ground. And for those lost, a lighthouse to find community and communion. In Grime Kids, Cyril feels alone in that lighthouse. To Kai, Cyril’s past it and needs to get a “proper job”. Kai doesn’t quite understand that music for many, back then, was salvation. And he certainly doesn’t understand that his own musical dreams stand on the speakers of DJs and artists like his father. The very foundation of Kai’s newly formed crew, Gladiators, was built by people like his dad, who created the MC, dubplate and sound-clash culture.

A little like Kai, before embarking on this project, I hadn’t realised how much I owed to our music culture and community. I understood that growing up on authors like Jade LB and Courttia Newland, who created worlds that felt like mine, had empowered me, as a writer. But I hadn’t grasped how hearing the likes of Ms Dynamite, who sounded and looked like me, allowed me to internalise the idea that my voice was worth listening to. What a privilege to speak and expect to be heard. To write and expect to be read.

In the 90s and 00s, garage stations like Rinse and Kool were the sound systems of a new generation. Lighthouses for those scattered across boroughs and cities. For people too young to hit raves, with bars gargling in their throats needing to be spat, desperate to join the inevitable recitals in basketball courts the following day, DJs with itchy fingers, producers who find music in every sound, these radio stations were a lifeline.

In Grime Kids, Dane is one of many kids who records garage sets, and collects tape-packs, because garage was aspirational. It was about a love and a lifestyle that kids like him could only dream of. For some this caused a restlessness. In episode one, Bishop’s nervous about the prospect of going to a “hard shoe and shirt” garage rave. Kai’s right, he “don’t have garms”. Speaking to Target and friends from his old SS Crew, it seemed that that is how grime was born… people wanting to show up and partake, just as they were; young people, “tired of being on the outside looking in”; MCs demanding that tracks make space for them. We can look back and track the beginnings of grime to around this time.

‘An insatiable appetite to spit, on any mic, at any time’: Shystie. Photograph: Pete Millson

In the early 00s, there was a shift in garage. Lyrical content seemed to take priority over danceability. I heard a story, by Ashley Walters, about how So Solid divided track length between the MCs in the crew, leaving each 21 seconds. Being heard was paramount. And, people were really listening. Giving MCs the power to create and carve culture. So, in Grime Kids, when Gladiator Crew form, they recognise how important it is to find an MC who “has bars”. (Spoiler alert: none of our boys are that musically… gifted, shall we say.)

Speaking to Geeneus (Rinse FM founder) about the risks people took to be heard (e.g. raids by rival stations) and Shystie (MC and actor) about her insatiable appetite to spit, on any mic, at any time, I understood that this was not just music. It was a way of life. What it meant to be a Londoner, to be British, was being redefined. For kids straddling cultures and identities, the need for something that was theirs was palpable. In Grime Kids, Temi, Bayo’s sister, says: “I just wanted something of my own”. A tiny moment. But in that line, she whispers the prayers of a generation – of many before and after her. A prayer that artists and station managers felt called to answer.

However, from legislation to policy, attempts were made to tear the lighthouses down. But, still they rose. To the top of the highest blocks. Transmitters and receivers found their way back into place and stations would be live again. They say history is told by the victor, so there isn’t much space given to the adversaries of the music and culture in Grime Kids. You only have to turn on your radio, TV or look at any festival lineup to know who won… The title of chapter 16 of Target’s book says it best: “140bpm to the World”.

So, despite the characters going through some excruciating growing pains, like “Junior’s” battle with grief, in making Grime Kids, we attempted to celebrate. Don’t get me wrong, showrunning my first TV series was a baptism of fire (to put it mildly). Hundreds of moving parts in TV, from logistics to human, make it so unpredictable. But, because the cast and creatives on this show were genuinely some of the best I think anyone could work with, we managed to protect at least one of my intentions … JOY. I hope that joy and the celebration of a people and a place can be felt throughout: in the constant hum of basslines, the zigzag partings, the satin shirts and Akademiks jackets, the details poured into every home, the colours, the laughter, the intimacy, the perseverance, the love…

Making TV is hard, but not as hard as the things that so many did, that I hope this show honours and salutes, before a show like this could even be possible. And, although I’d probably never abseil down a block of flats to share my work, like some did to get stations on air back then, there’s a lot I would be willing to do to share a story that I hope says “thank you, I see you and I love you” to my peers, my pioneers, and our parents. And to maybe inspire a new generation, whether as gifted as Wiley’s Roll Deep or still figuring it like our Gladiator Crew, to believe that all dreams are valid, and that there’s still space for their stories in our ever-evolving legacy.

  • Grime Kids is on BBC Three, Mondays, 10pm. All episodes are on iPlayer

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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