Last week, Skepta fended off competition from the likes of Radiohead and David Bowie to win one of the UK’s most coveted music awards – 2016’s Mercury Prize. Bowie was the first ever posthumous nomination in the competition, however it wasn’t only particularly strong competition that made Skepta’s win so impressive... Here is a man who grew up on the Meridian Walk Estate in Tottenham, North London – one of the most impoverished estates in the United Kingdom - and also, he did it with an album of predominantly grime music: a genre that has had notorious difficulties with breaking into the mainstream, and with zero record label backing.
The list of nominees were as follows:
Anohni – Hopelessness
Bat for Lashes – The Bride
David Bowie – Blackstar
Jamie Woon – Making Time
Kano – Made in the Manor
Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Savages – Adore Life
The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
The Comet Is Coming – Channel the Spirits
Quite clearly a whole host of artists and albums, which would have been more than worthy winners. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool ticks every conceivable Mercury box: bursting with invention, experimentation, and a total disregard for the mainstream. Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate is another modern classic, not afraid to deal with issues of racial prejudice. And of course, David Bowie’s Blackstar – the great man’s parting gift to the world, recorded in his last few months.
Many understandably felt that Blackstar was this year’s obvious shoo-in for the award.
Jarvis Cocker didn’t appear to agree – the Pulp frontman, who was among this year’s judges, revealed as he presented the award, saying: “we all as a jury felt that if David Bowie were looking down on the Hammersmith Apollo tonight, he would want the award to go to Skepta.” Cue hysteria from the Skepta table – champagne launching out of bottles with the syllables barely escaping Cocker’s mouth, and a huge bundle as the assembled friends and family fell onto the grime legend himself.
There was a sweet moment in which fellow grime emcee, Kano, dashed straight over to the table to cheer with equal euphoria, despite also being nominated for his album Made In the Manor and not winning. Clearly Kano was delighted for his friend, and saw the bigger picture of how huge this is for his music scene. All in all, it’s been a good year for grime.
And there’s several reasons why this victory should be celebrated at large. Grime music has been one of the most unique and independent genres of recent times, since its birth in East London over a decade ago. Skepta and Kano were both there from the very beginning, and they, along with pioneers, Dizzee Rascal, and Wiley, had to use London’s pirate radio stations to be heard. They knew well that being perceived as hooligans and the harshness of their sound would not blend well with the traditional avenues of music success. Dizzee Rascal also won the Mercury Prize in 2003 for his debut album, Boy In Da Corner.
Despite this, many of grime’s biggest names, including Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, began to feel after a number of years that grime wasn’t able to get them to the level of international and financial success that they craved. Many of grime’s biggest names began releasing pop music, with Chipmunk’s Oopsy Daisy arguably being the worst of a new output that completely left the edge and immediacy of grime behind.
Skepta followed suit, with perhaps his biggest misstep being Make Peace Not War, a song which sampled C+C Music Factory’s Everybody Dance Now, with an equally cringey house party music video. He has spoken several times about the identity crisis he felt during this period; it’s a fairly safe assumption that this is what he was referring to in his acceptance speech when he said: “Thank you to everyone who was there for me when I was going through depressed times.”
That aforementioned single was to be included on his third album, which Skepta scrapped. He decided to return to self-releasing grime music, after parting ways with Universal subsidiary label AATW. And thank goodness he did. Winning album Konnichiwa could not deserve the gong more. A collection of perfectly selected beats and some ingenious lyrics: “When I come through I’mma bring my dargs / two by two man walk on the ark / sittin’ at the front just like Rosa Parks.” Not to mention features from the likes of Pharrell Williams.
Skepta closed his speech with the words: “more blessings, more love, more greatness, more support.” He couldn’t have put it more aptly; Skepta and the music that encapsulates urban London so brilliantly will go from strength to strength. But most of all, this serves as a reminder to all musicians, that authentic success only comes when you make the music that is true to yourself.
Words Adam Protz