Photograph courtesy of Low Key Collective – https://www.facebook.com/TheLowKeyCollective
By Henry Hodson
The Bullingdon – 12/03/15
“I’ve been keeping my ear to the streets/ The UK run out of ideas,
Everybody doing covers of American beats”
So says Skepta at the start of 2012’s Ace Hood Flow, but somewhere, amidst the gold chains clinking over his navel and the well buffed highs of the G-funk synth bend, he blinds us to his own hypocrisy. For after his very own cover of Kanye West’s Don’t Like, a smattering of verses over trap beats, and three years have passed, Skepta is thanked both in the cover notes to Drake’s latest mixtape and by Kanye himself, onstage at the Brits, some fifty Grime artists behind him. Perhaps imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, and with all this transatlantic backpatting comes a popularity that leaves the underground fit to burst. So for the biggest Functions yet, we spill up and out of The Cellar into the stronghold of The Bullingdon.
DJ Slimzee was never one for imitation though, nor Riko Dan for flattery. As his deep drawl wafts over us in warm salutation, and limbs laze in a combination of vintage coach jacket and Nike hi-tops, he exhibits the confidence of a man who has been nothing but his own, unique concoction for his whole career. With friend and collaborator of twenty years Slimzee on the selector, the MC who earned his reputation as the London City Warlord on the soundclash circuit is all smiles tonight. But perhaps Riko thrives under that pressure, or so it occurs to me as the room, roughly two-thirds full, grinds to a gentle start. Floral shirts find space to float at the back of the floor, and while monophonic synths stream from the speakers and blue and red lights lend a crude 3D duality to the faces around us, we drift deep among the Gameboy beeps, following our noughties nostalgia trip in the direction of title track Functions On the Low. So far then Slimzee steals the show; it is his course we run, and when he fills the room with the bubbles of Terror Danjah’s Fruit Punch, our every move prompting another fluorescent pop, it feels almost as though we lead him ourselves.
Quicker than you can say ‘dubplate’, however, we come to understand any silence on Riko’s part not as the product of reticence, but of respect for Slimzee, the Godfather of Grime himself. Together, DJ and MC converse, riff off each other’s beats and bars, finish each other’s sentences: Riko keeps a firm footing on Slimzee’s second rewind of Take Off by Faze Miyake, but his cries of contagious excitement surrender to the hydraulic bounce of the war march that follows. It’s not long now before the MC comes forward to command his due share of the attention, and when his microphone lead taps me unexpectedly on the shoulder, I take that as my cue to turn round. Before we know it, Riko Dan has hijacked the system, and he makes it almost impossible to get a word in edgeways. The standout moment comes when Riko Dan launches into a batch of entirely new bars to rework his Woo freestyle. The pirate radio patois pulls not a single, impassioned punch, his voice hopping deftly up and down the scale to bring melody to the machine gun syllable sputter that he weaves over Slimzee’s flittering percussion. And through all the pace and parlance of his delivery, the words remain distinct.
Slimzee’s subsequent selection, That’s Not Me, spins untouched by Riko, and in the shadow of his fire it better resembles a break than a peak in the set. Because whether we came as fans of Skepta, Yeezy or Slimzee, Riko Dan or Rick Ross, we leave with renewed faith in the UK underground, and the raw nocturnal energy, the honesty of the old school that these old friends tender.
Jeremy Ogunleye, founder of Functions On The Low, explains:
“Grime’s made an incredible resurgence as of late but Oxford weren’t really playing any of it at all. Functions is like a homage to my childhood, the stuff I was listening to as a kid on the back of the bus or in the toilets as we would all crowd around a phone and spit quick 16’s over a polyphonic ringtone… It’s only an hour and a half away on the Tube, but sometimes East London couldn’t seem any further from Oxford’s dreaming spires. With Functions, I just wanted to bring it closer.”
Riko Dan MC dabs a towel to his forehead. The Grime scene has never seemed more alive than when it stands, sweating, before you.