Even within Britain, grime has long been considered a niche genre. Pioneered by east London artist Wiley in the early 2000s, whose dark, stripped-down 140-beats-per-minute rhythms drew on U.K. garage and two-step influences and updated them, the sound then evolved on the rooftops of inner-city council estates as pirate radio prospered and MCs such as Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch literally battled to have their bars heard over the airwaves.
Now in 2015, the genre is garnering huge mainstream success, all without compromising its sound. At only 22 years old, Stormzy broke into the U.K. Top 20 in September with a freestyle over foundational Ruff Sqwad rhythm “Functions on the Low,” while veteran Skepta is being feted by the likes of Kanye West and Drake in North America.
Even Japan is getting in on the act, with several of grime’s most exciting artists coming over for shows in the coming weeks: Slackk, who managed the influential website Grime Tapes and currently runs the Boxed collective, plays at Forestlimit in Hatagaya on Nov. 13, Pan-signee Visionist plays twice in Tokyo, and Elijah and Skilliam, owners of the label Butterz, will be spinning at new venue Circus Tokyo in early December.
Between them, they run the full grime gamut — from MC-friendly hype tracks to experimental, ethereal deconstructions of the genre. South Londoner Visionist, real name Louis Carnell, lies firmly at the latter end of the spectrum — so far so that his new album, “Safe,” is causing debate as to whether “instrumental grime” is even appropriate as a descriptor any longer.
“People forget that I was an MC and grime producer from the age of 15,” Carnell says. “I don’t see what I make now as anything like that — the thought process is so different, I’m in a different place in my life, and I have a much wider musical context to draw from. Calling my album ‘grime’ undermines my process and what the music actually is — it restricts its audience and its analysis.”
Delicate, intensely personal and full of ghostly, choral vocals, Carnell’s productions indeed share little stylistically with what most would consider “grime” — as does the work of many of his peers, which include Houston producer Rabit and New York-based imprint Lit City Trax. But while he might occupy the sound’s most experimental precipices, a Londoner like Carnell will never forget the importance of his predecessors.
“I find the term ‘instrumental grime’ funny — I’d like someone to tell me the difference between a ‘grime instrumental’ and ‘instrumental grime,’ ” he says. “If anything, we should be calling those who made grime from 2004 to 2010 ‘instrumental grime,’ because they are the people who were ‘instrumental’ in influencing so much of what goes on today.”
Visionist DJs at Arc in Tokyo on Nov. 13 (10 p.m.; ¥3,000; 03-6438-9240); and plays live at Circus in Tokyo on Nov. 15 (6 p.m.; ¥2,000 in advance; 03-6419-7520). For more information, visit www.circus-tokyo.jp or www.soundcloud.com/visionist.