What does music sound like?
For house and techno, it's that 4×4 thump split into increasingly specific microgenres. For drum and bass, it's what it says on the tin, plus that speed rush. Dubstep's sound actually changed once people settled on that name: it started out as the instrumental B-sides to 2-step records, only to morph into new school dub-reggae and beyond.
Grime, however, is slippery. Starting out as what was essentially garage rap, the genre has seen major sonic shifts; from the early live MCing on pirates, to the mixtape era defined by Ghetts and The Movement, to the harsh, abrasive sonics of producers like Maniac, to Butterz' reimagining of grime's club potential and the experimental weirdness of Boxed. Like hip-hop, it's more defined by a community than any individual sound, but ask the average listener about it and you'll probably get an answer that involves 140BPM tempos, cheap sounds out of the Playstation era, broken beats, and… this:
Like the 303 bass to acid house and the Amen break to jungle, grime has recently canonized its own “classic” sound palette, grabbing presets and ideas from the genre's formative years and twisting them into countless new shapes. Many of those sounds come straight out the Korg Triton, the same high-end turn of the millennium workstation favored by super producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes. It's patches like Gliding Squares and AMS Feedback made up the backbone of Wiley, Geeneus and Waifer's bass lines and you'll still hear variations on those themes on Rinse and Radar Radio today.
Other sounds, like Wiley's bright, digital Eski clicks and the warping digital flute from Wonder's “What” came from the now-discontinued VST sound module series Plugsound. Ironically, since those sounds were first used thanks to their ease of access, the rarity of that VST has since led countless new producers on hunts down long abandoned music forums to get copies of the sounds, and they've accumulated a sort of hipster caché along the way.
At its best, this kind of scene memory can create a rush by colliding nostalgia and the shock of the new all at once: Skepta's “That's Not Me” simultaneously felt like “the return of real grime” and the start of a new era. That's partly due to grime's changing fan base: for listeners who weren't around or weren't paying attention a decade ago, these sounds still feel beamed in from the future. And even veterans will have to admit that JT The Goon's King Triton, named after and making ample use of the legendary keyboard, takes grime's original concept into brave new (highly melodic) territory.
But does paying homage to grime's roots mean that production has to stop being progressive? Using a classic sound in a new way is all good, but there's been a distressing amount of recycling going on, with scene veterans calling foul on uncreative production. Typically, the new school formula goes something like this: dubstep sound design, mixed with drum patterns out of the Jon E Cash sublow era, with a dollop of Eski clicks or Plugsound flutes to fill up space. It's an approach that risks setting up grime for the same formulaic downfall as D&B in its jump-up period, or dubstep's wobble phase. Even new ideas in grime don't veer too far away from the classic sound palette these days: tonnes of weightless devil mixes rely on detuned squarewaves reminiscent of the Triton's “Gliding Squares” for their mood, using that as an anchor to grime's heyday.
Does paying homage to grime's roots mean that production has to stop being progressive?
So what's the solution? Looking outward for one. While grime purists moaned about trap's influence in England a few years ago, few would say there isn't room for a bit of cross-cultural exchange there. Dancehall's always been a reliable source of vibe, although Jamaica's current focus on sweet, highly melodic riddims might prove an ill fit for grime. Better yet, with Afrobeats and gqom making their way West, it might be time to see what those genres have to offer. Either way, while no one expects the re-use of classic grime sounds to end soon, the bubble's bound to burst and it's the producers who've developed their own ideas who'll be the one to survive the purge.