Grime is in a weird place. Three years into its so-called resurgence, the pace has begun to slow. The relentless wave of hype that propelled the genre into the UK’s mainstream consciousness has begun to ebb, and the sense of urgency and grit that surrounds the genre at its best has been worn down. While Stormzy has bagged a Mercury nomination and there’s no shortage of fresh talent in the scene, many of its biggest stars and breakout artists, Big Mike included, have begun to branch out, taking on American audiences, collaborations with Mick Jagger and less traditionally ‘grime’ sounds. It’s a transitional time; the sound of inner city London establishing itself across the UK and the world.
In short, as British rap’s audience has widened so has too has its sound. To be clear this is no bad thing, a larger audience for grime and UK rap in general and a broader diversity in sound can only ever be positive. However it does mean that the scene has become a little disparate. With the rise of afro-swing, road rap and countless other genres that are still yet to be named, the sense of cohesion that lifted British rap out of the underground feels a little lacking as we enter the tail-end of summer 2017.
If only there was someone who could unite British rap’s new-found freedoms with that sense of unity that emerged when it first broke through. If only there was someone with deep roots in the UK’s past but with the vision to shape its future. If only there was someone like JD. Reid.
“I’ve been making beats for about 11 years now, but I’ve only been releasing in the past few properly. I started off just making grime beats because that’s what I was listening to all the time,” Reid explains to me over the phone as we talk about his new EP Calibrate, which dropped last Friday on Rinse. “Over time I eased into making more other styles, I’ve always been a big hip hop and RnB fan as well so as time went on I put more focus on producing across the spectrum. A bit later than that, I discovered the LA beats scene, Flying Lotus, early beat kind of stuff and I found that really interesting so that was another influence that came in. Now I try and take elements from all the styles I like and put into my own thing.”
Calibrate sees Reid take that approach further than he ever has before. Working with a roster of artists that run the gamut of contemporary British rap and beyond, Reid unites seemingly distant artists over rough, unmistakably DIY beats that hark back to the early days ‘Eskimo’ and ‘Pulse X.’ The guest list reads like a who’s who of the UK’s experimental underground, Kojey Radical brings his poetic touch to ‘Breathe’, 808INK, slowthai and Oscar #Worldpeace go back to back over a liquid, hip hop inspired beat and Novelist sounds ready for war on the EP’s triumphant closing track ‘Ready’. Yet it’s the project’s penultimate track ‘Chef’ that intrigues the most.
Featuring former Odd Future rapper Hodgy, ‘Chef’ is the only track on the EP with an American guest. With an instrumental, that’s equal parts grime and Suicide Year-esque cloud rap Reid pushes Hodgy to spit double time, revealing a side of the MC unfamiliar, though not unwelcome, to those who’ll know him from his MellowHype days. The collaboration came about almost by chance, Reid explains. “After a couple of meetings [in LA] by chance, we ended up being connected with him. It kind of felt like it was meant to happen…It was a bit of weird one; we went to his cousin’s house in Pasadena at like 2 in the morning or something like that. I just played him a lot of different beats, and that one caught him, he was feeling it, so I left it with him.”
The rest of the EP was recorded across London, including a week at Abbey Road with Novelist. In an age of phoned-in features, Reid prefers to get to know his collaborators in person. “It’s always better I find to actually meet the people you’re working with in person,” he says, “because you can get more of a vibe from them and what kind of music they like rather than just doing it over a DM.”
Case and point the EP’s centrepiece ‘Interior’ with slowthai, 808INK and Oscar #Worldpeace. “For ‘Interior’ originally I was just having a session with slowthai, and Oscar just happened to be with him and came to the studio that day… So he ended up putting a verse on the track. I heard those two spitting on it, and I thought we should try and make this more of a mob cut, get a few people on it. Because those two had already paired up, I though 808INK already have the chemistry so if you put them all on one track it could be sick. We got everyone together at Red Bull and did that back to back kind of grime set but on a hip hop track.” If you’ve heard it, you know the results are staggering.
Outside of Calibrate, Reid has also been producing for other artists including our current cover star, Mabel. Before the release of her recent Bedroom EP, Mabel and Reid were in the studio finishing up a track together when they found themselves with some spare time towards the end of the session. Deciding to work on something random, Mabel, her brother Marlon and Reid began playing around with chords and a top line. Within twenty minutes they’d written the basis of her breakout single ‘Finders Keepers.’
As for the future, Reid has plenty of music in the vaults and plans to make sure there’s an almost constant stream of releases from now on. There’s also talk of a very special Calibrate live set, with Reid bringing all five of the EP’s guest artists along with him for no doubt speaker shattering performance, “It will happen, just timing it correctly is hard, getting everyone in one place at one time can be tricky, but we’ll make it happen. [We] have to.”
Calibrate is out now via Rinse.