Book Review: Inner City Pressure // Dan Hancox

Grime’s against-all-odds success story is one I’ve followed pretty closely. My little brother even bought me a matching JME mug and coaster for Christmas last year. Having said that, Dan Hancox, the journalist behind Inner City Pressure, takes knowledge of the genre to new heights. His 2018 book covers so much depth, it’s obvious he used to interview MCs outside club nights back when he was simply blogging.

Inner City Pressure reads almost like a modern history of London, revealing how grime and it’s development is a true product of our time. When I first started the book, I was locked down in a sleepy village. I read the final pages of the epilogue in my new home- Brixton, South London. Although grime’s heartlands are considered to be in East London (Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham), Brixton is name checked a variety of times and the story of a gentrified London seen through the genre’s lens is all the more poignant. 

The book runs chronologically but delves into themes ranging from the production of tracks, to seminal moments which pushed artists into the mainstream; think Dizzee and his 2003 Mercury Prize. Many of these moments reveal how MCs laid the foundations for success on their own terms. A prime example is Skepta’s MOBO award for the ‘That’s Not Me’ video after he spent just £80 making it. Another headline grabbing achievement for Skepta was a huge DIY carpark show in Shoreditch in 2015- everyone had to exit the stage before the police arrived. Each chapter is accompanied by a photo of the big names on their home estates, or spitting at pirate radio. It serves as a reminder that the references in grime have always been so niche and specific to individual communities, just one reason why grime shouldn’t have become a dominant UK sound. 

Hancox presents the tale of us vs. them in which inner city kids take on poverty, institutional racism, under funded support systems, gentrification and the structures of the music business- and prevail. If ‘us’ is the likes of Dizzee Rascal, JME, Kano, Dave and Skepta, then ‘them’ could be New Labour and subsequent Tory austerity. Hancox clearly has immense admiration for the artists who made it despite everything. He argues grime is the last local pre-internet scene, where setting was everything and the grit couldn’t be polished up via Instagram.

The idea behind Inner City Pressure was reportedly first pitched by Hancox in 2012, a time when the UK rap that was charting was a lot more pop-centric. Think Tinie Tempah and Labrith’s Earthquake. Ibiza-biased tunes almost led the genre astray, but Hancox noted it’s political resonance in 2011 and stayed loyal. Grime was vastly different by 2018, and the scene has continued to evolve past the end of the book to where it’s at now. The vast successes first of Skepta and then of so many others was chronicled into an uplifting ending, but there’s even more to say in 2020. Stormzy is beyond a household name, having been the first black British solo artist to headline Glastonbury. Unlike some musicians labelled as grime such as J Hus, who bears little resemblance, Stormzy has largely stuck to the garage- influenced style. His more watered-down collaborations with Ed Sheeran stand opposed to grime’s younger cousin- drill.

Powerful figures are now falling over themselves to reference all kinds of MCs. Inner City Pressure asks us “This is what success looks like, right?” With rap consistently charting it seems as though grassroots-led music is here to stay. However, it is hard to say whether we’re seeing any real change in the lives of those communities left behind by gentrification. The inner London regeneration that inspired grime is still taking away from those that live there, although I could point to positive changes like Stormzy’s publishing house and the Guardian interview naming the Adenugas “Britain’s most creative family”. No matter where grime goes from here, I think every music fan should read this book. Dan Hancox is the perfect biographer for music with the potential to shutdown the capital. 

Words by Jessica Whitman

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