Friday, October 05, 2012

No Lay "Off With Ya Head" (FreshWave Entertainment)

There was some attempt to culturally christen the thirtieth Olympiad the "grime" Olympics, on the basis that it was being hosted amidst that genre's East London heartlands: to this end we had much-trumpeted involvement from the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah, and there was actually a fair blaring of grime(ish) music as you wandered around the Olympic Park, too. The only problem with this well-meaning attempt to capture the zeitgeist, then, was the fact that grime peaked in about 2003 and is now, at best, a component of the rather watered-down hip-hop / pop hybrid currently booming out of many a twelve-year old's mobile phone: a true grime Olympics might have had Marcus Nasty compère the closing ceremony, or climaxed with Durrty Goodz doing "Battle Hype", a pièce de résistance that would really have shaken the stadium up. As it was though, it all felt a little like having a "punk" Olympics in the mid-eighties, or celebrating C86 at the height of Britpop: a reality almost painfully out of sync with the good intentions behind it.

Back in the day though, when Lethal Bizzle was More Fire's Lethal B, when Wiley and Dizzee were blood brothers, when Riko, Kano and Tinchy were doing "Ice Rink", even when Skepta was "fuckin widda team", grime was *completely amazing*. That's all-too easy to forget now, notwithstanding the fact that over the years a steady(ish) stream of worthwhile music from E3, E9, E13 and E17 continued to trickle forth: Goodz' "Axiom", "Reloadz", "Ultrasound" and "Battle Hype"; the clubbable Trim's various mixtapes; Wiley's slept-on XL set "Tredding On Thin Ice", Big Dada opus "Playtime Is Over" and alter-ego Eskiboy's "Umbrella"; a pre-breakthrough Tinchy Stryder's "Cloud 9"; Ghetts' "Freedom Of Speech"; several explosive releases from Newham Generals; some 2011 output from Family Tree (Merky Ace, Shif Man etc); and this very summer's thrilling Terror Danjah and Riko 45.

It's just that... the highs are becoming more and more sporadic (see how many of those reviews go back to 2008 or earlier), and looking back at the whole picture... it feels like there could have been so much more, and that it could have been so much better.

Y'see, a collective eyebrow was raised when we made Platinum 45 and More Fire Crew's "Oi!" a single of the month back in 2002, and in retrospect it probably marked the beginning of the end for our fanzine in that form, but we were sincere and, with the benefit of hindsight, right. What we didn't realise was that More Fire's subsequent "C.V." album - which at the time seemed unduly dark, stuttering and unfocussed, but which now seems to ring with just the right balance of youth, eagerness and menace - would actually represent a high of the genre, rather than a nervous first step in its ascent towards heady new planes. The early days of So Solid, south of the river, have likewise held up rather better than you might have expected at the time. John Peel was really starting to big up grime too, and would later host that legendary "grime special" featuring Eastwood, Krafty, MC Purple et al. One wonders in what direction all that might have gone, were it not for Peelie's sad death a few months later. Another sadness now is that we saw so few of the grime scene's artists in the flesh back then, although we did at least get to see Newham Generals in the early days, and even Dizzee circa "Showtime" (ever late to the party, I know).

Shortly after grime peaked, its essence was at least captured on the two excellent "Run The Road" compilations, which show how it became a springboard for later urban pop and dance glories, if nothing else. If you cast your eye over the tracklistings of those you will see plenty of now-familiar names: since then, Kano and Skepta have gone top twenty, Sway and Lady Sovereign top ten; Plan B has a string of hits behind him and is making the move into film; and there have been a staggering *nine* UK number one singles by artists who appeared on "RTR": yes, the first came from the Streets, but we've also had two by Roll Deep, one from Wiley solo, two for Tinchy Stryder, and three so far from Dizzee. Yet one star of "Run The Road" who has not achieved such lofty successes is No Lay, despite being responsible for real highlights on both, first with the ilwtt,isott favourite "Unorthodox Daughter" and then with its equally relentless sequel "Unorthodox Chick" (see #10 in here). A formidable mixtape / album "No Comparisons" followed in 2008 (#9 in here!) - we still blast "Know Yourself Out Here" on the regular - but it still wasn't enough to build any real momentum.

Thankfully, after a not totally convincing EP at the tail-end of last year, "He Said She Said I Am Bad",we're pleased to say that her newie "Off With Ya Head" is *much* more like it. The production - from DJ Limelight- is urgent and dominating, crucially referencing the dancefloor (albeit a dancefloor that probably needs to be reinforced against low-bass damage), rather than tacking No Lay's rhymes over perfunctory beats, or using the old trick favoured by weak MCs of using a looped melodic hook to distract attention away from anodyne rapping. No Lay is at her confident best on the mic, displaying a mix of bravura and controlled aggression rarely seen since the midfield heyday of Graeme Souness (or perhaps Ronnie Maugé): for definitive proof, check out the blister-giving a cappella version. There's no crooning, or crossover nonsense, but "Off With Ya Head" doesn't sound dated either: even the schoolkids on the no. 30 bus could go for this, surely ?

Pleasingly, there's a Ricochet drum and bass remix floating around too, which seems neat given that many a moon ago, it was over D&B riddims that No Lay first started rhyming. More importantly, the remix is completely head-caving: listening to it feels a little like you're being attacked. But in a brilliant way.

Anyway, there was a reason for all the pseudo-historical guff above (no, really). We wanted to set the scene, in order to explain why a single like this is what we've been missing: not just from No Lay, but from the wider grime family. Seems like she's stepped back, re-focussed, and come up with a single that meets the demands of the "now" for instant gratification, but still rings with the anger, heart and soul that informed her earlier songs. This is No Lay, nearly a decade on, throwing off any self-doubt and throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the grime community to try and match her. If they accept, there might be a *new wave of grime* yet.

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