Grime has re-emerged from the commercial doldrums to storm the UK charts. With artists like Skepta and Giggs embraced by North American rappers, the genre is moving in a strong direction. British artists, unlike their American counterparts, prefer tracksuits and casualwear to designer. We’re going to look at the most iconic tracksuit moments in British rap, each moment tied to a critical event in the genre’s history. Let’s start with Skepta announcing his rejection of upmarket brands:
Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album Boy In Da Corner codified Grime and marked it as a commercially viable sound. His project captured the zeitgeist for the black youth, and became a generation-defining work. Dizzee appeared on the cover dressed in a black all-in-one tracksuit, with a pair of Nike Air Max. 14 years later, British rappers dress much the same.
Boy in da Corner wasn’t a landmark project because it was the best or first Grime album, but because it showed that the nascent genre could be commercially viable and attract critical acclaim . . #BoyindaCorner #DizzeeRascal #Dizzee #Grime #GrimeAlbum #classicalbum #rap #hiphop #raskit #BoyintheCorner #DirteeStank #DirteeStankRecordings #NowPlaying #NikeAirMax #MercuryAward
Contrast this to American Hip-Hop, where many artists come from similarly rough backgrounds; once rich, they race to designer shops for the latest gear. When the UK artists find fame, many continue to dress similarly to what you’d see on the housing estates.
Let’s backtrack slightly and discuss the sound of Grime. The genre’s stylistic origins can be found in UK Garage, the most popular Urban genre at the turn of the Millennium. Garage MCs were similar to the party rappers from the 1980s, rocking the mic with catchy, simplistic rhymes.
Garage culture was flashy. The nights out were about blowing money fast. Cocaine, champagne, it was about display. Oftentimes athletic gear was banned from the clubs; many local council estate kids were barred from entry. Those excluded from the Garage scene created their own wave. Grime’s all night raves were more causal – who cares what you’re wearing if everyone is sweating?
Both genres had similarities – choppy, off-kilter beats with fast paced rhymes – the key difference, Grime addressed the dark reality of street life. Key figures emerged in this time, Wiley – often credited with inventing the genre – Lethal Bizzle and of course, Dizzee Rascal.
“The street culture to London, grime’s the soundtrack to that,” “It runs in parallel: the dress code, the music, they’re all reflection of that.” – DJ Logan Sama
Grime grew in popularity throughout the 2000s; its gritty tales of street life were told by rappers who dressed in the clothes of the everyman, part of the genre’s appeal. Nike was big, the Air Max being the staple trainer. Aside from featuring on Boy In Da Corner, the shoes can be seen on the cover of Chip’s Grime vs Rap mixtape.
New Era hats were essential, the shiny brim sticker intact, proudly displaying its authenticity. Vibrant tracksuits became popular, particularly Akademiks and Avirex. People got robbed so often of their Avirex gear that braving to wear yours outside was a badge of toughness.
“I saw that Lethal B boy the other day, boy’s got Avirex man, think’s he’s rough.” – Oi! – More Fire Crew
The tracksuit is Grime’s enduring uniform; many of the most critical moments in the genre’s history are tied to it. Here’s the top 3:
Dizzee Rascal Accepts Mercury Award in Tracksuit
We already talked about Boy In Da Corner as a genre codifying work for Grime; it was the project that showed Grime was commercially viable. It peaked at #23 in the UK Album Chart, going Gold and making Dizzee Rascal a household name.
Rascal won the Mercury Award in 2003 and accepted it in a basketball jacket, a major coup that would shake up the music industry. For those who don’t know, the Mercury Prize is a British music prize for snobs who think the BRIT Awards are a bit shit. Dizzee defeated Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief as 2003 album of the year. It was a big deal.
— Mercury Prize (@MercuryPrize) July 21, 2017
Stormzy Breaks Out With “Shut Up”
Stormzy’s mainstream hype had been bubbling since his inclusion on the BBC Sound of 2015 shortlist. He broke out with the iconic “Shut Up” freestyle which attracted 68 million YouTube views.
Next, Stormy was performing “Shut Up” as entrance music for Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight clash with Dillian Whyte, and of course he performed this in a tracksuit too. Over 400,000 pay-per-viewers tuned in to the fight, which was massive exposure for the rapper.
In 2017 Stormzy become the first Grime artist to hit number one on the UK Album Chart with his debut album Gang Signs & Prayer.
“Shut Up” launched Stormzy’s career – it was performed in his soon-to-be iconic red Adidas tracksuit, as he came after his haters in a blistering attack. He later appeared on the cover of British GQ and it never would have happened without that freestyle.
Skepta Become First Grime Artist to Model [Probably]
Alongside Dizzee and Wiley, Skepta is probably the most significant Grime artist. He has been a vocal advocate of streetwear for most of his career and has remained fiercely creative and independent. Skepta also wore casual gear to accept his Mercury Award in 2016 and often talks of the “tracksuit mafia”. He is a leading figure in neutralising the item’s connotations with violence.
Skepta was conscripted by designer Nasir Mazhar to bring his Grime-influenced Spring/Summer 2015 collection to the runway at London Fashion Week. The two launched a sportswear range; there weren’t many rappers taking to the catwalk at Fashion Week before Skepta.
Nasir Mazhar SS 2015
— Flow Asesino (@flowasesinopr) March 16, 2017
He later boasted:
‘Fashion week and it’s shutdown, went to the show sitting in the front row, in the black tracksuit and it’s shutdown’. – Skepta, “Shutdown”
That’s the sort of guy Skepta is. Gucci isn’t him, but a nice black tracksuit is a different story.
Tracksuits and athletic gear continue to play a crucial role in the Grime ethos, the everyman aspect of the dress being part of the genre’s appeal. As Grime continues to grow in popularity we’re likely to witness increasing numbers of iconic tracksuit moments. The genre is tied to athleticwear and the two are going nowhere.