A London Sumtin’ Rasta

Todd Dedman – Purists and Peripherals, Hip-Hop and Grime Subcultures (the Tufnell Press, 2017)

This book will mainly be of interest to academics in cultural studies, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, sociology and music, but it will also provide a great deal for the keener grime and British hip hop fan.

For a long time there has been nowhere to go for me, except British hip hop and dubstep. There are a few bands, Selfish Cunt, the Sleaford Mods – the latter arguably are British hip hop – but beyond them nothing contemporary is really worth a look, the exception being British hip hop, grime and dubstep.

I came through, as a fan, jungle and drum’n’bass in the 1990s – like many of the people involved in the music – after being immersed in Acid Jazz and dance music, and I was flung there from psychedelia and jazz. So the new scenes make perfect sense.

This book makes a very welcome and refreshing addition to the British cultural studies canon. It is scholarly but also lean, knowledgeable and rooted in empiricism and sociological practice.

The key dimension of this work that recommends it to posterity is the way it resists the idea that subcultures can now only really be ‘post-subcultures’, that somehow we have moved into a situation where culture is only ever consumed – even rebellious culture – and that the very concept of subcultural tribalism, resistance and subculture, to hijack Raymond Williams, as ‘a whole way of life’, has been swallowed by consumerism and the Fukuyama vision of the End of History.

Of course, even Fukuyama no longer believes that, but the other aspect of this book which will make it a classic in the field is the rooting of relative quantities of ‘resistance’ in different groups: The ‘purists’ and ‘peripherals’ of the title.

Groups from Ashford and Canterbury, Brighton and Rochester were interviewed, and the latter two showed themselves as relatively passive consumers of grime and hip hop culture, and the former two resistant and active.

This is where the history of cultural studies becomes very relevant. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham (CCCS) set up by Stuart Hall, attended by the now-iconic Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie and John Storey, set the bar high for the future with a Marxist and Gramscian approach to popular culture.

Dedman, then, has not only arrived with a classic post-CCCS set of binaries, the lineage of which contains upwardly and downwardly mobile subcultures – mod and hippie for instance – but he has rooted this, also like the classic CCCS studies, in empirical research. He argues for a revival of the CCCS tradition, itself updated, and I know that others are doing this, David Wilkinson for instance.

He also makes good use of Paul Hodkinson’s work on ‘subcultural substance’ from 2002. The analysis is nuanced, the binaries are poles between which Dedman scales his readings of the cultural conversations, they are not drawers in which he files people. The core concepts are worked through in chapters, for instance the very tricky hip hop terminology around being ‘real’ as opposed to fake, meaning authentic, of the streets, tough, experienced. Of course, logic begins to bend once one asks ‘who’s really the realest?’ and the anthropological relativism that follows is not too excessive and the interpretation not too stifling.

It’s great to read the material on postcodes and subcultural zones in the interviews. London looms large too, and the ways in which the ‘London Sumtin’ of Jungle, from a Code 071 record, has continued through grime and dubstep. As Wiley explained in his biography, the first time English accents could be MC’d en masse was when Jungle exploded in the 1990s. Children of Zeus discussed how rapping with a Mancunian or northern accent has only recently become acceptable.

One resistance, then, is Americanisation, although American rap features strongly in respondent conversations. London has its ‘manors’ and British hip hop has its regions. It is, in many ways, the authentic folk culture of our times, even if the bucolic visions and acoustic guitars the word conjures may seem utterly inappropriate. It is globalised folk music, present tense. It is folk as a verb, not as a dusty old repertoire, although of course global history and repertoire are also important.

There is promise for the future here, too: Dedman ends, very topically, arguing for a study of the ‘gyaldem’ (girl them) female rappers and MCs in the UK. The conversation about the unsung females of grime recently went live among the chattering classes on Twitter. Dedman was there before them.

A great book.

– Steve Hanson


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