Is Grime ready to headline? A Bestival Case Study

A lot has been written recently about the grime revival that began with ‘German Whip’ and has gained momentum to the point where Skepta is hanging out with Drake and Kanye. This has been highlighted this summer by acts jumping out of London raves and onto festival stages. Boy Better Know (BBK), Tempa T and Lethal Bizzle were some of the most talked about acts at Reading and Leeds, Skepta performed ‘Shutdown’ during Drake’s Wireless headline set, and any video of ‘Feed ‘em to the Lions’ being dropped this summer highlights the energy in the genre.

This has led some to suggest that in the quest for new headliners, Skepta and BBK might be an answer. If you were to bet on where this would happen first the safe money would be on Bestival. Rob da Bank’s annual island getaway has always been ahead of the curve in giving acts their first headline opportunities and in giving opportunities to grime and rap artists. This year is no different, with the likes of Missy Elliot and Action Bronson coming from America to share stages with Stormzy, BBK and Big Narstie, which made it the perfect place to assess whether UK rappers can join the Americans at the top of the bill.

The first opportunity for comparison was Tonga Balloon Club on Friday afternoon. Tonga is Mike Skinner and Murkage, which at Bestival featured Big Narstie as a special guest. The early show was a largely DJ’d affair, mixing UK garage and grime with trap; for Tonga origin matters less than bass. In general the American records go off a bit harder, but then they are played less frequently so have more of a surprise element. The bigger grime hits do get the same reaction though so it’s hard to tell much from this skirmish.

The post-midnight version in the tiny Jagerhaus is a more conclusive UK victory. Big Narstie gets on the mic with Murkage to drop hits like ‘Hello Hi’ and ‘Street Fighter Riddim’ whilst an obviously lit Mike Skinner sits behind the decks. This venue is much more akin to the clubs and raves the genre originated in, so it’s not surprising everything feels more natural in a small tent late at night. The crowd got really rowdy at a show that was far more focused on the MC and grime rhythms, which was a theme replayed throughout the weekend.

The best example of this was undoubtedly Stormzy in The Invaders of the Future tent. It was after midnight but it was packed to the back and felt like an arena. When we return for The Skints afterwards it’s almost impossible to believe that the same intimate tent could have felt so cavernous an hour ago.

From the minute he walked on stage Stormzy owned the room. His energy was relentless and he ripped through his set at lightning pace. For someone who exploded on to the scene last year and doesn’t have an album he has an unreasonable amount of bangers. It doesn’t matter if it’s his Wicked Skengman series of YouTube freestyles or the official singles like Not That Deep, all go off. If they don’t go off enough he pulls it back, drops it again and goes at it harder. He gave us no choice but to go in with him. He finished by dropping new single Wicked Skengman 4, which might become the first freestyle to chart in the UK this week, and playing Shut Up three times and Know Me From four times. These are the testaments to Stormzy’s cultural relevance; you heard people humming Shut Up or rapping Know Me From all weekend, whilst ‘backup dancer’ is a legitimate insult now. Know Me From somehow gets rowdier each time and by the end the tent is one pit. He repeated this feat on Sunday afternoon in a fifteen minute set during Shy FX’s Party on the Moon. Man knows he’s a beast on stage and after Bestival a couple of thousand more do too.

In comparison BBK were disappointing on the main stage. They were rarely all on stage at the same time so when less famous members were playing the energy dipped (Jammer and JME excluded, they were easily the most likely to be there). Whenever you see Odd Future or Wu-Tang Clan they’re all on stage pretty much constantly, backing people up and acting as hype-men. When BBK leave the stage after one song it’s hard to connect as they can’t give 45 minutes when we’d all been out for three days. The show got better as it went on however, with collaborative hits like Too Many Man and the undisputable bangers like Shutdown, Man Don’t Care and Feed ‘em to the Lions really connected. Skepta’s late show in The Big Top was also definitely better. It had a higher concentration of hits, the rest of BBK as hype men, and they were all more comfortable in the closed space. BBK have the songs and the performing quality to top bills, but they need more collaboration and a better visual production if they’re going to make it.

To give the American’s some time, Action Bronson earlier put on one of the shows of the weekend in the same tent, backed up by the legendary Alchemist on the ones and twos. It was tight and lyrical throughout, mixing wit and self-deprecating humour with the undeniable fact that this guy can just rap for days. He’s also a natural showman, bounding about on stage, cracking jokes and getting right in at the front.

Missy Elliot’s headline performance on Sunday was also a triumph. She emerged out of a magic box with a diamond monogrammed microphone, and the rest of the show was as good as that line suggests. She’s got so many hits that the entire set is one “oh fuck, what a banger?” moment. She was everywhere on stage with a troupe of back up dancers, even venturing into the crowd at one point (impessive considering she’s 5’2 and amongst 50,000 people). It’s a masterpiece of showmanship that might even have topped Kanye at Glastonbury and Outkast at Bestival last year. Regardless all those shows had theatrical production, showmanship, and, most importantly, hit after hit after hit. BBK do have the hits, but they still have a way to go in creating a spectacle like Missy.

The UK rap acts who get closest are more alternative in Young Fathers and Kate Tempest. Kate Tempest’s performance was a masterclass in lyricism, technicality and flow. Her backing band is ridiculously tight and she’s tighter, moving seamlessly between intricate rapping and impassioned spoken word. It’s an emotional show that draws from the classic rap Tempest is inspired by and takes it to its limits through electronic production and poetry of the highest calibre. Young Fathers differ in they don’t just push hip hop to its limits; they push the idea of live music to its limits. Their performance seems almost choreographed and is more like a war dance or a piece of performance art than a gig. They dance brutally across the stage, passing verses and rhythms back and forth, distorting the sound and banging drums to create a delicate cacophony. It’s a stunning show and completely different to their Glastonbury set, which blew my mind considering how intricate and planed it appears.

Bestival is a beautiful festival that merges many different styles in a way that builds and somehow makes sense, and for now grime acts primarily being on the smaller, later stages makes sense. Grime is a movement that can’t be denied, but it isn’t quite ready to headline. Maybe BBK can return with a more extravagant and developed live show, or maybe Stormzy and Novelist (who also played two great sets) can take the sound and live experience to a new level. Having listened to almost nothing but Stormzy since getting home I wouldn’t bet against it, but for now, the American’s still have a little bit of an edge when it comes to smashing main stages.