Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye
Publisher and release date: Influx Press (2017)
Hold Tight is an exploration into the beginning of grime (a genre of UK music that emerged in the early 2000s) and everything else that comes with it. Its cover and blurb alone give the impression that it will be a lighthearted and informative look into the genre, and the book is exactly that.
Hold Tight’s opening is fascinating. As well as looking at grime before it was grime, it gives readers an intelligent insight into the musical history that has influenced modern UK music. Jeffrey Boakye looks at the six-second break in Amen Brother by The Winstons, the transition of reggae to dancehall and at people who have been vital in changing modern music production, such as the creator of the MT-40 rock preset, Hiroko Okuda. He thoroughly explains the importance of dancehall in grime – as well as jungle – in these early segments and goes into specific moments and musical influences that moulded the genre. He takes a close look at the changes in garage that led to grime’s instrumental make up by dissecting the difference between 2-step garage and regular UK garage. The moment when Boakye finally reaches the new millennium with Pay As You Go Cartel’s Know We and begins the journey into grime as we know it really is special.
Music is subjective, and there will always be challenges to an author’s interpretation of it from fans of a genre, but Boakye does well in his funny and easily absorbed consolidation of decades worth of music history. He gives himself a sensible number of songs to explore in Hold Tight, and readers will look forward to each track Boakye dissects as he often goes into the life of the artist who has created the song and delves into an area of grime that the track stems from and issues it raises (his writing on JME and Devlin are two standout moments in the book). At the end of almost every song Boakye adds humorous footnotes, and I especially enjoyed listening to the song Boakye was writing about while reading the book. I can’t imagine reading Hold Tight in any other way.
Boakye doesn’t neglect the instrumental side of grime either. Although I would have liked him to spend more time on producers and DJs who have been influential, such as Dot Rotten, DJ Target, Rude Kid and many others, he does give the genre’s other half a fair amount of attention.
Hold Tight’s tracklist contains songs that have been hugely significant to the genre, which is appropriate, but this does mean Boyake doesn’t fully explore all corners of grime. Songs like Akala’s Who’s the Gangsta?, Big Narstie’s Clocks, Flowdan’s Groundhog, Cadet’s 100 Phone Calls and Lethal Bizzle’s Million Pound Dream demonstrate another dimension of the genre that Hold Tight does touch on, but could have done so more had it a less popular tracklist.
Boakye speaks about grime’s recent growth throughout the book, and he backs this up consistently with references and great humour. He attributes the genre’s renewed popularity largely to the UK’s familiarity with, and love of, black men behaving badly, and the way he explains this is insightful and educational. Additionally, it would have been good if Boakye explored more reasons for grime’s resurgence, such as listeners living vicariously through grime artists as a response to modernity: in the age of the internet and where everything said is under society’s scrutiny, an MC is someone who loudly says whatever they want with unapologetic aggression. Millennials are the first generation to be born and become adults within a level of surveillance unheard of in human history. It’s possible that the MC satisfies the rebellious part of the abiding citizen who wishes they could say whatever they want but won’t risk doing so, so when their favourite artist says, “Greasy, that’s how I’m feeling, smoke weed ’til my eyes are bleeding, mum knows I smoke she don’t like it, when I don’t I think about fighting,” or “Fuck feds and fuck everyone in the world that don’t want me to be vocal,” (both lyrics are from Novelist’s Street Politician), for some listeners this is an external voice that reiterates how they feel, and at times may mean they can find a relief, through the MC, from always having to conform. Given Boakye’s style of writing, I feel like he would have been adept and concise at covering the latter perspective.
On the cover of Hold Tight it says “Black Masculinity, Millennials & the Meaning of Grime”. The first two subjects are inseparable from grime, and Boakye dips in and out of them seamlessly throughout the book. He explains how black music is the epitome of cool for the UK’s youth and thoroughly explores grime’s blackness as well as it being a predominantly male construct, often showing its masculinity as a double-edged sword: one that largely fuels the genre but unfortunately reinforces black male stereotypes. The essays towards the end of Hold Tight don’t say much that hasn’t already been said prior to them, but ‘Black mates and white niggas’ and ‘Beyond Rags and Riches’ are interesting essays on issues Boakye touches on in earlier pages. ‘Black mates and white niggas’ is about grime’s relationship with whiteness, and Boakye makes a good point that one of the reasons why the genre has resisted appropriation is because it is wed to authenticity, meaning all artists have to be real – regardless of race, and that being a good grime MC is hard while being skilled cannot be fabricated and takes years of work. ‘Beyond Rags and Riches’ looks at the mainstream’s failure to learn more about grime, and Boakye explains how that the marginalised not having a chance to be heard makes it difficult for established narratives to change.
I loved reading Hold Tight, and I agree with most things Boakye says in it, but his essay ‘Boys to Mandem’ made me confused about his stance on grime. In it, Boakye says that “grime stars are violent examples of masculine success, triumphing over the adversity of their ancestors by projecting seemingly invulnerable macho personas.” Masculinity is a big part of grime and, sadly, many artists fill stereotypes, but I disagreed with the latter quote and would argue that it is the mainstream that refuses to see grime as anything else but violent. Boakye, in a way, says this himself in ‘Beyond Rags and Riches’, so it’s a shame that in ‘Boys to Mandem’ he doesn’t acknowledge the areas of grime that are not fuelled by hyper masculinity even though many of grime’s most macho artists have shown the greatest sides of vulnerability and humanity: Crazy Titch’s Everybody, Riko Dan’s For My Son, Durrty Goodz’s Changes and K9’s Stress are songs by some of grime’s hardest MCs that are anything but toxic (there are many more). I found Boakye saying grime feeds stereotypes that “little boys feel the need to play up to for survival in a hopelessly gendered world” narrow-minded given how throughout Hold Tight he highlights moments in grime that feed anything but this, such as in the chapter Has It Come To This, where he says black grime artists, despite having equally introspective songs to that of Mike Skinner, only come to prominence because of their most aggressive moments. In the essay he also speaks about the genre’s increasing use of the term man as a possible indicator of there being more pressure in grime than before to “man up.” He says this without mentioning that the increasing use of man is, arguably, in correlation with the declining use of nigga in the genre and that grime is possibly shaving off that unpleasant American influence (Ruff Sqwad’s Down, 2006, features nigga no less than 18 times, while YGG’s Don’t Talk Like That, 2016, features man no less than 18 times without using nigga once). Lastly, this notion that grime now has more pressures to be hyper masculine is something Boakye slightly debunks himself in the book, but specifically when he breaks down Jammz’s 10 Missed Calls. He says the song could show the genre is “finally growing up” and that grime has “found a degree of mainstream acceptance that means it doesn’t need to be on the offensive anymore.”
Hold Tight as a whole gives the impression that Boakye is irritated by the media only focusing on grime’s negativity, but he himself knows that the genre is far more than this, yet ‘Boys to Mandem’ paints grime as nothing else but negative. As Boakye had excellently covered all of the issues in ‘Boys to Mandem’ in a more balanced way earlier in the book, I thought the essay contradicted his prior stance on the genre and would have been better left out.
Overall, Hold Tight deserves praise for its existence alone. There aren’t many books on grime, and Hold Tight is one of the first to look at grime from an outside perspective without the common support of biographical segments from artists, which is refreshing. No book on grime, or any other genre of music, will be perfect, but Hold Tight is a friendly, intelligent analysis that is an excellent read for grime fans. The opening part of it is particularly eye opening while the entire book is an entertaining read, and there are many tender moments in it that show the author cares a lot about the genre. Hardcore lovers of grime will know much of what Boakye speaks about post-2000 but will still learn a thing or two, while those who are not aficionados of the genre will find it the perfect tool to discover everything about grime and more.
Buy Hold Tight here: Influx Press
Follow Jeffrey Boakye on Twitter @unseenflirt
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