Alienation and Air Max: The Sneakers of UK Grime
Blasting from pirate radio stations at 140bpm, grime’s rapid-fire breakbeats reverberated from council estates in the early 2000s. Mutating from garage, dancehall and jungle, grime’s crude, cathartic sound delivered an honest portrayal of East London’s struggles in a new millennium. One of the most anarchic ascents in British music history, this is the story of how style and sneakers helped grime’s frenetic poets plough forward in search of a new identity.
‘Grime was about alienation’, says Simon Wheatley, author of Don’t Call Me Urban! ‘It was raw and painful.’ By the early 2000s, London’s council estates were flooded with young MCs desperate to articulate the struggles of their hand-to-mouth existence. Transmitted by pirate radio stations like Rinse FM, Deja Vu FM, and Heat FM, grime slowly found a voice through the static.
At the same time, American hip hop had become an economic and cultural powerhouse. MTV beamed out from televisions across London, and 50 Cent’s debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was advertised on billboards, bus stations, and trains across London. In some ways, the LP had become allegorical for grime.
‘Grime reflected the desperation of living in deprived circumstances’, says Simon. ‘But it also celebrated absurd material values. It wasn’t just about being able to buy a house and look after your family. There was an aspiration to be a billionaire.’
The sense of social and economic alienation splintered London’s poorest boroughs. For this reason, underground events like Lord of the Mics (LOTM) provided an important remedy for artists looking to share their lyrical talent.
Often filmed in grubby basements, LOTM was founded by Jammer and Chad ‘Ratty’ Stennett in 2004. Battling over grime’s syncopated breakbeats, MCs like Skepta, Kano and Wiley all eventually participated in the clashing. For a long time, grime lacked a fundamental aesthetic because it only existed on pirate radio. LOTM provided grime with a space to physically manifest.
‘Being able to wear something that was fresh – that was everything.’ explains Natalie Onofua, founder of the website Higher Melody. ‘The Air Max 95 was huge, because they were affordable. If you came out wearing a pair of dead, beaten-up shoes, you’d get cussed.’
Originally designed by Sergio Lozano, the anatomical Air Max 95 was nicknamed ‘110’ for their price, and set a paradigm for Air Max obsession within grime. With the genre still mostly confined to clandestine radio airwaves and underground battles, grime struggled to reach a global audience, so wearing a simple Nike tracksuit and Air Max sneakers quickly became the loudest flex.
For grime’s earliest adopters, it was all about finding creative ways to stunt your fit without burning a hole in your wallet.
‘A big thing for us was colour coordination’, Natalie remembers. ‘We’d swap out our 110’s laces to match our tops and hair ribbons. We didn’t have much money, so getting acknowledgement from your peers was everything.’
But for a long time, bigger brands like Nike weren’t eager to sponsor grime because of its associated violence. One of the first groups to break through was More Fire Crew from Waltham Forest, East London. But in the video clip shown on MTV, the Nike sweaters and sneakers were all blurred out – an irony considering the huge capital brands would amass from the movement in the following decades. (Dizzee Rascal, for instance, one of grime’s godfathers, released his first sneaker collaboration in 2005: the Air Max 180. He followed up with the Air Max 90 ‘Tongue N Cheek’ in the leadup to his 2009 LP.)
Jordan Hughes, a photographer for NME magazine, was witness to the second wave in 2015, when grime’s raucous sound had ears ringing across the globe. For Jordan, grime was less besotted by US hip hop’s materialist peacocking, and more concerned with establishing its own British identity. ‘For US hip hop, it’s all about looking like you’ve got as much money as possible’, he says. It’s a notion further explored in the lyrics of Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’: ‘You tryna show me your Fendi / I told you before, this shit don’t impress me’.
The idea of a British identity was also apparent in Skepta’s first sneaker collaboration: the Air Max 97 SK. ‘That was a huge moment for everyone in 2017’, says Jordan. ‘Like Dizzee, here’s another relatively normal guy with a Nike collaboration. For us to get recognised globally, it was huge.’
Modelled on the unique geographical palette of Morocco, the Air Max 97 also took aesthetic cues from the Air Tuned Max, – a sneaker beloved by Skepta in his youth.
But as artists like Stormzy, Skepta and Dizzee Rascal continue to launch high-profile collaborations with the likes of Nike and adidas, there’s still a deep sense of nostalgia for those documenting grime’s fledgling years in East London. For Simon, what began as a guerilla ascent powered by pirate radio and DIY software in some ways became a disappointing ‘reflection of corporate America’. And as grime became more commercially successful, the wardrobes reflected the newfound wealth.
‘Now it’s all about flossing because there’s money around’, argues Simon. ‘It’s all about the Gucci and Prada trainers. Even for the fans of grime. We’ve got this ridiculous situation now where people living in a council flat are spending 250 pounds on a pair of trainers. It’s just absurd, really.’
Has grime managed to establish its own unique identity, or has it conformed to American cues from across the pond? Furthermore, can ‘corporate American’ help emblazon a path for young British artists, or is it a marriage based on the bottomline? As grime continues to evolve and manifest in new frequencies like drill across the globe, Jordan believes the paradigm is shifting. In his mind, the community is now more aware than ever of the impacts of fashion.
‘I think a few years ago, we became very aware that high fashion labels generally weren’t using black culture in a positive way.’ Jordan argues. ‘It wasn’t helping black communities. If you were wearing Gucci, you weren’t necessarily helping black culture. You were just making rich people richer. I think it’s become more about community. About rising together as one through fashion or music. I think that’s why Skepta’s Air Max 97 SK did so well. Because there was this element of rising together. I think you’re starting to see people look after each other before anything else.’
In a way, it’s the same raw transmissions that powered pirate radio and pumped blood through silhouettes like the Air Max 95: a strong sense of community.
Get rich? Sure. But help the others tryin’.