Touch the Road and it’s Shutdown: Grime Music and Street Protests Meet at the Cross Road

On December 2015, the Guardian chose Skepta’s “Shutdown,” as the best track of the year. [1] A month later, the paper released an editorial titled, “The Guardian view on grime music: sound of protest.” Indeed, in the music industry, mid-2010’s has been marked by the rise of grime music. For many people that are not accustomed to this genre, Skepta’s song can be uncomfortable to listen to. In this blog post, I will analyze different elements that make the song a heavy music. Then, I will discuss the significance of the popularity of the song, as well as its social impacts.

The song opens with the sampling of Drake’s Vine video where he says, “Mans never been in Marquee when it’s shut down, eh? Trusss mi daddi.” In the opening two bars of the song, its simple and dark main loop (G-D-B♭-G-F#-F#-G) is introduced. Two lines of notes that are an octave apart are played together in staccato strings on the synthesizer. The higher notes grab the listener’s attentions, while the lower line of notes adds a dense layer of texture to the melody. After the two bars, square wave bass, drum percussion, and Skepta’s rap are poured on top of the loop. Loud square wave bass that plays the same loop melody rumbles in the ears. Speedy, syncopated, staccato high-hat percussion pours into the ears to hit the ear drums. On top of these layers of sounds, Skepta raps the chorus of the song: “That’s not me and it’s shutdown/…/Touch the road and it’s shutdown / Boy better know when it’s shutdown.”Along with his confident and fierce tone, his rapid rapping that repeats the word “shutdown” at the end of each bar, boils the intensity of the song to its maximum capacity.  “Shutdown” is a slang term for describing an overly aroused and excited atmosphere. In his hook, Skepta boasts about how he can cause a “shutdown” wherever he goes.

During the verse, minimalistic instrumental is played in the back, as the original two lines of notes are gone. Booming square wave bass line and the percussion continues to arouse the ear drums, while small xylophone sound is added to play parts of the main loops. Though the instrumental remains minimalistic, his music is still remains heavy due to his style of rapping and the lyrics. Throughout the verse, Skepta continues on with his fast-paced rapping with his coarse voice. His defiant tone and British accent adds an extra rough fabric of sound. Through his lyrics, he boasts and takes pride in being a prominent grime music artist that garnered respects through the years. Moreover, his lyrics contain disdain for politics and mistrust in the police, as can be seen in the following lines: “God knows I don’t wanna go prison/ But if a man wanna try me, trust me, listen/ Me and my Gs ain’t scared of police/ We don’t listen to no politican/ Everybody on the same mission/ We don’t care about your -isms or schisms.” From the instrumentals to Skepta’s fiery delivery to his provocative lyrics, “Shutdown” is full of elements that makes the song intense and dynamic that is heavy on the ears to listen to.

The popularity of “Shutdown” epitomizes the rise of grime music to the mainstream media.  Grime music emerged in East London during the 90’s. In the early stage, grime artists could not play their songs at the mainstream radio stations, as the stations played only “potential pop hits”[4]. As such, the musicians had to take the DIY route to produce and popularize their music. Rappers played their songs through pirate radio stations and websites where they could stream live videos. Over the years, as technologies developed, the artists began to capitalize on powerful online avenues to promote their music. Emergence of Youtube, Soundcloud, and Spotify allowed the artists to upload their songs to garner world-wide audience. Social networking services, such as Facebook or Instagram, gave the artists platforms to make “direct access to the consumers.” [3,4] Finally, in 2014, grime music rose to the mainstream with hit singles from prominent grime rappers, such as Stormzy, Big Narstie, and Skepta. [5] In 2015, Skepta released his fourth album, Konnichiwa, that was met with worldwide critical acclaim. For his album, he won the prestigious 2016 Mercury Prize. His single, “Shutdown,” from the album became his biggest hit, with the music video currently approaching 27 million view counts on Youtube. This is all the more impressive considering that his album was released from an independent record label, Boy Better Know, that he co-founded in 2005. [6] Popular US rappers, Kanye West and Drake, have begun collaborating with grime rappers and this shows that grime music has, indeed, risen to prominence. [5, 7]

With its rise, grime is starting to become the main “sound of protest” in UK. Since the early stages of grime, MCs have delivered lyrics that depict the typical life of a working-class black Londoner, vulnerable to becoming a victim of crime. [2] However, it is not only due to the lyrical content that grime is being used in protests. It is also the genre’s affective overdrive that can arouse immense amount of passion and energy from the listeners. Bramwell notes that such passion “have been mobilized at strategic moments” to challenge the political elites. In 2010, UK university students protested at the Parliament Square against the rise in the tuition fee and the government’s spending-cut on education. Grime music was played during the protest, and this highlighted that grime can “provide valuable resources for marginalized groups to challenge the legitimacy of the government’s actions.” [8] In the same light, it is not only the political lyrics mentioned earlier, but also Skepta’s ferocious and fearless tone, along with the intensity of the music, that turns “Shutdown” into a powerful protest song. The song has already become a protest anthem for Black Lives Matter UK. [6]

The main strength of Skepta’s “Shutdown” lies in its ability to stir up powerful emotions from the listener. The aggressiveness of the instrumentals blends with the fierce and defiant tone of Skepta to resonate with the anger that the audience feels towards the society. Indeed, even though I do not have any ties to London, I recall feeling cathartic after listening to the track, when I was upset at the current situations in the United States and in South Korea. As grime music becomes more popular globe-wide, “Shutdown” can turn into a protest anthem in places outside of UK and cause many more “shutdown” in the streets.

[1] Beaumont-Thomas, Ben. “The best track of 2015: Shutdown by Skepta.” The Guardian. December 21, 2015. Accessed February 14, 2017.

[2] Editorial. “The Guardian view on grime music: sound of protest.” The Guardian. January 02, 2017. Accessed February 14, 2017.

[3] Mcgrath, Sean, Alan Chamberlain, and Steve Benford. “The Grime Scene.” Proceedings of the Audio Mostly 2016 on – AM ’16, 2016. doi:10.1145/2986416.2986433.

[4] Dredge, Stuart. “UK Grime: How artists ripped up the music industry rulebook.” Musically. February 1, 2017. Accessed February 14, 2017.

[5] Garofalo, Jack. “The Rise, Fall and Resurgence Of Grime Music.” The Source. December 09, 2015. Accessed February 14, 2017.

[6] Hunter-Tilney, Ludovic. “Mercury prize for Skepta puts grime in the mainstream.” Financial Times. September 16, 2016. Accessed February 14, 2017.

[7] Renshaw, David. “Skepta confirms Drake has signed with his BBK label.” NME. October 17, 2016. Accessed February 14, 2017.

[8] Bramwell, Richard. UK hip-hop, grime and the city: the aesthetics and ethics of London’s rap scenes. New York: Routledge, 2015.


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