Boys in the corner: Simon Wheatley’s images of Britain’s most exciting music subculture

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An atmosphere of simmering teenage angst permeates through the book’s pages: grey council estates, gangs in hooded apparel perched on street corners protecting their postcodes, tables covered with fast-food packaging and bags of weed, and groups of young men competing for their turn to spit on the microphone.

“What held my interest in it was the energy. It was exciting to be around,” Wheatley says. “Most of these guys probably couldn’t concentrate on a book for more than a few seconds, they were leaving school at 16 or getting kicked out earlier. [But] when everyone is in their own world writing down lyrics, in a studio and there’s a mic: that is a rare moment of focus.”

Bedroom studio. Isle of Dogs, East London
Bedroom studio, Isle of Dogs, East London

Grime is to London as hip-hop is to New York; the raw, organic musical expression of black youth living in an impoverished quarter of a gleaming city. It spawned out of east London’s pirate radio culture that took over from the UK garage scene of the late 1990s. Grime is aggressive, laced with lyrics about topics such as drug dealing and gang warfare — but with a stirring strain of melancholia. “You have to feel pain to do grime,” states Nyja, a character in ‘Grinding’, another of the app’s videos.

“It all got interesting around 2003 when Dizzee Rascal blew up,” Wheatley explains. “At that time in areas like Stratford and Plaistow, the sound seemed to resonate with the architecture; the whole run down, gritty culture. I feel lucky to have been there.”