Format: CD / Label: Roll Deep Recordings
Roll Deep, the grime group once spearheaded by Dizzee Rascal and Wiley – though the pair are now an ex-member and fringe member respectively – have never made an album truly representative of their talent. Their highest profile LP, In At The Deep End featured classic tracks but was made with a firm eye on the mainstream, while ‘mixtape album’ Rules and Regulations featured too much filler to hold up over time. It’s generally best to pretend 2008’s Return of the Big Money Sound never happened. Street Anthems is a Greatest Hits collection rather than an album of new material, and predictably is the best Roll Deep full length by miles.
It opens with three of the best vocal grime tracks of all time: the previously unreleased vocal of Wiley’s ‘Eskimo’ instrumental and posse cuts ‘When I’m Ere’ and ‘Roll Deep Regular’. The level of innovation on the production of these three tracks is spectacular: ‘Eskimo’ is early grime’s most seminal track, made up of basic percussion, creeping pads and Wiley’s ‘Eski’ bass sound that would become his trademark, and the other two are Danny Weed tracks centered around gypsy accordion and a camera flash. If you want to know what people mean when they describe grime as brilliant minimalism, listen to these three tracks – it should go without saying that the MCing matches the production round for round.
But the strongest testament of Street Anthems’ quality is the fact that it doesn’t tail off after that opening onslaught. It continues with the celebratory ‘Do This Ting’, showcasing Skepta and Wiley in playful form in early ’07 when they were easily grime’s two best MCs. After briefly returning to the Dizzee days with white label single ‘Bounce’, Street Anthems picks through album highlights ‘Babylon Burner’, ‘Heat Up’ and the surprisingly good Trident-commissioned anti-gun track ‘Badman’. Even ‘Shake a Leg’ doesn’t let the side down, Wiley brilliantly opening the calypso chart hit with “Oi, Dan, whatchu call this / Why have you got me spitting on this?”
The album’s second half doesn’t quite match the first, but it’s full of quality, from the ‘Eskimo’ remix where Roll Deep members spit eight bars each, capturing the urgency of the crew’s prime pirate radio sets, to classic slow jam ‘U Were Always’ and In At The Deep End’s touching ‘Remember the Days’. Even ‘Avenue’, the crew’s biggest chart hit that provoked a slightly red-faced Top of the Pops appearance, finds its “I got it the hard way” chorus take on new meaning in a compilation that charts the group’s rise.
Closer ‘Movin in Circles’ is dreadful, but tacked on the end of a nineteen track comp it’s easy to ignore: overall Street Anthems succeeds, not just as a reminder that Roll Deep have made loads of great music, but as a demonstration of – and antidote to – grime’s post-Dizzee incompatibility with the album format. Street Anthems, Gremlinz – will ’10 be the year grime masters the retrospective?