Grime and Gaming
One strain of my work on auto/biographical avatars and networked voices has addressed the relationship between grime music and videogames. This map acts as a complement to my published research, using grime's love affair with gaming as a window on configurations of space, identity and belonging in the networked world.
My article “‘All the Other Players Want to Look at My Pad’”: Grime, Gaming and Digital Identity’1 looked at how grime musicians have incorporated videogames into their musical identities via similes, samples and allusions. It argued that by hearing grime artists as both gamers and autobiographers, we can gain insights into the role of digital technologies in everyday identity work. As the map below suggests, grime is in some ways strongly rooted in specific neighbourhoods and communities (pins are densely clustered around east London, where pioneers like Wiley and Dizzee Rascal grew up). But, as a form developed by first- or second-generation African and Caribbean migrants steeped in American and Jamaican musical styles, grime also affirms what Alexander G. Weheliye has theorized as 'diasporic citizenship'2 while testifying (by way of repeated references to Nintendo, Sega and Capcom games) to Japan's outsize influence on digital pop culture. With the rise of the internet, grime has attained global reach - as is illustrated by the work of Senegalese-Kuwaiti artist Fatima Al Qadiri, who drew on grime's sound for Desert Strike, a record that saw her attempting to process the experience of living through the Gulf war, only to see the conflict remediated as a shoot 'em up a year later.
The map explores grime's entanglement with gaming by highlighting locations associated with Capcom's Street Fighter series (1987-present), Wiley's track 'Crash Bandicoot Freestyle' (2006) and Al Qadiri's Desert Strike (2012). Speaking to the modularity and mobility of digital media, these works also highlight the emergence of new forms of networked life writing.
Street Fighter (Capcom, 1987-present)
Red pins mark locations associated with Capcom's Street Fighter series, which has been a regular point of reference for grime artists. While Street Fighter came and went with little fanfare, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991) became a cultural phenomenon, turning one-on-one fighting games into one of the most popular videogame genres of the 1990s. Featuring eight playable characters, each with a distinctive fighting style, moveset and visual identity, the game provided a platform for showboating, self-expression and playful rivalry, initially finding success in arcades before being converted to a range of home systems. While, as Todd Harper notes, the game’s globe-spanning cast leans heavily on ‘cultural and ethnic stereotypes’3 this has done little to dent the lasting popularity of characters like the glamorous Chinese Interpol agent Chun Li or the ursine Russian wrestler Zangief. Notable products of grime's love affair with Street Fighter include Dizzee Rascal’s self-released white label ‘Street Fighter’ (which samples Yoko Shimomura’s theme for the Chun Li’s stage), Macabre Unit’s instrumental ‘Akuma’ (which references a character introduced in 1994’s Super Street Fighter II Turbo) and D Double E’s 2015 track ‘Street Fighter Riddim’, which samples sound effects from Street Fighter II, and in which the MC enlists characters from Super Street Fighter IV (2008) as his lyrical avatars as he shape-shifts from simile to simile.
Chuo Ward, Osaka, Japan
Osaka’s Chuo ward is home to Capcom, developers of the Street Fighter series – and to rivals SNK, creators of the King of Fighters franchise (1994-present). While Street Fighter II featured characters from around the world, Capcom didn’t necessarily look too far afield for inspiration - legend has it that the yogi Dhalsim was named after an Indian restaurant located near to Capcom’s office.
Cal Poly Pomona
Site of the 2004 Evolution fighting game championships, where Daigo Umehara's spectacular comeback against Justin Wong in a bout of Street Fighter III: Third Strike (Capcom, 1999) became one of the iconic moments of competitive gaming. Widely circulated via YouTube, the clip’s popularity prefigured the rise of ‘e-sports’ and the astounding success of the game streaming platforms like Twitch. Such moments find an echo in grime clashes, where MCs compete to ‘merk’ (murder) their rivals, using the beat as a springboard for killer couplets. This relationship is highlighted by the use of Street Fighter II samples in the Lord of the Mics series (which documents ‘clashes’ between MCs), and by grime DJ Logan Sama’s role as a commentator at Street Fighter tournaments – at least before a string of abusive and offensive tweets saw him dropped by Capcom.
Newham General Hospital
The video for D Double E’s ‘Street Fighter Riddim’ features a cameo from Footsie, a fellow member of the Newham Generals. The crew took its name from the Plaistow hospital immortalised in one of Double’s most durable couplets (‘if you mess with the Newham Generals / You’ll get left in Newham General’). With the 2012 Olympics came promises of ‘regeneration’ for Newham, but the conversion of the athlete’s village into what turned out to be not-so-affordable housing has largely confirmed the suspicions of those who predicted that these promises were merely alibis for gentrification and social cleansing.
‘Crash Bandicoot Freestyle’ (Wiley, 2006)
Orange pins mark locations associated with London grime MC and producer Wiley’s ‘Crash Bandicoot Freestyle’, which featured on his 2006 mixtape Tunnel Vision Vol. 1. The track provides another example of how grime musicians have mined videogames for sounds and imagery, alter egos and metaphors. Its title references Naughty Dog’s 1996 PlayStation game, while the lyrics see Wiley boasting of having ‘had the first Sega’ while listing the London postcodes he frequents, referencing his family’s roots in the West Indies and gesturing towards his history as a jungle MC.
Over the course of ‘Crash Bandicoot Freestyle’ Wiley describes himself as an ‘E2 weaver… Roman street sweeper’ and ‘E3 teacher’, referencing East London’s Roman Road, which runs from Bethnal Green into Bow, connecting the postcodes of E2 and E3. The same area was home to Dizzee Rascal (who, like Wiley, attended Bow Boy’s School) and to Ruff Sqwad.
One Canada Square
In ‘Crash Bandicoot Freestyle’ Wiley suggests that you ‘might see me draw a G at HSBC at Canary wharf. / Retail therapy’s me all week’. As Dan Hancox notes, Canary Wharf – and in particular the skyscraping One Canada Square – has long served as an aspirational symbol for east London grime artists. He cites Dizzee Rascal, Wiley’s erstwhile protégé and Roll Deep crewmate, who has said of the tower ‘It means the most to me, I could see it from all angles as a kid. That was the highest building I could see from my bedroom. And when I see it from south London, when I'm coming over from the Blackwall Tunnel, it always gets me excited… you see a little mini metropolis being built up... it's not quite as impressive as New York or Japan, but it's ours, innit?”4
The area’s history reflects Britain’s changing relationship with the rest of the world, from the early modern colonial era through the industrial age and into the current phase of post-industrial global capitalism. A shipping hub for centuries, the area has long been home to migrant communities. Britain’s turn away from industry and manufacturing, in tandem with introduction of shipping containers, lead to the closure of the docks in 1980, paving the way for Canary Wharf’s reinvention as financial centre and subsequent purchase by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund.
Crash Bandicoot Freestyle sees Wiley - who, like many grime artists is of Afro-Caribbean heritage - repping his ‘Trinidad bloodline', and also namedropping his ‘mum’s family… from Antigua' (where 'the sky is blue and the grass is greener’). In his memoir Eskiboy he notes ‘I’m from Trinidad… the Spanish have come down there and fucked about, and there’s Indian as well. I know wagwan in my head, and it’s cool, but when I go to America, and I speak in an English accent, the black people there hear a white Englishman’, and remembers being ‘taught… about invading countries like it was a good thing’ in in school.5
Desert Strike (Fatima Al Qadiri, 2012)
Green pins mark locations associated with Fatima Al Qadiri’s Desert Strike EP, which provides an instrumental ‘soundtrack’ to her childhood experiences of living through the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War. An example of the new forms of war writing that (as Alisa Miller's Ego-Media research shows) are emerging online, the record draws on the sonic vocabulary of grime - which, with its severe percussion and seismic bass, sampled gunshots and interpolation of videogame sound effects, has been described by Al Qadiri as simultaneously ‘martial’, ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘childlike’.6 The EP’s title comes from the American shoot ‘em up Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf (Electronic Arts, 1992), a game that Al Qadiri and her sister played as children. Al Qadiri has described Desert Strike as ‘the most sinister videogame I’ve ever played’, noting ‘I’m sure every kid who lived through some kind of military conflict and had that conflict turned into a videogame is deeply disturbed by it.’7
For Al Qadiri the Failaka ruins, located on an island just off the Kuwaiti coast, are emblematic of Kuwait’s status as ‘one of the most haunted places on earth. Even with all the concrete and highways and esplanades. It's very creepy. We have Greek ruins in Kuwait. Alexander the Great built sacrificial temples on one of our islands. I always feel some kind of dread there.’8
Nine years old when Saddam Hussein invaded, Al Qadiri has ‘been asked questions about the Occupation of Kuwait and the First Gulf War that followed in countless interviews. My response has always been to frame it as witnessing and surviving an apocalypse. The destruction of buildings and the widespread degradation of the environment were so severe that Kuwait briefly looked like Hell or Mars, depending on your optimism.' When Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf was released in 1992 she had the opportunity to experience the conflict from another perspective: that of a US helicopter pilot attacking Iraqi forces. While this experience was ‘disturbing’, she has also suggested that playing the game allowed her to reclaim a sense of agency.9
Fashion Island, San Mateo
Electronic Arts was based in San Mateo at the time of Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf's 1992 release. Founded by Trip Hawkins in 1983, the publisher drew inspiration from United Artists, declaring in promotional materials that its ‘software artists’ were determined to make games that surpassed cinema in their capacity to elicit raw emotion.10 By 1992 these hifalutin ambitions had been tempered, and Hawkins had left to found the 3DO company, whose much-hyped ‘interactive multiplayer’ would not in fact be the platform to herald a brave new multimedia era.
At this point EA’s games were arguably distinguished less by ‘artistry’ than the pursuit of a certain kind of realism. 1988’s John Madden Football inaugurated a highly successful line of sports games that would remediate (and reshape) the conventions of TV sports coverage. For critics like Bignell, meanwhile, Desert Strike was noteworthy for ‘reproduc[ing] the form of the television coverage of [a] war… presented as “clean”, dehumanised and well-managed.’11 The game was already in development when Operation Desert Shield was launched, and is hardly an interactive documentary (here players take up arms against the dictator ‘General Kilbaba’ rather than Saddam Hussein), but it traded nevertheless on its topicality, with the developers switching the setting from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf to capitalise on interest in the conflict.
NYU: Department of Linguistics
In interviews Al Qadiri has emphasised the importance of her time studying linguistics at NYU for both her music and her sense of identity, noting
‘there's a strong bond between language and national identity, but my education was very English and colonial. I felt an outsider. I always felt lost, inferior, supremely alienated by Arabic… I thought Arabic was bizarre, dusty, absolutely irrelevant.... until I studied linguistics and found the magical word 'triglossic'. This means the existence of different varieties of a language in different situations… It was like unlocking the biggest puzzle of my life. Later, when text-messaging came into play, I was like, 'Woah!'"12
Discussing her relationship with the musical genres she has borrowed and reconfigured, she notes ‘I’m an outsider to all those genres; I don’t belong to any nations or peoples that have made any of these genres, hence the absolute need to reinterpret that, to divorce that as much as I can from the source.’ She has also argued that there is an ‘autobiographical’ dimension to her engagement with grime, however, ‘because I’ve been going to London every summer since I was a kid, so all these UK genres are very meaningful to me.‘13
1. Rob Gallagher, “‘All the Other Players Want to Look at My Pad’: Grime, Gaming, and Digital Identity,” G|A|M|E Games as Art, Media, Entertainment 1, no. 6 (2017), https://www.gamejournal.it/?p=3150. ↩
2. Alexander G Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). 147. ↩
3. Todd Harper, The Culture of Digital Fighting Games: Performance and Practice (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017). 109. ↩
4. “Interview: Fatima Al Qadiri,” The FADER, accessed April 25, 2019, https://www.thefader.com/2012/11/12/interview-fatima-al-qadiri. ↩
5. Dan Hancox, Stand Up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime (Kindle Editions, 2013), https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stand-Up-Tall-Dizzee-Rascal-ebook/dp/B00E96DOT0. ¶5.14. ↩
6. Wiley, Eskiboy (London: Wiliam Heinemann, 2017). 285-6.. ↩
7. Sukhdev Sandhu, “Fatima Al Qadiri: ‘Me and My Sister Played Video Games as Saddam Invaded,’” The Guardian, May 5, 2014, sec. Music, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/may/05/fatima-al-qadiri-interview-kuwait-invasion-saddam. ↩
8. Ruth Saxelby, “How Music Delivered Me From Hell, According To Fatima Al Qadiri,” The FADER, accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.thefader.com/2016/03/17/fatima-al-qadiri-personal-history-brute. ↩
Sandhu, “‘Me and My Sister Played Video Games Sas Saddam Invaded.’” ↩
9. See Aubrey Anable, Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2018). vii-ix.. ↩
10. Jonathan Bignell, “The Meanings of War-Toys and War-Games,” in War, Culture, and the Media: Representations of the Military in 20th Century Britain, ed. Ian Stewart and Susan L Carruthers (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1996). 177-8.. ↩
11. “Interview: Fatima Al Qadiri,” The FADER, accessed April 25, 2019, https://www.thefader.com/2012/11/12/interview-fatima-al-qadiri. ↩
12. Ibid.. ↩