London’s 21st century musical geography is intensely hyper-local. Tower Hamlets and Newham in the east, Lewisham in the southeast and Tottenham in the northeast are all grime heartlands, while neighbouring boroughs barely a mile or two away, like Hackney, Southwark and Lambeth, are better known for rap.
There’s some serious anthropological work, or at least some wild speculation, still to be done on this, but the specific evolution of different pirate radio stations probably have something to do with it. In the meantime, it is worth paying tribute to a Brixton crew who straddled those boundaries, made both road rap and grime and whose greatest anthem was – like them – too uncompromising, too gangster to ever touch the mainstream.
Road rap is one of the great unwritten stories of recent UK music. It never got close to the same level of attention from the media or the music industry as grime or UK garage. In the mid-to late ’00s, with grime on the wane, London rap crews took US beats and delivered their own vocals over the top. Although still new, YouTube became a fundamental platform, along with the remaining pirate stations and the DIY mix CD format, and the underground flourished selling straight to its teenage fans. Giggs’s crew SN1 from nearby Peckham became popular enough to sustain their own flesh-and-blood local merchandise shop.
Roadside G’s made rap and grime, but also seemingly operated as an actual street crew – leading to online gossip about just how real their hardcore tales of gats and gangbangs really were (general consensus: probably quite real). Paul “Slackk” Lynch compiled a thrilling compilation of the best bits of their frantic pirate radio sets, there are a few excellent mixtapes kicking around and they even made an unexpected comeback on Radar Radio recently (two members short, thanks to prison sentences). But their anthem will always be 2007’s “Can’t Come 2 Da Roadside.”
The track opens like a military song, with a fanfare of brass and an actual, Napoleonic Wars, marching band-style drum roll. Then the MCs come in and drag us forward three centuries in three seconds, their grim and nihilistic flows falling over themselves, verbal chest-beatings somehow squeezing a bit of local pride and bleak social realism into the histories of violence. Brixton has been a self-supporting, inspiring site of community-orientated multiculturalism for decades now – in spite of both police racism and violence, and the grim youth street violence that Roadside G’s documented as “gangster grime” (and perhaps, took part in).
When Roadside G’s aren’t talking about their choice of tools or drive-bys, it’s made abundantly clear (even in a four minute track) that their gang shtick would not exist without the world – the Brixton “roadside,” the entrenched poverty, poor housing estates and lack of escape routes – that produced it. “I rep SW9 on the road / Broken ni**as from homes on the road” spits R.A. Next up, MC Den Den is even more candid: “There’s bear man with no hope / Kids with kids who can’t cope / No joke, it’s dog eat dog, cut-throat on the road / everyone says they’re broke on the road.”
You’re left both charged up and exhausted after each listen.
The song’s chorus doesn’t entirely scan, sitting awkwardly on top of the beat, and this is all somehow part of the hectic appeal; as if a chorus that scanned might be too clean, too commercial – not “road” enough. With the opening trumpet fanfare repeated, siren-like, with each chorus, you’re left both charged up and exhausted after each listen.
Only a grainy version of the song’s music video remains on YouTube – a quintessential hood video, shot around Brixton with a few extraneous sledgehammer-subtle cut-aways to “Shooters Hill” (actually on the other side of South London), “Gun Street” (in East London), “no snitching” t-shirts and some police tape. The story goes that at the height of its underground success, the song was banned from the late, lamented hub for 2000s rap and grime, cable TV station Channel U, on the orders from London’s Metropolitan Police specialist gang violence unit, Operation Trident. Either way, like American gangster rap at its best, Roadside G’s tunes are full of both bleak, horror-show violence and musical thrills; it’s the epitome of grime at its most hardcore.