It’s a Laugh…



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Laughing is scientifically proven to be a healthy life affirming activity and is one of the few traits that we all share, as laughter is a truly universal language. That is not to say that we will all have a giggle generated by the same stimulus, many people will have grown tired of jokes about toilets, bums and willies by the time they reach puberty. Blood and guts humour, black comedies and ‘the dark side’ may leave some people in stitches, while other people will blanch at the mere suggestion of vomit, let alone violence. Humour comes in so many forms that if you are a little slow, those puns can fly over your head like chuckling wasps, a possible reason why humour in music can be hard to ‘get’.

Another reason for this is that difference inherent in artistic movements, based on the value judgements between those things labelled into highly sophisticated genius or gutter level genres. The mass media has a capacity for labelling and stereotyping that is meant to keep everything in its prescribed place, and therefore controlled. Music has its share of rebellious proponents and the best rebels are always the jokers. Amusement is based on perception, full of subtle nuances and therefore if something seems to be too far outside of the familiar, its inherent charm or humour may be lost in translation. Controversy and comedy go hand in hand, not least because many people are willing to pay for these things. When musicians combine controversy and comedy, fundamentalists of all kinds come out in force warning of the apocalyptic dangers of cool people with a good sense of humour ‘corrupting the moral fabric’.

Take the Grime genre and trawl through the murky depths, and you will see that along with the all the beef and bravado, there are plenty of stylish and witty punch lines bouncing around. These draw in many aficionados and jostle for attention, a simile here and a metaphor here that strike you as genius until something deeper comes along. I think that Grime’s forte is in its ability to raise a smile and make us laugh out loud. If it was all about guns and fast cars, loose women and street life, then it would just be a twisted cousin of hip hop, but it’s a lot more than that. The funniest grime tune I know of is the parody, ‘Lips to da floor’ and remains a cult classic.

The fact is that in a genre rich with aggression and undermining diss lyrics, MCs go hard at belittling one another and it is sometimes outrageously funny. It can also be more than a little scary for the uninitiated. Every brilliant diss or pun is outnumbered ten to one by lines about violence, or self appraisal that knows no modesty. I hear MCs going on about their lyrical ability although they never say they are the funniest, its either they’ve got a tonne of money stacked up or about how ruthless they could be in a fight. Often these themes are as unimaginative as they are common.

Recently the humour has raised the stakes, and since I first heard Bearman on the Viagra Riddim this is what I listen out for in grime tunes. It might well be what brings grime to a mainstream audience that is bereft of jokes from their current headliners. Lily Allen has got jokes but I don’t dig them, she simply annoys me too much. Eminem would have bombed if the humour that laced his work had been replaced with his more bitter lyrics about the hard times he faced, or rhyme after rhyme about guns and bullets without his requisite irony.

Hearing a top flight battle tune can be like listening to two stand up comedians ripping into each other at a fast pace. In hip hop the battles can become weighed down and monotonously packed with gun threats, while the best in the game make light of these factors and subvert the norms. Take the Lord of the Mics beef between Skepta and Devilman, replete with accusations of Devilman disgracing himself in school and Devilman’s bars delivered in his hilarious Brummie twang with his trademark ‘Chinese’ nuggets thrown in. That was a back to back freestyle battle that included violence, ‘I’ll cut off his head with a saw’ (Devilman), ‘anytime you see me wearing the glove, boy better know I’ve got the gun in my boxers’ (Skepta), and it was none the worse for it. It was serious and had a hard edged humour to it that gave it character.

I also caught the recent video of Skepta’s album launch with a performance of ‘Disguise’, a whole Grime tune about transvestites. There is such a variety of themes to delve into and true lyricism is capable of taking the listener into different realms of consciousness. The transvestites theme has been done before, usually as an accusatory diss, but not with the transformers link on the beat and the almost celebratory tone that Skepta brings. Manliness is a big deal for a genre dominated by the lads, where effeminate behaviours are frowned upon and even the girls try to look hard. As the people involved in the music get older, as the game matures, we might see a whole raft of material being played for laughs instead of respect.

As JME would say it’s getting ‘serious’, this comedy vibe. In truth the other reason Grime has such potential to induce shits and giggles is that MCs play with words, and that means this is a scene where slang is being generated on a weekly basis. I love reading the Youtube comments asking ‘what’s a par?’. I suppose a par is anything you make it, a cuss or a joke. The ‘Next Hype’ song and video feature a typical robbery theme with a twist, smiling dudes in hoodies getting roughed up by Tempz, and the skit with Tim Westwood telling him off is a classic. The plays on Youtube are swiftly approaching 80,000 and that is a testament to the entertainment value here. As I said before we don’t all find the same things amusing, I can picture plenty of disgruntled viewers screwing up their faces while watching this video due to the glorification of violence. Those are the people who may not realise the tongue in cheek aspect of the tune. Meanwhile I stumbled on the Skillit ‘Skeen’ tune, as he takes a word we’ve been using for quite a while (‘skeen’) and devotes a song to it. At one point a dude on a park bench offers these words of wisdom,

‘You got a criminal record? You should get one you know, it’s good for you. I’ve got about two’. There are no wild gun references here but this is exactly the kind of grime that entertains people and caters for a wider audience. This way the people who are put off by conflict might open their ears wider and their minds may dilate too. Maybe the collective conscious of this still mostly underground genre doesn’t really care who listens or why, but it must be gratifying to know that you’re making everyone laugh.

I know there is a fair bit of humour in other parts of the musical spectrum and some of it has probably passed me by while I was listening to the Luniz on repeat. The capacity of an artist to challenge our sensibilities is to me one of the key points to being a true artist. The all round consummate performer should be able to incite a wide range of emotional responses from an audience. While the master of the art may have the majority confused and upset, or angry, or bored, the master should have a clutch of their audience rolling around like laughing gas abusers. It’s just so healthy for everyone involved to have a laugh, to laugh at ourselves and laugh a lot is a sign of creative progression. All that said, if people become too concerned with being funny in their music then they will lose their edge, I’m not promoting a ‘joke’ track on every new release because simply put, that would be prosaic and too much like wack bonus material.


Words by Mark Thomas