The Internet is still obsessing over Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, but if you ask Drake himself what his current obsessions are, he’d probably mention grime, a U.K.-born genre that owes equal debts to hip-hop, dancehall, drum and bass, and late 1990s ringtones.
Drake’s not the only rap dude who likes grime. Kanye premiered “All Day” at the Brit awards with a flamethrower and an entire squadron full of grime luminaries. Drake is particularly dedicated, though: Last week, he got himself a BBK tattoo in homage to grime heavyweight Skepta’s “Boy Better Know” crew, and it seems like there may be a collaboration in the works.
But U.K. grime needs validation from outsiders as much as you need a punch in the mouth, and anyway, the scene can’t be bothered getting all starry-eyed at the possibilities of a Drake grime collab; they’re too busy freaking out over a homegrown series of neo-Renaissance paintings of grime superstars, like this depiction of Dizzee Rascal looking like the grime nobility that he is.
This all started last month, when Reuben Dangoor, a 27-year-old self-taught artist from North London, quietly tweeted out a classically painted image of Skepta, sitting regally atop a horse and waving the Union Jack.
This quickly turned into a series of images of grime rappers painted as landed gentry, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive: tens of thousands of retweets, official nods from artists themselves and features on music sites such as Fader, Vice and NME.
Dangoor, who grew up in the U.K. garage and grime scenes, started the series as a playful homage to his favorite artists. But, he says, the paintings have taken on a deeper meaning for the rest of the scene, as people are finding a bridge between “fine” art and a set of cultural references that are meaningful for subculture-oriented youth in the United Kingdom.
Dangoor’s early experiences with the traditional art canon were somewhat ambiguous: He’d go to art galleries and watch people gush over Renaissance-era paintings or other well-established artworks. But sometimes he just didn’t understand what people saw in the paintings because some of the cultural references were over his head.
“Now, you’ve got young kids who might not be going to art galleries and stuff,” Dangoor says. “And they’re the ones who are able to see stuff in these [grime] paintings.”
For example, in the D Double E portrait, the MC is dressed as a general because he’s part of a group called the Newham Generals. He also wears a medal that says “Street Fighter,” which is a clever nod to an infamous track that is full of Street Fighter II references.
Then there’s the Stormzy painting. Stormzy stands in a posh room sipping tea, surrounded by symbolism: On the floor is a shoe box from his “Know Me From” video, and he wears the same red Adidas tracksuit that he sported in his “Shut Up” video.
In the background is his heritage: the U.K. flag (naturally), the Ghanaian flag (he is of Ghanaian descent) and a picture of the godfather of grime, Wiley (Stormzy called himself a “child of grime”).
And here’s Dangoor’s depiction of Wiley himself, ready for battle in a full suit of armor and sitting atop his trusty steed. But instead of a horse, it’s a motorcycle. This one isn’t too deep: It’s “because Wiley rides bikes,” says Dangoor.
Speaking of the U.K.’s own Wiley, Dangoor’s work has been compared recently to another artistic originator with the same name: Kehinde Wiley, the Brooklyn-based artist whose beautifully evocative images of black people in streetwear adorn the set of Fox’s “Empire.”
Dangoor hadn’t heard of Kehinde Wiley before, but says after he released his first painting, his cousin told him about “Empire,” and Wiley’s work. He started looking at Kehinde Wiley’s paintings and was a little worried about being accused of plagiarism, especially because the Brooklyn artist also has painted U.S. hip-hop legends such as LL Cool J and Ice T.
“I didn’t want to step on his toes, but I guess part of me felt it was still OK. … My style of painting was based off 1700s paintings of how aristocracy was represented here [in the United Kingdom], and it’s quite a niche thing to represent grime in that way.”
I wasn’t able to reach Kehinde Wiley to see what he thinks about Dangoor’s paintings. But so far, all comparisons to his Brooklyn counterpart have been kind, and Dangoor appreciates them. “The guy’s amazing, and his work is incredible. He’s turning stuff on its head, and that’s what art should do.”
For now, Dangoor says he’s taking a break from the series, even though he’s constantly getting requests for new artists. He says there are more to come, but he’s keeping quiet about who will be spotlighted next.
He is pretty open about his love for Novelist’s Channel U throwback “Endz” video, though. Maybe we’ll see a skateboard-wielding teenager standing in an elegant staircase soon.
Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.
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