TEN TALKS TO SIMON WHEATLEY
Few photographers can say they were there at the birth of a subculture. Even less can say they captured one that would go on to change the face of British music forever. Stood behind the lens as grime grew in London’s underbelly through the early aughts as the most exciting thing since UK garage, a quick glance at Simon Wheatley’s back catalogue and you’ll spot gaggles of the biggest acts that grace the British Isles today; baby-faced, wide-eyed and on the brink of greatness. “Photography should always move you, otherwise it doesn’t count for much,” says the photographer today, having spent over a decade photographing Skepta, Wiley, JME, D Double E, Dizzee Rascal, DJ Target and a legion of inner-city aspiring musicians who birthed a sound in East London tower blocks that would go on to be the blueprint for contemporary British rap.
After spending the most part of the last 10 years in Asia, Wheatley is now back in London, taking the position of Abbey Road Studios’ photographer-in-residence. Here, he has been tasked with judging The Championing Scenes category as part of the inaugural Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards. In partnership with Hennessy, the first prize of its kind will “celebrate the spirit of music scenes across the globe”, with judging input from the likes of Rankin, Moses Sumney and Shygirl.
For the Championing Scene Award, Wheatley invites photographers at all levels to submit work that documents a burgeoning scene anywhere in the world. Here, we sit down with him to find out what he’s looking for.
How did you get involved with Abbey Road Studios to become its photographer-in-residence?
“They contacted me rather out of the blue. I was living mostly in Calcutta at the time, I’d been exploring my ancestry over there and had actually begun learning Indian classical music myself to deepen that search, as I had discovered that I descend from a musical family. So it really came at the right time, especially as I was coming to the point where I was ready to return to London – though I had to fly back for the first gig I had with Abbey Road. That was a Nile Rodgers session with Craig David, so it was a pretty big one first up.
I remember being nervous before I walked into the studio where they were in the midst of their work but that’s also part of the fun – the bigger the challenge. I just sat down on a sofa and chilled, and I think it really helps that I’m now also on the other side of the instrument as it were, that I can absorb the process of making music. I feel my decade in Asia – particularly my exposure to the philosophy of Taoism – has also deepened the realisation that photography just happens, that it’s always incidental to something else.”
You’re the guest judge for the Championing Scenes category for the Music Photography Awards, what are you looking for from applicants?
“Photography should always move you, otherwise it doesn’t count for much. I would hope to see work that reflects some emotional investment.”
The category spotlights the vibrancy of global subcultures and the people carving out these burgeoning scenes. What initially drew you to the grime scene in London?
“The rawness of the sound and the way it reflected the lives of those behind it, the alienation and the aggression, the hope amidst the hopelessness… I never saw grime as a ‘scene’, more as an energy that had sprung up from the decaying council estates of East London.”
Was there certain moments where you realised this was to be a genre which reshaped the British music scene?
“I think that realisation has only come recently. Remember that grime went quiet. The first generation of stars made pop songs – Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder went that way and somewhat alienated their original fan base on the streets of Bow E3, the spiritual home of grime from where they both came. Then Giggs emerged with his real life street talk from South London and suddenly people who had been all about 140bpm were slowing down their tempo. Giggs blew up without having to water down his words and the streets were impressed. That was very interesting because I’d known him from his underground days when he and his crew were convinced I was an undercover cop, but still, back in 2009 his was too isolated a phenomenon to imagine what was to come.
People used to say grime was dead, and when I put out my book Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime in 2010 I myself felt that I’d witnessed a chapter that had passed, with Wiley’s “Wearing my Rolex” cementing that move that a few emcees had made into the pop charts. I thought grime would always be that raw underground thing, a momentary expression of post-Thatcherite discontent. Then of course Skepta went back to his grime roots and blew up with that around 2014 and suddenly grime was mainstream, with Stormzy coming through. It’s been something of a gradual evolution that has taken me by surprise, especially when I think back to my early days of documenting things in the late ’90s when popular Black music was all about the USA.”
What musical subcultures in London today excite you?
“I’m yet to see something. Drill is the descendent of grime, very similar culturally, and although I find it interesting on a social level – with that gulf between hopes and dreams having been both narrowed and widened at the same time – the streets are not as effervescent as they used to be. Grime had a certain innocence to it that’s been lost, I feel. These polarised times we are living, post-Brexit, are interesting and I’d love to come across something new, but epoch-defining subcultures don’t emerge very often either. Punk was a whole generation before grime.”
Do you think social media helps or hinders the growth of new subculture?
“That may well be part of the problem. Perhaps we know too much too soon and the secret can’t evolve.”
How do you think taking part in the competition will help young photographers?
“I feel that any initiative that encourages a young photographer to think about their work and to edit their pictures into coherent narratives will be helpful regardless of the result of their application. Life is about the journey not the destination, and I have learned that we are always sowing seeds that flower at times unbeknown to us in the future.”
What advise do you have for young photographers wanting to get involved with a growing subculture but are outside of the loop?
“Don’t try. Do. If you have to try it’s never a good thing. And remember the importance of curiosity, it’s the basis of creativity.”
Photography by Simon Wheatley. Register for the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards here.