In the seedy underbelly of London, new music has always thrived. Whether it’s punk or dubstep, drum’n’bass or industrial. For decades, futuristic-sounding genres have been born under Big Ben’s shadow. In the early 2000s, it was hip hop’s turn to get a London twist. While the rest of the world enjoyed safe-sounding exports like Coldplay, locals doubled down on bad debt — and East London teenagers seemed to sense something ominous lurking around the corner.
Inspired by high-tempo UK dance music like jungle and garage, this new breed of young music producers warped these once bouncy beats into something altogether meaner-sounding. Its name? Grime.
Spawning chart-topping artists like Stormzy and Dizzie Rascal (and even influencing hip-hop royalty like Drake and Kanye), grime is undoubtedly one of the most important UK exports of recent years. Yet, while the aggressive-sounding genre is now synonymous with the British streets, it turns out the first grime instrumental can actually be traced back to somewhere far nerdier — a boss battle in a 1994 Wolverine Super Nintendo game.
Forget JME, Grime Started on SNES
While ‘raw’ and ‘edgy’ aren’t words you’d normally associate with the high-pitched bleeps and bloops of SNES soundtracks, this tense boss battle theme used its low bitrate, limited samples, and jagged string sections to create something that sounded genuinely ominous. Put it on today and the track clearly bears all the hallmarks of a grime instrumental. Yet, thanks to Wolverine: Adamantium Rage itself being a bit crap, this futuristic hip-hop instrumental was very nearly lost to the passage of time.
“Because it’s a boss fight later on in the game, every time I’d meet up with my mates [who worked on Wolverine: Adamantium Rage], we always used to talk about the main theme tune and laugh about it,” recalls composer Dylan Beale with a smile. “But I never really [went back] and listened to that boss track… I forgot all about it.”
For most of the early 2000s, so did the rest of the world. Until 2016, Pulse X by Youngstar, released in 2002, was credited as being the first ever grime track. But thanks to a fateful Google search by aspiring grime producer, Sir Pixalot in the summer of ’16, we now know grime was first created eight years earlier — for the OG badman himself, Wolverine.
“What I heard from [Sir Pixalot], is that Wolverine was like a thing in grime,” explains Beale. “So he was just randomly looking for some Wolverine samples, came across my track and was just like: ‘Oh my god’.”
Realising that he’d discovered musical gold, the producer quickly whacked a grime acapella over the SNES track — and hip-hop history was made.
“It was only when Sir Pixalot got the acapella and chucked it over the top that [I re-discovered it and thought], ‘Oh f–ing hell, that’s amazing.’ It was the ultimate mashup moment. You get an acapella, some tune from a bygone era, put the two things together and it’s like an epiphany. These things were perfectly matched,” says Beale.
From Struggling Artist to Hip-Hop Hero
While he’s now jokingly referred to as ‘the Grimefather’ by his friends, when Beale first moved to London in 1990, he never dreamed he’d be credited as someone who birthed a new music genre. Working in a record shop in Wood Green, he spent his early twenties selling garage and acid house records by day, and making beats with his housemates at night. The problem was, he wasn’t making a penny. Luckily, a friend in the games industry soon presented him with a way to turn his musical talents into cold, hard cash.
“In 1992/1993 we got approached by a friend who wanted [my housemates and me] to pitch as a group for the Aliens 3 soundtrack for the SEGA CD,” says Beale. “So we pitched for this Alien 3 CD game… but ended up not getting the deal.”
While he thought that would be the beginning and end of his video game career, luckily, that same company was also hiring for a new position in its audio department. “I applied for the job and basically got it straight away… and the first thing I got to work on was Wolverine.”
In between DJing at raves and writing tunes, Beale would find himself obsessively playing cult Atari ST shoot ‘em up Xenon 2. With the soundtrack featuring one of gaming’s first vocal sample-led theme tunes, the composer quickly decided that sample-based electronic music was the way forward for game soundtracks. It turned out though, the game’s US publisher Acclaim had other ideas.
“With Acclaim being American they really wanted guitar-driven rock music, heavy metal,” says Beale. “So one of the reasons the main theme [for Wolverine: Adamantium Rage] was very hip hop was kind of me trying to emulate a little bit of that West-coast hip-hop style as a way to appease the American publisher while still having that flavour that we like over here in the UK.”
A Bit of a Problem
But after successfully convincing the publisher that sample-led hip hop was the right fit for Wolverine, Beale quickly ran into a problem — the SNES cartridge itself.
He says, “When I actually started work on [the score], I had the horrible realisation that the SNES cartridge only had a few megabytes of memory and the audio had to be done – including the code – in 200 kilobytes.”
Having already waxed lyrical about how integral samples were to the soundtrack, Beale had no choice but to find a way to make this work. Luckily, he had help. While he was the lone composer for Wolverine: Adamantium Rage, he had someone else helping him to make the audio code play nicely with the rest of the game — Shahid Ahmad. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is the same Shahid Ahmad who’d go on to become Sony’s Head of Strategic Content — and ultimately bring a wealth of indie games to PlayStation 4.
“I convinced Shahid that we could make this work,” says Beale. “We worked together right from the beginning, he wrote the code for this game and got the audio drivers to trigger the samples. So I would write all the music, take those samples, put them into a PC, crunch them down to absolutely the smallest we could get them without them sounding like utter, utter crap, and then get them from the PC into the SNES cartridge.”
While you now get PDF files bigger than the size of Adamantium Rage’s entire soundtrack, it was actually these technical limitations that helped Beale to create such a bleak and distinctive sound.
“I think what made it different was that I had an incredibly small amount of sounds to choose from,” he says. “When you’re writing music now you have every sample, a massive amount of memory – you can basically do anything. Whereas if you completely remove all of that stuff and go: ‘Right, you’ve only got these five sounds, write a piece of music”, you have to do it in a very different way. You focus yourself very heavily on tricking the ears into making little delays using sequencers.”
It also helped that everything sounded so distorted: “These samples were 4-bit and had been massively crunched down, which really gave them that grime-y tone as well. You can hear some real dirt in those top notes and that really adds that slightly menacing, eerie, and unnerving atmosphere to the track. So I think a lot of those accidental things that kind of just happened made the sound more grime-y. It was kind of that perfect storm.”
Making Dance Music Dangerous
As one half of cult ‘90s jungle duo Rude and Deadly, Dylan Beale was no stranger to creating hi-tempo dance tracks. But while he was used to working up London crowds into an ecstasy-fuelled euphoria, ‘boss fight 2’ was the first time he had to try and actively distress his audience.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a dance music producer, writing for a video game required an incredibly different approach to his normal late night studio sessions. When he came into work at Bits Studios, Beale would simply be given a hand-drawn piece of concept art for each level and then it was up to him and his AKAI S950 to do the rest.
From Boss Fights to Bossman beats
“When writing the music for a game like this, that classic kind of side-scroller, you’ve got a level that’s probably going to last ten minutes and then a boss fight which is probably going to last two minutes, depending on how hard it is and how many times you die,” says Beale. “So, you think, ‘OK, I’ll write a piece of music that’s three minutes long and that’s going to loop, and hopefully it won’t sound too bad’.
“Then when I get to the boss, I’m basically going to bump up the BPM by about 20 beats per minute/30 beats per minute to increase that level of excitement and add that kind of adrenaline rush you get when you’re fighting the big bad guy… and hopefully, that will make the player feel a bit more on edge. This was the first time I’d ever really done anything like that — there’s definitely a real art form to it.”
In other words, the hallmark of a good grime instrumental is making sure that it sounds like a really intense boss fight — which makes sense to us.
“I think that’s why the track really gels with grime,” explains Beale. “Grime is essentially pretty fast hip hop, street music, it really wants that kind of ominous vibe to it. Now, I wouldn’t have sat at home and said, ‘Hey guys, let’s make a new hardcore tune and make it really f–ing threatening’, because it just wouldn’t make sense, right? In those days you’d go to a rave and everyone would be hugging and swaying their hands in the air… you didn’t want the DJ to suddenly play something that sounds like that Wolverine tune.”
So there you have it. Without the unique marriage of UK dance music and a Wolverine SNES brawler, grime would never exist. So what’s the Grimefather up to now? Well, twenty years later, he’s now a producer at Wargaming‘s recently acquired game studio, Edge Case Games, working on a brand new IP.
Beale hasn’t completely abandoned music, however, as he still regularly DJs at the family-friendly rave, Big Fish, Little Fish. But with his musical talents now being brought back into the spotlight, is a return to beat-making on the cards?
“It would be really good fun to get back into the studio and write some stuff, but I have two kids and a very hard job, so I’ve got a lot on my plate.” He pauses. “You never know though, if Dizzie Rascal rings up and says, ‘Do you fancy doing a version of the Wolverine tune?’ Well, I might be able to find half an hour for Dizzie!”.