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Mercston: debut album and the camaraderie of Bow’s grime scene

Mercston is preparing to drop a debut album 15 years in the making. He has been at the heart of the Bow grime scene since the very beginning. He was one fifth of The Movement crew, lining up with Ghetts, Wretch 32, Devlin, and Scorcher.

Now, after more than a decade of mixtapes, singles, and music videos, the clamour for a Mercston album has reached fever pitch. He’s happy to oblige. 

‘We’re at the stage where music’s advancing and fans need to hear a serious piece of music from myself,’ he says. ‘I need to up the level for them and for me.’ Top Tier is that step up. Coming out in early January 2020, it is the culmination of years of work, and a testament to the relentless creative spirit than fuels the grime scene to this day.

To put the album into context you need to go back to the early 2000s, when grime groups like N.A.S.T.Y. Crew and Roll Deep were electrifying the airwaves of pirate radio.

Mercston, like so many grime artists, made his start listening to those groups. Religiously taping sets and learning lyrics soon led to original writing and, by the time he was 17, Mercston was MCing himself. 

He recounts these formative experiences with transparent affection. We meet at Cafe East on Roman Road, which has become a kind of spiritual successor to Rhythm Division record shop, where so many grime legends made their bones. 

Mercston was born and raised in Bow, and his love for the area is obvious. ‘There’s a lot of good around here, a lot of talented people,’ he says. ‘I feel like there’s something in the blood, in the water over here, and it’s good to see other generations coming up with things and spreading the culture from here into the world.’

His particular generation is a who’s who of grime talent. The lineup of The Movement alone has taken the scene by storm. Although its members have all grown into solo careers, they still routinely guest in each other’s songs. The camaraderie is obvious. There’s a mutual understanding they made each other stronger.

‘Once I landed myself with them I knew my standards had to increase tenfold. I had no choice,’ he laughs. ‘Once we’re in the studio, it’s on. There’s love there but we know what we have to come and do on the track. No one wants to have the weakest verse, and in the end that makes everyone raise their game.’

Indeed, some of Mercston’s fire can be traced back to grime clashes. After a matchup with All in One, the two exchanged words. ‘He said in five years we’ll see who’s further in the music. From that moment I took it seriously. I don’t think he knows that, but that’s what sparked it.’

In neither of these examples is there the slightest hint of animosity. Mercston speaks with the fervour of an artist in full flow, where any challenge is simply an opportunity to get better. Music, for Mercston, has been about collaboration rather than one upmanship. 

This comes across particularly strongly when he talks about Top Tier. Mercston doesn’t miss a beat saying how important the people around him have been in making the album as good as it can be.

Clocking in with 13 tracks and two skits, it’s been brewing for as long as grime music itself. ‘For me everything has to be perfect. Everything,’ Mercston says. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it might not be perfect to everybody else, but to me it has to be.’

Such pride and care in one’s work is nothing unusual in the Bow grime scene. The genre is a popular target for the press, but for those on the inside its value has never been in doubt. For Mercston, who has watched the scene transition from pirate radio to headline slots at Glastonbury, it’s obvious. 

‘It allows you to express yourself and make money,’ he says. ‘It’s good to be able to show the youths that if this is what you want to do, and you believe you’re talented enough to do it, stick with it, graft, push yourself, apply yourself, and you could be in the position of these other artists doing great.

‘It’s good to be able to be recognised for what you’re doing as well as being able to speak about what you’re doing in your area. It inspires people in the area about what’s going on.’

There is also the importance of expression. Where one Bow local might raise awareness amount mental health through standup comedy, grime artists do it through their music. 

‘That’s your expression, that’s your therapy. Whether you get answers back from the people you’re talking to, that is your therapy,’ Mercston says. ‘It’s definitely an outlet. It allows people to feel like they have a voice too, with whatever it is they want to express.’

Success, if anything, has made the roots of grime stronger. Everyone who was there from the start knows how much went into making it work. ‘We were all learning as we were going,’ Mercson says.

‘Everyone was sticking together and making it happen, so it’s good to be able to look around now and see everyone pushing on, and knowing that even if someone is a little further the respect is there.

‘A lot of us have known each other for 15 years, so I know there’s some sort of love there whether we’re from the same area or not.’

Every individual success story is celebrated as if they were family, because for all intents and purposes they are family. From recording pirate radio sets to the modern Grime Gran phenomenon, the authenticity of the struggle, the heart, and the support shines through. 

What started fifteen years ago with a kid in the East End tuning into Rinse FM is ending as one of the most hotly anticipated grime records of the year. 

Will Top Tier live up to its name? You wouldn’t bet against it.

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Frederick O'Brien

Fred is a writer and researcher with a background in sustainable development. His research has featured in The Independent, the Evening Standard, and the New York Post, among others.

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