Thursday 30 August 2018

Address terms in Grime

No British genre better highlights the effects of globalisation than Grime music: an amalgam of Garage, Jungle, Hip Hop and Dancehall which emerged from pirate radio stations in East London in the early 2000s. Through Grime, the artists (known as MCs), who are often youths from marginalised, multi-ethnic areas, discuss the hardships of their upbringing. 

I set out to analyse how Grime MCs addressed and referred to other people in their lyrics, in the hope of understanding what defined their interpersonal relationships: familiarity (mutual knowledge of personal information), solidarity (mutual rights and obligations) or affect (mutual like or dislike).

I extracted and coded 589 nominal address and reference terms from 27 Youtube videos by six MCs: 2 from London, 2 from North England and 2 from Cardiff, with approximately 100 terms per MC. All terms were coded for three categories: (1) the addressee or referent  (peer, police, rival, friend, family, artist, female, or other; (2) the emotional context: negative, positive, derogatory or neutral; (3) kinship (kinship, non-kinship or voluntary kinship, meaning using a kinship term for someone who is not a blood relative, such as using bro (‘brother’) to refer to a friend.

106 different terms emerged, with the most frequent showing that all six MCs draw on the same cultural influences. The first group of frequent terms is man, don, mandem, blud and brudda, which all have Jamaican Creole roots. The second group are British or American English terms: fam, mum, and guys, while the third group of terms are affiliated with Hip-Hop: dawg, cuz, nigga.

Delving deeper, I found that negativity was common in the MCs’ lyrics, as in “Blud, I’ll get physical for you”. In fact, of 130 address terms, only seven were non-negative. This is partly explained by the tradition of boasting in Hip-Hop, where MCs use insults to win lyrical battles against opponents. This negativity indicates that affect is not central to their relationships, but what about familiarity and solidarity?

Voluntary kinship terms were also frequent and, interestingly, were often used in negative contexts, such as “Bury your spleen fam”. Sociologists argue that when we face instability, we create fictive ties with others to create a safer world. MCs may therefore use kinship terms to address and refer to non-family members to show that they belong to the Grime community. However, these terms are simultaneously placed in a negative context so that the MCs can engage in lyrical competitions of honour. Given that they use these terms for people they do not know, familiarity doesn’t seem to be the most defining feature of their relationships.

Every MC had a slightly different style, with some drawing more on Jamaican Creole terms whilst others focused on terms from Multicultural London English. MCs in Cardiff were more likely to use British or American English terms, whereas those from London included more Hip-Hop terms. However, there were also nationwide patterns: for example, all six MCs used MLE terms like man and fam, and they addressed and referred to the same people, such as rivals and the police. Even though MCs in the Grime community do not know one another, or necessarily like one another, these patterns in their address and reference system suggest that solidarity is crucial for their interpersonal relationships. It signals that they are part of a wider cultural in-group which unites adolescents from marginalised multi-ethnic areas. I conceptualise this as an imagined community, in the sense of Benedict Anderson (2006, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso Books). The system certainly reflects hostility, hypermasculinity and individual expression, but it is ultimately based on shared grievances that come from their social neglect. The comradeship expressed in their lyrics allows them to turn their negative experiences into a positive celebration of their existence.


Adams, Zoe (2018) "I don’t know why man’s calling me family all of a sudden”: Address and reference terms in grime music. Language and Communication 60: 11-27.

This summary was written by Zoe Adams