A menacing string B-line kicks in as a budget camera shot pans around a shabby street in London's East End. Viewers prepare themselves for the kind of gritty, voyeuristic journey around a UK hood that is synonymous with grime and then... blam! A 5' 6" dreadlocked super hero–resplendent in a purple, black, and green homemade one-piece, facemask and cape–ricochets into the shot, Karate Kid-style.
Leaping on top of phone boxes and cars, the half-comic/half-frightening character barks, "It's the Merkle Man/Never gonna fix that Urkel man/Continue to circle man/All for the green and purple man." Who is this Lil' Jon-like figure, rhyming about sitcom nerd Steve Urkel, chucking boys in business suits out of phone booths, and carting big girls around East London on the back of his four-wheeler?
The man behind the Merkle mask is Jammer, formerly the official producer of the N.A.S.T.Y. crew and currently the figurehead of pioneering grime label Jah Mek The World Productions. Known for blood-curdling, future-industrial basslines favored by top MCs like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and D Double E, Jammer's MC alter ego is a hilarious twist on the grime cliché of a screwface producer sitting in a graffiti-blasted basement. "It definitely took people by surprise," laughs Jammer.
In a scene where hard-earned reputations are shattered with a single clash or potent diss track, stepping out as Merkle Man took balls of steel. "I put the suit on, looked in the mirror, and thought, 'Shit, am I gonna walk down the street like this? Once I'm outside there's no turning back. There's 40 mans watching and I'm filming outside Leytonstone Underground Station,'" recalls Jammer. "I knew it was all or nothing."
Whistle While You Merk
Jammer pulled a Pharrell and stepped out from the anonymity of producing at his 21st birthday bash (he's now 23), where he MCed alongside friend Dizzee Rascal. After contributing to sessions held at his home studio, he was encouraged by MCs to take up the mic seriously. Littering his flow with fiercely delivered yet amusing self-penned catch phrases (neckle, seckle, meckle, merkle) and highlighting on his own posse-cut productions like "Saw It Coming," "Slew Dem," and "Joy Ride," he catapulted into the MC elite.
Like The Neptunes' big man, it's not so much Jammer's rhyme skills people have bought into but his enigmatic character. Ricocheting around stages like the Energizer bunny on speed, Jammer's manic aura is infectious. Live PAs of Merkle Man see crowds breaking into fervent moshing. Jammer's unbilled performance of the track at a recent Kano showcase sent the crowd into a riot even after the fifth rewind. Not one of Kano's lyrics got the same reaction.
So what exactly does all of Jammer's vernacular mean? "[The word] 'merk' has been in the grime scene since day one. If you 'merk' someone, you've killed them in a clash or dissed them in a lyric," explains Jammer. "'Merkle Man' is a funny way of saying I can merk anyone in the scene." And neckle? "Neckle means anything that's good. Seckle means 'chillout.' And meckle I use instead of mental. Everyone's tired of hearing the same old shit. That's why the whole nekkle thing caught on so quickly."
Jammer (Jahmek Power) was born to Rastafarian parents in Leytonstone, East London; he works in a basement studio in the house he grew up in. The home has an industrious, lively energy. Posters of Bob Marley share space with family photographs, one of which shows the eldest of his four sisters graduating from law school. The kitchen bursts with his younger sister's friends practicing dance routines as his mother cooks, seemingly unhindered. His father, a reggae soundsystem operator and musician, keeps a watchful eye over Jahsiya, Jammer's three-year-old son, as he scoots about humming the basslines of "Daddy's songs."
Jammer has music in his blood. At 12, he was getting bookings to DJ reggae, dancehall, and jungle with his friend Supa D; by 14, he was commanding his own soundsystem, Demolition. His first experience of UK garage was his older sister playing him Karl 'Tuff Enuff' Brown tapes. "Coming from a reggae background I thought, 'What's this funny music? This is swag,'" he says of the initially house-and-R&B-driven two-step sound. A few years later, during the So Solid Crew-dominated era, Jammer worked at the distribution company Essentials, and was impressed by the amount of vinyl that homegrown talent was shifting. "Mans was moving 6,000 copies in a week," he says. "I knew from then making tunes was the only way forward."
Three years later, in 2002, Jammer merged the bass-heavy fundamentals of reggae with the double-time structure of garage to become one of the founding fathers of grime. "It's the dirt down your fingernails," he says, describing the sound. "The residue in the bath. I've never liked the term as it's everything bad–but, at the end of the day, the music's grimy and that's why it's stuck." He takes a pull on a spliff, then reflects with confidence, "Whatever you want to call it, in 10 years time it's gonna be as big as hip-hop. Just remember, it was me and Wiley that started it."
Jah Mek Extra: Mizz Beats
Meet 19-year-old grime producer Mizz Beats.
Mizz Beats is the jewel in Jah Mek The World's otherwise male-dominated crown. Working with the label since she was 17, the 19-year-old producer (born Iman Yanee) connected with Jammer through an unlikely incident in the Leytonstone post office.
"I was standing in line when these two guys came in trying to sell the Lord Of The Decks, [a grime DVD documentary]. They asked me if I wanted to buy one and when I told them I didn't have enough money they gave me it. One of the guys turned out to be rapper DM. We exchanged numbers and when we hooked up I played him a CD with 20 of my tracks. He took me to Jammer, played him the CD, and I've been working with him since."
A hip-hop and R&B producer by trade–"I was into hip-hop before I could talk properly," she claims–Mizz Beats was, oddly, never a fan of grime. "I couldn't get into it. It was watching Lord Of The Decks that made me realize it was good because it represented our own way of living."
Thanks to her unique blending of hip-hop and R&B with grime sentiments (double-time rhythms, stark instrumentation)–and Jammer's endorsement–Mizz Beats has experienced a meteoric rise to prominence. "I did the 'Signal' tune with D Double E and everything went mad," she says. "I've only just started but I've done tracks on Dizzee's LP, Estelle's LP, Lady Sovereign's LP, and I've got some big things lined up with US artists next year. I'd like to think it was all down to my music but I'm sure it helps being a woman in such a male-dominated genre."