Ask anyone in the grime scene about Rhythm Division and odds are you’ll get an outpouring of beloved memories. During the mid-noughties the bright blue record shop on Roman Road was the spiritual home of grime, a base for MCs, DJs, producers, and filmmakers to hone their craft as they prepared to take on the world.
There are plenty of details that can be listed about Rhythm Division. It was located at 391 Roman Road (now Zealand Road Coffee Shop), it was bright blue inside and out, its walls were covered with white label vinyls, and it closed in 2010. But to really understand what it was and what it meant, you need to hear from the people who lived it.
More than a record shop‘It was one of the grime scene hubs,’ says Roony Keefe, aka Risky Roadz, who documented much of the grime scene during its early years, and continues to to this day. ‘I think without Rhythm the scene would be very different now. It was more than just a record shop, it was where everyone congregated and spoke about ideas and what they was gonna do. It was way more than just a shop. The place is special.’
Keefe bought records from Rhythm Division when he was at school, and during college he got a Saturday job there. It was then that he and Sparky, the shop manager, started the Risky Roadz project, to put a face to the voices lighting up the pirate airways.
‘There was pirate radio, so you heard voices but didn’t know what everyone looked like. Rhythm Division was like the window to seeing the people. That’s what gave me the idea initially to start filming.’
Watch any Risky Roadz video and odds are you’ll see Rhythm Division in the background at some point. We met at Zealand Road Coffee Shop, which succeeded Rhythm Division, and as we spoke he remembered glimpses of how the space used to be. He remembers iron grating on the door, a little step on the left as you walked in that was covered with flyers, stickers on the walls. A playstation, music, turntables.
All the major players in grime passed through Rhythm Division. On any given day Wiley, Skepta, or Dizzee Rascal would drop by to drop off new material and listen to the latest mixtapes. DJ Target, a member of the Roll Deep grime crew since 2002, remembers the buzz around Rhythm Division during grime’s early years.
‘’Big Mark’ was the owner – a super cool guy, really laid-back and chilled. He had Sparky, Winston, Hermit and Daniel Ward working there at the time and I got along with all four which meant I had no problem getting my hands on the latest releases and promo copies. There was a real buzz about the shop, with DJs and producers passing through to drop off new material. Especially on Sundays it was always packed.’
A common theme when talking to people about Rhythm Division is that it was more than a record shop. It was a community hub, a youth centre, a place for hungry creatives to come together and share in a common passion.
That sense of support is what sticks out for Lady Shocker, who was an original member of Mucky Wolfpack and now a leading voice in the Girls of Grime movement. ‘The best thing about it was that even if they didn’t know you, you could take your stuff there and they would sell it,’ she says. ‘They would put it up for sale. Your mix, your vinyls, whatever. They were really supporting the underground scene.’
It was the default place to go. ‘If there was nothing to do you would just walk down to Rhythm Division and you would literally see MCs rolling in there, doing sets in there.
‘For a little while Rhythm Division was the heart of grime. Everyone went there. Everyone.’
Villain, a Bow-based artist who also made his start in Mucky Wolf Pack, remembers fifteen youths running the length of Roman Road to watch filming sessions for Risky Roads 2. ‘The whole of the grime scene was based at Rhythm Division,’ he says. ‘You had record shops all over but people came from across London to go there.
‘You could always see your MCs, Wiley, Dizzee, Skepta, anyone who was anyone passed through Rhythm Division.