When UK Jungle first emerged in the early 1990’s, it was deemed as one of the most disruptive genres in the nation. With fast tempos and high bass, many viewed it as aggressive and “darker” than other popular sounds at the time.
In the 1994 documentary Jungle Fever, Shy FX discussed how the violent lyrics in his single Gangsta Kid were perceived at the time. The introduction of the song hears a dispute that ends with a man being shot, before the shooter nonchalantly gets back into his car and drives away as his passenger frantically asks why he killed the other person:
“We were hearing a lot of tunes which sampled films and I was thinking we should do something more original within that, get some London talks that everyone can relate to… instances like that do happen, maybe not as exaggerated but things like that do happen still.”
Ultimately, Shy FX highlighted that whilst violent in nature, his music was a reflection of the experiences that he, and those around him, were having; whilst it may have seemed graphic to others, such singles were simply recounting what he had been seeing. Similar parallels can be drawn when looking at UK Drill today. High bass, “dark” and arguably violence-inciting, the narrative around Drill mirrors that of its Jungle (and other music of black origin) predecessors.
In the chorus of Headie One’s Of Course (2018), he overtly paraphrases the words once said by Shy FX two decades earlier: “I’m a product of my environment, so my music? ‘Course it’s violent”. However, this is not to say that it is right, or to implore critics to empathise. This is to emphasise that UK Drill, like any genre, is used as a tool of expression for the lives in which the artists live. Whilst Jungle music was discussed in the context of aggression frequently, that is not all it was. It had also been argued as instrumental in healing poor race relations between Black British and and white English communities. The genre had support from a variety of areas transcending the borders of race and class, bringing people together in the name of raving. Jungle embraced multiple cultures whilst simultaneously discussing issues of anti-blackness in Britain and represented much more than hostility, as does Drill.
Drill artists are not just perpetrators of revenge or ‘threatening’ behaviour, they can be vulnerable, romantic, wounded by trauma and in 2020, UK Drill has been its most nuanced.
In February, we saw GRM Daily launch Terms and Conditions, the documentary following UK Drill and the varying narratives around it. Considering its many facets, Terms and Conditions discussed not just the genres’ emergence but its development. Exploring areas including gender diversity, government parallels and parental grief, the documentary exposed those outside of the culture to a microscopic look into it and this was just the beginning.
Following his release from prison, listeners saw Harlem Spartans’ MizOrMac come back with the Nyge-produced single Return of the Mac. The title alone shows wider knowledge of popular culture with reference to Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack but more profoundly — or poignantly — the single discusses the consequences of the culture which Drill exists. Whilst the chorus celebrates his return and the excitement of seeing his camp again, the verses tell a much darker story:
“Life’s only been about 3’s and RIP’s, it’s turning me mad / When i think about Bis I scream, I try go sleep and then I see Latz.”
The opening line of the first verse tells of a struggle to deal with death, grief and gang culture where this, along with consistent imprisonment, have become normality. This thread runs through the single and listeners journey through with Miz as he straddles the happiness that he’s home with the trauma which he meets upon his return.
I imagine this is a common feeling for those deeply immersed in gang culture. Though it may be easier to have a pathologized, negative view of those within it, considering the tragic, cyclical nature of the lives in which they live is much harder — especially given the mainstream narratives we are fed about them. However, through their music we are seeing their layers as told by them. This is especially important as an act of subversion to the establishments which seek to portray them shallowly. This has been showcased most recently in albums from core figures of the genre such as K-Trap (Street Side Effects) and Loski (Music, Trial & Trauma: A Drill Story) which serve as key examples of the nuance which the genre offers, in case you need a whole project to be convinced.
Furthermore, we’ve recently seen the release of BLM, the collaboration between Abra Cadabra, Double Lz, and Bandokay, the son of Mark Duggan who was murdered by the police in 2011. Sampling Coldplay’s Trouble, the single details the frustration felt by young black people who feel unfairly targeted by the police, which has resulted in a poor relationship with law enforcement. Though distaste for the police is not new to the genre, its discussion in the context of Black Lives Matter and the political discourse surrounding that, definitely shows an engagement in issues outside of gang violence.
In addition to this, the landscape in which UK Drill exists has also widened in regards to its make up. In 2020 especially, we’ve seen more women dominate the genre . Miss LaFamilia, Lavida Loca and TeeZandos are just a few names which have popped up more frequently in discourse around UK Drill. Whilst many stick to the lyrical content traditions, we’ve also seen a shift in the areas spoken about. From reclamation of slut shaming language to simply stealing your man, the range women in Drill are coming reminds the industry of why further investment ought to be put into girls in the rap space.
Whilst 2020 has arguably been its most nuanced, UK Drill has never been the one-dimensional genre it is often portrayed as. In 2019, Music x Road showed Drill artists can, and will, explore areas far beyond chinging. With themes of grief, family and romance, the project showed Headie One in his most multi-faceted. Melodically, we also saw greater exploration with samples from Mobb Deep, Faith Evans and Ultra Nate and with this there was an understanding that Headie’s music knowledge goes far beyond the UK Rap scene.
UK Drill is making waves like no other in the UK. Growing to greater commercialism in just under 5 years, the impact it is having on popular music and the more wider culture is inescapable. Within this growth, we have also seen its releases become multivariate. Whilst it may just be music to some, the expansion of the genre may also mean a greater understanding and compassion for the demographics prominent within it. UK Drill is on an upward curve and in 2021 we can expect nothing short of greatness from one of Rap’s most distinct subgenre.