At a youth club in south London, Anthony, the club manager, was struck by an exchange between a group of kids over a football game. It was a peculiar term they kept using.
The kids kept attaching the letter “K” to the names of football teams. “I’m Arsenal K!” said one. “Man’s Chelsea K!” said another.
“Killer,” says Anthony.
The terminology comes from drill music, an aggressive form of trap-rap that originated in Chicago. Drill is popular in the UK mainly with working-class teens, though it’s also gained an audience among middle-class kids.
Much of drill rests on a narrative of gang rivalries. To put a “K” on someone’s name is to identify them as an “opp,” or opposition. In relation to the kids playing football, an Arsenal supporter who opposes a Chelsea supporter would say, “I’m Chelsea K.”
“I’ve been doing youth work for about 10 years now, and it was probably the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen,” says Anthony (not his real name). “You get those who are swimming – they’re involved [in the drill world]. Others just dip their toes in to see if the water’s hot.”
Though the group Anthony describes didn’t belong to a gang, their use of drill language is telling of the music and subculture’s influence. “They fantasize about it so much that they turned a football scenario into a gang scenario, ‘cause that’s a safe ground for them,” says Anthony.
‘A packet of directions’
Increasingly, London’s drill music scene, and the way it’s exploded across social media, has become a focus of criticism and blame for the surge in gang-related knife crime among teens in the UK capital.
This year alone, London has been the site of an estimated 60 murders. As has now been widely reported, its murder rate recently surpassed New York’s. Most of the victims, and perpetrators, are young, black males.
The link between artistic expression and “real world” behavior, of course, is grist for an ages-old argument. What kind of reaction can or should any expressive form incite?
Freddie Trye, a youth worker in charge of music production at Caius House, a charity based in southwest London, says “the issue now is that we have a culture where more of [that violence] is real for our society.”
“Before, [drill] was an imported idea that stayed as just music, for the most part. Now, it reflects some of their actual lives,” he says.
UK drill has evolved into more than just music: it’s a culture, a mentality, and way of life for many London teens.
“Now there’s more of a subversive influence. Drill is not just something you see and hear and dance to. It’s something that some of them live. So it has meaning,” Trye says.
“That creates a problem, because some of the younger ones are listening to it, and seeing it not just as music, but as almost a packet of directions. This is how you grow up. This is how you live.”
From Chicago to London
UK drill is inspired by a style of trap music that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s with rappers such as Chief Keef. The term “drill” comes from the slang of 1930s Chicago gangsters who used the word to describe “drilling” victims with automatic weapons.
The UK version has evolved into a rap subgenre and distinctly London sound, blending murky beats with menacing lyrics describing gang rivalries and violence. Most drill artists are teenagers who live in impoverished pockets of London where, for many, violence is a way of life.
“We rap about violence because we’re from a violent background,” LD, a member of pioneering drill group, 67, told the Evening Standard.
Lyrics are violent but can also be self-reflective: “Active but inside I’m very lonely, Father, forgive me, ‘cause I ain’t holy, Losing my loved ones, they’re dying slowly,” raps AM in the song Macaroni, slang for a Mac-10, a type of machine gun.
The songs can also be political: “Fuck Trident, we all violent, man back your city,” spits MizOrMac of Harlem Spartans, who was sentenced to prison in February for possession of a firearm and an offensive weapon in a public place. Launched in 1998, Operation Trident remains one of the more notorious London police initiatives to tackle gang violence.
Videos are crucial to the genre. Unlike typical mainstream rap videos that often feature expensive cars and mansions, drill videos are shot in and around shabby council estates, takeaway chicken shops, or grubby streets. Despite their intensely local narratives, drill videos on Youtube can rack up millions of views worldwide.
Some of the more modern groups to have emerged from this space are Silwood Nation, Zone 2, 1011, Harlem Spartans, Moscow 17, and BSide.
Anthony says that south London gang Zone 2, in particular, is divided into different factions.
“Zone 2 is the wider thing, but then you get HitSquad, who are the really violent ones,” he says. “Then you’ve got another side of it as well … and that’s Psycho Members, the crazy ones. There are people in Zone 2 where you’ll never see them in the video, but they’re well known on the streets.”
Tit for tat
“It’s very much like, how much can we get under your skin? Drill music is one [way], but then you’ve got the whole embarrassing each other on social media,” says Anthony.
In 2016, for example, Moscow 17 released the diss track Moscow March, which prompted Zone 2 to film their response, Zone2 Step, on Moscow 17’s turf. In the world of drill, going into a rival’s territory is considered a sign of disrespect, as well as highly dangerous. On May 5, Moscow 17 member Rhyhiem Ainsworth Barton, who rapped under the name of GB, was shot dead (The Guardian) near his home in south London.
Then there’s the culture of taunt. West London group 1011 faced controversy when they mocked a deceased rival, Teewhiz, in one of their music videos. “Teewhiz got splashed [stabbed] and died, and I don’t feel sorry for his mum,” raps 1011 member Horrid1 in 2017.
“That was just taking it to another level. I don’t listen to them anymore,” says Josh (not his real name) at the youth club in south London. Josh, 13, says he listens to drill everyday except at home because his parents don’t allow it.
So 1011 crossed the line?
“Yeah. They took it too far because they were cussin’ the kid’s mum, things like that,” says Josh. “It just makes me feel like I don’t ever want to be like them.”
‘No face, no case’
In 2014, Scribz, a member of 67, was banned by a gang injunction issued by the British Youth Court from producing violent or aggressive music videos for two years – also mentioned on his Twitter bio. According to widespread speculation among fans, however, Scribz soon simply donned a mask and began recording music and appearing as LD, becoming a celebrated “new” member of 67.
Scribz returned to the drill scene in 2016 – the year the ban was lifted – with the track Wicked and Bad, rapping in a similar voice to LD – which heavily implied he had indeed been the mask-clad member of 67 all along (Reddit).
Now I'm off my ban 🤔 I'm considered doing a ft wid LD
— 67*6GOD* (@Scribz6ix7even) June 18, 2016
“67, they changed the game a lot,” says Anthony. “No one could do anything because (LD) covered his face. No face, no case. After that, there was a big influx of covering faces.”
LD in his well-known mask
Now, in nearly every drill music video, faces are covered in bandanas, balaclavas, or hoodies. Being covert is essential, right down to the way drill artists use language. “Splash,” “dip,” “poke,” “ching,” and “chef” are all words for stabbing someone. “Fry,” “blow smoke,” and “crash” mean to shoot with a gun.
The dictionary of drill may be obscure to most of society, but drill lyrics are driven by authenticity. Indeed, rapping about real-life events is thought to be the key to multiple views and “likes” on Youtube.
However, as Anthony says, “not all gangs are doing what they say they do – no way.
“The comments [on Youtube] are a lot of the truth tellers. Always read the comments. People know.”
Drill and knife violence
In February, the link between drill music and knife violence in London was made explicit when three south London men received life sentences for the stabbing murder of 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall. In sentencing 17-year-old assailant Daniel Simpson, a rapper who goes by the name of M-Trap o, a London judge specifically referenced the specter of drill music leading to knife violence.
“Music was a big part of your life but it’s clear so was your absolutely chilling addiction to holding and using knives,” the judge told Simpson (The Guardian).
In 2016, 16-year-old drill rapper Showkey was stabbed to death (Evening Standard) at a house party that got out of control after its invite went viral on social media. Giggs, a successful grime artist, expressed his condolences for Showkey and urged his younger peers to escape gang life, as he did, saying there are more than “a few ways to get out the hood.”
The UK government has taken action with a £40m strategy report, which includes a demand that social media companies such as Youtube and Snapchat shut down or restrict violent channels.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has said platforms used by the drill community, particularly Youtube and Snapchat, glamorize and amplify violence.
“I’m sure it does rev people up,” Dick told the Times.
Biased media coverage
Yet knife crime is nothing new in the UK, and critics contend the way it’s been reported on in mainstream British media, often under the banner of gangs and gang culture, is telling.
“‘Knife crime’ is a construct. It does not simply mean, as one might reasonably expect, crimes committed with knives,” wrote Gary Younge in The Guardian. “It denotes a certain type of crime committed by a certain type of criminal in a certain kind of context … one that also carries heavy racial connotations.”
A new report by Amnesty International, for example, has described The Metropolitan Police “Gangs Matrix” database, set up after the 2011 London riots, as “racially discriminatory” and “not fit for purpose.” The report found that figures from July 2016 showed 78 percent of the people listed were black, who make up 13 percent of London’s population.
Despite the public concern over gangs, the majority of knife crime isn’t gang-related. Most teens carry knives for protection, mainly due to fear because of where they live or how they look, which could make them easier targets for offenders.
In his book Race, Gangs and Youth Violence: Policy, Prevention and Policing, criminologist Dr. Anthony Gunter argues there’s thin evidence to prove that street gangs are as serious a concern as the media portrays them. He says the gang label is often unfairly applied.
“This is a complex problem that should not be reduced to simplistic narratives and sound bites fixated on urban street gangs,” says Gunter in an interview. “Relative deprivation [poverty] characterized by social and economic exclusion are the fundamental drivers of knife violence.”
Aundrieux Sankofa, a co-director at Manhood Academy, an organization that mentors young boys, told WikiTribune the experiences of many young people today is analogous to Erik Killmonger, the antagonist of the film Black Panther, whose “bad guy” identity has been the subject of much cultural debate.
“[Killmonger’s] intentions were good, but because of his social circumstances, he was morphed into something bad,” says Sankofa.
“Some of our children are experiencing trapped emotional pain, toxic stress, environmental trauma, and even some cases of post-traumatic stress,” he says. “Sadness as a child, anger as an adult. The music is a reflection of the mindset of our youth.”
Giving drill a fair hearing
Driven in particular by those reports that London’s murder rate has surpassed New York’s, articles relating to drill in the UK have increased in terms of number and scope. Many articles assert that drill “fuels” or is the “soundtrack” to London’s murders.
On Your Block, a documentary produced by journalist Andre Montgomery, is one of the few media accounts that allows drill artists to speak for themselves.
“I wanted people to hear from the artists themselves whether they believe they’re a cause for the violence going on in London,” says Montgomery.
What did he learn about drill musicians?
“They’re all intelligent young men and they understand themselves, and they feel as if they’re trapped in a world of negativity,” says Montgomery. “It’s only through music they see a way out.”
The consensus among the drill artists Montgomery interviewed is that the songs are violent only because they live violent lives. In other words, art imitating life as opposed to the other way around.
And what do drill listeners think of the music, especially younger ones, who may be more vulnerable to its lyrical content?
Back at the youth center in south London, WikiTribune asked several kids between the ages of 11 to 13 why they listen to drill. Many said they’re aware of the violent lyrics, some think it’s a problem, others don’t care.
Yet most say the music isn’t necessarily what makes them more violent. There’s more to knife or gang crime than that. Eleven-year-old Shaun (not his real name) says he finds drill relatable because he used to get into a lot of fights at school.
“I have a quick temper,” he admitted.
So what’s his main reason for listening to it? “I like the flow of it, the rhythm and the beats. For me, it’s just the music.”