Them Pretty New Blocks: Drill Music and Gentrification in South London
“London divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know what happening in the other ones…” – Moses in The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (1956)
On a Friday evening last summer I delivered a workshop to a group of teenage boys at Marcus Lipton community centre in Loughborough Junction, northeast Brixton. I asked participants to define their position in society, and they drew a diagram displaying upper, middle and lower class on a whiteboard. One passing comment was scribbled down beneath it: “This structure can affect your mindset.”
Afterwards, I debriefed with Ira Campbell, the Managing Director, who told me about a stabbing from the week before on the centre’s doorstep. “The heat of the summer,” he muttered, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, referring to the seasonal crescendo of youth violence; when sun and skin are exposed, roads are crowded and tempers are flaring.
A waft of smoke floated in through the window of the office, bringing my attention to some older boys sat on a wall outside. They were listening to drill music, a modern, aggressive form of local trap rap. Lyrics about the bleak extremes of urban life – shanks, drugs, police – carried across the carpark from a phone speaker. I recognised the music playing to be that of the drill group 150, who, like members of the community centre, are from Loughborough and Angell Town housing estates. 150 have a longstanding rivalry with 67 – the indisputable flag-bearers of the drill scene – who are from Brixton Hill.
In the drill lexicon, residents of an opposition part of town are referred to as ‘opps’ or ‘pagans’. An enemy’s estate is known as the ‘opp-block’ – “skeng in the four-door truck, opp-block, take it there”, 67’s masked member, LD, booms in their 2015 smash Take It There. Music videos have become a medium through which groups of young men can fire shots at their opps without leaving their estate. “Back in the day it was big men with guns,” one youth worker recently told me when I asked about the changing nature of gang activity in Brixton. “Now it’s kids with phones and knives and Snapchat.”
Drill music was appropriated via YouTube from the ganglands of Chicago by a generation of comparably impoverished, territorial and technologically savvy young men living amongst the housing estates of South London. It is now simultaneously an integral component of local adolescent life and growing cultural fascination for online fans looking to dig deeper into London’s increasingly reputable and diverse rap economy. In 2017, it is not unusual for drill videos to reach over a million YouTube views.
After leaving the centre, I started my walk towards a drinks party at a townhouse in Oval. I had been invited by a friend I met at university who, in his teens, attended Eton College, the prestigious boarding school where princes and prime ministers past received their education.
I took a route past Myatts Field South estate, where the group 410 – 150’s allies – are from. The brutalist structures of 1970s social housing has become the default backdrop for drill videos. Yet uniquely, 410’s 2 Man Step was filmed in the glistening recreational space of the newly built Oval Quarter (formerly Myatts Field North estate).
I passed a small gathering where a group of men were stood by two souped-up hatchbacks, passing round a bottle of Courvoisier. 410’s music blared from car speakers. Then I entered Oval Quarter, from one little world into another. A man in boat shoes walking his dog greeted me a good evening.
Gentrification is transforming Brixton. This proud, if troubled, heartland of the Caribbean diaspora now exists in two distinct, parallel realities for many of the people who live here. This is not to say inequality in South London is a new phenomenon. But now, on the one hand, more and more young professionals like myself are moving into this part of London, creating a growing demand for new commercial hubs like Pop Brixton and shiny residential complexes like Oval Quarter. On the other, socioeconomically lagging pockets of social housing dotted around town remain, as they have done for decades, in which longstanding communities continue to live in relative poverty and neglect.
To cosmopolitan, middle class adults seeking a place to dine and socialise south of the river Thames, Brixton is top of the list. But for many of the teenage boys I work with, for whom the drill subculture is a very real, paranoid, brutal reflection of their subsistent inner-city lives, Brixton is little more than a web of hyperlocal gang affiliations, no-go-zones and invasive stop-and-search policing.
Like grime music was for young East Londoners living amongst the high-rise estates of Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets during the early- to mid-2000s, when these boroughs were undergoing their own early stages of sweeping regenerative change – think Stratford Olympic Park and Canary Wharf – drill music might be understood as South London’s own musical reaction to unchecked social inequality. It is not a coincidence that the genre has colonised London’s musical subterranea during the exact same time period, birthed upon the same precise geographical spaces – Brixton, Walworth, Peckham – in which the most aggressive form of gentrification has taken place.
I arrived at the townhouse in Oval, a new-build tucked behind electronic gates on a peaceful mews, where I was welcomed into an immaculately furnished, mood-lit room. Jazzy hip-hop instrumentals were playing, three men in shirts sat holding tumblers of whiskey and a group of women stood in the garden smoking cigarettes, speaking French.
Distracted, I remembered that Kennington Park Estate was just a couple of hundred metres further north. Next to Oval cricket ground, it is home to Harlem Spartans, a teenage collective taking the drill sound in an innovative, synthy direction (‘Harlem’ is another word for the Kennington area). Their members include the genre’s most socially reflective lyricist, MizOrMac – “I’m trapped in a system, guns and kitchens” – and frontman Loski, who marked his long-awaited return from prison with Teddy Bruckshot. Furthermore, Harlem MC Bis is seemingly the only drill artist to explicitly acknowledge renewed local infrastructure in his lyrics. In his collaboration with 67 youngers R6 and ST, Splash & Cash, he suggests to “ride over there to them pretty new blocks”. And the setting for Call It suggests that new-build architecture is likely to feature more in videos as the scene’s visual style continues to evolve.
Harlem are enemies with 410, and allies with a collective called Moscow from Brandon estate in Walworth, just the other side of Kennington Park. Moscow’s main enemies are Zone 2 from Peckham, whose OH SHIT was filmed recently in Paris. This adds to the trend of London MCs like Dave, Not3s and Sneakbo who have ventured overseas to subvert the bleary hood-video norm and demonstrate the city’s increasingly outward looking musical character. Note 67’s recent collaboration with Mura Masa and Desiigner, All Around The World is a case in point: “I’m drunk from the show last night but I’ve gotta catch a flight in the morning,” opens Liquez. “More time we overseas doing shows, ‘cause the U.K. got boring.”
On my walk home from Oval, two small boys in black tracksuits and halloween masks cycled by. As I approached my front door a fox stood in the middle of the road, staring at me, crunching chicken bones in its mouth. The siren of a police car echoing across the backstreets, leaving a blue tint in its wake.
Ciaran Thapar is a youth worker and writer based in South London
Illustration © Ben Nugent (Instagram: @benjy_nug)