UK Rap vs The World
Gathered around a brown leather sofa, four men pose for the camera. They look like a family, a fraternity. Not warring forces from disparate ends of the city, but a collective of united representatives. Princes of the unheard, and unseen: Kenny Allstar, LD, Headie One and Suspect. Four names who, between them, have come to embody what it means to be a London MC in 2018.
This year, British underground music culture has entered what feels like a new era. Modern rap from the UK, in all its splintering, cross-pollinating forms – drill, trap, road-rap, afro-swing and everything in between – has permeated the wider cultural conversation like never before, rising like steam from the capital city’s multicultural melting pot. While we overheated during the hottest summer on record, writhed in identity crisis about Brexit, had our hopes raised and shattered about the prospect of football coming home from the World Cup, and continued to buckle under the stranglehold of government-enforced austerity, domestic rap music has matured at pace. It’s ready to tell its own tale. The men I’m here to speak to are some of its leading scribes.
© Rosie Matheson
“Kenny’s the glue!” yells Suspect, cackling loudly, turning around from his seat to nod at Kenny Allstar. Kenny grins and shakes his head in humility, but Suspect’s metaphor makes sense. As a Radio 1Xtra DJ and YouTube freestyle host, Kenny has been the binding ingredient for a large portion of music over the last year. He’s mediated the space between budding artists and their audiences, providing visibility to a whole legion of young, aspirational and otherwise overlooked musicians across London. In other words, YouTube channels are to drill what pirate radio was to grime and Kenny Allstar is the face of this shift in consumption.
All three of the rappers sat on the sofa in front of Kenny feature on his compilation Block Diaries, an authoritative document of UK rap in 2018. When we met a few weeks before its release at the end of the summer, Kenny described the project as a “culturally significant voice for young people in London… especially those who come from disadvantage.” Headie One, who is leaning on one end of the sofa recharging after a night performing at a Halloween show in Portsmouth, provided the vocals for Kenny’s first single Tracksuit Diaries. It’s a proud, catchy ode to the very uniform which causes hooded teenagers to be stopped-and-searched by police across the UK’s major cities every day.
“I guess what is happening is the power of the people: freedom of speech, freedom of views, freedom of opinions”
© Rosie Matheson
“The people have the power to determine what’s hot,” Kenny says when I ask what he thinks about the shifting status of rap in the UK. “A decade ago, radio stations and label execs pushed the buttons. Now, someone can easily pick up a phone and type in ‘Suspect’, or ‘Fredo’, or ‘Dave’, or ‘Giggs’, and become a fan like that,” he continues, clicking his fingers. He speaks like an economist studying financial markets. “These higher-ups who used to run the scene can’t control what we’re listening to any more. It’s down to us. So it’s quite simple. Everything is booming because now artists have a great relationship with their listeners. Dave and Fredo going to number one, that’s the power of the people. It’s Dave talking to the people on social media, so they feel like, ‘Yeah, he’s my bredrin, I’ve known him for years, I need to go out and buy that shit!’”
In October, Dave and Fredo’s Funky Friday knocked Calvin Harris and Sam Smith’s Promises from the number one spot in the UK singles charts. For this to have been achieved by two young, black artists, who have both risen from poverty to fame by rapping about topics ranging from youth violence to the criminal justice system and the grimness of life on the roads is no mean feat. (“Just dropped three bills to my youngun in prison, ‘cause daddy don’t care, and mummy still sniffin’” Fredo spits on YRF.) What’s more, it signifies how far the scene they represent has come, in 2018 specifically, as a traditionally overlooked form of expression that can now viably compete with pop music in the charts.
During the same month, a mysterious, balaclava-clad MC called Drillminister was commissioned by Channel 4 News to recite words spoken by British politicians over a UK drill instrumental. Inverting the widespread criticism directed at drill music from the political establishment this year, it highlighted the hypocritical use of violent language by politicians in higher debate. Still anonymous, Drillminister was then invited as a guest on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast show. For underground forms of MC-led music, cultural milestones like this, combined with the widespread commercial success of its artists, forge an alchemy that has rebranded 2018 as a year of victory, not defeat. The value of this victory cannot be overstated. Because if you turn back the clock to the first few months of 2018, major obstacles lay ahead.
At the start of 2018 I appeared twice in Parliament to explain UK drill music, following claims that it was a core reason for London’s youth violence epidemic. As I sat beneath crystal chandeliers and dusty paintings of ageing white men, it felt bizarre having to defend such an underrepresented, young portion of society against accusations being thrown at its music by policymakers. Throughout the summer, legitimate concern about spiralling youth violence tipped more and more in the direction of blaming music, rather than seeking to understand why that music exists, or how it might be harnessed as a tool for solving the social disaffection being expressed by its artists.
“By talking about drill negatively, it’s just made people look for it and listen to it”
Understandably, throughout this time, most drillers stayed quiet. But not all of them. “Someone big needed to bring out the message on a strong platform,” LD tells me, when I ask why he and the other members of his South London group 67 decided to appear on BBC Newsnight in August (a month before, 67 member Dimzy had written an open-letter in The Fader defending their music). Inarguably the most senior and instantly recognisable drill artist on the UK circuit, LD’s mixtape The Masked One came out this year. With features from the likes of Tiggs Da Author, Dizzee Rascal and Belly Squad, it has proved to be one of the strongest signs yet that drill as a genre is still innovating in unpredictable, melodic, accessible directions.
At the photography studio, LD is sat front-and-centre on the sofa, wearing his iconic mask. I ask him what impact he would like the increasing popularity of drill music to have. “We always say people don’t understand where we’re coming from. But there is gonna be a time soon where people understand us. It might take some time. Music is a way of getting on people’s radars, bringing people together, understanding different cultures,” he explains. What effect does he think the moral panic about his music has had? “The fact it took so much negativity to get here is jarring,” he replies. “But there is a positive to every negative. So by talking about drill negatively, it’s just made people look for it and listen to it.”
Polite and reserved, Headie is another flag-bearing MC – in addition to heavyweight rhyming pair Skengdo & AM – who articulated a robust defence of drill music on a mainstream news platform earlier this year. In April, he explained to Sky News that drill lyrics simply describe a life many young men are forced to lead in London, far from the green grass and grand architecture of Westminster. “Things I talk about in my lyrics are situations I’ve been in,” he tells me. “I don’t like to brush things under the carpet. Whether it’s a negative thing or a positive thing that happened in the past, it still happened. So I try to not hide the reality from anyone.”
© Rosie Matheson
Typified by his musically versatile mixtape, The One Two, Headie One has become the most popular figurehead of the drill genre in 2018. He has been behind anthems which span from traditional, M1OnTheBeat-and-MKThePlug-produced bangers like Broni and Golden Boot, to crossover sing-a-longs like This Week with Yxng Bane, and Missing with Belly Squad. Not unlike LD – as well as artists like Loski, K-Trap, Skengdo & AM, and newcomer Unknown T – Headie One enters next year as a commercialising drill pioneer. His innovative delivery fluidly switches between melodic, afrobeats-style harmonies, and slurred, hyper-realist raps about life in the urban trenches; from cryptically detailing the intricacies of a prison regime to the day-to-day struggle of growing up on Broadwater Farm estate, in Tottenham, north London (which has become known in the drill lexicon as ‘The Niz’; home to Mark Duggan, who was shot dead by police in 2011, sparking the London riots).
What does Headie feel has changed about music making in London this year? “No one’s afraid to be creative no more. I feel like that’s where it lacked in the past, people were trying to stick to one thing too much, and now it’s a free-for-all. Everyone’s in a good creative space, whether you’re rapping, or trying different styles. People have gained confidence,” he replies. I ask what the secret to his success is. “I don’t know,” he mumbles looking down at his phone. Then he smirks and glances up with a proud sparkle in his eyes. “I feel like I just caught a lot of people off-guard, still.”
Suspect’s raspy cackle ricochets between the studio’s high walls throughout the morning. He moves around the room energetically, in one instance rapping and bopping to the music that is rumbling from the speakers, in the next making sure his three-year-old son eats his breakfast, and says hello to the other guys when they greet him with a fist-bump. In person, Suspect’s way of articulating himself is just like his jagged flow when he raps, in which he explodes with intensity and humour across the vast, futuristic trap landscapes constructed by his executive producer Flyo. He brings this spark to his music in a way that is fairly incomparable to anyone else and excitedly refers to it as “the expensive factor… the flair” when we sit down to chat.
© Rosie Matheson
In late 2017, Suspect’s anthem, FBG, unconventionally plonked the rapper onto an international stage after Frank Ocean selected it for his radio station on cult video game Grand Theft Auto V. “FBG changed things for me around the world,” Suspect says. “Not immediately in London because not all my local fans are gamers. But when I’m in Tokyo and Seoul, and I’m rapping with Asians, and I’m asking how they came across man, and they’re saying GTA, I’m thinking, rah! It was actually mad!”
The success of Suspect’s 2018 mixtape Still Loading, featuring boisterous singles Say it with Your Chest and One Way, further established his position as one of the UK’s most distinctive rappers, standing out in a musical landscape which includes experimental and uncompromising acts like Octavian, Jesse James Solomon, Tiny Boost, Fredo and Nines. A number of their tracks feature verses from Suspect, whose vocal presence now almost seems like a seal-of-approval for any artist wanting to demonstrate relevance. Why does he think the scene is looking so healthy? “I don’t stop to study that shit, if I’m honest. I don’t look at the ting like that. I guess what is happening is the power of the people: freedom of speech, freedom of views, freedom of opinions. It’s carrying people into a new time.”
As the day comes to an end, the four guests stand together again to take a quick photo for the ‘gram. Whilst picking up my bag to leave, I realise I forgot to ask Kenny Allstar how it feels to be here, celebrating the year’s success. “Moments like this prove to the industry, to publications, to everyone, that people from different corners of London can come together and be positive and celebrate,” he replies, with a beaming smile, as he heads towards the door. “We’re proving people wrong. It’s beautiful.”
Photography: Rosie Matheson
Photographer’s Assistant: Marcos Huerga
Creative Assistance: Daniel Falodun
Kenny Allstar’s Block Diaries is out now via Columbia