Digga D: The Architect

Glasses: Stylist's own
Jacket: Diesel
Driving Gloves: Stylist's Own

Words by:
Photographer: ONDA
Producer: Daniel Covarrubias
Stylist: Olivia Gabaree
Gaffer: Luis Cardenas

The Harrow Club has been supporting disadvantaged young people from west London since 1883. Just a three-minute walk from Latimer Road tube station, the club is housed in the shell of an imposing Grade II-listed church on Freston Road. This is where Rhys Herbert, known to millions as Digga D, found sanctuary as a child on icy winter nights. He’d play football with his friends in the main hall, beneath the famous period window. Or they’d chill in the old recording studio.

While Chief Keef was spearheading Chicago’s drill movement in 2011, Digga and his friends – the same friends he’d go on to form the Ladbroke Grove drill collective 1011 with (later reformed as CGM) – were laying down their first track at the Harrow Club. Barely out of primary school, Digga and crew mates M’Skum and Sav’O sprayed bars over Political Peak and Sneakbo’s bashment-leaning Wave Like Us instrumental. “I was young, young,” the 21-year-old tells me over Zoom, theatrically emphasising the word the second time around. “And bro… it’s crazy to think about,” he says, smiling and shaking his head as he reminisces, kicking back on the bed of his hotel room. There’s an openness about him, serenity even.

By 2017, Digga D was the hottest prospect in UK’s emergent drill scene, courtesy of a standout verse on 1011’s Next Up freestyle, his choppy flow brimming with authority and menace. “The first drill freestyle to hit ten million views,” he reminds me, grinning. Soon after, though, he became a symbol of the authoritarian clampdown on the genre, as serious youth violence surged across London. Between 2012-13 and 2017-18, there was a 71 percent rise in violent incidents, driven by intersecting factors like poor mental health and school exclusions, and underpinned by years of austerity. Funding for the frontline services supporting young people had been decimated. Then, in 2018, 135 people were murdered, the highest total in a decade; 45 of them were young males aged between 15 and 24. A moral panic was stirred up as the police and politicians used UK drill as a scapegoat; a cause, they decided, rather than a reflection or symptom of the violence.

Digga and members of 1011 found themselves at the heart of the issue when, in 2017, a stop-and-search revealed they were carrying weapons (they claimed they were props for a music video) and were subsequently arrested. The incident made headlines, a grim watershed moment which cemented drill’s demonisation in the mainstream media. “This might be a bit strong, but I do feel like without me, drill wouldn’t be where it is,” Digga reflects, offering a different perspective. “I’m talking about drill being on the news, bro. And it’s my name that they’re bringing up – it’s my group, it’s us. That’s what got everybody tapped into what was going on.”

Sunglasses: Rick Owens
Turtle Neck: Raf Simons
Shirt: Dead Presidents x Dickies
Pants: Stylist’s Own
Shoes: Converse Chuck Taylor

Digga was subsequently convicted for conspiracy to commit violent disorder in 2018, for which he served a year in prison. He was also served with a Criminal Behaviour Order – or, a CBO – which places restrictions on where he can go and who he can be seen with in public. Then, in 2020, he was convicted for another offence and the CBO was extended until 2025. For an artist, this is debilitating. It means that he and his legal representatives must ensure any music he releases doesn’t violate the CBO. If Digga releases any music publicly, he must notify the Metropolitan Police within 24 hours for screening. Breaching any of the constraints set in place will trigger an instant recall to jail.

Interviewing Digga is not straightforward. The CBO’s oppressive remit runs deeper than limiting his freedom of movement and artistic expression; anything he says publicly is scrutinised, too. A pre-interview phone call with his lawyer Cecilia Goodwin is necessary to fully understand the Kafkaesque web of restrictions he navigates. She also joins us on our Zoom to ensure the conversation doesn’t stray into unsafe territory. It’s impossible to shake the feeling that he is being censored.

And yet, Digga is winning. In spite of the limitations placed upon him, he has risen to become UK drill’s biggest star. It’s a feat that has required an inventive approach to his art: by redirecting the menace of his earlier releases into something a little more subtle and witty, often with the help of playful visuals, he’s landed on a recipe that allows him to satisfy the authorities while continuing to connect with his supporters. It started in 2019, with No Diet, which peaked at No. 20 in the UK singles chart and has since been certified gold. In the video, he breaks down multipacks of Coca Cola in a fancy kitchen. Digga repeated the trick with the triumphant, TikTok trend-starting anthem Woi in July 2020. The overhead shots of him and his friends, bathed in sunlight while cruising in royal blue Cadillacs, gave the video a classic 90s gangsta rap vibe.

“In America, I’ve got my headphones on, just walking down the road. People ain’t even looking at me! They don’t care. I don’t care. I’m free”

But perhaps Digga’s biggest victory came in the form of last year’s second mixtape, Made in the Pyrex. Despite being subject to his CBO conditions, it peaked at No. 3 in the albums chart. On the release, dark themes mesh with brighter textures: Chingy (It’s Whatever), with its interpolation of noughties classic Right Thurr, is full of combustible energy and fun, but follows Bluuwuu, a UK drill cut that’s as cold as concrete. “I feel like I’ve set an example for the youts doing drill now,” Digga explains, “by showing them through wordplay that there’s a different way of doing things.”

Part of Digga’s appeal lies in his mixture of references drawn from relatable, everyday life, from high street coffee chains and soft drink brands to soap operas: “I got a dotty off one of my Eastenders but the son of a gun’s not Nick/ The queen that I want ain’t Vic but I still make that on the square like Mick, he raps icily on 2020’s Daily Duppy freestyle. On last year’s 2K17, which sampled YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s Make No Sense, he plays with double meanings when referencing that particular freestyle: “Crib Session, I had the machine/ Daily Duppy, I went with a full magazine.” It’s the same charisma that legends like Giggs and Skepta possess, and it’s exactly why anticipation for another body of work has been building. In March, he announced his third full-length project, Noughty by Nature, with a social media post that stated that, for the first time in his young life, he feels free. The mixtape subsequently shot to No. 1 in the UK charts.

Glasses: Stylist’s own
Jacket: Diesel
Driving Gloves: Stylist’s Own

It’s hard to not feel like this is the beginning of a new chapter for Digga. A sense heightened by the fact that, in autumn last year, he stopped having to report to a probation officer; no more check-ins, no more ankle tags, no more enforced early nights. For the first time in years, he can travel. His recent Insta posts tell the story of a superstar making up for lost time, capturing snapshots of him living his best life in places like Dubrovnik, Dubai, Nice and New York. When we speak, I’m expecting to find him in Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood, where he’s spent the last couple of weeks. “Right now, I’m in México,” he corrects me, nailing the Spanish pronunciation. “It’s very peaceful here.” The plan was to link up in London for our conversation, but he’s in no rush to come back, and has extended his holiday. “It’s because I’m at peace, I need it man.”

To say the last four years have been turbulent for Digga is an understatement, so being anonymous and getting away from the storm that often surrounds him has been liberating. “It’s crazy. Forget prison, just being in England as a whole. I didn’t feel like I was free. I didn’t feel like I could be me without being judged,” he explains. “Now man’s travelling the world. I’m chilling in America. People don’t really know me here, so no one really cares what I’m doing. You would never catch me walking down the main road in London with my headphones in. In America, I’ve got my headphones on, just walking down the road, shaking my head. People ain’t even looking at me! They don’t care. I don’t care. I’m free.”

Glasses: Stylist’s own
Jacket: Diesel

Noughty by Nature reflects this sense of freedom; it’s Digga’s most autobiographical work to date. “[The tape] is saying I’m a product of my environment. It’s about me growing up, moving through my life,” he says. The cover artwork, which he and his manager Bills designed, riffs on Darwin’s idea of the evolution of man. It’s only now, he says, that he’s in a position where he can express the fullness of his story. “I don’t think I could’ve come into the game telling stories, because people didn’t know me,” he says thoughtfully. “Whereas now, people have got an understanding of what man’s saying. They’re relating and seeing what man’s going through. Now I can drop music about it.”

Intro, for example, touches on the grief Digga experienced when his nan passed away. He was living with her at the time. The strings and ghostly vocal loop of the production match the mood. There’s less bravado and boastfulness in his delivery, too, invoking a more sombre retelling of his life: “177 Saltram Crescent, my nan got cancer, I was 11/ She passed away, know she went to heaven/ And she’s on my mind, that’s all through lessons,” he confesses over a mournful beat. Soon after his nan’s death, he was expelled from school for selling weed. Black Caribbean boys are five times more likely to be excluded in England, and around 60 percent of Black boys who receive a court judgement have been excluded. His experience reflects the structural racism of our country, but Digga has a great knack for finding positives when discussing his past. “Maybe if things had been different,” he wonders, “and I’d gone to college or uni, I wouldn’t have had the time to go to the studio.”

Digga says he was born with a passion for music, so perhaps his path was already decided. “That’s something from birth that man was into. My dad’s got videos of me vibing to music when I was three years old.” He moved around west London when he was growing up, living in South Kilburn, Harrow Road and Ladbroke Grove, and was immersed in Jamaican bashment, dancehall and reggae wherever he went. The way in which he laces his commanding delivery with patois and confidently leans into those sounds speaks to those influences. He was a big 50 Cent fan, too. “My mum’s got photos of me when I was little, posing with 50 Cent posters. He was my favourite artist growing up,” he smiles.

Glasses: Stylist’s own
Jacket: Diesel

The influence is strongly felt. On Made in the Pyrex, Digga flipped My Buddy – a stone-cold G-Unit classic – into My Brucky. This time round, he’s tripled the 50 Cent references, repurposing Stunt 101 into the riotous, rowdy Pump 101, interpolating 21 Questions on Hold it Down, and sampling 2005’s Best Friend on What You Reckon. The samples are his way of paying homage to a legend, and Fiddy’s influence on Digga runs deeper than music. “For me, he is the GOAT. Because of the music and because of him not changing as a person. He’s raw, you feel me?”

50 Cent rebooted US gangsta rap and sent it into the commercial stratosphere when he dropped Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in 2003. He made catchy, listenable anthems that popped off in the car, the club, the hood and suburbia. Digga seems to be doing something similar with UK drill. At his core will always be the uncompromising grittiness of a drill rapper, but through nostalgic callbacks and a whip-smart use of samples that draws in new audiences, he’s aiming to transcend the genre. The aptly named Statement sums up his mission to reach the top without settling: “I’m as hard as Stormzy and Dave, what a statement to make/ But I say what I say and I mean it/ But you will not agree and say I’m too in these streets/ And the act that I got, I should clean it,he raps.

In recent years, both Stormzy and Dave have used mainstream platforms like the Brits to call out injustice and racism, and have been rightly embraced for it. Would Digga’s own fiery testimony be embraced in the same way? The violent world he describes in his lyrics is an uncomfortable truth for the politicians whose cruel policies and failures in office helped shape it. “I’ll be honest with you – I don’t want to rap about politics, bro. I don’t want to rap about Boris Johnson and all those guys. I want to keep it gritty. I’m talking about my life. But when man’s talking about grimy stuff, about real stuff that man’s gone through, people might not like that. But this is what’s happening. A lot of people will say I’m not as good as them, just because of what I’m rapping about, you get me?”

“Now you can hear me getting older. You hear the stories change. I’ve grown a lot, as an artist and as a man”

He might not want to rap about politics, but the fact that he is rapping at all is political. Just as jungle was a young Black British response to Thatcherism, and grime to the failings of New Labour, UK drill emerged out of Tory austerity. Digga is a powerful representative of a generation who grew up at the sharp end of those policies. Since 2011, almost half of London’s youth clubs have closed, but the Harrow Club, where Digga found a safe space and first began recording music, has stood firm. He is adamant about its significance, not just for him, but countless others. “If there was no Harrow Club, I don’t know what we would’ve been doing,” he admits. “What would we have done without Harrow Club when it was cold outside and we had nothing to do? What would we have done without all the trips they took us on, going go-karting or to Thorpe Park, the ones that really kept our heads up? Bruv…” his voice trails off for a moment. “We were all there, chilling together as a group.”

When Digga’s probation ended last autumn, one of his first thoughts was to return to the Harrow Club. “I woke up and was like, ‘I’m giving back.’” He went shopping and bought clothes and trainers, copped some Rolex watches and contacted a caterer. Then he called the Harrow Club. After a failed attempt to put his plan in motion using his government name, he called back. “I was like, tell Defoe [Michael Defoe, Harrow Club CEO] it’s Digga.” Soon after, he was at the club, distributing gifts and hot plates to the area’s youth. “Then me and my friends went to the club’s old studio, it was crazy,” he tells me, his voice lighting up as the warmth of the memory takes hold. “We walked into the studio together. It was like they hadn’t touched it – it was all the same. I recorded it all on a GoPro. That moment was crazy.”

Sunglasses: Rick Owens
Turtle Neck: Raf Simons
Shirt: Dead Presidents x Dickies

Without claiming to be a role model, he’s aware of his power to influence the community’s youth. “It was so nice doing the give-back. Man’s the first road yout that’s doing this thing. I’m changing my life. I don’t want the youts to do the same things as me, because obviously I’ve made mistakes. But when they get older, I want them to give back to the community. Because the community stands by me bro, even when I’m in the wrong.”

Digga was only 17 when his Next Up verse marked him out for stardom, and his journey to make it this far has been harder than most. Now, though, there’s an overarching sense of positivity shining through in his calm demeanour, as the Mexican morning sun fills his room. “Back then, I thought I was a grown man. I was still learning about myself,” he reflects. “Now you can hear me getting older. You hear the stories change. I’ve grown a lot, as an artist and as a man.”

Let it Go – the Maverick Sabre-assisted final cut on Noughty by Nature – is just one symbol of that growth. “They had man singing,” says Digga about the song, smirking, aware that he’s stepped out of his artistic comfort zone. It sounds like a summer sunset ride through west London, and sees him counselling a friend against the violence his music has often been accused of inciting. It’s a powerful closing statement.

“I’m getting there, step by step,” he says smiling.

Noughty by Nature is out now via CGM and EGA

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