Youth clubbing: Inside a new generation of London studios
(Editor’s note – This article was originally published in Crack Magazine Issue 107, before the December 2019 general election)
Anthony Larbi is rifling through the kitchen cupboard looking for a teabag – anything but rooibos. His music management outfit, On Da Beat, has just moved into new premises in Wandsworth, south London, and he’s still getting used to the place.
The studios were previously located around eight miles north-west of here, in Park Royal, sharing space with fine art studios and a clientele who were, let’s say, bemused by their new neighbours.
“There was a lot of… friction,” Larbi says, diplomatically.
As well as the noise, the all-hours coming and going of young producers, MCs, and their tagalong friends proved too much for the genteel cabal of painters and potters. Complaints eventually became confrontations, and Larbi’s landlord would soon serve his notice. It was a bittersweet moment: On Da Beat was effectively homeless, but in part because the space had proved so popular with the young people who would visit to record there.
The Park Royal studio had become a hub for a loose group of producers known as The Brigade who have proven pivotal to the UK’s burgeoning drill scene. And in some ways, the story of the studio’s forced relocation represents a microcosm of how drill has been scapegoated by politicians, the media and a mainstream audience that fails to understand the way its bleak social commentary holds a mirror to more deep-rooted socio-economic issues.
“I think people don’t realise that there’s always two sides to the coin,” argues Larbi, “and the minority that they see in the news or on TV are used to misrepresent what’s actually going on on the positive side of things.”
Statistics published by the ONS in October confirmed that knife crime had reached unprecedented highs in 2019. While such offences are not unique to the capital, 16 of the 20 most blighted places in England and Wales are in London; almost two thirds of the 110 murder investigations launched in the city this year concern stabbings. According to statistics from the office of the Mayor of London, young men from black and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected as both victims and perpetrators.
A Home Affairs Committee report published in July declared the continued rise in serious youth violence “a social emergency” and quoted youth workers and community consultants who highlighted the contribution of youth services cuts to the increase in violence. As many as 104 of London’s youth clubs have been shuttered since 2011.
In the mainstream press, however, drill music – typified by its nihilistic street tales and knife crime glossaries – provided a more accessible scapegoat. The Metropolitan Police pursued music video takedowns and invoked anti-terror laws to prevent certain artists from recording or performing: actions taken without consideration for the unseen impact they have, says Larbi. “There are people that are doing this professionally, that are doing it to put food on their table, to look after their families to put a roof over their head,” he explains. “And for those people that are genuinely doing it to get out of a certain lifestyle, they have basically had their careers and their livelihoods taken away.”
In this context, Larbi’s studio space has taken on a greater significance than he might have anticipated when hanging the first panels of acoustic foam in Park Royal. On Da Beat quickly became a place where young people from all over London could come to just be themselves, free of the pressures of life at home, school or on the street. And it’s not unique in this regard either.
Corey Johnson, Defenders
“I have to shout out Trident for the nickname,” says Digital Holdings studio founder, UK music industry veteran, and proud south Londoner, Corey Johnson, with a wry laugh.
The nickname he refers to is ‘Switzerland’: a sobriquet given by the Metropolitan Police’s specialised gun crime unit to Johnson’s complex of studios and classrooms squeezed between garages and a massive DHL depot on an industrial estate in Bermondsey. “It’s a safe space for everybody,” Johnson explains. “They come in from north, south, east and west. They might be in different gangs and crews that maybe don’t get along with each other out in the rest of the world. But this has been a place where nobody wants to spoil it.”
After founding the Digital Holdings studio in 2006, Johnson set up an independent youth charity on the same premises. Called Community Youth London, it’s since run programmes across 10 boroughs in London. Each Friday evening, he hosts a workshop at the centre aimed at passing on the industry knowledge he’s accrued over his years in the music business. A platinum disc for Drake’s One Dance hangs on the wall, inscribed with his name, in case anyone feels like questioning his credentials.
In Croydon, the Finesse Foreva studios have taken on a similar function. Helmed by TK and SK, two 27-year-olds who grew up in the area, ‘FF’ has grown from offering studio time and music management to incorporate mentoring, industry training and even an investment arm. “A lot of people come to us for advice that’s nothing to do with music, and we’re proud of that,” says SK. “We’ve become a home for young people, to encourage the positives – turn the negatives into positives, so to speak,” he continues, before TK chimes in rhetorically: “Our thing is, who’s going to do it if we don’t?”
With TK and SK’s guidance, Finesse Foreva alumni have gone on to set up separate ‘sister studios’ around the capital, such as producer/engineer Tweeko’s space in New Cross and Scratch’s in Woolwich.
“One of our A&Rs was homeless last year. He didn’t have a passport, didn’t have a birth certificate. His parents left him,” recalls SK. “He got two record deals in the space of a year. We put him in a home.” The pair recently inked a partnership deal with Warner, which they hope will bring bigger opportunities for the youngsters passing through their premises. But having this kind of impact costs money.
“I mean, as much as we’d like to run like a charity, we wouldn’t survive for more than a couple of months if we did that,” says Larbi, explaining instead that by pursuing profitability he’s able to divert a portion of the studio’s earnings into social investments that are less easily measured on a balance sheet. Finesse Foreva and Digital Holdings take a similar approach.
This summer, youth worker and writer – and former Crack Magazine contributor – Ciaran Thapar ran a pilot programme called Roadworks that used rap and drill music to engage a group of 10 young people in social science and career skills workshops. It cost £2,000 to deliver and was funded by Sound Connections, a youth music charity based in east London. For Thapar it proved that, with smarts and the right connections, programmes like these can be delivered on a tight budget. However, he also recognises that accessing even small portions of funding like this isn’t always straightforward.
“There is funding out there,” he explains, “but I think that the landscape and the way that it functions is problematic, in that people are competing the whole time. Treating it like a marketplace is difficult. You’ve got funding given out on certain conditions: that if you can do XYZ and you can prove XYZ before you’ve even done it, then we’ll give you the money – otherwise we’re not interested.”
Successful public and charity funding systems rest on a balance between accessibility and accountability. But often, it seems, the fulcrum is offset. Corey Johnson sums up the conundrum more bluntly: “Do I spend 70 percent of my time chasing funding and going through red tape, or do I spend 70 percent of my time dealing with young people and their actual problems?”
Jamal Edwards MBE, JEDelve
When SB.TV founder Jamal Edwards decided he wanted to reinvigorate the neglected community centre in the Acton neighbourhood he grew up in, he says he faced endless bureaucracy. He fired off emails to the local housing association, councillors, and Rupa Huq, the area’s incumbent MP, about his plans to establish his new JEDelve initiative as a network of career-focused youth centres. “It was just me trying to break down the doors like, ‘Look, I’m just trying to do something good for the young people – do you not want us?’” he explains. “It was proper frustrating at times. But I just had to keep going and show them that this is for the good of these young people.”
While Edwards believes the best way to approach these challenges is to work collaboratively with government and public bodies, he admits that many of his project’s early successes have stemmed from the favours he’s able to pull from his star-studded phonebook or the fact he has an MBE suffixing his surname.
Is it fair that these individual studio owners, music entrepreneurs and community leaders should be expected – apparently by proxy – to shoulder all of this responsibility? And, perhaps more importantly, is it even sustainable to continue in this vein?
Thapar, for one, doesn’t think so. “I personally think that business and private money has a lot to answer for, but if you’re going to have a social fabric in a society that is sustainable and binding – which we don’t have right now, and it’s getting worse – you have to have some sort of central set of principles, you have to have a state that is functioning well. You can’t just rely on, ultimately, the profiteering mindsets of people, to generate ethically good things,” he says, with audible frustration.
“Are we just accepting now that all good things are going to come from private money, rather than us all binding together and voting for a system that pays for those things? Whether it be youth services or whatever, there has to be an investment in it. Everyone pays their taxes and then everyone realises that a certain level of education or youth work is being done for young people when they need it.”
As well as wanting more government funding made available, Digital Holdings’ Corey Johnson and Larbi of On Da Beat argue that those creaming off the top of the music industry should be investing more into grassroots development. Finesse Foreva’s TK and SK suggest a devolved, community-led approach to allocating funds, including public money. This would include surveying the young people who could ultimately benefit from the services the money funds.
But the sad truth of our current moment is that the myriad difficulties young people face – including a stretched education service, lack of employment opportunities, as well as the violence that makes headlines, and the knock-on effect all of this has on mental health – are too easily sidelined.
“No one cares, and no one’s trying to change that, because it doesn’t affect them,” says TK, puncturing the air with his finger. He and SK recall media tours and Parliamentary visits that have seemingly resulted in no real change to policy or funding that could support grassroots initiatives.
When I try to make contact with Sarah Jones, founder and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on knife crime, to get her take on the issues raised, I get an automated response explaining that Parliament has been dissolved in the run-up to the election. Another election that revolves around the interminable swirl of chuntering and malfeasance that is Brexit.
“I’ve been in meetings in Parliament about youth violence, where the highest level decision-makers are in the room trying to grapple with some of these things that they’ve only got an hour to grapple with for that two weeks,” says Thapar. “And then half of the meeting is taken up by alarms to do with emergency Brexit votes.”
For him and others, it’s difficult to imagine any practicable solutions being conceived while Brexit continues to suffocate every discussion. All of which is extremely frustrating for those involved in the kind of grassroots community initiatives these music studios, and the safe space they offer, have come to represent. The response to news of yet another round of Parliamentary peacocking ranges from apathy to anger to exhaustion.
Spaces like On Da Beat, Finesse Foreva, Digital Holdings, JEDelve, and others dotted around the capital represent what’s possible on one scale; but for community-minded solutions like these to extend their impact, there’s a chasmic need for broader systemic change.
One thing is certain: these problems won’t disappear of their own accord. And it’s that simple fact that continues to motivate Larbi, Johnson, TK, SK, Thapar, Edwards and others working to offer the capital’s next generation a brighter future than the one currently laid before them.
Photography: Ivor Alice & Michelle Helena Janssen