If grime was the ascendant British rap sound of the 2010s, then the 2020s will surely belong to drill. Treading the line between inspirational and nihilistic, UK drill artists such as Headie One, Skengdo & AM, K Trap and Loski paint a bleak yet vivid picture of Britain’s inner cities, speaking directly to a whole generation of working-class kids who feel so scared that they carry a knife just for protection.
Last year alone, according to the Metropolitan Police, there were 90 fatal stabbings in London and offences involving knives rose by seven per cent across the UK. Police routinely shut down drill artists’ shows and even censor what artists can say (in January 2019 Brixton’s Skengdo X AM received historic suspended sentences for performing). It’s clear that the British government believes there’s a tangible link between rising knife crime and UK drill.
A new documentary, Terms & Conditions: A UK Drill Story, created by YouTube Originals, embedded above, grapples with the impact of UK drill, asking if the sub-genre has a positive or negative impact on young people. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Brian Hill, it’s a balanced account of the controversy that surrounds drill, tackling the notion that its staunchest critics might actually harbour views rooted in racism. As artist and interviewee Drillminister puts it at one point: “Drill doesn’t create violence; it’s just a reflection of violence. If young black men played violins they would try to ban that too.” The film also asks what drill must now do to become safer for both its artists and fans.
The film is narrated by London-based journalist Andre Montgomery-Johnson – aka Mr. Montgomery – who has interviewed some of UK drill’s biggest stars. NME caught up with Mr. Montgomery to talk about the demonisation of drill and what he hopes Terms & Conditions will ultimately achieve.
Why is now the right time for this documentary?
“The internet has spread a lot of misinformation about the UK drill scene, so this was a good chance to set things right. We are at a point where the government can’t hide behind blaming drill any more. They keep on making up so many excuses and reasons for why knife crime is happening: first they said it was drill, then they said it was police cuts, and now they say it is mental health. We can see the real problem is behind the government not wanting to tackle the fact that inner cities have had no investment, and that the subsequent rise in poverty has created so much more fear.”
“They’re so focused on Brexit that they’ve forgotten about helping out the inner cities. Drill becomes an easy thing to blame as it diverts the attention away from their own shortcomings. It has become a bit of a scapegoat for the fact that nothing was really learned from the London riots.”
A lot of drill artists are aspirational figures who are showing kids in inner cities that they can make it out. Was it important that this documentary really spelt that out?
“Definitely. I do believe there are people in the government that don’t want to see black boys make it out the ‘hood. They are very stiff-necked and raise their lips at the idea of people with criminal records becoming successful. It doesn’t sit right with them that someone from the ‘hood can make it into the same tax bracket as a government official – who probably went to uni for eight years – just by putting gangster rap videos onto YouTube. It’s wild to me that people will let their kids play Grand Theft Auto for six hours a day – a game where they go out and shoot people without consequences – yet they have an issue with a three-minute drill song. Which one has more of a negative effect? Drill is just entertainment and social commentary.”
You also spoke to mothers of teenage lads who were stabbed to death and whose murders were rapped about on drill tracks, so you’re aware of UK drill’s serious problems too. What were some of the biggest things that you learned?
“The mothers are the ones who are left behind, so it’s very difficult to explain to them the benefits of drill music, especially when their child was murdered as a result of the scene. How the hell do you do that? I think it was important that the documentary showed this scene isn’t perfect and argued that some drill artists need to stop abusing their freedom of speech. They shouldn’t be saying things that they know have a purely negative intent, as no one benefits from that. If you’re saying something out of selfishness or pure malice then there are real-world consequences.”
What would you like viewers to take from Terms & Conditions: A UK Drill Story?
“Our film shows that those artists don’t represent the whole scene. By giving a more three-dimensional look, people are going to realise this a lot more clearly. The majority of drill artists are having a positive social impact; there’s just a minority that needs to be dealt with. Drill can represent every person. You’ve got gay drill, political drill, pop drill – it isn’t just about someone in the ‘hood in Brixton any more. This scene helps all sorts of people exorcise their demons and I believe history will prove that.”
Would you say that your own experiences had an impact on the tone of the documentary?
“I grew up in Brixton before the gentrification came. It was very dangerous. I was around gangs, knives and even guns. I committed petty crimes. My cousin was killed when I was 16, another went to jail, and another got deported. It was tough. I had no father figure and because I didn’t want to be a victim I sometimes carried a knife, but later realised that wasn’t the way. I put all my energy into something positive and began documenting the scene as a journalist with ‘On Your Block’ [a YouTube documentary]. That’s what drill rappers are trying to do too. The majority are trying to make it out of the hood and show their friends that they can be successful. It is about turning a negative into a positive, and waking people up to what’s really going on.”
There’s clearly been a rise in knife crime in this country. Is it fair to say that your documentary suggests this is being driven by fear and a lack of community resources?
“For sure. There are rules in the streets or the underworld, and if people want to kill you, they will. Kids are terrified so they carry knives to feel safe. But there is also a lack of self-worth and belonging that underpins all of this. When you feel that you belong to something, you can really commit to it, but how can kids feel committed to communities that are dangerous or have no youth centres for them to blow off steam in? If you are a kid and don’t feel valued then you join a gang.”
“The reality is that the Government doesn’t want to fix these communities and they don’t really care what a young black boy has to say. But with this documentary, we are hoping to show people why listening is so important. By listening to what UK drill artists have to say, politicians will be able to change this country for the better.”
‘Terms & Conditions: A UK Drill Story’ is available to watch on YouTube now