There’s a scene in the documentary Biggie & Tupac where Biggie Smalls’ mother, Voletta Wallace, points out the disparity between her son’s life and the music that he made. “I heard I live in a shack!” she says, referring to the fact that, on ‘Juicy’, the rapper claims he grew up in a “one-room shack”. In fact, says Voletta, “I had a 7.5-room apartment.” She adds: “My son was a poet who wrote about what he saw. Was it filth? Yes, it was. But it was a filthy story, a story that was out there.”
Little has changed, it seems, since that movie was released in 2002. Rap’s relationship with the real world remains complex, as is evidenced in recent headlines about drill, the frenetic sub-genre that emerged in Chicago around 2012 and has since been imported to London. This is a music scene defined by trap-influenced beats, icy soundscapes and tightly packed rhymes – the latter often concerned with gang violence and the depiction of relentlessly combative and bleak cityscapes. The rise of drill artists has coincided with an epidemic of knife crime in the capital (up 21% year-on-year, according to report released by the Metropolitan Police in May), leading mainstream news outlets to ask, “Does UK drill music incite violence?”
LD, a member of the Brixton Hill-based six-piece 67, points out that this is spectacularly unfair. “You have drill, you have grime,” he says, “you have rap, R&B and hip-hop. And in each one of those categories – I can guarantee you – there will be someone that mentions guns, that mentions killings; all of the fuckery that you hear in drill. I was born in 1992; it’s been like that since the year I was born. So why now are you focusing on drill? Drill is just a style of rapping. It’s speeded up on an aggressive and bassy beat. So, what, are you saying it’s the beats that’s making people mad, that’s making people kill each other? Because it can’t be the lyrics. Those lyrics are in every genre of music, and it’s been like that from before I was born.”
Despite this, drill has borne the brunt of the blame for crime within the capital. In June, YouTube controversially removed 30 drill videos in the wake of complaints from the Metropolitan Police. Drill videos often see rappers don balaclavas in a pastiche of gang culture and, as Detective Superintendent Mike West put it, “There are gestures of violence, with hand signals suggesting they are firing weapons and graphic descriptions of what they would do to each other.” Most controversially of all, the west London group 1011 were, in an unprecedented move, banned from making music without pre-arranged police permission.
Five members of 67 – Liques, Monkey, Dimzy, ASAP and LD, all in their early to mid 20s – lounge on sofas and armchairs in the NME office as Liques’ young son toddles from one rapper to another. At one point, he blows a raspberry as I finish asking a question, leading me to wonder just how inane it was. The group recently released ‘The 6’, their sprawling new mixtape – and their first record as a six-piece. Its 16 tracks relay a gruelling tale about life London, 2018 – knives, guns and gang violence abound – though its authors seem nothing like their personas.
Of 1011’s fate, quiet, softly spoken LD says, “I talk to a couple of them, and I’ve spoken about their music. I understand why people may think what they think, but [1011 are] just spitting. They’re kids. They’re 18 – young kids. People need to see that being an artist, and sometimes saying violent things, is just being an artist. It’s like when you’re in a movie, acting like you’re about to rob a bank; it’s not really that person. You still live a normal life. People think that it’s violence all day long, but they need to remember that everyone has a family.”
He explains: “I’m a rapper. I do what rappers do. I say things, and I exaggerate things. A rapper will tell you he owns 10 cars – he doesn’t own 10 cars.”
Shortly after 67’s interview with NME, Dimzy pens an open letter in The Fader. The piece defends drill with eloquence and reason. “Drill music has positively changed my life in so many ways,” he writes. “I can now pay bills & set up direct debits which builds my credit score so I can go on to have a mortgage and be self-sufficient. I can contribute financially to help my family financially. I’ve explored different cities & towns, indulged in different cultures, tasted different food and met different types of people who live all different types of lifestyles with different beliefs and these things have made me be a much more mature and patient person.”
It was Dimzy who helped to establish 67’s signature, claustrophobic sound. “I was in Sheffield at the time with my family and I was going on my computer and looking at instrumentals,” he says. “We would go through British stuff first and I would find nothing, or stuff that was used already. But by going through American [instrumentals], you would find stuff that was different. It wasn’t planned – we were just making beats that we liked. We didn’t know about tempos; we were just rapping fast.” Only when a friend compared 67 to Chief Keef, the innovator of the Chicago sound, did the group realise they’d brought drill over to Britain.
Since then, 67 have released a slew of mixtapes, collaborated with Giggs (on 2016’s brooding ‘Let’s Lurk’), performed at Glastonbury and hit the European festival circuit as though the opportunity might not arise again (it definitely will). Yet they’ve experienced difficulties in performing back home, with one tour cancelled when venues began to scrap shows at the last minute. “They respect our music all over Europe except from here,” LD claims. “We see way more love travelling all over Europe we receive here. Don’t get it twisted – the UK gives us love, but the hate here is crazy too. In other countries, you look at their platforms and they are all together – they all build together. Here, it’s not like that. There’s favouritism. It’s weird here. Like, the UK is nuts. If someone jumps someone in America, everybody is posting it.”
They blame Form 696, the controversial piece of government legislation that shut down countless grime shows before being scrapped last year, for the resulting loss in revenue in and exposure. Yet group remains determined to develop 67, which they consider to be a brand. “I wanna be like P. Diddy,” says Monkey, explaining that he wants to work with Nike and Supreme. “You grow up and start seeing things that you could achieve,” adds Dimzy. “You start wanting more for yourself – and for other people around you, as well. Other people around us, who might not be doing something, could come work with us. It does help other people.”
LD wears a menacing mask in 67’s music videos (which rack up hundreds of thousands of YouTube views) and live shows. It’s liberating, he says. “There’s no limit. That’s what come with being an artist.” When you block young artists’ creative outlets, you also curtail their pathways to financial and cultural cache. “It’s like they want to keep us trapped,” LD explains. “We don’t want to be trapped.” 67 are musicians, entrepreneurs, community figures – but, above all, they are storytellers. It’s a filthy story, but London won’t get any cleaner because you refused to listen.