Is UK drill music really behind London's wave of violent crime?

It’s a menacing strain of hip-hop with a powerful presence on social media, but does drill reflect or drive crime?

Whether it’s the running battles between mods and rockers in 1960s British seaside towns, or the “parental advisory” panic over the lyrical content of 90s gangsta rap, music has long been the focus of moral panic – and the latest is over UK drill, a tough, often lyrically violent subset of British rap.

“Murders and stabbings plaguing London and other cities are directly linked to an ultra-violent new form of music sweeping Britain”, began a report in the Sunday Times, going on to detail a series of incidents in which gang violence was supposedly catalysed by drill music – MCs taunted each other in lyrical spats that, after being shared on social media, spilled over into real-life violence.

It’s a conundrum as old as entertainment itself: does music reflect your environment, or shape it? Like violent films or video games, can people distinguish fact from fantasy, or do they let it influence their behaviour?

Responding to a question on the BBC’s Today programme about a violent lyric referring to knife crime, drill DJ Bempah argued: “if that’s what you see in your environment, as an artist, that’s what you portray in your lyrics.” He added that the music: “can glamorise [violent crime], but it can’t force your hand to commit those actions.”

Chief Keef, who helped pioneer the US drill sound.
Chief Keef, who helped pioneer the US drill sound. Photograph: Michael Knapp

Nonetheless, because of the way that UK drill is networked via social media, leading some listeners to believe that they are the subjects of the taunting lyrics, there are valid worries that drill is not just reflecting criminality, but driving it.

Born in Chicago, a city whose working-class black population, like London’s, has arguably been left to fend for itself and descended into violence, drill was initially a cold, bombastic style of gangsta rap. Its biggest breakout star was arguably Chief Keef, famous for his 2012 track I Don’t Like.

The style filtered over to the UK, and was picked up by a young generation MCs keen to define themselves away from the grime of an older generation. While other corners of black British music have explored African pop and dancehall, resulting in the lascivious and relatively carefree “afro-swing” and “afro-trap” styles, drill has looked to the US, and the tales of violence that have been a feature of rap there since the 90s.

The drill MCs mentioned in recent news reports have had little crossover success, but more high-profile names, played regularly on BBC radio and with millions of streams, also fill their tracks with violent lyrics. Fast-rising MC Abra Cadabra, 20, talks of machetes and a “rambizzy” – slang for Rambo, itself slang for a large blade – on his biggest track, Robbery, but he dismisses the accusation that he glorifies actual violence. “Beef has always been part of rap music,” he says. “Whether it’s a Tupac song or a Giggs song, challenging the competition comes with the territory. I think anyone listening to my music understands this.”

But even Giggs, one of the most successful British MCs whose last two albums have reached the UK Top 3, refers to drive-by shootings when guesting on Let’s Lurk by drill crew 67: “Man just rolled up, pepper then doughnut / Two 45s then severed man’s plates.” His success means it’s unlikely he would be dragged into such a violent scenario, but his long career and widely beloved hits means he can get away with this inauthenticity. Less prominent MCs, however, don’t have that luxury.

In a new report, Birmingham-based academics Craig Pinkney and Shona Robinson-Edwards state that drill music is potentially dangerous, since its “music videos are a platform which can provide the gang and/or gang members with a sense of power and authority. Individuals can essentially say and do what they want.” This is coupled with: “the constant narrative of ‘will you do what you say in your raps?’ puts the victim in a position where their credibility and livelihood are at stake.”

In other words, when a rapper makes a threat on a track or in a video, they can very easily be taken at their word, and then has prove those claims or make good on their threats, thus catalysing actual harm. The popularity of this kind of rap to middle-class audiences is often down to tales of violence, drug-dealing and other assorted criminality being escapist – but as Pinkney and Robinson-Edwards show, for those making the music, the shadow of violence can be very real.

In one chilling example, rapper M-Trap, aka Junior Simpson, penned lyrics about knife attacks, before he, along with three others, stabbed 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall to death; giving him a life sentence, judge Anthony Leonard QC told Simpson: “You suggested [the lyrics] were just for show but I do not believe that, and I suspect you were waiting for the right opportunity for an attack.” Goupall’s father has since described drill music as having “a demonic mindset”.

In many ways, the panic over drill is just the latest example of how music is singled out among the complex social factors that add up to crime in UK cities, just as grime was blamed last year for the use of the extra-strong cannabis strain skunk. “Targeting musicians is a distraction,” argues Abra. “The cuts that affect schools, youth clubs, social housing, benefits, are making life harder for the average person living on or below the poverty line in this city. There are people doing mad tings, not because they want to, but because the situation has forced them to.” It’s also often social media postings that generate violent disputes rather than the music itself.

Some may be alarmed by how drill crews such as 67 dress, flirting with gang imagery with matching black sportswear and masks, but this is as innocuous as similarly tribal dressing by white indie bands with their uniform of skinny jeans and leather jackets. The performative violence of drill rappers’ lyrics isn’t necessarily harmful either, and is arguably a document of their environment: “Our art is imitating our life, not the other way round,” argues Abra.

Music remains a valuable means of self-expression, and, perhaps, financial reward, for black Londoners who are among the poorest ethnic groups in the city, with 35% classed as low-paid. “When the youth see man at Wireless festival, hear man on the radio, and see man making money out of this, it inspires them,” Abra adds.

Even so, Abra Cadabra and others perhaps underestimate the emotive charge that music has, and its power to amplify, dramatise and spread what would otherwise be innocuous verbal sparring. Coupled with macho posturing, jealousy, and a lack of direction and opportunity in deprived cities, drill can – in its most wretched moments – be where violence is given a voice.

• This article was amended on 9 April 2018 to remove a picture which had been wrongly credited as depicting Abra Cadabra.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rapper Giggs attacks the Sun over UK drill story: 'Your paper is so dead'
The British music star castigated the newspaper over its front-page story about Tim Westwood and violence in the drill music scene

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

03, Aug, 2018 @2:09 PM

Article image
The month's best music: Fever Ray, Giggs, Linda Perhacs and more
From Errorsmith’s hyperactive take on Jamaican rhythm to Rina Sawayama’s shiny power balladry, here are 50 of the month’s best tracks

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Rachel Aroesti

06, Nov, 2017 @5:01 PM

Article image
RIP Channel U: the urban music champion that gave power to the people
The likes of Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and Giggs all had their careers boosted by the now-defunct satellite channel, but its real magic lay in giving non-professionals a voice

Yomi Adegoke

04, Jun, 2018 @3:48 PM

Article image
Why doesn’t everyone rap in scouse? How British hip-hop broke free of London
Aystar, Bugzy Malone and Levelz are some of the names that have helped the UK scene flourish. The biggest regional talents explain why each city has its own voice

Paul MacInnes

09, Mar, 2017 @3:10 PM

Article image
Giggs review – UK kingpin still at the top of rap's food chain
An unexpected appearance by JME punctuates a stripped-back but rambunctious hour that thrums with the energy of a basement club

Graeme Virtue

02, Dec, 2019 @11:45 AM

Article image
Discrimination against urban music persists, says report to MPs
Institutionalised racism continues to affect the live sector, committee told

Laura Snapes

19, Mar, 2019 @12:01 AM

Article image
Dave: We’re All Alone in This Together review – an eerie, anguished triumph
The rapper’s long-awaited second album darts between hedonistic swagger and unsparing social commentary to cement his place at rap’s apex

Rachel Aroesti

23, Jul, 2021 @1:38 PM

Article image
The 100 greatest BBC music performances – ranked!
As the Beeb celebrates its centenary, we take a look at its most memorable pop moments, from the birth of grime to the first sightings of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, plus TOTP goes Madchester and countless classic Peel sessions

Guardian music

06, Oct, 2022 @12:12 PM

Article image
Giggs: Big Bad... review – lone wolf of British rap still on the prowl
The Peckham rapper has become one of the UK’s most successful by sticking to his guns – and being gifted with a uniquely sensual vocal tone

Dean Van Nguyen

22, Feb, 2019 @3:57 PM

Article image
UK music industry to implement anti-racism code of conduct from 2023
A 2021 report found racist abuse and racial inequality across the industry. The UK Music Industry Anti-Racism Code aims to protect and represent Black and ethnically diverse musicians and workers

Safi Bugel

26, Oct, 2022 @3:30 PM