‘Let’s get the joint jumping,” urges Headie One, gazing over a surging mosh pit reminiscent of a hardcore gig crowd. His first national tour may be taking place against the odds, but his gigs are sold out, the venues upgraded and he’s getting the sort of audience reactions that often greet a rapidly emerging new youth movement.
The 24-year-old Broadwater Farm estate MC is at the forefront of the UK’s drill music – a Chicago-originated, much slower version of grime, with violent, nihilistic lyrics – which has been linked by the authorities to London’s knife crime and triggered a tabloid moral panic akin to those that greeted punk or acid house. Drill gigs have been closed down by police, YouTube videos deleted, and one act has even been restricted by police in their ability to make music. And yet, here, the scenes are good natured and celebratory as the mostly teenage audience get to experience the music behind the headlines and a former prison inmate turned artist who doesn’t stop grinning all night.
The euphoria makes for a strange disconnect with the bleakly compelling music, in which eerily sluggish beats are counterbalanced by dazzling wordplay and catchy hooks, peppered by sounds of breaking glass and gunshots. Police-car wails introduce Sirens, a haunting tale of “Growing up, all you ever hear is sirens.” You wouldn’t read the lyrics of Different Sorts to your mum – “Guns, money, drugs, that’s the shit I’m into” – but his words reflect realities of inner city life with vivid observations and, occasionally, humour. “I’m upfront like Costa. Thank God that I still eat lobster – serious mobster.”
Blessings reflects insightfully on his life and observes “my head’s shaped like 50p” – so fans shower the stage with the coins. Tracksuit Love – drill’s answer to Run DMC’s My Adidas – is emerging as a classic of the genre. Bringing on white Manchester rapper Aitch is a nice touch for a multicultural audience. Know Better – Headie’s scolding response to being reportedly attacked by “opps” (opponents) at Bedfordshire University – prompts particularly joyous uproar as Headie shows that drill isn’t going to be suppressed.
• At Stylus, Leeds, 5 November and Electric Ballroom, London, 6 November.