United Kingdom

Soundtrack to murder: For the first time, a gangland 'drill' track is at Number One

In Body, Russ Millions (pictured above) and Tion Wayne rap: ‘Free Big A, he’s too militant’ — which online followers of the singers have interpreted to be a reference to a gang member currently in prison on firearm offences

Stab first then talk...On flight-mode when we walk...Chest or back we’ll rip his face offI’ll put holes in your back.’

The lyrics are brutal and the music is ‘drill’ — a raw and aggressive form of British rap with accompanying videos that feature balaclava-wearing men waving weapons and detailing the bloody reality of life on the streets.

For Sharon Kendall, the words of the song Dip First (‘dip’ being slang for ‘stab’), by a drill rapper associated with a gang in the Rayners Lane area of North-West London, the lyrics were heart-wrenchingly close to home.

Her 18-year-old son Jason Isaacs was killed near Rayners Lane by teenagers who stabbed him in the back, arms and legs.

She said ‘a piece of me died’ when Jason was pronounced dead in hospital in 2017. That was the year that drill music first exploded in London.

Joel Amade, then 19, a drill rapper allegedly affiliated with the Rayners Lane gang — and who raps these ugly lyrics on Dip First — was found guilty of murder two years after the attack and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Ms Kendall described her shock at discovering the musical ambitions of her son’s killer.

‘The boy that killed Jason is in numerous YouTube videos and all they talk about is stabbing people in the back, putting their phones on flight mode,’ she said in a documentary last year. (Phones on ‘flight mode’ cannot be traced by the authorities.)

‘It’s a massive thing, this drill music,’ she added. ‘I don’t think it’s the only cause [of violence], but it’s one of them. They actually played [Amade’s] YouTube video in court; he’s made a few music videos. They get so many views.’

The lyrics and the violence they glorify can indeed be horrifying. Which is why the soaring popularity of the music among British teenagers is so troubling.

Earlier this month, a drill song reached No 1 in the Official Singles Chart for the first time.

Body by two rappers who style themselves ‘Russ Millions’ and ‘Tion Wayne’ racked up 71,000 chart sales and almost 11 million online streams last week alone — and retained the top spot this weekend. Combined views for the YouTube videos of two versions of the song stand at more than 56 million.

So close: Jason Isaacs with his parents before he was killed.  Ms Kendall described her shock at discovering the musical ambitions of her son’s killer. ‘The boy that killed Jason is in numerous YouTube videos and all they talk about is stabbing people in the back, putting their phones on flight mode,’ she said in a documentary last year

Martin Talbot of the Official Charts Company claimed the event was ‘a brand new high point for drill and perhaps the beginning of a new era for the Official Singles Chart’. 

To the casual listener, Body is a catchy earworm and a heavily sexualised celebration of women with bodies shaped like ‘Cola’ bottles.

But dig deeper and the lyrics are just as horrifyingly violent as those of Amade and thousands of other drill songs on Spotify and YouTube.

The Body rappers yell about ‘my nank [knife] just wavin’ and ‘with my fist, love the altercation . . . with my shank [knife], that’s a combination . . . when I punch man, it’s grievous’.

The lyrics refer to the ‘3x3’ group from Edmonton in North London, and the gang violence which has plagued the area. Rapper E1 who is credited as ‘E1 (3x3)’ on the popular remix of the song, raps in it: ‘No one in 3x3’s been blammed [shot].’

Edmonton gangs are often engaged in violence with gangs from nearby Tottenham including ‘OFB’ and ‘NPK’ (Northumberland Park Killers), both splinter groups of the original Tottenham Mandem gang, which was instrumental in the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, in which PC Keith Blakelock lost his life. These gangs all hail from areas within London’s N17 postcode.

‘3x3’, meanwhile, forms part of the N9 postcode (‘3x3’ equals 9). Gangs here including the ‘Greens’ (referring to the districts of Edmonton Green and Wood Green, among others). The Greens are allegedly responsible for the murders of rival gang members.

Online craze: Youngsters dance on TikTok to drill music. Martin Talbot of the Official Charts Company claimed the event was ‘a brand new high point for drill and perhaps the beginning of a new era for the Official Singles Chart’

In Body, Russ Millions and Tion Wayne rap: ‘Free Big A, he’s too militant’ — which online followers of the singers have interpreted to be a reference to a gang member currently in prison on firearm offences.

The video is less than subtle about its gangland influences: it was shot outside Edmonton Green Overground station, with ‘crew’ members wearing green balaclavas, scarves and bandanas.

Announcing the No 1 spot on BBC Radio 1 last week, presenter Scott Mills trilled excitedly that the song had ‘exploded’, claiming ‘this is a moment in history’.

The track is now on the station’s daytime ‘A-list’ playlist, the songs that enjoy the most airtime. Although the BBC plays a version of the song with violent gang references dubbed out, the original and its explicit remix (more of which later) go hand-in-hand, and it is the explicit lyrics that children are chanting in the playgrounds.

In years gone by, the state broadcaster has seen fit to ban songs including Cliff Richard’s High Class Baby in 1958 (which referenced the Cadillac car brand in a breach of Auntie’s advertising guidelines), Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984 (which alluded to gay sex) and even The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life, banned in 1967 for containing the lyric: ‘I’d love to turn you on.’

How ironic, then, that it is happy to play — even in a censored version — a genre of music that is so steeped in gory violence, gangland fighting and death.

And the BBC is by no means consistent in its refusal to play the songs uncensored. In 2019, the drill rapper Dave performed his hit Thiago Silva at the Glastonbury music festival.

A video of a teenage boy from the audience singing along with the rapper later went viral. The lyrics that the teen Alex Mann sang along with the musician, include: ‘Hand on my hip, shank [knife] for the dip [stab] . . . Trip, get splashed [stabbed]’ and much more in the same vein.

The BBC was happy to broadcast this uncensored version in its entirety to the youthful audience of its Glastonbury coverage.

Meanwhile, one of Radio 1’s best known former DJs, Tim Westwood, has posed in photographs with drill artists and gang members (one of whom, Sidique Kamara, 23, was later stabbed to death).

Westwood himself is the son of a bishop and went to private school, but has been known to speak in a pseudo-Jamaican ‘street’ patois. He is said to have partly inspired Sacha Baron’s Cohen spoof character Ali G.

That the BBC censors some drill songs matters little to young audiences, who can easily go online to find the explicit versions.

Asked about the decision to play Body on radio during the day, a BBC spokeswoman said: ‘Each track is considered for the playlist based on its musical merit and whether it is right for our target audience, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis.’ So who exactly are the two drill artists behind it?

Tion Wayne, 27, whose real name is Dennis Junior Odunwo, was born in Edmonton to Nigerian parents. In March 2017, he was involved in a brawl after performing at a nightclub in Bristol.

The incident was not said to be gang-related, but began when a group of people who had been banned from entry then waited outside after the event.

Wayne was jailed for 16 months for stamping on a man’s head, which was caught on CCTV.

Last year, he was reportedly involved in an altercation on a plane to Dubai with a rapper affiliated with a rival Tottenham drill group, OFB.

He appears to reference the 2017 incident in his new hit single, rapping: ‘They played back the CCTV / When I banged him, man, my defence said “Jesus” ’.

Russ Millions’ real name is Shylo Batchelor Ashby Milwood. He was born in Lewisham: that this area is south of the Thames did not prevent him being accepted by Tion Wayne’s North London crew, though there is no suggestion he has been involved with gang activity.

The 25-year-old calls himself ‘the King of Drill’ and also goes by the stage name ‘Russ Splash’ — as we’ve seen, ‘splash’ is yet another slang word for ‘stab’.

Russ Millions is signed to Virgin Records alongside artists such as Mick Jagger and Katy Perry, and Tion Wayne is signed to Atlantic Records, the same label as Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay.

But their song Body was languishing in the charts for weeks until it was used in a canny and increasingly common music-industry marketing ploy.

An ultra-explicit remix of the song — featuring members of the 3x3 group guest-rapping certain verses — was uploaded on to the video-sharing platform TikTok as a ‘trend’.

‘Trends’ on TikTok involve users filming themselves dancing or lip-syncing to the same piece of music in their own videos.

In the case of the Body remix, teenagers in bedrooms across the world began lip-syncing to the camera, and then at a certain point in the song, transforming into drill stars wearing balaclavas and bullet-proof vests and brandishing baseball bats and makeshift guns.

It worked: by targeting the lucrative teen market and getting the remix ‘trending’ on social media, the original lurched up the Top 20, ascending to No 1 — not just in the UK but also in Australia.

Now it is being blasted out in playgrounds and classrooms across Britain.

ZT raps: ‘I’m a chest-shot specialist, wet [stab] man’s chest / Back shot specialist /. . . SOS for an anti-green’.

Another rapper, Bugzy Malone, states: ‘He got wetted [stabbed] for spillin’ his drink on me / Need resuscitation just to help him breathe / Man drown when it’s an internal bleed . . . Anyone can get R.I.P’d’.

Some of these men aren’t just rapping about life on the capital’s most violent streets (known as ‘the road’); they are living it.

This gives their music an authenticity and, to some, a gritty glamour that has entranced impressionable young audiences around the world — to such an extent that London gang warfare, which has seen hundreds of teenagers die in recent years — is now enjoying its own internet ‘fan culture’.

The young gangs of London increasingly enjoy a twisted kind of fame, and their millions of fans fastidiously follow their rivalries, chart the postcode territories, know the colours sported by each gang, and even know the estates in which the gangs operate.

It is not unusual to see YouTube comments and online forum comments such as ‘Hello, I’m from Brazil, could you explain the difference between Edmonton 3x3 and Wood Green please’, or ‘Canadian here, can I get some clarification on the SE postcode districts?’

From the safety of their bedrooms, youngsters track the antics of their favourite gangs as if they were Pokémon cards, footballers or characters in a video game.

Except, of course, it’s real life.

In London’s poorest areas, young boys see this form of music as a thrilling call to arms. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick has said: ‘Drill music is associated with lyrics which are about glamorising serious violence — murder, stabbings.

‘They describe the stabbings in great detail, joy and excitement . . . Most particularly, in London we have gangs who make drill videos and in those videos, they taunt each other. They say what they’re going to do to each other and specifically what they are going to do to who.’

In 2018, the Metropolitan Police tracked more than 600 suspected gangsters across 1,100 YouTube clips, which they said potentially incited violence.

The crime rates speak for themselves. In 2019, homicides in London hit a ten-year high, having increased 50 per cent over four years. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a six per cent rise in offences involving knives or sharp instruments.

Former Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood posing with gang members. Westwood himself is the son of a bishop and went to private school, but has been known to speak in a pseudo-Jamaican ‘street’ patois. He is said to have partly inspired Sacha Baron’s Cohen spoof character Ali G

Already, 13 teenagers have been killed in knife attacks in London since January 1 this year: one short of the entire total for 2020.

Police and social workers have warned of a perfect storm of gang crime this summer with the release of lockdown and tensions pent up online in the past year.

And it is impossible to ignore the relationship between knife crime and drill.

In 2018, 17-year-old rapper Junior Simpson was sentenced to life in prison after he and three others stabbed 15-year-old Jermaine Goupall to death. The court heard he had written a track about knife attacks before carrying out the killing.

And only this month police issued a £20,000 reward for information about a 17-year-old drill rapper who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Kennington, South London, in 2018.

It would be easy to deplore drill artists as reprehensibles who should all be behind bars. But many drill artists insist that the music has allowed them to escape gang culture, and that censoring it is a barrier to the creative jobs that it generates, including video production and marketing.

Many black boys in inner-city areas see no aspirational careers except in music or football.

Drill musicians also insist that gang culture and related knife and gun-crime are due to socio-economic factors such as funding cuts, inequality and poverty, and that these issues should be addressed by policymakers before banning music —which they add is against their freedom of speech.

Regardless, the genre is seemingly here to stay.

This week, Headie One, aka 26-year-old Irving Adjei — a former Tottenham OFG gang member and county lines drug runner, who in 2020 left prison to become one of the breakout stars of drill — gave a rousing performance at the Brit Awards. He says his time in prison was a ‘wake-up call’ and he has escaped the ‘trap’ of crime.

Britain is now widely thought to be producing some of the world’s best hip-hop music, and teenagers around the globe are singing along to rap records that name Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton instead of LA, Chicago and New York.

Neither Russ Millions, Tion Wayne or Atlantic Records, the label on which Body was released, replied to requests for comment.

As drill music continues to blaze a path into the mainstream, the debate will continue to rage as to whether art is imitating life, or life imitating art. But one thing seems all too clear; as its popularity grows, its malevolent influence will continue to spread.

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