“Is UK drill music really behind London’s wave of violent crime?” This was a question posed by The Guardian back in April this year, and it’s one which neatly sums up the UK’s current attitude towards hip-hop. Articles describe songs as “menacing” and forge links between rap music and gang violence, whereas high-profile court cases have even forced some rappers to source police permission before recording new music. This fear around drill is sometimes understandable – after all, drill gang violence does regularly make headline news. But these headlines are occasionally blown out of proportion, fueled by moral panic and used to justify a wider crackdown on hip-hop.
Articles like these are reminiscent of a wider cultural anxiety which, as rapper Drillminister recently highlighted, is incredibly selective. To prove his point, he teamed up with Channel 4 News to create “Political Drillin,” a track whose lyrics feature wildly violent quotes from politicians. “I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front,” he spits, echoing the words of Labour MP Jess Phillips; “I will not rest until she’s chopped up in bags in my freezer,” he raps, recalling a threat made against Prime Minister Theresa May by former chancellor George Osborne. The video quickly went viral, sparking conversations around hypocrisy and the disproportionate demonization of rappers. Unsurprisingly, some publications – usually the ones stoking the hysteria which drives this narrative – chose to ignore the point entirely and just mock Drillminister and his trademark balaclava, indicating that more needs to be done to protect hip-hop before all joy is stamped out of the genre for good.
Of course, hip-hop has always been plagued by fear-mongering and censorship, and a deep dive into its history helps give context. Hip-hop was born in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s, a decade during which the borough was literally burning. Violent crime was commonplace, and poverty was rife; a 1972 New York Times article showed that the area had “the smallest slice of prosperity and the largest proportion of poor families” among New York State’s 62 counties. Documentaries described it as a “war zone.” Amidst this chaos, black youth began to use hip-hop as a creative medium and dance away their frustration at house parties helmed by innovative DJs. Music became escapism, and hip-hop went on to represent this concept in its purest form.
The genre’s early years were dominated more by DJs than rappers, and its influence was more prevalent in nightlife than it was on the charts – with a few notable exceptions. It wasn’t until the 1980s that hip-hop truly seeped into the mainstream, spawning countless new sounds which first dominated the east and west coasts of America, and then, more generally, the world. But with this popularity came panic, especially when ‘gangsta rap’ went from just another sub-genre to a global cultural phenomenon. Rappers waxed lyrical about racial segregation, police brutality, and political corruption, using their platforms to spark conversations about America’s history of inequality and issue a swift ‘fuck you’ to the police officers known for killing black men on the job. If the lyrics were violent, it was often because they were borne of rage. Unsurprisingly, this rage was deemed unpalatable by mainstream media, and a torrent of rap censorship – notably in the early 1990s – ensued. Ice Cube later parodied this fear with his 2008 single “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It.”
The 1980s also saw the UK begin a brief fascination with hip-hop, although some reports claim that it was quickly replaced by rave and left to linger until the garage explosion of the late 1990s. US rappers gained British popularity, breakdancing blew up, and street artists embraced graffiti, but homegrown rappers generally failed to make any kind of cultural impact.
That’s not to say that rap wasn’t making waves, but these UK ripples were largely instigated by hip-hop’s close affiliation to punk. An early example came in 1981 when Blondie released “Rapture,” a track which fused elements of punk, ska and rap to huge commercial success. Some even describe lead vocalist Debbie Harry as the world’s first rapper, a wildly inaccurate claim which obviously erases the hip-hop pioneers that came before her, but her foray into rap undeniably raised the genre’s profile and drove other punks to do the same. Just a year later, Malcolm McClaren – who, alongside then-partner Vivienne Westwood, was one of the main originators of British punk – returned to London after a trip to New York, where he had stumbled upon one of Afrika Bambaataa’s infamous block parties with the Universal Zulu Nation. McClaren was entranced by the turntable-scratching, the high-energy beats and the rapid-fire rhymes, so he released “Buffalo Gals” in 1982; this, alongside a slew of other releases, helped to cement the cross-continental relationship between punk and hip-hop for good.
These parallels are key to understanding the various connotations underpinning UK attitudes towards rap today: it’s a genre which flickers with all the political rage of punk; it’s a style rooted in youth and rebellion; and it’s also one which is intrinsically tied to the idea of making magic in the face of marginalization. On top of that, authority is rejected wholeheartedly – the Sex Pistols were singing “God Save the Queen” in the 1970s, a decade later N.W.A. were chanting “Fuck Tha Police.” Both were making valid points about imperialism, hierarchy, and segregation, but governments didn’t want to listen. Instead, they censored.
As the years rolled on, other artists saw their work banned intermittently. Marilyn Manson managed to piss off just about everyone with Satanic references and filthy videos; Madonna writhed suggestively with countless dancers on camera, released a Sex book and even pretended to masturbate with a crucifix; The Prodigy saw its “Smack My Bitch Up” video pulled from music networks for depicting drugs, sex, and violence. But none of these people were judged as representatives of their respective genres to the extent that rappers often are, so hip-hop began to embrace its X-rated reputation in the early 2000s in particular. The ‘vixens’ got more naked and the videos got more explicit, leading BET to create an uncut channel specifically for the scenes which were too hot for TV. Sex sold, and rappers embraced its earning potential.
Violent lyrics still cropped up frequently in rap music throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but hip-hop wasn’t singled out to the same extent it had been during the heyday of groups like N.W.A. In the UK, the time soon came for genres like grime and garage to dominate, spearheaded by early pioneers like the So Solid Crew, Ms. Dynamite, Kano, Wiley, Lethal Bizzle and Dizzee Rascal, to name just a few. Dizzee and Wiley had a long-running feud which resulted in Dizzee being stabbed (some speculate Wiley had something to do with it, a rumor he himself has fueled) and So Solid – comprised of more than 20 members – were linked to gang violence and even blocked from appearing at festivals by police.
Despite fears about the artists themselves, this thread of censorship never extended to the music in the way that it does today. Artists like Ms. Dynamite were praised for socially conscious lyrics, and depictions of violence in music were often treated as cultural commentary: “His rhymes, and especially his beats, reflect his area’s desperate social, economic and political landscape,” wrote Pitchfork of Dizzee’s iconic debut, Boy In Da Corner. But the same artists praised for being “gritty” and “real” were soon blamed for rising violence in London clubs. Police officers gave solemn quotes about grime videos becoming more violent, and articles began to trickle out: “should grime clean up its act?”
Articles like these tended to miss various points. The first is that violence frequently occurs at club nights and concerts regardless of genre, because a combination of alcohol, drugs, and, of course, people can make some altercations inevitable. The second is that Crazy Titch, aka the grime artist who was jailed for murdering producer Richard Holmes because he was “disrespectful” in 2006, is an anomaly; he’s not the only musician to be convicted with murder, but his crime became ammunition for media outlets looking to censor. It’s no coincidence that an article was written about him earlier this year after he allegedly had sex with a prison worker; suddenly he wasn’t just Crazy Titch, but ‘Stormzy’s rap pal,’ another weapon to be used by the press in the ongoing fight against drill music.
As for the music itself, grime often made reference to war but rarely to violence. Weapons were bragged about, but Wiley once described it as “playground talk” – these were artists rapping about the real threats and fear in their lives, but they were also exaggerating these elements of reality for entertainment’s sake. In a 2009 interview, Dizzee also highlighted the selective targeting of violence in grime: “You can talk about rappers being responsible, but at the end of the day they’re trying to entertain,” he argued. “I’ve seen Macbeth and it’s about killing and witches and all that. Shakespeare is in the curriculum and it’s violent!” He bookended his statement by underlining the real problem: “Poverty, insecurity, [and] depression” are more likely to create violent youth than any rap.
This is the heart of the issue. Hip-hop – in both its US and UK iterations – is inextricably tied to hardship. Just as rap originators were trapped and disenfranchised in the burning Bronx, grime artists were being raised in a hostile country fraught with segregation and violence. 2001 – the year in which So Solid Crew landed a #1 with garage classic “21 Seconds” – saw riots break out between white racists and Asian Muslims in Burnley, Lancashire, accelerated in no small part by the growing popularity of the British Nationalist Party and a series of lies which led locals to believe that Asian communities were receiving more funding. Racial division was at an all-time high, and it led to ethnic minorities being disproportionately vulnerable to crime, impoverishment, and political scapegoating.
The situation may have improved over the last decade or so, but Britain’s vote to leave the European Union back in 2016 caused even more fragmentation. Hate crime spiked severely, and the same racial dogwhistles used by far-right parties like the British National party and, more recently, the UK Independence Party were scattered throughout the Leave campaign. Posters depicted swathes of brown immigrants rushing into the UK to drain its resources, relying on clear racism and ignoring the fact that open borders within the EU would largely attract white European immigrants. A snap election followed in 2017, accompanied by the most political campaign that grime had ever seen: #Grime4Corbyn.
Rappers once again adopted a punk mentality, speaking out against racism and systemic discrimination. Stormzy later called out Theresa May for her failure to adequately handle the tragic burning of Grenfell Tower and rehouse victims, and rappers suddenly began being censored again on platforms like the BRIT Awards – to the extent that people began to take notice. The #Grime4Corbyn campaign ultimately failed to secure an overall left-wing government victory, but it did manage to mobilize young people like never before and strip the right-wing party of its seat majority. It was arguably the most momentous example of UK rappers highlighting that their art is borne largely of struggle, and in the process grime was established as an unlikely political powerhouse.
Which brings us to 2018 and the ongoing, now intensified, crackdown on hip-hop. Music has always been political, but in the past the censorship placed on grime never really extended further than a few venue restrictions, the occasional cancelled appearance and a few fear-mongering articles arguing that rap was directly responsible for violence. These were ultimately low-level murmurs littered with racially-loaded terms – expect liberal sprinklings of ‘urban’ and ‘ghetto.’
But things have changed. Earlier this year a group of North London locals made it their mission to completely neuter Wireless Festival, otherwise known as the UK’s biggest annual celebration of hip-hop and R&B in all their myriad forms. Things weren’t always this way – the festival’s early headliners included soft-rock groups like Keane and even the likes of easy-listening chart-toppers like James Blunt – but over the years, Wireless organizers invited artists like JAY-Z to headline before pivoting to an almost entirely hip-hop line-up in 2017. This year’s festival was, despite its unacceptable lack of women, pretty amazing: everyone from Rick Ross to Stormzy dominated the main stage, and a last-minute cancellation by DJ Khaled was more than made up for when Drizzy himself snatched his unannounced headline slot. Despite one of its best years yet, Wireless is now being forced to adhere to frankly ridiculous regulations in 2019 after the aforementioned locals complained bitterly about drugs, noise, and violence. Now organizers are expected to ensure that artists don’t swear, make obscene gestures or wear revealing clothing. Sounds fun, right?
In an excellent write-up, Noisey’s Tshepo Mokoena highlighted that this wasn’t just a case of pearl-clutching locals turning their nose up at youth culture. The complaints were arguably racially-motivated. In the same way that Notting Hill Carnival – a celebration of black culture spawned in the aftermath of anti-black race riots – is disproportionately criminalized (a fact underlined by Stormzy), Wireless is being held up as a scapegoat and essentially blamed uncritically for drugs and crime.
It’s not hard to argue that this censorship is tied to the wider wave of panic around drill. Yes, drill rappers have been murdered. Yes, the victim had even admitted that there’s a link between the slang-heavy sub-genre and crime. But there’s wider context: Britain’s police force is being whittled away by austerity measures, racial tensions are rapidly escalating hate crime rates and already-impoverished areas are facing even greater challenges. Ironically, UK rap is currently thriving, meaning that with the right investment, the right education, and a drastically altered attitude, music could actually be the remedy rather than the cause. “Going back about 10 years ago, the only thing a black kid could do to get out of the ghetto was being a sports star,” said rapper Big Narstie recently, after claiming that drill was being used as a scapegoat. “Now we can add music to that. Drill does have a lot about it, but it’s truth. It’s what’s happening out there. You can’t ask these kids to talk about living in a stable household if they don’t.”
While it’s important not to downplay the issues, it is important to abandon the hysteria and look at actual solutions as opposed to demonizing and censoring an entire sub-genre of music. Scotland managed to almost entirely transform its reputation as a hotbed for knife crime by engaging with gang members, offering them education and, most importantly, funding, proving that a solution-based approach yields way better results than inflammatory op-eds. Grime success stories are doing their part, too: Stormzy recently launched a publishing imprint to help young minority authors take control over their own narratives. If nothing else, the rising number of UK rap stars are proving time and time again that there’s more to the genre than just violence and drugs, and that even those lyrics are inherently rooted in reality. Censoring rap is like slapping plaster over a deeper wound; even if the drill movement does get stamped out, the disenfranchisement which sparked its emergence will still linger.
For more like this, read our list of 10 protest songs stressing the importance of voting in today’s turbulent times.