Home / Blog / Featured / Long Read: A culture of Demonisation, Drill Wars: The Phantom Menace and Scene Popping on TikTok. 

Long Read: A culture of Demonisation, Drill Wars: The Phantom Menace and Scene Popping on TikTok. 

It’s a tale almost as old as time itself. Music and moral panic have been indistinguishably linked in a contentious relationship that dates back 70 years and some. It’s a non-consensual relationship that music would most certainly like to gain a restraining order against. Each new decade sends music culture and public hysteria on a deadly collision course; with music being the cultural driver, it’s not only the injured party but also becomes scapegoated as the sole reason for the crash...

Many music genres have been subject to ‘wanted posters’ throughout the years. Still, undoubtedly, the biggest outlaw of them all has been UK drill, which has been continuously issued with law enforcement APBs for being armed and dangerous. Adjacent to the genre becoming public enemy number one, drill has become an unstoppable force and one of the biggest UK exports since the British invasion in the 1960s, with rap icon Central Cee leading the assault for world domination.

Over the summer, we saw Central Cee heading Stateside, riding high off the success of his biggest hit to date, ‘Doja‘, that landed him his highest UK official chart entry at number two.

Central Cee has revealed himself as a grandmaster chess player by incorporating three special tactical manoeuvres on his recent single; the shoutout to Doja Cat, one of the world’s most prominent female rappers and singers, sampling the beat from Eve and Gwen Stefani’s iconic 2001 smash hit ‘Let Me Blow Ya Mind‘ and being the only UK rapper to partner and appear on Cole Bennett’s Lyrical Lemonade platform (where together, they conceived the visual concept for his vibrantly coloured music video directed by Bennett).

This fork-like approach has made ‘Doja‘ one of the most talked about records of the year. The song produced over 13 Million plays from a snippet of the track on TikTok and reached number 13 on the U.S. Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart, and in the two months, since the video premiered, Doja has racked up an astounding 53M views on YouTube. Since landing across the pond, his marketing awareness strategy has been equally calculating.

With the Shepherd’s Bush native dropping freestyles on L.A. Leakers, during which he cleverly breaks down UK slang to American audiences and linking with the Grammy-nominated ukulele player and platinum producer Einer Bankz. Renowned for his acoustic viral videos with U.S. rap heavyweights such as Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne, it’s been a jam-packed summer for the 24-year-old, who announced his Still Loading world tour, which kicks off next month and includes five US show dates. From humble beginnings in West London to West Hollywood, Central is being hyped as the first ever UK rapper to truly break the States. Even with the incredible success to date, you get the sense that this is just the beginning and what we have witnessed so far is very much a music artist that is still loading. Drill may have migrated from the states, but the UK has made it its own, and Central Cee is rebottling it and selling it back to the states with a Made in Britain sticker. 

A brief history of demonisation…

In the 1950s, the sound of rock ‘n’ roll struck fear into the hearts of a segregated nation that feared the prospect of race-mixing. In the ’60s, music culture was to blame for the birth of free-thinking counter-culture, drug-taking, anti-government sentiment, anti-war movements and free love. In the ’70s, the pattern repeated; tabloid newspapers and the establishment repelled punk culture, and the fear of anarchy was rife among suburbanites. And in the 1980s, media outlets waged war against heavy metal by constructing satanic panic, as depicted recently in season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Even the 90s music scenes could not escape the generational curse. As hip-hop popped stateside, its villainous status grew alongside it, making it public enemy number one, and even rap music fans were themselves suspected of criminality. Meanwhile, illegal rave culture in Britain came head to head with the press and authorities. Front-page headlines fuelled public hysteria with acid cult risk warnings; “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”.

 Culture-culling legislation…

The British establishment and police institution relentlessly pursued the illegal rave scene famed for its ethereal hedonism, fuelled by ecstasy, which charged a sense of communal unity. This newfound togetherness was entirely at odds with the individualism that had become engrained in the nation under Thatcherism. Enough ammunition, it would seem to make rave culture a political target. Just as the scene reached peak manifestation, the police and the conservative government brought it to its knees with the Criminal Justice Bill. The new legislation was particularly vindictive as it gave the police powers to shut down events that characterised a succession of repetitive beats, putting a blanket umbrella ban on dance music. It was a fatal blow marking the beginning of the end. The free party was over; thus, that chapter in rave history became just that history. 

The establishment v’s grime

Grime emerged in the early 2000s, largely off the back of UK garage and jungle music, scenes which, to an extent, escaped total press demonisation (bar members of So Solid Crew who were labelled controversial and vilified for convictions). It was inevitable that a similar fate to its cultural predecessors would occur. It quickly became political fodder for press broadsheets and the broader establishment, who were quicker than Bob the Builder in cementing links to anti-social behaviour, violent offences and knife crime. The seminal grime anthem ‘POW’ by Lethal Bizzle got a Footloose-style establishment ban from radio airways and clubland for having violent lyrical content. Years after, Bizzle got into a bizarre public tête-à-tête with then Prime Minister David Cameron for his negative vocality on the culture, in which he blamed the scene directly for people carrying guns and knives. The exchanges heated into a Bizzle Vs Cameron Lord of the Mics clash that no one saw coming. In round one of the fight, Lethal delivered a knockout, labelling the future Prime Minister a doughnut. Cameron retaliated via the Daily Mail, saying Bizzle was talking rubbish. These were sugar-coated, heady days. 

 Patrolling the grime beat…

The Metropolitan police introduced vengefully oppressive measures, hitting the scene at a grassroots level with form 696, a risk assessment initiative for promoters and music organisers if they featured DJ’s or MC’s. This umbrella term hit predominantly black music genres grime, rap and bashment. In contrast, it did not affect the mostly white music genre, indie rock, which commercially ruled the airways. The form was heavily criticised for racist undertones, as event organisers were required to divulge the ethnic percentage of the audience attendees. Parallel to this, grime and rap musicians were targeted and often prohibited from performing live after being background-checked by police for links with (past or present) criminality.

In 2010 police relations were so hostile that when XL Recordings were about to sign rapper Giggs, The Met Police’s now-disbanded Operation Trident infamously called the record label in a bid to scaremonger to cease the signing of the rapper. XL rejected their request and signed Giggs. In a bitter retaliation, the police repeatedly cancelled his shows, often just hours before the show was due to take place. The form was eventually scrapped in 2017 after pressure mounted from campaigners who highlighted its institutionally racist nature, as it disproportionately affected black musicians, communities, and music culture. The damage, however, had been done, firmly setting the foundational blocks that positioned the police as sole arbiters of what was to be classed as high-risk music. These building blocks have future ramifications for the whole of UK rap and sub-genre offshoots. 

The zeitgeist drill shift

As with all music genres, there is a generational time limit. And grime was about to make way for the most maligned modern musical genre in history, ‘Drill’. Whilst its sound origins may have sprouted in Chicago, with the genre being created by King Louie and pioneered by the likes of Chief Keef. It was its UK adoption by scene godfathers 67 (formerly OSG) and Harlem Spartans, later augmented by OFB and 98’s, who bred grimes ticking percussions with slow-paced beats and road rap. This mutated sound quickly resonated with young listeners, who saw their reality mirrored, and drill became the soundtrack to inner-city life. And whatever is popular in the concrete jungle is just a few short years away from being big everywhere. The sound has become the sound of a nation and one of the country’s biggest exports, now globally credited as its spiritual home. 

Drill the phantom menace 

It was inevitable that a genre that resonated with young disenfranchised listeners by often holding a mirror to the most deprived, desperate and violent crime acts, would not go down well with the establishment and law enforcement, who have actively blamed it for the fetishisation of violent crime, growing gang culture and the rise of the knife-crime epidemic. To drill, to the core of the establishment’s new condemnation sensation, you’ve got to understand the social conditions that created it. Unlike its grime predecessor, drill has emerged under different circumstances. The political and socio-economics. A-far-cry from the early and mid-2000s. Generation drill has come of age under Neoliberalism, hostile immigration policies and far-right popularism. Add to that mix an increase in normalised violence, racially motivated hate crimes, racial profiling, over-policing, and socio-economic inequalities, which artists used as a canvas to capture the unflinching realism of their times, and in doing so, they and the culture have become the new malevolent musical outlaw in town. Scapegoated for societal issues that existed long before they picked up a mic. 

Crown court v’s drill…

Law enforcement and the court system have responded with an outré censorship move to cull the culture and sound they deem a danger to British society. So what does this culling involve? Drillers Skengdo and AM made British legal history in 2019 when a prison sentence was issued for performing their song, Attempted 1.0, marking a dramatic watershed moment for the scene. Hall of Famer Digga D is under a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO). The terms of the order have a condition that he has to notify the police of any new music within 24 hours of it being released alongside providing lyric sheets. The Met Police launched Project Alpha in 2019, involving teams patrolling the internet and scouring social media looking for drill-affiliated music content. There’s a bowdlerisation partnership with YouTube, which has seen 500 music videos indexed and removed from the site. A press statement issued on the CPS website describes an instance when drill music videos can be used as evidence to prove gang affiliations, signalling the strengthening of the courts and police focus on the scene. 

No face – no case…

Whilst scene trailblazers continue to rack up millions of YouTube views, it would seem it’s not just the streets that are watching, as police closely monitor video releases and lyrical content. Some drillers have retaliated by concealing their identity under masks and balaclavas to circumnavigate the surveillance issue. It’s not all no-face-no-case-based, though, as covering up has been an integral part of the visual aesthetic of the UK scene. Maintaining privacy and separation of alter egos comes into play for many artists. Balaclavas and masks have not only become the brand, they have become genuine artefacts of modern fashion for the youth as drill culture infiltrates and directly impacts fashion culture. 

The scene pops on TikTok…

Adjacent to the legal woes of drill, the scene is commercially climaxing with mainstream cross-over success. Digga D scored his first UK number one earlier in the year with the release of his third mixtape, Noughty By Nature

Spotify announced a staggering 442% listening share increase within three years. Drillers are gaining popularity with a younger mainstream audience introduced via TikTok. The scene dominates and drives trends across the platform; it has become the central place for audiences to discover artists, culture, content and music. The TikTok audience has fully embraced UK rap and drill more than any other social audience, directly impacting its meteoric rise. Just ask Tion Wayne and Russ Millions who celebrated a historical moment for the scene as their track ‘Body’ was the first Drill song to hit the number one top spot on the charts in 2021. The song not only hit the commercial bullseye but also managed to smash TikTok records in the process, becoming the most prominent rap song on the platform. Was the site directly responsible for its chart clout? Record label marketers believe this to be the case as the platform has become a centrally integral marketing tool to promote release campaigns. The platform’s influence is undeniable, even having the power to shift artist aspirations from radio airplay to going viral on TikTok. 

So what’s next for the scene? 

As scene architects build towards the commercial mainstream and its popularity pops, the sound becomes less money and gang and more ‘build a global brand’. One-dimensional sounds have evolved into media-friendly melodies, and sampling plundered from the vaults of Y2K hip hop reigns supreme. The trend has firmly taken root, and artists are climbing the stalks to conquer the charts. Most recently, we’ve seen Tion Wayne’s drill version of La Roux’s ‘In for the Kill’ reaching the top ten and Zflipa’s ‘Flavours‘ sampling Justin Timberland ‘Rock with Me’. Even Digga has been getting in on the action playing chilled homages to 50 Cent with ‘Hold It Down‘ and ‘Pump 101‘, which samples Fiddy’s ’21 Questions’ and G Unit’s ‘Stunt 101’. The sample craze has become so proliferated that it’s been slapped with sub-sound labels “sample – Drill” and Lo-Fi DrillCentral Cee is spearheading this softer sound, as seen with his PinkPantheress sampled smash track ‘Obsessed with You’. Whilst we most certainly haven’t reached sample saturation point yet, there will be a tipping point; there always is. Will Paddy Power be taking bets on which song will Janine Butcher-it off a cliff? 

The future of drill…

Regardless of its demonised imaging, the global rise driven by young British music artists on TikTok is unstoppable. Drill may be densely complicated and divisive, but it can’t be removed from modern pop culture; no amount of policing or censorship can achieve that. It will continue to influence the pop world and conquer the charts and audiences across the globe. As the scene matures and dilutes for the passive massive, further distancing from its postcode beef origins to flex its new mainstream sheen, doomsday sayers proclaim the scene’s death while purists are clutching their balaclavas and crying over the coffin. The scene, of course, isn’t dying. It’s still the main soundtrack to inner-city life; sitting at the top of any London bus will demonstrate as drill beats and bars blast from smartphone speakers. And as those who have lived, loved and disillusioned our way through countless genres will tell you, it’s just part of the evolutionary process and its widening audience appeal.
It’s not the ending for drill. It is very much the beginning.  

Words by Chris Kelly. 

Chris is a freelance music journalist and feature writer with a focus on emerging and established artists, subcultures, the art world and mental health. Chris has multifaceted expertise as a media and creative specialist working with your favourite brands and helping them to embed themselves within the culture through strategic and entertaining content for brands, businesses and organisations.  

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