As UK drill emerged from the underground to the mainstream in the mid-late 2010s, Ciaran Thapar found himself in high demand as a writer.
Drill, which had originated in Chicago at the start of the decade, but had developed its own distinctive sonic features in London, was fast becoming the dominant rap genre in the UK among teenagers. As a youth worker active in South London – UK drill’s area of origin – and a sometime journalist, Thapar was well-informed about the movement, and particularly sensitive to its ethical complexities. Back then, violent lyricism was one of the defining features of a UK drill track, and there was furious debate about whether this music was a symptom, or a cause, of surging knife crime rates.
From 2019 onwards, Thapar took a step back from music journalism to focus on his youth work, his music education course Roadworks and to write his debut book Cut Short: Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City. The book, which is based on Thapar’s research, interviews and the relationships he’s formed as a youth worker, follows the story of four individuals to observe how youth violence, policing, gentrification and the media have affected their lives.
Each chapter title of Cut Short is named in reference to a song lyric. Here, we pick out some tracks which have inspired the chapter by artists such as Dave, Jorja Smith and drill groups such as 1011, Harlem Spartans and 67, to discuss the political and cultural significance of recent UK music history.
Dave – My 19th Birthday (2017)
What’s significant about this track, and how is it referenced in Cut Short?
So that EP [Game Over] came out in the same few weeks that Jhemar from the book’s brother, Michael, got killed. In that song, obviously, it’s [Dave] going to hospital to see his brother who’s been stabbed or hurt, and that’s his 19th birthday. I found it very comforting to listen to Dave and that EP and that song in particular, because of what was actually happening in real life in my career, and obviously what happens in the book.
And then to zoom in on the lyric – “In a weird way summer is the coldest season /You’ll get killed at a party for the smallest reason” – saying that in the summer it kicks off, basically. There’s two levels to it. At the start of the book, it’s the summer of 2018. There was this massive spike in violence, particularly in South London. In the realm of my book in July – August 2018, it was insane how much stuff was happening in this tiny plot of land. And so it just resonated on that level. But then the second level is that it was, ironically, the hottest summer ever recorded in the UK. The first line of the book is: “The summer of 2018 was the hottest ever recorded.” So there’s irony, which is that Dave’s saying “cold” in terms of slang – morally cold. Obviously, it was actually the hottest summer.
Has there been research into why these certain types of violent crime rise in the summer? Or is it just a feeling?
I can’t say I’ve come across sociological research, but I guess there’s several bullet points of common sense. Summer holidays are probably the main thing – people are just out and about more. And there’s more public events. There are barbecues, there are block parties. There’s more freedom. Young people are just roaming around more. In the winter, people are more indoors. And I think that there is also something in the air of summer in London which just makes everything more extreme. I think everyone’s personalities become a bit more reserved in the winter. I think because we become introverted and we hibernate. But in the summer, everyone’s expressing themselves, everyone’s going out.
Harlem Spartans x 67 – Splash & Cash (2016)
Listening back to this, it’s striking how different UK drill sounds now. And it’s strange to think of this era of UK drill music as being old school, because it felt so youthful.
Harlem Spartans’ legacy has been huge. Loski, Blanco and MizOrMac went on to have great careers and sadly, some members have passed. And then with 67 – now [founding member] LD is talking about having a comeback to take back his crown.
So what kind of significance did this track have at the time?
Harlem Spartans and 67 were the two most popping early groups, right? I know that there’s a lot of arguments for Zone 2 and other people. But I think [Harlem Spartans and 67] are very, very important people. [At the time] I don’t know whether you could have named more powerful people under the age of 25 in South London.
For me, it’s not necessarily about this particular song, it’s about that line in it from Bis: “Ride over there to them pretty new blocks.” And that was pointed out to me by Demetri, who’s in Cut Short, in conversation. He said, “I’m learning about this thing called gentrification.” We were talking about it and he was like, “I swear they mentioned it in that Harlem [slang for Kennington] track.”
This was the first time that I felt like the topic of gentrification, which was being discussed a lot in South London, was acknowledged organically in a track. And I don’t see that song as particularly special, per se. But I think, as you rightly point out, it belongs to an era of early drill songs. [This stuff] was like a soundtrack to my youth work. People over a certain age were just like, “I can’t, listen to this, it’s mad.” But then once you understand it and realise how much of a voice and a platform that it’s providing… I was just fascinated with it. With songs like Splash & Cash, I could walk into a youth group and reference it and I’d have the whole group listening to me within a few seconds.
And I don’t think the term drill is going to hold that much longer [in UK music]. The stuff that, like, Tion Wayne and ArrDee are releasing now – it’s dance music, it’s pop music. And well done to them for doing that. But it’s very, very, very different to this Harlem and 67 track.
Harlem Spartans are from Kennington and 67 are from Brixton Hill. Did you learn about the relationships between different postcodes in London from listening to drill, as well as your youth work?
You can obviously infer from two artists collaborating that they are allies and they like each other. So on one level, it’s quite simple. But if you see Harlem and 67 and working together, that probably means that all the people around them have to be cool [with each other]. It wouldn’t just be for those artists. There’s probably a cohort of twenty or thirty people that are all actually fine with one another, despite being from different areas.
But, yeah [the music] was colouring in and adding to what I was learning about in youth work. The community centre in Cut Short was in Loughborough Junction, where [drill groups] 150 and 410 were. Those groups were like the local kings, and historically, they weren’t cool with Brixton Hill, which is where 67 are from, and other areas as well, including Harlem. So it really ends up being this messy web of different things going on the whole time. And I think that’s often misunderstood by schools and policymakers, because it’s viewed as a binary war, which it can be. But it misses the point. Policymakers will be like, “let’s just create a massive youth club where we get everyone in Lambeth in one place” and that’s just not going to work. The way that we talk about these issues and resolve them is by recognising that it’s super complex.
This track came out in 2016. At this point, most of the music media was focussed on the grime resurgence. Did you see a discrepancy between what was the dominant young Black music in London at the time, and what was getting press coverage?
Definitely. And that was something that I consciously thought about when I started writing about drill. On the ground, in my youth work, I don’t even think most teenagers could have told you what grime is. That’s how extreme it was. It wasn’t just that they didn’t care – it wasn’t even on their radar. Like, Stormzy was on their radar, but he wasn’t someone they listened to. More mainstream music fans who were young probably listened to him. But the boys who are the ones carving out the new lanes of rap music – which was drill – they didn’t care about grime. Teachers would be like “stop playing that grime music” or “they’re playing that bloody grime music again.” It’s just not grime music! And it actually doesn’t sound anything like that.
I think that does trickle down from journalism and the commentariat being detached. I think it’s inevitable on some level that there’s a lag with these things. Because youth culture defines what’s cool. It starts with teenagers, with that freedom of thought that you have when you’re a teenager and you don’t give a shit about paying rent or whatever, you’re just making music you’re not analysing much, you’re just doing it, that purity of creation is difficult to find when you’re an adult, because you’ve got other things to worry about. But that was what was happening with drill, it was the purest thing. And so obviously and then it elevates once adults get hold of it and start writing about it and, you know, monetising it.
And in 2016, there were two conversations about youth violence going on. There were the conversations in the news media, which were mainly very simplistic headlines and clickbait stuff. But I was on the ground and realising one of these more nuanced things going on. And it’s the same thing – it’s that detachment between media commentariat, and social realities.
One Acen – Verified (2017)
So while UK drill was taking off, there was also Afroswing, which was flirtatious, cheeky and mostly about flexing and the good times. What do you think this track says about this era of London music?
I think it was like the antidote to drill’s darkness. You couldn’t just have drill on its own. And young people really cared about Afroswing. In 2016 – 17, you are just as likely to see a girl singing along to One Acen or WSTRN in the school corridor as you were to see a kid spitting Loski lyrics or whatever. It’s not necessarily as attached to loads of social issues [as drill is], and I think that’s a good reminder that music is just a feel-good concept too. Some of the more fun rappers, like Hardy Caprio, were basically taking the piss a bit and just having fun, going to parties. And that’s what being young is about as well. It’s not just about fearing for your life, it’s about having a good time.
And I also think that [Afroswing] was sort of a precursor to, or like allowed for, the wider appreciation [in the UK] of Afrobeats music in general. There’s an explosion now of different types of African-sourced sounds and pop music.
In Cut Short, I referenced this track by naming the social media chapter “Verified”. In the book, I write a lot about how the language of social media influence has seeped into the slang of young people. If you’re verified on Twitter or Instagram, you’re seen as a trusted source of commentary, or you’re seen as someone who’s an important influencer. But on the street, if you’re verified, you’re someone who has clout, or you’re someone who is potentially feared – you’re verified because you’ve done certain things that make people respect you. You’ve got a reputation. So social media terminology – and also social media concepts – have seeped into the social realities of young people.
Years ago there would have been certain milestones for UK rap artists, like magazine covers or certain awards. But in recent years, it feels like there have been new metrics of success – like being verified. There’s been a big thing in of hitting one million YouTube views.
Exactly. Social media can be a horrible place, but also it has democratised certain ideas and democratised certain means of achieving success. And that that process was really going through a big transition period back in 2016 – 2017. There was this thing of drillers – who had probably a few hundred pounds to their name, which was made from illicit means and who were struggling in many areas of their life – suddenly became celebrities in their social world, because they put up a few music videos and they got a few hundred thousand, or a million views. It had democratised it so much in the same way that, I guess, pirate radio had for the generation before. For unknown grime artists to become discovered, you didn’t have to get on BBC Radio One, you could rock up at a [pirate radio] set and just spit and then get noticed. And I think that these are really important DIY tenets to Black British music culture, which has had to do it against the grain.
Jesse James Solomon – City Lights (2017)
There are two lines from this track, which I just think capture everything about the book, really:
“So I spit these stories for the lost souls that got froze in time, the good yutes that never got home /I do this for my boys who never got no food for thought and got fed time.”
So this is a very poetic way of expressing the idea that there are young men who get trapped in the system and overwhelmed and either end up in prison or dead. And I think what is very poetic and poignant about these lines is that he’s writing it for them. And what’s happened to them is the result of forces outside of their control. That’s what I tried to capture in Cut Short, that there are these young people who are trying to navigate this world that is insanely harsh and basically impossible to survive in for the most vulnerable – boys, in particular, in this case.
If you look at the map from the beginning of Cut Short – in the hardback version – a lot of Jesse James Solomon’s references are bang in the middle of that map. And he has an EP called Strata, which I reference a lot. The character Demetri lives underneath there.
Jorja Smith – Blue Lights (2018)
In Cut Short, the first time you meet Demetri, he’s in his bedroom, [and I reference] the blue lights. Even if you’re more middle class, if you live in relatively Central London, you see red or blue lights a lot. And I think the young people, the blue lights flashing is a bit of a trigger, for representing authority and the mania that might be happening in the local area. It’s a common thing.
And the fact that Jorja Smith is in Walsall is super important because… when else does Walsall get talked about ever?! She’s put Walsall on the map. The video was very beautifully shot. Mike Skinner’s in it, [Birmingham artist] Jaykae’s in it. It’s got Asian kids eating fish and chips, it’s very multicultural. It’s a super poetic, very kind of dark, but also hopeful track. It kind of captures an era, and obviously she’s gone on to be huge.
Digga D x Sav’O – Who? (2019)
1011/CGM are another fascinating drill group. As far as I remember, Digga D had just come out of prison and they released this track. When I interviewed him, he was like, “I wanted to get across the fact that, like, even when I’m in prison, they’re saying I’m doing these things.” So it’s like they’re just trying to find any way of shutting this music down.
There’s a lyric in this track, which is actually by Sav’O, which I quote in the book: “I’m banned from talking loose, if I could I’d tell you about drillings.” It sounds simple, but it’s so smart, because, in telling you “If I could I tell you about drillings’’, he kind of is telling you about drillings, you know? So it’s like this paradox because it’s like, “I’m so drilly, that I can’t even talk about how drilly I am.”
The chapter in Cut Short that I called “If I Could Tell You About Drillings” is about youth services. Because there’s the character Carl – who is the young man who ended up getting dragged into road life, which fortunately ends on a positive note, and he’s doing great now – but at the time, the only reason that I was able to support him, because he could tell me about the drillings that were going on in the local area. Like, he had a safe space. He had a youth club where he could meet me and relax and just tell me stuff going on in his life – which was regularly being attacked, regularly attacking people, regularly defending himself, just trying to survive, basically, and being dragged into this horrible life that was basically represented in the drill lyrics. And he was obviously listening [to drill music] and making it, so if I Could Tell You About Drillings is also supposed to be a commentary not only on censorship, but on cuts to youth services, because if all these young men could, they would tell us about these things. Instead, they create a music type that allows them to voice that trauma and voice that experience.
For me, the censorship of the music was this top level representation of what was happening on the ground, which was the silencing of the boys that were the most problematic. You know, “We’re not going to provide you with that, we’re not going to keep you in lessons, we’re not going to even listen to you, we’re excluding you from school and blocking you out.”
Digga D’s become almost like a poster boy for the drill censorship debate. There’s been a BBC documentary about him, and there was the story about him getting in trouble for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you feel frustrated by the sweep-it-under the rug attitude when it comes to banning violent drill lyrics?
Definitely. It’s just so disingenuous. AM [from UK drill duo Skengdo & AM, who got a suspended sentence for performing a banned track] said this on a podcast – he was like, “people misinterpreted us for promoting violence, but we were just exposing it.” I think that’s such a crisp way of putting it. I think that there’s as much reason to say that drill artists show how horrible it is to live that life just as much as they celebrate it. So to just present it as this thing that’s causing loads of violence and not even bother to listen deeper to it… yeah, it’s very frustrating. The silencing of Digga D, or whoever, isn’t just about silencing a musician in the end. It seeps into spaces where young people who listen to it and feel represented by it just have to keep quiet and not express themselves, and that’s not helping anyone.
Rippa x I.D. x Tarzan x F2Anti – Roadworks (2019)
I designed a music education course called Roadworks. At the moment I’m going through the process of figuring out how I’m best placed to use what I’ve built to make an impact off the back of the book. Using the arts and using storytelling and music in particular as a way of connecting with young people and empowering young people – that’s the kind of premise. I just gathered all the young men that I’d collected as mentees from different charities and schools and invited them on this course. And that included Jhemar and Demetri. And then off the back of that, they made this track that we got a video shot by Pacman TV.
And Jhemar sings the chorus – “You don’t know how the road works /and the realest know that the road burns” – that just says it all. He’s embodied that change that I’ve tried to also impress upon [young people] as a youth worker. He’s working in schools as a mentor, he’s doing consultancy for the Metropolitan Police, he’s gone on to talk on Channel 4 news and ITV and stuff. I’m telling you now – he’s going to be a star in a few years. He is the solution in his community now.