Entertainment

LD, the UK’s Original Drill Rapper, Calls Us From Jail

Currently inside for a charge he denies, the 67 frontman and self-described "Godfather" of UK drill talks about his new record "Who's Watching".
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
February 26, 2021, 9:00am
Drill rapper LD
Photo: PR

Music should be played loud. Ramp up the volume on a classic UK drill track and the rattle-your-window bass should plunge down to your stomach. LD, frontman of south London group 67, describes the sound to me as “serious – it’ll give someone with a bent back a straight back. They’ll sit right up.”

An authority on how UK drill looks, sounds and feels, he’s led the game-changing south London collective – arguably the UK’s inaugural drill group – through police battles, chart hits, censorship and, as the 67 ad-lib goes, “alla dat, alla dat” since the early 2010s, before landing in jail, where he’s speaking to me now.

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Waiting in the wings is his next tape – a hard, mostly storytelling-focused release called Who’s Watching (released today) that sets the record straight and is, hopefully, the last chapter in the story of LD vs. the Police, involving several run-ins between the two over several years.

It’s been a long journey getting here. While LD has been inside, then outside, then – as of now – inside again, the solo stars of UK drill have been getting their flowers – shy-boy Headie One reached number one in the UK album chart with last year’s Edna, Brummie smooth-talker M1llionz keeps going viral and teenage superstar Digga D even got a BBC documentary about his own battles with the police. But it’s worth arguing the point that everything currently popping off can tread a line back to LD; his pals Monkey, Dimzy, Liquez, ASAP and SJ, and their bass-ridden, gloves-on, broadsheet-pant-shitting releases as 67 in the mid 2010s. 

Take their link-up with producer Cairns Hill on “Take It There”, the collective’s breakthrough street anthem from 2015. It packaged laidback south London rap with a head-bopping grime hook, slowed everything down, added some bounce and then, via iridescent synths, twisted the avant-garde dial in a way that’s heard all across UK drill music still today. It was – and still is – crazy. (It also became one of the first UK drill tunes to reach over a million views on YouTube.)

Then beginning to push outside of their core audience of UK drill fans, the crew reached a peak with a nomination for Best Newcomer at the 2016 MOBO Awards and the release of their biggest hit “Let’s Lurk”. The ice-cold, Giggs-featuring tune should have sent 67 skyward – like it did for then lesser-known British comedian Michael Dapaah, who sampled the track and took it to number three on the UK singles chart with his Big Shaq persona – but it wasn’t to be. While the YouTube star rode a novelty version of “Let’s Lurk” to the top of the charts, the UK crew had their shows locked down by the police and were unable to perform in the UK, victim to years of racist policing, censorship and targeting of young Black men expressing their realities through art and trying to move forward through it.

LD – who wears a mask – had originally been known as Scribz but changed his name in 2014 after he was issued an ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order) by police that banned him from making and performing music for two years. The mask and name change helped him release tunes – for all intents and purposes, he was a different guy – but the legal troubles never really ended.

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In 2017, a year after the ASBO ended, he was sentenced to a six-month stretch for possession of a knife. Following that, in December 2019, he was then sentenced to four and a half years for conspiracy to supply heroin and crack cocaine, dating back to early 2018, which LD denies but is currently serving time for. 

In the press release for Who’s Watching, he tells it like this: “I’ve stayed out of crime for years now, and they’ve used old crimes to drag me back into prison. I don’t need to sell drugs, I’ve been making music money for years. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not just me, some other innocent guys got locked up. Good people we have around us – they want us all to be drug dealers and gang members, they painted a picture of what they wanted us to be and ruined people’s lives.”

Ahead of the release of Who’s Watching and – hopefully – LD’s early release later this year, I caught up with him to reflect on the past decade in UK drill, how you go about releasing a record from inside of jail, and his status as one of the genre’s elders. It was a brief and at times difficult to hear conversation – we spoke for ten-ish minutes via a phone line speaking into another phone line that speaks into another phone line, crackling back and forth – but we got there in the end. 

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Photo: PR

VICE: Hey man.
LD:
Hey, can you hear me?

Just about. It’s like listening through a tin can on a string – but I hear you. Where are you right now and how are you doing?
[Laughs] I’m good man, I’m alive – that’s all that matters still. I’m in Isis [prison] in Greenwich – it’s right next door to Belmarsh [another prison]. It’s alright. I’m just getting healthier and focusing my mind on my release.

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One of the things that stuck in my mind ahead of this interview is how long you’ve been releasing music for. It’s coming up to being close to a decade, which is mad – that’s a long time to be doing anything. 
Yeaaaaah, I know what I’ve done and what I’ve put in for the whole drill scene. I call myself the Godfather: in the same way Wiley calls himself the Godfather of Grime, that’s what I do for drill. 

Do you feel a responsibility in calling yourself that? If you look at Wiley, he lead the grime scene through a few different sounds and directions. When he went pop, everyone else went pop. When he came back to grime, everyone else returned to grime. 
Yeah, I do, but at the same time, there are other people who can hit the charts and all of dat. I’m not able to do that right now, cuh... the feds don’t even want me to do that, if that makes sense.

Yeah, it feels like UK drill has leaned into poppier moments over the past couple of years, but you haven’t been able to jump in with that crowd because of everything that’s gone on. 
Of course, but I like watching things from a distance anyway. I get to see what’s going on. 

Looking back over the past eight or so years, what are some of the highs and lows?
All of the tours, the shows that we were doing across Europe and stuff – little things like when I went on tour with Skepta and the features I did with Dizzee Rascal. I met so many people. Giggs, everyone else, init. The lows are going into jail, tours getting locked off and not being allowed to perform in London. 

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I remember seeing 67 perform in Amsterdam but I can’t recall seeing anything in London. Everything seemed to be locked off.
We played a couple of secret ones, but we had to come as a special guest and then go. But yeah… we couldn’t announce ourselves. 

Looking in from the outside, it felt like you guys didn’t have the same opportunities as some of the younger drill artists have now. Then, leading up to the release of this record you ended up going back to jail. How did you land on the name – Who’s Watching – and how did you go about recording it?
Um, basically, there’s other people that are around 67 that help with PR and little things that’s going on in the background. Some of our childhood friends got put on an operation and they all ended up in jail, but at the time I didn’t know I was part of the operation as well. I was literally just living my life and getting ready to move out of London. I was sorting out my life for the better and I happened to get scooped up as part of it. When my friends got arrested, I already started making music about, like, the whole conspiracy of 67. Then when I got scooped up, I managed to pay for bail and I decided at that time to call [the record] Who’s Watching. Because you never know who’s watching you. That’s what started it. 

Mmm.
I was always going to make a tape – I was going through a part of my life where I was changing and changing for the better. This [release] was the last story of me vs the police, basically. 

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It’s an interesting one, because you’re putting out this statement while you’re inside. 
I’m getting rid of the old and just letting them know what’s good, for when I do come out. 

There’s lots of variety in there. You’ve got the closing track that’s produced by Beatfreakz and sounds poppier than anything you’ve ever done but you also lean into storytelling drill, too. What did you want to get across?
My thing is you can see where I’m coming from, to where I’m going. It starts off a bit dark, grimey and grouchy but as it goes on you’ve got tunes like the one you mentioned and there’s that other one, by Show N Prove – ah I forgot what it’s called; I haven’t heard it in so long – but there’s one over a Show N Prove beat that… I wouldn’t say it’s happier music but it’s more respectable music. It’s more about the lyrics and it’s for a wider audience. 

Lyrically, are there specific situations that you’re addressing, and if so, what are they? 
I haven’t heard it in months, myself, but there’s a message in every tune. Even if it’s not for the fans, it’s for the police, because I know they still listen to my music. Obviously when you go to jail you meet so many guards and that and a lot of them are fans because they’re young – they’ve watched 67 come up. There’s messages for them; there’s messages for everybody. It’s just me expressing myself – I wouldn’t say I’m letting it all out but I’m letting most of it out, including my anger. 

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It’s a really rich listen and that’s what I appreciated about it – but you haven’t listened to it for a while?
Yeah, I haven’t listened to it for a while [laughs]. 

Do you get much time to listen to music at all and do you pay attention to what’s happening in the scene?
I’m a real guy and I support the scene – I follow it and support it. Everyone who has released music on albums – not just on streaming – I buy it. I make other people in the jail listen to it. I give out CDs to other people in the jail who might not be able to afford them. I listen to radio here and there to see what’s new; to see if there’s a new sound coming out. 

The past few years have been really exciting with things shifting from groups to bonafide solo stars. As the godfather of the scene, how do you feel about the current trend of drill rappers referring to themselves as superhero-type characters?
Booooy. I don’t laugh at it but I find it funny init. The way I look at it, to give yourself a character, you’ve got to have been there. Not just from the start, you should have been doing this thing for a long time, if that makes sense. Some guys are coming into it and thinking they’re “this”. But obviously it’s good init. Get your ego up, help the culture. 

I feel like the addition of these personalities and characters has added an element of friendly sportsmanship that maybe wasn’t there so much a few years ago.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely. 

How did you feel when Michael Dappah took “Let’s Lurk” into the charts with Big Shaq
I was happy for him. It opened my eyes and showed, like, rah: even though he’s joking about, it was the sound [of UK drill] that was going forward [and into the chart]. The most I was thinking was: you do a lot of interviews and you’ve got a lot of press around it, and not once did you big up 67. He came directly to me and we spoke about it. From that [point on], I was happy for him. 

One last question before we run out of time. Before our chat, I watched the interview you did with Newsnight in 2018 to see if there was anything relevant to bring into the interview. There was one bit in there where you were chatting about people in jail. You said something like, some people go to jail and they bum around doing nothing. Some people learn and read. But you can also play this game like chess and figure out your next move. What’s it been like for you – and is there a chess move that you’re planning?
I started reading when I first got here. But now, yeah: I’ve been playing that chess game for eight years and I’m going for checkmate now. 

How?
The music’s going to talk. As soon as I come out, it’s straight back to work. 

@ryanbassil