Over the past year, rumours have been shaping the mystique around OneFour: Australia’s first drill rap group. Last week, the rappers gained notoriety when New South Wales Police announced Strike Force Imbala, telling reporters they were looking into “gangs such as OneFour.” Pending court cases have prevented them from touring, forcing them to release music videos online. On YouTube, the boys appear countless in number—shrouded behind a cloak and dagger persona, that in reality is more like hoodies and box-cutters.
We meet at the Starbucks outside the Westfield Shopping centre in Mt Druitt. Spenny struts out of the complex with a Nike FC dri-fit cap. There was no time to freshen up his fade. OneFour are sharpening their image before the video shoot for their latest single, Spot The Difference, and the boys invite us on a cruise to the postcode where they earned their stripes, the streets where it all started, in Mt Druitt, western Sydney.
In these areas, you’re only as good as your word. The slogan “keep it real” remains the bedrock of anyone who claims to be the voice of the neighbourhood struggle. And when you’re from a place where people don’t have much, being true to your word is all you have to show for yourself.
Spenny explains that “Mt Druitt’s home man. It's the trenches.” As we wind into the suburb’s public housing blocks, the monotonous orange-brick homes are disrupted by the tropical calm of palm trees. “This is the area that needs the most support. No one from the beaches comes around here,” says J_Emz14, as a group of young hoodlums snake past on their bikes. “When I’m out of the area I do get homesick. We dress different out here. Talk different. The slang’s different.”
We stop at a house that looks as though it’s passed us a dozen times. The roller door is shut; no one is home. It was Celly14’s home before he went to prison. “This is where it all started,” says the charismatic J_Emz14 with a smile he can barely contain. “Where all the boys used to link up, four to five years ago. Kick back in the garage, drink, and party. It’s our boy’s house. He’s locked up now but this is where it started.”
Inspired by the UK’s Harlem Spartans, OneFour began tailoring their craft at Street University; a youth development project created by the Ted Noffs foundation in Mt Druitt. “It was where our rap careers started. We learnt to mix tracks and that,” Spenny14 smiles affectionately. “Shoutout to Julie. She’s a good lady. She used to look after us.”
It was at Street University that OneFour came together as Australia’s first drill group.
The origins of drill music can be traced to the South Side of Chicago, where rappers like Chief Keef patterned their beats with relentless violence, bravado, and an unflinching insight into Chiraq; the waving glocks, designer backpacks, and rumoured gang violence. The essence was a return to the gangster rap sentiment of N.W.A, where, like implicated war reporters, the uncensored lifestyles of outcasts are laid bare in plain sight.
Behind Street University is the Mt Druitt library where, in the main square outside, some of the boys were involved in fist fights and dance competitions; the training grounds for the infamous Mounty Bop. YP adjusts his Nike face mask. “The music meant we could put our lives in a story. We went with the UK, not the US, because we can’t relate to shootings,” he says, nodding as if it’s obvious. “We can relate to stabbings and punch-ons though.”
Around 2012, the UK Drill scene evolved from the American Drill Scene as a deviation from the British Road Rap genre. While sidestepping the hedonism of the Chicago style, UK Drill emphasizes the elements of what it takes to survive in the ends. The aesthetics of UK Drill are sharp: their faces are disguised in Nike or North Face masks; they rock GORE-TEX spray jackets; and the wordplay revolves around cryptic assaults on “opps” or rival gang members.
The link between the UK drill scene and the sound of OneFour is more complex than an affinity of accents. The style is codified in street level similarities that perspire from the type of work you put in or the crimes you’re willing to commit. The stakes are entrenched in the unwritten laws of the land. Even though these drill rappers are worlds apart, the struggle to survive means the same thing where they come from.
While UK Drill echoes the Road Man subculture of the UK, in Australia the drill scene is born from the Sydney Searchers subculture, nowadays called Lads or Eshays: a graffiti movement that employs pig latin slang with a distinctive dress code of shoplifted “toff” brands like Ralph Lauren and Nautica—with the trademark Nike TNs.
Sydney Earcherz would haunt the train lines and pride themselves on hustling for ways to make money by any means. They would search the city for earns. Lekks14, the most prolific graffer in the crew, chimes in with a smile: “if you don’t got a PS4, you want a PS4, you go out and ‘earch it. Short for searching.”
Both subcultures employ a cold-steel attitude, enforcing violence with knives. In Australia, the signature of the subculture is a slash and snap from a boxcutter. “If you know the hoods of Sydney, everyone can tell you Mt Druitt’s known for violence,” says YP, awkward to be talking about violence so openly. “Back then the violence was worse than it is now. Brawls, stabbing. Stuff we don’t want to get into.”
The essence of Lad or Earcher culture can be heard in the OneFour slang and attitude, but it's been a part of underground Australian Hip Hop for over a decade. In New South Wales, where the Lad subculture was born, the gutter rap genre was launched in the Hurstville public housing estate by Skeaz “Skeamo” Lauren in 2009 when he formed the original Eshay outfit Sydney Serchaz with NTER and Sky High. These days, the Earcher baton has been carried on in the hip-hop underground by bare-knuckle lyricists like Spanian Syd and Spinner Lad.
The UK sound is not new to Australia either, since 2010 the Grime scene has been spearheaded in Australia by Fraksha with the legendary Smash Brothers outfit (Fraksha, Scotty Hinds and DIEM) recently dropping a track with Wiley. That's not to take away from OneFour, who are breaking new ground with the UK Drill sound in Australia—which is unequivocally OneFour territory; the delivery, rhythms, and videos that OneFour cultivate are strictly a nod to the culture of UK Drill.
As OneFour stand around, waiting for another two car loads of members, J_Emz14 braids Spenny14’s hair. While we’re distracted by the videos and headlines associated with their image, we neglect this affection; the warmth that is bred from shared struggles, a bond they’ll defend against all odds.
As the energy for the video ramps up and the steady flow of Hennesy lights a fire in everyone’s eyes, the boys take the video shoot from the carpark to the street. They make their way onto the streets of Mt Druitt—some in AMG’s, others popping up on dirt bikes, and even the odd kid on a BMX. The street is blocked from both ends and flares have been lit. Whatever you say about these boys, they are letting their presence known—especially because they’ve spent their lives neglected. But street pride comes at a cost.
The reality is that the violence is embedded in their narrative, where art imitates life and in turn generates authenticity. When CellyOneFour calls YP from his prison unit, the harsh reality of their image shakes us from the fantasy of the music video shoot. “I’m behind four walls. In the tracksuit,” he says. “But don’t worry, we’ll be home soon…”
YP asks if he wants to leave a message with us. “This is for all the boys locked up, trapped in the system, doing it hard. Don’t worry…we’ll be home soon.”
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