Every music scene worth its salt knows a bit of friendly competition is good.
For UK drill, the latest climactic moment came a couple of days into January 2021, with the release of an hour-long freestyle video featuring the scene’s biggest stars. Called the Groundworks Cypher, it sees the likes of Hackney’s 98s collective, South London’s Teeway and West London’s Digga D get multiple wheel-ups as they deliver back-to-back rapid bars and unrelenting energy over 60-minutes of wobbling instrumentals.
Seeing so many notable drill acts in one performance is – as hosts Denz and Renz exclaimed in a YouTube comment under the video – a landmark moment for the genre. But while the likes of Unknown T, DA, Mazza and Billy Billions go bar-for-bar, it’s Birmingham MC M1llionz and fellow Brum natives SkengTrapMob, Tugz, Tallerz and M Woo who unquestionably shine the most. Their distinctive cadences, accents and unwavering energy elevate the cypher without ever being too brash. When Tugz jumps on the mic with his opening line “Break down bits, that’s bits and bobs / New kitchen can’t work this hob,” you get the feeling that there’s a whole host of witty double-entendres to follow; but he barely gets into his flow before getting the first of many wheel-ups of the evening.
The five artists are all signed under TPM – Ten Percent Music – a Birmingham-based label and management company, and together they’ve been pushing the envelope for drill with their addictive intonation, beat selections and stellar storytelling.
M1llionz’s lively yet smooth and laid-back flow saw him rack up millions of views for last year’s singles “Lagga” (4.1m), “Y Pree” (4.1m) and “B1llionz” (4.6m). Meanwhile, Tugz has been turning heads with “Bay Freestyle” and “Latex”, and Tallerz has made waves with a steady release of tracks including a remix to Gully’s “Ying Dat” and “Bookey”. SkengTrapMob has also been busy with debut solo single “2 Poles Up” and, like M Woo, has been teasing freestyles over socials. The crew have all been mad busy.
Collectively, TPM introduced themselves with a bang on single “Experience” at the tail end of last year, which sees them go back-to-back with punchy bars and hard-hitting verses, with the accompanying video hitting over 800k views on GRM Daily in less than a month.
Due partly to their success, the group’s individuality and uncompromising attitude firmly marks Birmingham as home to some of the UK’s most exciting up-and-coming rappers, helping to shift the narrative away from London – long seen by the mainstream as one of the genre’s hotspots.
“People are really proud to be from Brum. There’s a sense of having something prove – we still have an underdog mentality,” says Despa Robinson, Label Owner and CEO of Birmingham’s BE83 Music Group, who have released records by the likes of Jaykae and Dapz On the Map.
“Brum goes through these ebbs and flows – since 2011, with the big grime explosion, we had the likes of MIST and Jaykae come though, so having this new moment now with a new crop of talent being able to shine a light on the city, it’s a really positive thing.”
The full economic shift might not be complete just yet, but the balance of power could be moving slowly away from the capital. “It’s our time to really just showcase what we've got, and to show the world that it’s not just London in the UK,” says Tugz. “Birmingham, Liverpool, Manny – all these other places. It’s our time. 2021 is definitely the time for the smaller cities.”
Hailing from a place where MCs for far too long have been criminally overlooked – maybe in part due to a reluctance to accept the thick accent – industry and audiences alike are increasingly taking notice. The stereotypes are disappearing, the banter is waning, the jokes are tired.
“They’re getting used to our accents now,” says M Woo, on the comparisons to London. The barrage of voices coming out of the city is not too dissimilar to the southern accent breaking the New York-dominated hip hop scene in the early 90s. The one thing that might’ve historically been a rapper’s downfall is now their strength, by providing some much-needed originality to help 0121 musicians stand apart from their peers.
Tugz says, “Since us I don’t feel like there’s been a group you can look at from our city anyway, to say, ‘They’re from Birmingham as a collective. They’re individual people but they’re from Birmingham, he does this and his style’s like that.’”
You can hear the Brum-ness across their work. “I’m in an S3 cutting through Heath Street,” says Tallerz on single “Used 2 Dis”, where the video sees him gliding through one of the city’s main roads. SkengTrapMob’s dark yet light-hearted bar on “Experience” – “Funky movements can get man stained / I like the Rolex, can I see that mate? Take it off and don't make that bait” – exemplifies exactly the boldness and lively attitude of the city.
For a genre intrinsically linked to London, the Groundworks cypher has helped move some of that spotlight outside the M25 and onto the members of the TPM collective. It’s testament to the scene that, in debates about who goes the hardest, Ten Percent acts frequently come up in conversation. They’re shining bright, with their uncompromising personalities on full display.
As Tallerz puts it, “Everyone's different. Everyone’s got their own lingo, everyone's from different areas. Everyone sounds different. And we’re all merged together. That’s what makes TPM.”