Throughout 2017, I was a youth-worker in a south London school where it was commonplace to hear references to drill music echoing through the corridors and across the playground. Students would yell ad-libs, mimic dances they’d seen in videos and rhyme their favourite lyrics. The music of local pioneer groups like 67, Harlem Spartans, 150 and Zone 2 would play from phones at the bus stop on my walk home. Drill was, as it remains, the soundtrack to young inner-city life.
In the earlier months of the year, long before moral panic gripped the nation, drill had become a movement that had started to progress in a characteristic direction of its own. No longer understood as just a Chicagoan import, it was emerging as an authentically British, post-grime artform. At the time, and as they still are, the genre’s biggest acts were battling for the top-spot. In a scene saturated with recycled sounds, being unique was a challenge. To move to the upper-echelons of videos on the Link Up TV channel, you had to stand out. Enter: Skengdo & AM.
In what is retrospectively a defining moment of shifting power in drill’s evolving, hyperlocal chess-game, AM—a masked, baritone wordsmith from north Brixton crew 410—rapped a single line of French. Soon after, I started to hear teenagers repeatedly refer to the lyric: “Feds came to my door at one, tried to ask if I bunned that don, shit then I don’t speak English, non j’étais à la maison!” Those lines were taken from his Mad About Bars episode (watch below), which he performed alongside the higher-pitched Skengdo—the Havoc to his Prodigy. That video has since been watched over 11 million times on YouTube (most videos in the Mad About Bars series have remained in the modest hundreds of thousands).
“Bang bang put your guns in the air, man caught that yute and his friend disappeared, je te jure sur la tête de ma mère, je te jure sur la tête de ma mère” (“I swear on my mother’s head”) he continues in Behind Barz two months later. As a result, AM was immediately placed alongside Harlem Spartan’s Mizormac as the most lyrically innovative driller. “I thought, if I can, why not?” he told me last week in a Whatsapp voice message, while on a safari with family in Kenya, when I asked why he chose to spit in French. “Any other languages I speak, they’re gonna come out in the future as well.”
On release of these freestyles, Skengdo & AM had been gaining prominence as the standout MCs of 410, a founding Brixton drill crew. Their back-and-forth, seamless chemistry as a duo carved out a unique path to success between the genre's two typical routes to success: either performing consistently as a tightly-bound collective of warring territorial rappers, or—as is now becoming much more common—trying your hand as a solo act, like SL, K-Trap and Loski. But the pair’s momentum, garnered from consistent releases like “Crash,” “Foolishness,” “Amsterdam,” and “Paris,” left them hurtling into the latter half of 2017 as ones-to-watch. Managed by Finesse Foreva’s business-savvy team, a strategic arm that many drill outfits lack, they dominated YouTube’s ‘Up next’ slot.
Then came the tipping point, the 2 Bunny mixtape. It presented a team willing to push beyond the 'London estate life' aesthetic and match the quantity of their videos with the crisp quality of mature, properly mastered music. In other words, after months of patiently building the foundations beneath their professional careers, Skengdo & AM had authoritatively seized their position as the new flag-bearers for UK drill. Within two weeks of the mixtape's digital download release, it had beat both Stormzy and Jay-Z to the number one spot in the iTunes Hiphop/Rap UK chart.
Instrumentally, the intricate 10-song tracklist is subtly diverse, weaving through a patchwork of London musical trends but firmly cementing its sound in the present. For example, there are the female vocal moans – what Simon Reynolds has called "vocal science" – of late 1990s 2-step garage on “Macaroni”; the cold, futuristic synths of early-2000s eskibeat grime on “Jump That Fence”; as well as the more typical, eerie drill piano keys on “Mansa Musa” (named after the great 14th century Malian king, allegedly the wealthiest person ever). While rival crews put out repetitive verses over reused beats, slowed on their workrate, or simply sat in prison, AM and Skengdo had, with the December 2017 release of 2 Bunny, shown that young drillers can contend on the same commercial level as London road-rappers like Giggs or Nines, or even grime’s veteran elite.
Of course, the story of drill in 2018 has been very different to 2017. Wider society (AKA the scourge of British tabloids) has discovered and hammered its existence while seeking quick answers for why the murder rate among teenagers in London has continued to skyrocket. Like no genre before, a tension rests at drill’s heart. It is tied-up in the tragic social disaffection, neglect and austerity-induced squeezing of public life that is continuing to entrench the negative experiences of young people in London. When I spoke to Skengdo & AM, I wondered whether the overwhelmingly negative recent press over drill has affected their mindset.
“The only thing I would say has changed is my awareness of the audience,” AM replied. “I wasn’t aware so many people are listening to our music. And I wouldn’t advise young kids to listen because it’s explicit and it’s real, you know what I mean? We do cover topics that are gruesome and that people don’t want to talk about.”
“I’m not gonna lie," Skengdo added. "At first it did affect me because I was overthinking what the media are saying and their negativity. But then I thought: most people don’t know what they’re talking about! It’s like me going into parliament and talking about politics as if I know what’s going on. I don’t. So why are they speaking about drill? They’re not there on late nights at the studio. They’re not seeing the work we’re putting in to better ourselves.”
Despite the negative media attention that continues to be directed at their genre, ultimately unfazed, Skengdo & AM have remained determined to keep producing content. “German Swerving” saw them return to continental Europe to reconcile their rising fame (“can’t wait ‘til we all live lavish” spits Skengdo). Conversely, releasing four provocative videos on 6 May 2018—AM’s “Attempted 1.0” and “2.0”, Skengdo’s “Money & Greeze” and the pair with fellow 410 member JaySlapIt for “WDYM”—implies they are yet to move beyond the need to respond to beef, a tendency that clearly proves difficult to separate from drill’s broader inherent character. On the one hand, the fierce rivalries have injected the music with such unprecedented energy over recent years, and, frankly, made it so entertaining. But on the other, it must be said that if those artists who are looking to push drill’s boundaries worldwide aren’t careful, the trajectory of their rise to the top might flatten if weighed down by the distractions of a troubled past.
Today, however, Skengdo & AM release their new track “What A Feeling” (watch above). And for AM, the tune identifies a new phase, of forward-thinking, commercially-viable confidence. This is reflected in the delicate, harp-infused instrumental and Las Vegas-shot visuals which form a refreshing backdrop to the pair’s rhyming partnership. “Even before all the negative media we already had an idea of how we wanted to portray ourselves,” AM says, of the video. “We don’t want it to just be that one specific image of what people have in their head of what drill artists are. We are drill artists, but there is more in the bank.”
It’s hard to deny that UK drill music is at a crossroads. One possibility is that, at its more underground level—with the media attention so unwilling to deal in nuance, bans placed on its production, and legal attempts to reduce the hustle of its artists to an act of terrorism—it will struggle to take off in its current form. But the other, more likely option is that it will adapt, just as grime did when it was boycotted by clubs and chased off pirate radio in the early 2000s.
Besides, whatever the answer is, drill’s exponentially growing audience of hooked, smartphone-wielding teenagers and young adults aren't going anywhere. And artists like Skengdo & AM will be able to take the genre to new heights, demonstrating their craft to be one that can grant social mobility to an entire generation of forgotten young men using creative expression to escape the trappings of a society that has ignored them. If it wasn’t clear before, with the release of their new track and video they’re in the power seat. "What A Feeling," indeed.
You can find Ciaran on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.