UK drill’s most notorious duo, Skengdo and AM, are currently picking their way through treacherous mud on the edge of Epping Forest, right on the border of Essex and London. It’s the kind of filthy grey February day that would inspire anyone with diva inclinations to call off a video shoot. Instead Skeng’s been roped into hauling along one of those huge bags of wood you buy from the petrol station, lurching off-balance, wrecking his creps while buffeted by howling gales. “You see Ian!” he shouts at me, laughing and slipping in slurry. “You see what we have to do for a video! As if man’s gonna let feds take it down when it takes all this effort!”
We reach the lakeside where director (and drill video legend in his own right) PacManTV is setting up to shoot. The wood sack is going to be used for an impromptu bonfire, which everyone has agreed should be done last, as any passing old bill will almost certainly have something to say about a group of young black men starting fires. As PacMan sets up his drone, a huge swan rises from the lake and bears down on us with a bolshy swagger. Everyone backs up, wary of the death gaze swanzilla is fixing on us – everyone, that is, except for AM.
“Nah fam,” he says, unflappable as ever, “I used to go to Vauxhall zoo all the time when I was a kid. Not every animal wants to attack.” He crouches down and makes soothing noises to the swan, which – against any reasonable odds – chills out and waddles back to the water. “You just gotta get down to their level, so they know you’re calm.”
I first met Skengdo and AM back in 2017. Then they were the rising stars of UK drill, members of Brixton’s 410 crew, who had just started working with Finesse Forever, a set of managers from Croydon that I trusted. When FF vouched for these two clearly talented MCs, I signed them to Moves, the label I run, so – and we might as well get this out of the way early on – this piece is based on my insider experience and shamelessly biased in favour of them. Which is probably fair, enough since all the tabloid press is shamelessly biased against them. I guess you can call it karmic rebalancing.
Over the last 12 months they’ve walked a high wire of being revered and reviled, a balancing act that has even sensible commentators reaching for giddy comparisons, because, yes, like the Sex Pistols, like NWA, they’re young working class musicians making hugely popular and hugely uncomfortable art. And, similar to every other time in history when this has been the case, the media have misrepresented them, and the authorities have tried to ban them.
As a label, we tried to keep all the recent legal troubles under wraps – the idea of using controversy for clout felt like bullshit to us all, especially as the people who would have to really live with the consequences of any subsequent moral panic were Skengdo and AM themselves. We’ve sat in court rooms for hours, our lawyer Darryl (a former rapper himself lol) fighting gang injunction clauses that have been duly recognised as excessive and draconian by judges. Bafflingly. it’s the police themselves who have decided to escalate the whole thing into a circus by sharing their ‘victory’ across the media. The end result is that drill artists in general, and Skengdo and AM in a particular, have had to carry the weight of being public enemy number one. It’s not always an easy road.
“Obviously everyone has assumptions,” AM says a few days after the video shoot, sitting in his car as Shoreline Mafia plays quietly on the stereo. We’re gazing out over Myatt’s Fields in Brixton, the south London area he and Skeng grew up in. As he talks, his eyes are almost imperceptibly assessing the scene around him, checking his rear mirror, glancing at number plates on passing cars. He hollers at passing friends, and points out a suspected undie (undercover policeman) cycling slowly past – “I swear that guy isn’t from round here, and he’s just riding round all day.” He then indicates the black police camera, its lens aimed over the ‘Fields. “Boy… that thing is active today.” It whirs angrily around, capturing information. It’s remotely controlled by Southwark police and is a stark reminder of the constant surveillance that has shaped life in Myatt’s Fields – it’s not paranoia when you’re being watched day and night, one of the many benefits of the police having deemed you and yours an existential threat to order. For AM it’s just how life is. He’s learned how he’s going to react.
“Whether I was doing music or not, they’re gonna grab me for being me regardless. People don’t know me and they’ll judge me. Whatever you want to think, I know I’m just doing my thing…” And if he had to put it into words, what would that thing be? “Every song I’m trying something new, something different. Every song, I’m trying to make it better than the last.”
It’s this burning ambition to create that has given weight to all the controversy. Over four years, two mixtapes, dozens of singles and a clutch of iconic freestyles, Skengdo and AM have rapped about stabbings and shootings and the ultra-localised block wars that have riven south London. This isn’t an abstract world; both bear scars from the attacks they’ve survived. But, crucially, they’ve also rapped about sex, love and heartbreak, about police harassment, Greek mythology, and the constant dream of escaping the hood. One of their biggest hits has a chorus dedicated to a 13th-century Malian king, and on one memorable freestyle AM switches bars between Morse code and binary code. To swathes of kids across the country they’re heroes; MCs who can fold hood mathematics, French punchlines and cockney threats into a single freestyle. But while more and more kids play the music and flock to the shows, the police have decried that drill is a major driver of violent crime. As a result the Met Police worked with YouTube to sneak Skengdo and AM’s videos off the web with the hushed, secretive touch of poachers. And when this hasn’t been enough, they’ve resorted to more drastic tactics.
In late 2018, the duo sold out their second UK tour, performing to thousands. But the police responded by making legal history; they used footage of Skengdo and AM performing the song “Attempted” (a diss track specifically responding to tracks from rival south London MCs) as reason to deliver nine-month suspended sentences for breaches of a gang injunction – an injunction that forbade them from mentioning other local MCs in song. The injunction was being legally contested even as it was supposedly breached. “I feel like they abused their powers.” AM says. “They twanged the law in a way that can work against us… We couldn’t fight the injunction as a whole, we had to agree terms – and they ended up using a county court to deliver sentences which would normally have to be proved in a criminal court.“
This legal hocus-pocus led to the duo gaining unlikely allies from disparate ends of the political spectrum, with everyone from left-wing academics to alt-right shitposter Count Dankula decrying the case. But their reaction to these setbacks has been simple – record more, and release more. Never give in. To this end they’ve gone on a mission to fire out music as much as possible, returning to the work rate of their 2017 come-up that saw new tracks dropping every few weeks. So far in 2019, there’s been the video to “Crash 2,” two solo tunes from AM, new single “Gun Talk”, (below), a Skengdo solo track coming in a couple of weeks, another single from the both of them set to follow that, and numerous features waiting in the wings. Skengdo sees this creative explosion as the only feasible option – they’ve come through the fire and are stronger than ever before.
“We’ve been working so long for this we’re not gonna stop now. At this point we have a bigger point to prove than ever, not just for the sake of drill, but for ourselves. We cannot be silenced. We have the right to speak. Fair enough you want to put your injunction in place, cool. But that’s not forever, you can’t silence the truth. It’s impossible. Whether it’s me and AM or someone else, someone will say the truth. So the point we’ve got to prove is that we will not be silenced. You might be able to do that to someone else but not us.”
While the controversy has galvanised the duo, it’s impossible to ignore the strain it puts on their lives – bearing the brunt of being a public enemy at the age of 21 is hard work. While they describe a brutal and very real world in their music, this is a cathartic process rather than an incitement to violence (as anyone who witnesses the joyous mosh pits at their shows will testify). Skengdo talks about how he learnt to write from his dad – “it kept his mind in the right place bro, he could get things off his chest by writing it down and recording it” – and anyone who thinks they walk around 24/7 hand-on-blade and ready to dip man down will be sorely mistaken.
I remember a story that always made me laugh. One time we set up a photoshoot with the duo – showed up in ‘Fields with a camera team, everything set to go – and Skengdo couldn’t make it, because his mum had decided that he wasn’t big or famous enough to warrant getting his picture taken over going to see a visiting aunt. “She’s on the warpath bro, I can’t get out of it,” he’d muttered over the phone, already hauled into the back of his mum’s car. It seemed so far from the heartless driller image that gets portrayed. I asked him if I could put the story in this piece, unsure whether he’d want it out there. He laughed at this.
“You can definitely put that in – this is real life, I’m not hiding shit. People have to understand, drill artists wanna act like they’re on road shotting packs all day long. No you’re not! It’s all fake, all a façade. I don’t agree with it. Some man will act like they don’t have to go shop for their mum. I’m 21 years old, if my mum asks me to go shop now, you think I can tell her, ‘no mum I’m a drill artist?’ No I can’t! She’d say go shop same way!”