Culture

‘Man Has Made History’ – How Unknown T Changed the Landscape of UK Drill

One of UK drill's most poignant voices tells all, chatting over everything from childhood memories, to jail time and the 'T Bop'.
27 July 2020, 11:00am
Unknown T interview
Photo by @sirius.film
Behind The Bally is an interview-based column where we speak to UK drill artists, producers and creatives about their lives, upbringing and influences.

When Unknown T dropped his seminal track “Homerton B” in the summer of 2018, he didn’t know the release would guide UK drill in a new direction. The song was T’s debut single, but it quickly hit the charts, and soon after became the first drill song to be certified silver in the UK.

The track’s dance-friendly lyrics “Baby, bend ya’ back and then dig it…” and ridiculously catchy chorus “It’s Unknown T, Homerton B, I got gally on me…” brought a lighter side to drill. And T’s delivery, in all its onomatopoeic glory, meant the song was destined for success. Even though he was bellowing threats and taunts to his “opps”, and detailing his life on the road, Unknown T made drill sound smooth. He could effortlessly flow on a beat, like a swan gliding on water.

After “Homerton B” all eyes were on T, waiting for the follow up. He dropped “9er Ting” with fellow Homerton rapper KO, before linking up with Charlie Sloth for his debut Fire In The Booth. The final and standout verse of the freestyle received a rare, but deserved, reload from Mr Sloth and was later turned into the track “Throwback” – a garage-tinged offering that captured the innocence of childhood.

Later tracks including head-bopper “Meat” and “Leave Dat Trap” (with UK heavyweight AJ Tracey) cemented Unknown T’s place in the UK scene. After a strong year, he had a string of festival appearances including Wireless and Merkyfest. But just as things were heating up, T was arrested and charged with murder in July 2019 following an incident on New Year’s day in 2018. He was later cleared, after a jury found him not guilty, but this came after he had already spent eight months in jail, on remand.

Unknown T reflected on his time in prison on his anticipated comeback track “Fresh Home” which dropped back in February, 2020. Lyrics such as “Prison governors tried give me category A/ Wait, but why? 'Cause my face too bait” illustrated the reality of being locked up in the midst of a flourishing career. Now, Unknown T is back with a new mixtape Rise and Above Hate.

VICE spoke to T for the latest edition of Behind the Bally, our UK drill column, and asked him to contribute a freestyle, which you can watch below. Interview follows.

VICE: Your new mixtape is called _Rise Above Hate_**. What’s the meaning behind that title?** Unknown T: The meaning behind the title basically says it itself. Everything I’ve been through, emotions, a painful experience, I’m just tryna give a positive message to everybody – to put everything behind them and ignore the hatred and negativity and rise above it with positivity.

You were cleared for a murder charge earlier this year after spending eight months in jail. How did your time in prison change you as a person? For me, I felt like it definitely helped me grow as a person. That prison time enabled me to internally grow within myself, do you understand? [It helped me] to mature and understand life values, do you get me? With all of that, I incorporated it into my music. It made me become a deeper person and have a deeper understanding of life. So, for me, prison was a life lesson for me. It made me a stronger person and helped my characteristics as well.

Your sunglasses have definitely become part of your signature look. What’s the most you’ve spent on a pair of shades? What's the most I spent on a pair of shades? Honestly, I’ve had these shades since day.

So those are your favourite? Yeah, these are my favourite ones. I never change them still.

Have you seen the acoustic cover of "Homerton B” by Vibrant Salad that went viral on TikTok? What did you think of it? Which cover? I’ve seen a few.

The one with lots of faces on the screen. It was a ginger kid. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

What did you think of it? I got to big him up as well you know cos it’s creative y’know. I haven’t seen nothing like that still.

People were calling it gentrified drill.
Yeah, gentrified drill (laughs).

What was your first studio session like?
My first studio session… erm… cool: I remember meeting up with my managers. Man must’ve gone to... I think it was J Ruckz. I recorded half a tune that I prepared one time. Remember, this was man’s first time obviously going to a studio and I had to impress you get me, so the energy was high at the time. It was an opportunity that I never had before. Yeah, I remember just doing half of it abruptly and then boom everyone was telling me: “Yo, T, this is the one, you need to keep going”, but it wasn’t the one, you get me? It was just my first trial on the mic.

Hmm.
From there I started trying a bit more and more, got into “Homerton B”, then boom (clicks fingers), found the one. From there, I just kept going with it.

To have "Homerton B" as one of your first tracks is crazy. It was the first UK drill song to be certified silver. How do you think the track changed the landscape of UK drill? Honestly, I feel like “Homerton B” was the first drill tune to commercialise the genre of drill itself. Because when you think about when I released “Homerton B”, at that time a lot of people were drifting away from the whole drill concept. Everyone was bored of it until I dropped “Homerton B” with the whole creative, commercial, jumpy side to the video. I incorporated the girls, the style, d’you get me? Little things like the billboards, the interviews, the magazines – it all brought a lighter side to drill. So, for me, it’s definitely enlightening cos look where we are today. That change is something that people don’t talk about but it definitely has been incorporated in history. Man has made history making the whole drill thing commercial. But yeah, for me it’s just a blessing to see how much change man has made.

There was a bar in your Daily Duppy where you say “I was locked up tryna work on my album”. How did jail affect your writing process and the way you make music? I feel like it improved my writing process because it made my feelings more organic. A lot of people have told me that since I’ve come out, they can feel the energy difference when I go on the mic, you can hear the difference in my flow and you can tell I really want it. Prison definitely woke me up to the reality of life. When you’re on the verge, walking on a thin line, (clicks fingers), it snaps you and wakes you up. So, to me that boosted my adrenaline and my energy. Whenever I hit the booth I never forget what I almost lost. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah man. That’s powerful stuff.
Prison definitely changed my writing process, 100 percent. One hundred percent.

Digga D shouted you out on his latest single “Woi” and you recently teased that there may be a joint tape in the near future. Could you talk me through your relationship with Digga?
I met Digga when I went to Belmarsh prison. I got transferred to a different prison and he was there, so things happen for a reason. I didn’t even know what side of the prison he was or where he was exactly, but I basically was moved to a place where he was next door to me and we built a vibe naturally. It all started from me rapping from my window to his window. Everyone in the cells could all hear and engage, gassing it up and that – proper organic vibes. From there, we started rapping back to back at lunchtime, doing little sessions with the prisoners on Christmas day and that. Obviously, I moved into his cell, then we started growing a closer relationship, on a brother ting. We started making music. We made a lot of tunes still, but obviously that’s all due to come.

That sounds like a movie the way you guys came together. Yeah.

You finally teamed up with KO and V9 on “Aven9ers” for the ultimate Homerton line-up. What does Homerton mean to you?
To me? Homerton is my hometown and it’s the definition of me. That’s my birthplace and where I was basically grown, before all the music. For me “Homerton B”, Homerton, it’s deeper than music, it’s my lifestyle, it’s my culture.

You talked about playing "knockdown ginger” and playing the “nutty violins” instrumental on your Sony Ericsson on your song “Throwback”. What’s your favourite childhood memory?
My favourite childhood memory would have to be secondary school. After school, you know them ones? After school chill with your guys and go chicken shop, girls outside and that, the little things, good times.

I hear you man. Four wings and chips after school.
Yeah, yeah. Barbecue wings and chips bro.

So what type of kid were you at school? I was the cool yute still.

Yeah?
Like I wasn’t that guy that would try and impress other people and that just acting obnoxious. Man was just me innit – the humble, cool guy, class clown, just a lovable person innit.

Hmm. At the same time, I was observant and humble.

AJ Tracey tweeted that you have at least five unreleased songs together. Can we expect a collaborative project from you two anytime soon?
Yeah, you should still. In due course.

What artists are you listening to right now? UK artists I’ve been listening to M1llionz. I’ve been listening to Darkoo. I’ve been listening to Dutch, M Huncho, I’ve been keeping up with people in the industry that are making noise, but at the same time I’ve been listening to a couple US artists. 42 Dugg, Lil Baby, been listening to Toosii, couple of the new projects just to get an understanding.

Your deep voice really makes you distinguishable as an artist. At what age did your voice break?
Imagine in like year seven to ten, I was short and my voice was still high, but that summer I grew my hair, my voice dropped and I just had a growth spurt. So, man came back to year 11 a changed man still. Tall with a deep voice.

We’re slowly easing out of lockdown now and shops, pubs and barbers are starting to open. How have you found these last few months of quarantine? It’s different. Obviously me coming out [of prison], I came out at an awkward time cos lockdown was like two, three weeks after I came home. But for me it made me realise the little things I like away from music. It helped me understand me, not Unknown T.

Recently artists including Dutchavelli and Digga D were threatened to be recalled for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think people find it difficult to look past the violence associated with drill?
One hundred percent. There has always been an unfairness towards us. Artists like myself, Dutchavelli, Digga D, we’re trapped in this environment so this is what we rap about. They can’t expect us not to support the Black Lives Matter movement and all these different things – it's just contradictory. We have to play a part, we have to voice it as well, they can’t expect us not to, that’s just my opinion.

I agree with you. There was another bar in your Daily Duppy freestyle where you say: “Trident act like rap is the cause of violence”. I feel like drill has become a distraction in order to neglect issues such as austerity, school exclusions and lack of opportunity.
People like the government, the authorities, they always push the blame towards the artists and forget about all the other factors around that they are the ones in control of. There wouldn’t be this situation and people rapping like this about all the grittiness if you lot basically pattern up the little things in our neighbourhood. That’s the bigger picture, but people don’t see the bigger picture.

There’s an ongoing joke with your fans where they say if you do crazy hand movements in your vids, then the tunes a banger. You recently named one of the moves the “T Bop”, do you think about your movement when performing or does it just come natural to you?
Honestly, this is something that’s just adapted from the beginning. I didn’t think about it at first. In my “Mad About Bars” if you pree I’ve been doing all this bopping. It’s my people that showed man “Rah, just keep doing what you’re doing – it's wavy.” People started clocking onto it so I thought you know what… yeah, let me make it something.

The outro to your mixtape is called “Ambition”. What’s your ultimate life ambition? My ultimate life ambition is to make sure my family is comfortable first and foremost. I want to set the foundations for the history of generations. Yeah fam... like legacy.

Tracks like “SS interlude” from the Rise Above Hate tape brought out a different side to you that we haven’t seen. What do you want your fans to take away from your debut project?
For me, I feel like there’s one topic that not many artists have touched upon… In my song “SS Interlude” there’s a subliminal message where I was in a relationship, went prison, and the Mrs was holding me down. And that little phone conversation [on the track] was reflecting on mental health issues that Black men go through. It’s like where we’re closed off, in a jail cell, a lot goes on in our heads which I was what I was trying to reflect in “SS Interlude”. You know just the feelings and emotional processes within us. It’s not always just drill, drill, drill... there’s also a softer side and that was the whole idea to show in “SS Interlude”. And the reason it was the interlude is because you see the shortness of it. I was trying to make it reflect how Black males hold that emotion within them, but then snap back into this drill persona or this hardcore persona... do you know what I’m trying to say? My tape is full of subliminal messages. It's deeper than music.

@abubakarfiniin

Five Unknown T Songs You Need To Hear