Entry 02: Youth Violence and Music in ‘The Nine’

‘Been squeezin’,

but we’re still seeking vengeance,

I see the sense from inside it,

Outsiders say it’s senseless.’ 

– KO, Better Days  

Perhaps it is appropriate that I write about this topic now, in the middle of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims that, in practice, should be a time for peace and contemplation. Twelve Holy Months ago, I remember listening to the formative songs of the Drill and R & Drill movements in a hot flat in East London. It was hot because the windows were glued shut by years of neglect and rust, and because during that time, Ramadan came in the most ruthless of seasons. Summer was a time for sinning. The schools were closed, and teens were idle, but some of us were too thirsty to make mistakes. I can still imagine the sweltering air and the sound of a four-inch plastic disk whirring ceaselessly in a game system.

 The young man I had known longer than any other was showing me rap videos. Young black men rapping under bridges, in car parks, in the dusty estate blocks of brown and red brick.

 

‘This guy is from Fellows… This is Balance Road… This is London Fields… It’s inspired by Chicago Drill, have you heard of it?’

 

The answer was no, I had not heard of Chicago Drill. Chicago Drill came out of the South Side, pioneered by Chief Keef – who for many of the UK rap scene is an inspiration. The movement since proliferated in England, not least of all in the East London area. KO and V9 are notable names on the UK music scene. Then there’s Unknown T.  T opened for Drake and most recently, has secured a feature with J Cole.

the red summers of our youth 

One of the key motifs of Drill is the nihilistic depiction of violence as an inevitable part of life. It complimented the raw and relentless sound that has stirred up so much controversy in recent years. Growing up, that inspirational violence was a transatlantic fact of life. While I was rarely- rarely– the victim of it, it shaped the world in a rigid series of strips, roads that could or could not be ventured onto. We heard stories about violence ensuing when schoolmates went into London Fields. Videos, one including a gang member being held at gunpoint and being forced to perform fellatio passed from phone to phone. Rumours of torture by immolating one’s testicles with a lighter sat on the tongue.

Of course, these are the most extreme examples. Lesser forms of violence occurred, within and outside of my experience. However, what did permeate through the long and short days of the red summers of our youth was a sense of constant unease and an expectation of cruelty.

At 17 years of age, a friend of mine invited me to an Argentinian Steak House. I was shocked to find out he was inviting me to Broadway Market- London Fields. What was even more shocking- I lived just ten minutes away. I had never thought to go before.

 

How, how were people dying over just ten minutes of ground?

 

Things change over time. London Fields is hardly the territory of the mind it once was, being filled with hipster coffee shops and art galleries.  The same thing applies to the Nine (our nickname for the postcode – E9). Along the road I live by, you’ll find no less than five cafes, two art galleries, and an upmarket fabric and textiles manufacturer. While London gentrifies and bleaches the diasporic palate of the area, the East London drill scene is at the very least, transcribing our history. One could even argue it was their bardic responsibility.

 

The Neighbourhood is quiet now. The last local stabbing I can recall occurred three, maybe four years ago. And the wildest thing- The Nine, which I always associated with brutality, is more famous these days as a font of musical talent.

 

Do not be mistaken, the echoes of our traumatic coming of age are foregrounded in the music. But unlike the primitive noises of early Drill, unlike the abject disillusionment of Chief Keef’s seminal work, there is a genuine interest in making good music. In experimentation, in whittling out a craft and moving into the more mainstream sensitivities of British Hip Hop.

 

Unknown T’s Throwback is a romantic ode to life as a teen before violence. KO’s Better Days recounts the period following the death of a close friend with genuine nuance. V9’s Kids Next Door contrasts comically violent lyrics with a surprisingly peaceful backing track. There is no way to know how much of what they say is true, or how much of their lives are still embroiled in death. One can only hope their success continues and provides an out before they too walk the paths of Hip Hop predecessors like Tupac Shakur and Nipsy Hussle.

 

The Nine once felt like a closed off-road. Now it is an avenue and there are opportunities. Progress is coming slowly, often at our expense. But when the dust settles, some will come out for the better, and they’ll be making a soundtrack for the rest of us to endeavour on whilst listening. 

 

 

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