Meet Drillminister, the rapper shaking up politics by mobilising the underprivileged
16 November 2018 11:17
Wearing a black balaclava obscuring everything but his dark brown eyes and a black hat rolled down past his eyebrows, Drillminister – the only UK rapper known by everyone in Downing Street – is the most conspicuous diner at Wagamama in North Greenwich, where he grew up and where he arrives, 45 minutes late, for this interview. Yet, despite his obvious entrance, and that, at 4pm on a Thursday, the restaurant is almost empty, over the next 90 minutes, no Wagamama staff – usually so annoyingly efficient – come to take our order. Drillminister, or Yung Drilly, as he likes to be known, doesn’t seem to care. Maybe, considering the balaclava rarely ever comes off, he’s used to it.
We’re here to talk about ‘Political Drillin’, the video that went viral in October after it was commissioned by Channel 4’s Symeon Brown to highlight hypocrisy in Westminster over blaming ‘drill music’ – a violent strand of rap which originated in Chicago and made its way across the pond in 2015 – for London’s rising knife crime; now at its highest since 2011. Alongside Drillminister’s own lyrics, the song features violent phrases from well-known politicians such as Boris Johnson, George Osborne and John McDonnell, including: ‘I will not rest until she’s chopped up in bags in my freezer’ and ‘The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted’. Layered against aggressive beats, there’s nothing to differentiate it from your standard drill rap, other than the names of politicians spelled out at the bottom of the video as their words are spoken. Ironically, the video – which shows Drillminister rapping in front of a brick wall – was taken off YouTube four times before it was finally left alone. Since then, the musician has appeared on Good Morning Britain and Peston, and is now putting the final touches to his debut ten-track EP, titled House of Skengz, out later this month. His next single, released today, is called ‘Brexit’.
‘The way I see it,’ says Drillminister, hooking the bottom of his face gear to his top lip to reveal his mouth and chin, his big black Ellesse ski puffer chafing the table, ‘is that a lot of stuff on road [associated with drug dealing] is similar to what the government has been doing with the EU. The transactions and deals, and talk with what we would call “the plug” [a big time drug dealer]. Europe is England’s plug. That’s where they’re getting their trade from. So you need the deal to go well with the plug, or else you’re not going to get a good price on your product. Everything that you’re trying to do comes back to that. Theresa May has a bad relationship with the plug right now, and the rest of us, we’re just the workers. So what’s going to happen to us?’ While this may sound reductive, it’s also refreshing. Because at the end of the day, he’s right; it really is that simple. And it’s this direct and unique messaging that’s allowed Drillminister to cut through the noise – or rather, the dull hum of the same refrain – and reach the disengaged.
‘I want to switch up the whole way the gang is thinking,’ he continues. ‘I’m trying to mobilise the underprivileged youth. So that they realise, these man are messing with your future. Don’t be ignorant with what’s going on. Don’t be focussing on beef with a man down the road when, in five years, you and that man are both going to be buying a loaf of bread for five pounds because of Brexit. All I want to do is raise awareness, so politicians can’t be shady. They can’t be shady if we’re all looking at them.’ Since ‘Political Drillin’ went viral, he’s had hundreds of Instagram messaged from people in Ireland, Warwick, Newcastle, Plymouth and London thanking him for finally making music that means something; for reminding them of their political worth. One message he shows me reads: ‘We are the forgotten Britain.’
Even off the record, Drillminister won’t reveal his identity. His balaclava, while mocked on GMB as a sartorial choice – which he defended as essential to preventing his identity from interrupting his artistic message – is clearly worn for protection. ‘From the authorities,’ he says. It’s clear his experience of ‘the plug’ is first hand, and ongoing, for now. Does anyone in the industry know his name? He ticks off only two drill rappers: Carns Hill and SL. After more gentle probing, he reluctantly tells me he’s in his early twenties, and that his parents are from Gambia and Jamaica. When I ask him where he lives in London, he is vague. ‘I’ve moved around a bit: Peckham, Bromley, Brixton, Victoria…’ With his parents? ‘For a while, but then I moved out when I was 17, and put myself through school.’ Why so much moving around? ‘It’s the life you lead, innit,’ says Drillminister, his eyes on the table. ‘You find a way to be self-sufficient.’ He started making music in 2015, around the same time he was stabbed. He mulls over the word, tasting its impact on his tongue. ‘It’s not a nice feeling, getting stabbed. You reflect on getting stabbed. You can either go one of two ways after you get stabbed. After you get stabbed, you reel yourself back in. You become a person that stays in all the time. You shook a life. Or you can attack it head on, like every day is your last day. That’s what I’m doing.’ Has he ever carried a knife? ‘Everyone in the hood needs to protect themselves at some point,’ he says. ‘You can’t be caught lacking.’ It’s also around this time that Drillminister started working behind the scenes with well-known drill groups including Harlem Spartans, Zone 2, Moscow and 150, several of which have either got members behind bars or made headlines for involvement in fatal stabbings.
With his socially driven political anthems, dubbed as ‘conscious drill’ by fans on YouTube, is Drillminister purposefully distancing himself from mainstream drill? Does he disapprove of some of the genre’s repertoire? ‘No, I listen to it. No one in drill is evil. They’re just normal people. But I can’t tell someone not to speak their truth. One thing I know is that music is a reflection of people. Is our music criminal, or do we live in a criminal society? I think we live in a criminal society. We can’t stop people’s freedom of speech because that’s the only way they can document their lives. If you’re saying we should ban this music, angry music, then you’re basically saying we should ban anger. We should ban a whole emotion.’
Agreed. But can’t rappers document their lives with anger and also perspective? Must they glamorise violence in the way many drill lyrics, uncontestably, do? Drillminister sighs and is silent for a little while. ‘I want to put this the right way. Listen, when my man Boris Johnson said that women who wear the religious ting are looking like a letterbox, he spoke his truth, and in doing so insulted an entire culture to the whole world. And that’s incited some guy that hasn’t got much to do in his life, to think, “Boris is right, that woman’s a letter box. Let me smash her head in. She shouldn’t be in my country.” [Hate crime reports have risen by a third in the last year.] And that is seen as less offensive than someone talking about someone they don’t get on with in their area? So Boris is allowed to flex his freedom of speech, but we’re not?’
Drillminister’s beliefs – informed by a mix of CNN, Russia Today and Reddit – are strongly anti-government. He believes both the general election and the EU referendum were rigged, and so didn’t vote in either. ‘I knew we were gonna leave the EU from the way they spent the whole time talking about immigration, rather than the money.’ He comes back to the road analogy again. ‘When we’re on the road, and we’re talking about trade, we don’t say, “So what was he wearing then? And how come you did the deal with this guy and not that guy?” We’re not talking about the guy, we’re talking about the money. So why weren’t my girl Theresa May talking about the money? And then she suddenly found some for the DUP dons. If you found money for them, then where are the youth centres? You found billions for them, so then why are kids dying?’
Drillminister’s socio-political awakening, if you will, occurred after the riots in 2011. ‘That’s when I started to notice the deterioration of my area and the people. With each generation, their self-worth gets lower and they feel the people that are governing them are letting them down more and more.’ He firmly believes the authorities don’t want people like him to succeed. ‘Drill music could make us legitimate. We’re going to be able to buy a house in our area, and stay in our area and not be gentrified. And they don’t want that. Don’t you get it? That’s why they’re trying to shut us down. The less we’re legitimate, then they can keep doing their stop and search. The authorities are loving that knife crime’s doing a madness right now so that they can bring back stop and search, even though it didn’t stop anything in the nineties. And that means everyone’s getting caught and going to jail. Then their statistics for jail are good, and they’re getting cheap labour in jail with us making things, and people aren’t getting student loans. But then the whole joke is that it costs more to send someone to jail [over £100,000 a year] than to pay their student loan. But it’s better for them to do that, because when the troublemakers have left the area, then they can put the house prices up. This is how London is getting gentrified. This is how London is being capitalised and the people at the bottom are getting worse and worse. This has nothing to do with music. People are being treated so bad that they don’t even know how to care for themselves. If you treat someone bad enough for long enough, then they’ll fight anybody. That’s why there are these uncontrollable things happening on the roads. That’s why there are all these careless deaths.’
With his strong views, unique personal insight and reasonable, measured discourse, it makes sense that Drillminister wants to run for MP in Greenwich this year, and then, if successful, for cabinet. His EP, which also includes his thoughts on universal credit, the police and education, is his manifesto in the making. Ask Drillminister about any social issue, and he has a perfectly eloquent answer, as if he’s spent hours honing his thoughts. And yet, unlike politicians, his answers are grounded in personal experience and alive with contained yet visceral emotion. I ask him what he thinks of universal credit. ‘It’s a system set up to crush people. I’ve seen bare man in the hood get evicted from his house because he gets given £1000, hasn’t seen that much money in time, and spends it all at once. He doesn’t even pay his bills. The people who have put these systems in place have not lived on it to test it.’ And what about state education? ‘People’s parents might not even speak English, and you’ve got teachers coming over saying they’re going to move your son out of his classes because he’s disruptive. But these parents might not even know how to communicate that he has ADHD and they haven’t been able to get him a diagnosis. I’ve seen this happen to bare man. They kicked out of school and into centre, and then when they come back to school, they’re entered for the lowest grades possible at GCSE. They can’t even get a C. So man drop out and before you know it man are on road. And it’s all because that one teacher threw a kid to the dogpile rather than working with him through his issues.’ And the police? ‘You have to retrain the police. The academy, the new guys that are going to have the lowest jobs and dealing with the community. They need to know the difference between this guy who’s going college and a guy with crack on him. If you instate community leaders people respect to work alongside the police, then they’ll know not to rough up the area and make things bad. When someone does something heinous, the community might give up that person on a collective ting, not on a snitch ting. They might say, rah, that person don’t represent our community. You’ll get that response from them. But if you go in with the snitch mentality, no one’s going to engage. But the way relationships between police and communities are handled right now is bad. Because you’re cutting police budget, they’re getting angry, and they’re taking it out on us.’
As Drillminister gets up to brave the pouring rain, he tells me about what one of the producers said to him on Good Morning Britain. ‘They told me I needed to come back on the show to go head to head with Piers Morgan,’ he says. You would think this would be an opportunity most young, opinionated men hungry for a career in the limelight would jump for. ‘But I said, “no, there’s no point.” Because Piers will speak from his perspective as a successful, white man. He doesn’t see the young woman who prostitutes herself at 11pm every night at the end of my road, just to feed her kids, because she knows universal credit can’t pay for that; because the pimps in the area will bang her up if she doesn’t get their money. What could Piers say to that?’ He pulls up his hood and unhooks the balaclava from his lip. His eyes are wise and kind. ‘There are no answers to all these things,’ he says. ‘You simply have to live it to understand it.’
Brexit is available for streaming and download on iTunes and Apple Music now