© Aniefiok Ekpoudom 2019, All Rights Reserved
This article originally appeared in The Guardian on December 28th, 2018.
Melodic inspiration hit Unknown T one day in his bedroom, like Newton’s apple. An anthem began to brew. He may not have realised it then, but by the end of 2018 he would have one of the rap tracks of the year. This was Homerton B, the biggest breakout from the embattled UK drill scene: three minutes long, two verses striking in their sketch of street politics, with a chorus cut from a new cloth.
Its lines arrive in a weighty, slick flow: “Baby bend ya back and then dig it, dig it, bend ya back and then dig it”, leading to frenzies at carnivals and clubs. There are no hard-cut beginnings or ends to T’s stanzas in Homerton B. His bass voice rolls on like a night tube splitting through the city, or a drum solo building to a crescendo, until the chorus hits again and your adrenaline spikes.
“The atmosphere just before going in an arena, the screaming when they hear my name, that build of momentum … The energy is crazy,” the 20-year-old says. “It makes me feel invincible; man’s on the top of the world, really.”
Drill, once seemingly played only from cars and phones, is now for the dancefloor, and Homerton B is its proof. The song’s rise was swift – released in mid-August, it was blaring through Notting Hill Carnival the following weekend. The video sits at 10m views, and shows T and his friends hanging out the windows of a glossy 4×4, rolling down a high road, champagne splashing from bottles clenched in their gloved fists. T, as José Mourinho once said of himself, is “not one of the bottle”. He has that thing, that undeniable quality that pulls him from the pack: a diamond clarity in his voice, making drill’s rough delivery digestible for almost everyone.
He says he toiled on the “little things”: that unprecedented flow and how to deliver his verses in a different tone. “Melody is something I’ve worked on. You can hear it in my music, the things people wouldn’t know I take into consideration.”
Homerton is in Hackney in east London, where T grew up scrambling after footballs in concrete cages, listening to the grime crew Boy Better Know, chilling at chicken shops on street corners – “the good old days”, as he calls them. He wanted success ever since he and his friends freestyled to grime instrumentals in the school courtyard – he just didn’t think it was likely.
His back catalogue is limited: a few freestyles and one other song. Another side to him was glimpsed in his Fire in the Booth freestyle with Charlie Sloth, more contemplative, with recollections of “pedal bike grinding, making a name on my own” – memoirs from the street diaries of a city kid whose music reflects the chaotic temperature in pockets of London.
“Music is definitely an emotional outlet,” he says, “and helps me keep peace of mind.” It’s a perspective to be heeded, not demonised, as some have attempted with drill. They misunderstand – perhaps deliberately – that the blood recently spilled in London has roots set far deeper than teenagers spreading their stories over beats. It is why, at the behest of the Metropolitan police, which asserted that some of the songs were inciting real-life violence, YouTube began pulling drill videos from the site earlier this year.
“We’re definitely misunderstood,” T says. “That’s why sometimes I don’t feel comfortable writing certain things. We’re stereotyped, we’re automatically labelled as this ‘drill rapper’. I’m not a drill rapper. I’m a musician.
“They don’t understand the reality. It’s not about the music, it’s about what’s behind the music. You can’t blame the music, or say you’re giving a helping hand with no aid. They’re pointing the finger at us but forgetting there’s three fingers pointing back.”
The music he has performed to thousands has taken the flak for chaos on city streets, but to single out drill is to stare startled at the bonfire while ignoring the kindling that lit it. He sweeps it all aside. “I don’t want to dwell too much around that. This year my life has changed, definitely made my dreams come true. But it’s just the beginning.”