Review by Jonny Wright
It seems rather fitting that I saw High Rise Entertainment’s play The UK Drill Project in the aftermath of US rapper Takeoff’s fatal shooting. Yet again, part of the posthumous narrative has been the common trope that rap music fuels violence and it is this theme that the play tackles head on.
The performance took place in the Pit studio theatre in the depths of the Barbican, an apt setting for a play about a music scene which still remains largely underground. Pre-show, there was an immersive exhibition in which I was greeted with a fist spud by a performer wearing a balaclava and dressed in all black, aside from his fluorescent ‘HOODRICH’ logo. The exhibition helped, sonically and visually, to set the scene and provide real world context for the play that was to follow. A live DJ played drill music and newspaper articles linking drill music with criminality were plastered all over the wall. A highlight of the exhibition for me was seeing a teenager’s bedroom with a single bed and a table strewn with CDs labelled ‘Guilty Pleasure’ (although how Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions could be anybody’s ‘guilty’ pleasure is beyond me) and three large jars – one of blood, one of sweat and one of tears. It’s easy to focus on bloodshed, as that grabs the headlines and strikes fear into Middle England. However, the tears shed are an even more important part of the story; tears humanise violence, which otherwise seems senseless and brutish. The play that followed showed drill-related violence in this fuller context.
The play, which was devised by the performers, opens with Crew 69 going viral with a catchy drill tune using Basement Jaxx’s ‘Where’s Your Head At’ as its hook. Crew 69’s use of this phrase in the refrain has much more threatening undertones, as they are ‘sending’ for another crew. When someone from the rival crew is murdered, one of Crew 69 members flees the country and another is arrested in connection with the murder, but his crew assure him the cops have nothing on him, so he follows their ‘no comment’ advice.
Refreshingly, the language in the play wasn’t dumbed down to cater for a more ‘commercial’ audience. You either got the slang or you didn’t, with occasional lyrics being projected onto screens when the flows were especially rapid fire. Language becomes an integral theme in the play – my favourite scene being when two coppers dissect the slang in the opening song in order to use it as evidence against the arrested crew member. Not only do the coppers become a hilarious unlikely rap duo, in the vein of the excellent Pete & Bas (two old cockney geezers who rap), but they highlight the more serious issue that it is dangerous to judge language out of the context in which it is created. This is not to give rappers a free pass to say whatever they like, but rather to say that lyrics don’t live on pieces of paper transcribed in a police station. Rap never exists in a vacuum; to fully understand a song’s intentions it needs to be heard, it needs to be seen and it needs to be consumed within the wider context of the genre, or else we are simply judging the blood and not seeing the sweat and tears.
Although the devised nature of the piece made the story a little unfocused at times, the play really came alive during its songs. The very last song was a fitting emotional end, showing the humanity, heartbreak and vulnerability behind the music. ‘America was violent before rap, fact,’ says the American artist KRS-One rapping on the song ‘Free Mumia’. Hopefully, work such as The UK Drill Project helps paint a fuller picture of the violence that plagues UK society in the same way, and which too many young people, rappers and non-rappers alike, get caught up in.