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How UK drill’s filmmakers are driving its thriving scene

UK drill videos have played a crucial role in the sound's meteoric rise, with platforms like Mixtape Madness, Link Up TV, SBTV, and Pressplay Media, and filmmakers including Yukki, Pacman TV, and Zeph. Film, becoming an integral part of the scene’s unique distribution model. This proved to be magnetic for fans, with UK drill videos now regularly racking up millions of views online. Ethan Herlock speaks to members of the its booming creative community to find out more

A camera’s view taken from a drone rises above an London cityscape, revealing countless rows of suburban houses and greenery. Below, a ballied-up teenager starts rapping, and the camera closes in on his crew; shots flick between the group in chicken shops, on London streets, smoking spliffs, and valley-bopping. This is just routine for the teenagers, but for the casual viewer, there’s a beguiling intensity from the music video that pulls you into their way of life.

UK rapper SL was only 15-years-old when his single ‘Gentleman’ was uploaded on music platform Mixtape Madness’ YouTube channel, almost exactly three years ago. It’s since accumulated 37 million views to date — it remains the most viewed video on their YouTube channel — and catapulted the Croydon-based rapper into a successful music career.

After the first wave of Chicago drill in the early 2010s, UK drill quickly became a sub-genre in its own right, building a huge online presence through the decade. Rappers hid Easter Eggs within the parameters of drill bars using British iconography; with slang and ad-libs slowly becoming a novel canvas of Black British life, whilst captivating viewers. British producers like Cairns Hill, D Profitt, Quietpvck, M1OnTheBeat, MKtheplug, BKay, and Ghosty were pivotal to its sonic development, switching Chicago’s bellicose beats into ghoulish, bass-heavy soundscapes. Now, it’s a thriving space for UK drill rappers to drop projects that become instant street canon. It has also inspired scenes in Brooklyn, Australia and Ireland.

The early UK drill scene, locked out of the music industry proper due to its uncensored nature, saw clicks and comments as its currency. So the music videos for UK drill tracks played a crucial role in the circulation of the sound, allowing the grassroots sub-genre to exist on its own terms and conditions. UK drill’s uncompromising nature made it perfect for the low budget but powerful visual aesthetic that became its trademark during its early years, with budding directors becoming the rapper’s paintbrush, showing us their world.

“It’s a family thing. I do the shooting, lighting and editing, but [my crew] always help me out as well” — Yukki

This proved to be magnetic for fans and, with UK drill videos now regularly racking up millions of views online, they continue to be a vital part of the sound’s meteoric rise. It has also sparked a booming creative community of UK drill artists, filmmakers, and content creators, whilst music platforms and YouTube channels Mixtape Madness, Link Up TV, SBTV, Pressplay Media, Pacman TV, GRM Daily, and P110 remain some of the most active — part of a digital ecosystem that’s growing in tandem with the sound and its artists.

Yüksel Yılmaz, known as Yukki, is a director from North London. He started directing videos at 15, shooting adverts for the British Olympic team and various British universities, but was introduced to UK drill when SBTV founder, Jamal Edwards, recommended that he direct the video for #410 BT and Rendo’s 2018 track, ‘Longtime’. In Yukki’s videos, you see a lineage of UK drill visuals developing: there are slick cuts, transitions and camera tricks, made possible with better technology and budgets, but the kinetic energy of the old style remains; we still see mandem chilling around the blocks, living the lives they spit about.

“I analysed the drill scene before I jumped into it, and everything was being shot in a very typical way,” he explains. Utilising his experience in filming documentaries, short films and advertisements, he directed music videos for artists like Kilo Jugg, KO and OFB — the video for the latter’s track, ‘Ambush’, hit two million views in two weeks before it was deleted and re-uploaded, a decision influenced by OFB member SJ’s upcoming, highly-publicised trial. “‘Ambush’ was getting like 250,000 views a day,” he says. It now has 10 million views.

Music videos are always creative collaborations, but the UK drill scene goes one further. Rappers will often hire close friends and family members as management, and video directors can become trusted figures, not just crew for hire. That’s why Yukki’s sometime alias is Yukki and the Mandem. “It’s a family thing,” he says. “I do the shooting, lighting and editing, but they always help me out as well.”

Beyond the influence and kudos of directors, the scene depends on a sprawling network of producers, engineers, cinematographers, crew hands, editors and distributors. As UK drill has grown, this network has become its own community. 

The funding of UK Drill’s distribution model can be complex. Often, if an artist is signed exclusively to an online platform, the platform will partially fund the video in exchange for a percentage of the revenue earned through views. If an artist is signed to a label, the label pays for the video, giving artists the autonomy to work with different platforms. For those DJ Mag spoke to, the platforms scout for locations and hire the props, and the teams shoot and edit the video. Once post-production is complete, the video is distributed through YouTube and released on streaming platforms and digital service providers.

“Drill represents the voice of this generation,” says Kingsley Okyere, co-founder and chief technology officer of Mixtape Madness, at his office in Ladbroke Grove, west London. Mixtape Madness is a British artist management company, but it’s their online platform that’s most widely known. Starting out in 2010 as a music streaming blog, they wanted to share underground mixtapes online for free; styled as a UK version of the popular US hip-hop platform, DatPiff. 

When the rise of commercial streaming services startled their model, though, they moved over to YouTube and provided free audio uploads for artists, focusing on genres like grime, road rap and UK drill. They quickly gained an audience, and the free audio grew into video production, artist management and discovery, written content and label services. Now partnered with their global distribution label, Caroline International, Mixtape Madness’s YouTube channel has 900,000 subscribers at the time of writing.

“We’re actually like a family. We build relationships with these people, we’re not trying to snatch and grab” — Kingsley Okyere, co-founder and chief technology officer of Mixtape Madness

The platform’s output isn’t limited to artist’s music videos either. Their freestyle series Mad About Bars, hosted by DJ and radio presenter Kenny Allstar, became synonymous with the rise of UK drill. Although there were other established freestyle series around — SB.TV’s Warmup Sessions films rappers on the cusp of blowing up, with a guerilla-style, DIY direction, and Daily Duppy uses editing that animates the lyricism and wordplay — “we felt like there was room for another freestyle platform,” says Kingsley. “Mad About Bars is one mic, a white background, the artist, and Kenny Allstar, who co-signs the artist.”

Mad About Bars was designed to support the early careers of UK drill hopefuls, and became a speakerphone for other buzzing street sounds, like Afroswing and trap. But when it started to get big, and fast, Kingsley ordered a rethink. “We had artists like Young Adz, K Trap, Hardy Caprio — we had so many breakthrough artists that we didn’t want Mad About Bars to become this thing that only focused on the stars,” Kingsley says. He would ask himself: “Was [the track] getting played out? Are we killing it with the quality?”

As an answer, they started Next Up?, a low-budget freestyle series with an emphasis on promoting unknown talent. Its quick and simple appeal rejuvenated the thrill of hearing new rappers on the platform. Next Up? broke the gravelled melodies of Gambian-Londoner PA Salieu and the quick-witted bars of west London rapper Rushy, among others. As Mixtape Madness grew, so did the pile of Next Up? submissions. Even artists who had established themselves through Mad About Bars were asking to do Next Up? freestyles.

The channel has now become a 360-degree video platform for UK urban music discovery, including narrative series like Lippy’s Living Room and Bag It Up with Harry Pinero. To keep it all rolling, Mixtape Madness operates with a sizable infrastructure: “That’s why we have a team of [14 people], we split the workload.” With their distribution deal with Caroline International, Mixtape Madness was able to start a semi-label as well, signing talent like Digga D, KO and Trapx10, and get their music pushed on streaming playlists and national radio, like BBC 1Xtra and Radio 1.

Kingsley will often work alongside designers and creatives while “others will work with artists and the video crew.” Afterwards, they negotiate splits and recoup with artists or designers, based on revenue from streaming platforms and digital service providers such as Apple Music, and a percentage of YouTube views. “We build these relationships and it’s building our infrastructure,” Kingsley says. “We’re actually like a family. We build relationships with these people, we’re not trying to snatch and grab.”

UK drill videos are now big business in the scene. Platforms take pitches from freelance and in-house talent and content is getting funded through mainstream labels and brand sponsorships, who in turn launch marketing campaigns, working with labels and the artist’s teams. 

But the rapid success of UK drill, coupled with its uncensored lyrical content saw some artists targeted by law enforcement, tech giants, and the courts. Of course, British authorities’ problematic relationship with black British music long predates UK drill. When grime and road rap became the victim of the London Metropolitan Police Service’s (Met’s) Form 696 — a live music risk assessment form that was variously accused of being long-winded, contradictory, and racist — artists and promoters were severed from the live event infrastructure that allowed the UK garage scene, briefly, to thrive. This caused a huge demand on pirate radio stations, which depended on privacy to exist. When many of them shut down due to pressures from surveillance, the last viable underground platform for grime was cut off. 

By the time UK drill emerged in the late 2010s, that live event and radio infrastructure was weakened to the point that it was passed over by many as a non-starter — so the mostly teenage artists focused on their online presence instead. As drill grew in street popularity, it was met with increasing hostility from the mainstream press. Broadsheet newspapers like The Sun and the Daily Mail published articles blaming UK drill for the increase in knife and gun-related attacks sweeping the UK, especially in London. As much as some may try to pin UK drill as a scapegoat, research shows that stronger links between violence and council cuts and youth cuts exist; suggesting the music is a symptom of a societal issue left long ignored, not its cause.

When UK drill caught the attention of the Met’s Operation Trident, a special operations unit devoted to gun crime, the crackdown was unusually harsh. The currency of YouTube clicks and comments had cashed out, and the UK drill music video went from a teaser to a target. In an LBC interview, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, Cressida Dick, revealed her intentions in working with YouTube, deleting drill videos uploaded to their website that “incite or glamorise violence.” She claimed that social media outlets have a “social responsibility to work with us to take those videos down.” In a statement, the Met’s Detective Superintendent Mike West said the intention wasn’t to censor the genre, but curb content that will “raise the risk of violence.” 

Alongside with Operation Domain — a unit focusing on investigating crime on social media — the Met collected hundreds of UK drill videos in a database and requested that YouTube remove them. YouTube deleted 30 videos in September 2015, and 102 videos in February 2019. Artists were also threatened with criminal prosecution because of their lyrics and sentenced with Criminal Behaviour Offences (CBOs), or injunctions. Both carry hefty stipulations, including orders to avoid certain postcodes. Breach of these orders could result in a prison sentence, or at the very least, the end of a potential music career.

Although censorship impacts the artists more visibly, its ripple effects are felt throughout the online UK drill ecosystem. Artists have often circumvented censorship by, ironically, censoring themselves: through adlibs, metaphors or innuendoes, if they mention certain acts or people, and covering one’s identity. But it’s the online platforms that face the brunt of the pressure brought by the Met and social media companies, targeting specific videos while occasionally giving YouTube channels “strikes” as warnings. These strikes can lead to channels being deleted for not cooperating with requests, or in the case of Pressplay, forcing them to remove the videos.

Kingsley Okyere, along with staff at Mixtape Madness, saw the damage first-hand. “We’ve had videos taken down, YouTube strikes — we’ve had to send transcripts of lyrics to YouTube and be like, ‘He’s just talking about this, he’s talking about that,’ to make sure the video actually comes out.” Kingsley speaks on a perceived myth within the online drill community: “I mean, YouTube police are real — like, bro!”

“We got crucified [by viewers] when we chose to stop putting out drill. But we [started again] because [otherwise] you’ve taken an opportunity for the youth. They can change their lives around, and they’re just using what they know” — Rashid Kasirye, co-founder of Link Up TV

When Link Up TV, a London-based music and entertainment platform with 1.7 million YouTube subscribers, was told to remove videos by the Met and YouTube, they chose to put a brief hiatus on uploading UK drill content. “We got crucified [by viewers] when we chose to stop putting out drill,” says Rashid Kasirye, co-founder of Link Up TV, over the phone. “But we [started again] because [otherwise] you’ve taken an opportunity for the youth. They can change their lives around, and they’re just using what they know. So we stuck to it.” 

Along with music videos, Link Up TV hosts original shows. There are the freestyle ones, like Behind Bars (hosted by Joey Clipstar) and HB Freestyle. One of their most popular narrative-based shows is Studio with Fumez, a talk show hosted by Fumez The Engineer, a well known recording engineer and mixer in the UK rap scene. Fumez interviews artists with questions submitted by the show’s online audience, and is filmed working with artists in his studio. 

Other shows are based around viral moments. The Listening Party shows the live reactions of scene personalities and musical guests to anticipated projects, and My Type of Beat features rappers reacting to beats submitted by young producers. It’s a keen balancing act of talk, music and entertainment. “It’s good to film drill rappers [in] a different limelight,” Kasirye continues. “They’re some of the funniest kids about.” 

The potential for a drill song to go viral doesn’t rely purely on clicks and comments anymore, but the cohesion between all these elements. When the video for Digga D’s highly anticipated track ‘No Diet’ was published on YouTube, the emojis of a red cross and a cup with a straw, which featured prominently through the video, were turned into stickers and placed all over the streets of London.

“It was the beats that got me into it, the [sound of] MK The Plug and M1 On The Beat. The basslines, the 808 slides — it blew my mind. I wanted to be in this, study it. I put in my 10,000 hours” — ProdByWalkz

This system also extends to music producers — and those who actively engage with it often have the competitive edge. Tottenham producer ProdByWalkz started making drill beats in 2018, but it was his self-directed/self-edited online content, as much as his beats, that secured him some early opportunities, working with rappers like Headie One, RV, Digga D, and KO.

He didn’t understand the sound at first, but he was pushed towards it through his younger brother, the drill rapper Jacko. “It was the beats that got me into it, the [sound of] MK The Plug and M1 On The Beat,” he says — as DJ Mag sits down to talk with him in a cafe in his local area — of two of the sound’s core producers. “The basslines, the 808 slides — it blew my mind. I wanted to be in this, study it. I put in my 10,000 hours.”

Through the comment sections on various drill videos, ProdByWalkz was introduced to Fizzler, a rising South London rapper. “It was the fans, they kept writing [Fizzler]’s name in the comments and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know who this guy is. I checked out his ‘Lightwork Freestyle’ and I was like ‘Rah, this guy’s special.’” ProdByWalkz contacted Fizzler by sending him a beat and within five minutes, Fizzler sent a video clip rapping over it. Fizzler’s clip later became the inaugural episode of Who’s Got Bars?, ProdByWalkz’s freestyle video series.

One of the selling points of Who’s Got Bars? is how DIY it is; ProdByWalkz self-funds the series, produces the beats and co-edits the footage, while TPFilms shoots and co-edits the content. An impressive run of rappers have been on the series, including Tanna 2Trappy, Shaqy Dread and, of course, Jacko.

ProdByWalkz’s YouTube channel has 73,000 subscribers. He describes himself as a “content creator”: one of the formats he regularly works with is the reaction video, and with it, he’s struck viral gold. As he reacts to beats, bars, and videos, he creates meme-ready moments for social media. It’s a way of supporting the scene through rapid-fire shares across platforms while satisfying young audiences, who are digging for new music to put on their playlists.

Everyone that DJ Mag speaks to insists that UK drill has the potential to crossover with other elements of youth culture — and it’s happening already. Mixtape Madness is working with Puma, and the English football player, Jadon Sancho, was spotted wearing football boots customised with the words “Kennington Where It Started”, a reference to the 2017 track of the same name by drill group Harlem Spartans. Due to the unique distribution model of UK drill, as the sound grows, and crosses over, we’ll continue to be able to see it all unfold at the click of a button. “I think funding [for online content] is definitely going to increase a lot,” Yukki says, speaking about the future of the scene. “It’s going to stay alive, man.”