Inside the UK drill factory: the London studio at the heart of the scene
Digital Holdings is the Bermondsey studios that's had artists including Headie One, Harlem Spartans, Zone 2, Carns Hill and SL all record music within its walls, and crews 67, OFB, 410 and 150 film videos on the site. As a neutral ground where rival drill crews can coexist, it’s regarded by many as an unofficial HQ for the scene. Sam Davies spends a day at Digital Holdings, the “360 space” that has become a safe haven for UK drill MCs, and a thriving hub for London creatives
A street lamp flickers on an industrial estate. Two men exchange fist bumps outside a garage door. Inside, an impressive film studio is being prepped for a music video. Its stars, four MCs in tracksuits and trainers, hold up phones and adjust their outfits. All of them cover their faces, with ski goggles, low hoods, Halloween masks and balaclavas.
Satisfied, they relax, slightly, and remove their headgear. They’re teenagers, with baby faces and wide eyes, aged between 16 and 19. Swapping insults and passing around a bottle of Sprite, they fall about laughing, making fun of themselves, each other, and other MCs on YouTube. One makes a comment about the growing number of MCs pretending to be way more gangster than they are.
They show us the one video they’ve recorded already, with 300k views and counting: the track has an icy trap beat with a grinding bassline, beneath witty, performative bars about their upbringings and territorial disputes. Like those in the comments section, they can’t agree over who has the best verse. Then, something makes them suspicious and the mood switches. “Are you a fed?” one asks. “No more questions,” we’re told. Sensing they’d rather keep outsiders outside, we leave them to it.
This moment at Digital Holdings, a studio complex on the site of a former tea factory in Bermondsey, south-central London, is the UK drill scene in microcosm. Like so many of the artists and creatives now working in the capital’s communities, these are funny, talented kids, making bone-chilling music underscored by a crucial tension that sometimes manifests as paranoia.
Can you blame them? The vilification of black British youths by police, the government, and the mainstream media, thinly veiled with unsubstantiated claims that drill encourages violence, has left a generation feeling disillusioned and distrustful.
“These are not bad kids,” says Corey Johnson, sitting upstairs in his office. “These are kids that are often talented, maybe a bit misunderstood. Some are just victims of circumstances.” He points to the historical neglect of Britain’s poorest communities. “This is trauma over generations. This is poverty, this is cuts on youth centres, this is Universal Credit, this is unfair policing. From the early Margaret Thatcher times till now: if you keep throwing rubbish in one place, you’re gonna create a cesspit.”
Corey is the owner and CEO at Digital Holdings, which has become an unofficial HQ for the London drill scene. Artists like Headie One, Harlem Spartans, Zone 2, Carns Hill and SL have all recorded music here, and crews 67, OFB, 410 and 150 have filmed videos on the site. As a neutral ground where rival drill crews can coexist, it’s been nicknamed “Switzerland” by the Metropolitan Police.
Corey’s own musical career is storied. Aged 10, he was recruited by Universal to join the “greenhouse gas rap group” New Frontier, before being kicked out for grabbing a handful of banknotes from a till in a nightclub (“How you gonna bring a naughty kid into a nightclub?” he says). In the ’90s he was in and out of prison while also working in pirate radio, including 95.5’s Entice FM.
He became involved with a number of under-18 garage and proto-grime events, like Young Man Standing, where Wiley and Dizzee Rascal would queue up to MC in front of thousands of other kids. He was introduced to grime by D Double E (he and Corey share a cousin, Link Up TV’s Joey Clipstar), and began driving Nasty Crew — also featuring Jammer and Kano — between radio shows.
In the early ’00s, he started the Defenders Entertainment record label as a way of releasing CDs by himself and Blade Brown, then a young prodigy of his. (Corey’s own discography includes two scarcely traceable gangster rap albums, ‘Corey’s Demons Return’ and ‘Corey’s Angels’, featuring guest appearances from Akon, Rodney P, Asher D, Kano and Ghetts.) “Shouts out to Corey Johnson!” yells Blade on track five of ‘Hollowman Meets Blade’, a collaborative mixtape with Giggs, and an essential UK rap record.
Twelve years later, Croydon-based MC SL is honouring the same man in his lyrics. “Corey just phoned me, said, ‘The flavour’s landed / Come S, let’s make some magic,’” he intones on post-drill lullaby ‘FWA Boss’. SL was 15 years old when he first came to Digital Holdings. He laid down a few raps with Joe, one of several engineers who operate in the building’s two recording studios. After their first session, Joe ran upstairs to Corey’s office.
“He was like, ‘Rah, there was this kid today,’” Corey remembers. “Then with S, I just got talking to him.” SL recorded ‘Gentleman’ in Studio 2. It now has 36 million hits on YouTube. Corey says he knows when someone has something special just from seeing them. “They’ll come here and we’ll catch a vibe. Then the more I vibe with an artist, I’ll end up spending time in the studio with you, because I’ll become a fan of what you do. I’m a fan of loads of artists that are in the studio right now [whose music] isn’t even out yet. I’m their biggest fan.”
Corey takes us downstairs to Studio 2, the smaller of two recording rooms, with space for a desk, a sofa, and little else. Annexed behind a glass door is a cupboard-sized booth with a mic. We’re told many artists prefer this to the bigger Studio 1 thanks to the intimate atmosphere.
Here we meet Helms, studio manager at Digital Holdings as well as an MC, director and businessman, and Wanza, another resident engineer, producer and aspiring MC. Both introduce themselves by their chosen artist monikers. As Corey leaves to take what must be his 10th phone call in an hour, he urges his alumnae to play me some of their music.
Neither needs any encouragement. As employees, they have the privilege of using the recording equipment free of charge. Through private YouTube links and works in progress saved in Logic, the artists show off distinctive styles; some tracks feel clearly inspired by the current drill sound, while others look further afield to Atlanta hip-hop, punk-rap, and emo.
“Now I’m at the dilemma,” says Helms, visibly excited. “I’ve got so much music, I don’t even know what to do. I don’t even know what project to start fam!” He also shows us the trailer to a web series he’s writing and directing.
The history of Digital Holdings stretches back, way before drill. Outside Studio 2, motivational messages are Blu-Tacked along the corridor on sheets of A4. Round the corner is a framed platinum vinyl commemorating Drake’s first US Billboard No.1 single ‘One Dance’; the track samples Crazy Cousinz’ classic funky house remix of Kyla’s ‘Do You Mind,’ which was released on Defenders Entertainment in 2008, earning Corey a production credit.
Opposite is the plush Studio 1, where Naira Marley recorded ‘Marry Juana’. With a hefty mixing desk, walk-in-wardrobe-sized booth, and at least double the space of Studio 2, this is where artists come when they’ve brought a squad of friends with them. Between here and the film studio, a slew of artists have been through at one time or another: M Huncho, Rapman, Kano, Smoke Boys (then known as Section Boyz), JME, Youngs Teflon, Wretch 32, Krept & Konan, Dot Rotten, J Hus, Giggs, Avelino and Stormzy.
Digital Holdings is about more than just music, though. Kenny Allstar filmed the first two series of Mad About Bars here, before moving to Radio 1Xtra. GRM Daily also filmed Chuckie Online and Daily Duppy here. Channel 4’s teen drama Youngers filmed scenes here, as did ITV’s Venus Versus Mars.
We head back upstairs in search of the increasingly evanescent Corey. In the first floor hallway, we cross paths with three guys coming out of what we learn is the podcast room. They cajole us onto their Instagram page and demand a plug for their YouTube channel, HardenuffTv. We’re told there’s a different podcast recorded here every day.
Corey beckons us back into his office, before receiving another phone call. It’s “Drilly”: Drillminister, the anonymous MC who recently announced he would be running in the London Mayoral elections this May. Corey is now his manager, accompanying him as he makes guest appearances on Channel 4 News, This Morning and BBC Breakfast. Drilly’s ringing with an update on the campaign, but they do two minutes on Corey’s new trainers first.
Before he started rapping, Drilly was an engineer at Digital Holdings, working on tracks with SL, 67, S1, and the late Incognito. A close friend of Drilly’s, Incognito is one of nine regular visitors to Digital Holdings who has been killed in recent years.
Corey stresses that no such violence has ever occurred onsite, though tensions have risen on occasion (he cites the filming of Grizzy’s ‘Look Like You’ remix video, which placed rival crews from Brixton and Deptford together, as a particularly hairy night). Security guards sometimes man the doors, but the respect artists have for the building means weapons searches are unnecessary.
Corey covers the mouthpiece of his phone and suggests we head next door, where a production class is taking place. Three days a week, in daytime and evening slots, engineers at the studio teach classes of between five and 10 students about making music on Logic. Students apply for the course online and must be aged between 16 and 24, with under-18s getting on free.
“Some of them take to it really quickly,” says Finn, who takes three classes a week. “Some don’t.” In this class — two boys, three girls — some are bashful about showing me their work. Some aren’t. One of them plays us a tropical sounding R&B beat she’s making. “I could imagine someone like Octavian on this,” she says.
Corey has taught classes himself, telling hopefuls about the ins and outs of the music industry. “Instead of going partying, I’m teaching business and marketing to a group of 15 boys and girls who just wanted to learn about the industry,” he says. “I’m with them till 10, 11 o’clock, not being paid to do it, but it’s what I’m doing.” Some of those kids now work with record labels and fashion brands, he says proudly.
Few typify the financial aspirationalism that courses through all rap music quite like Corey. “I’ve always just been an entrepreneur,” he smiles. There’s a generation looking to follow his example. “This music now, this has got young kids who come to mum and say, ‘Don’t worry about it mum, hold five bags’ or ‘hold 10 bags for the rent’.”
There’s an irony in that, while drill might be one of the most controversial, most maligned sounds to have emerged from Britain’s streets, it’s also happening at a time when artists don’t need the establishment’s approval to get by. With access to affordable recording equipment, production software, an engineer, and a YouTube channel, an aspiring artist — and their friends — can get off the ground. And you can get all of those things in this building (I’ve heard it described as a “360 space”).
Drill won’t last forever. Corey has seen garage, grime and funky house artists spat out by the music industry. But Digital Holdings could remain a bedrock of London music for years to come. For now it’s something of an open secret (“It’s one of them ‘if-you-know-you-know’ kinda things innit,” says Helms), but there are plans for major expansion.
Madz, a prolific events promoter whose previous clients include Stormzy and Flo Rida, was brought into Digital Holdings recently as venue manager. He talks to us about renovation, social media promotion and potentially tripling their clientele. For anyone looking to follow the next exciting development in UK music, you could do a lot worse than watching this space.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.