Let’s get this straight: Backroad Gee is not a drill rapper. “Nah, I don’t do drill,” he says. “Obviously it looks like drill, sounds like drill, but I’m me, bro, I don’t sound like anyone else.”
You might have heard of the UK’s divisive “drill” scene, a network of competing rap crews from some of London’s most neglected communities making eerie, polemic trap music. Whatever you have heard, it is unlikely to have been positive.
Establishment attempts to diminish drill began in earnest in 2018 when Met Police chief Cressida Dick called for drill videos to be removed from YouTube, arguing that they encouraged violence. The move was roundly condemned by music outlets and sections of the mainstream press – but an underlying scepticism towards the genre persists.
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“Bro, how you gonna block someone from trying to make art?” says BRG. “Punk bands and rock bands are singing about smoking meth and doing all these madnesses. We let them be. Why can’t they let us be?”
BRG is among thousands of Londoners who have attended Black Lives Matter protests in the weeks following the death of George Floyd, killed last month in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. “I, too, am a victim of police treating us wrong,” he says.
“I’ve been pepper-sprayed for no reason, beaten down in the back of a van by police. I got stopped and searched three or four days ago. People think it’s only in America.”
‘Obviously it looks like drill, sounds like drill, but I’m me, bro, I don’t sound like anyone else’
BRG is most famous for “Party Popper”, an aptly titled single, which blew up online in April. With more than a million YouTube views, “Party Popper” is one of the biggest tunes to come from a relative newcomer. And just to be clear: it’s not drill. With a percussive clang on the third beat of each bar, the track sounds more like a modern, faster iteration of dubstep – foreboding dance music with BRG riding unerringly on the rhythm.
An EP is planned in the next month or so, while an album is on the horizon. But who exactly is BRG?
It is tough to say, not least because he refuses to reveal his real name. “Yeah, we keep it Backroad over ’ere,” he grins, before adding a little more gravely: “I like to be in control of what I let people know.”
He was born in east London’s Homerton Hospital to Congolese parents and is now 23. He was raised by a single mum and moved around the capital, attending several schools.
“I was a little bad yute,” he says by way of explanation. He left school at 14, missing his GCSEs, but won’t be drawn on why. “Personal stuff,” he says. “Life got real. Man had to grow up and be a man.”
BRG talks like he raps: bouncy, idiosyncratic, prolific, with slang from a range of dialects. It is a London accent, but every 10th word seems to come from Jamaican patois, Congo or his own imagination. “I got my own lingo, you get me?” he says, borderline singing those last three words. He says he finished “Party Popper” the same night he heard the beat.
‘Obviously it’s not something that I’m trying to glorify, but it’s either facts or leave it out’
“I heard it, then, bam, the chorus just came out of me like niaow,” he says, enunciating each onomatopoeia as though into a mic. He says rapping is so natural to him it’s impossible to explain, like asking someone to explain walking. Lots of artists say this, but after five minutes of talking to BRG, it rings true – he is one of those vocalists so blessed with charisma they could entertain you by reciting the alphabet. He has an effortless warmth about him, too.
At one point he asks whether he is allowed to swear in this interview, sounding rather more polite than he does in his menacing lyrics. “Before all of these guns, my n***a it was kitchen knives in lungs,” he raps on single “I’m Free Pt 1”. Fans have long debated which violent rap lyrics are based in fact and which are exaggerated for effect – in drill more than ever before. So what about in his?
“I don’t exaggerate shit. It’s not my imagination speaking. We’ve really gone through these things. Obviously it’s not something that I’m trying to glorify, but it’s either facts or leave it out.”
At this point, he shouts something to someone at his end. Then silence. “Sorry, bro, the feds is coming to shut down the barbecue,” he says, possibly joking. He keeps chatting anyway. He recently spent time in prison, deciding to pursue music full time only upon his release last year.
Again he is evasive on the specifics. Out of distrust maybe? “Bro, I don’t trust anyone,” he says. “You just can’t do that. I didn’t grow up trusting anyone.”
As a young black man from inner-city London, BRG has seen peers persecuted for no crime other than performing a song, as happened to drill rappers AM and Skengdo, who were sentenced to nine months in jail for breaching an injunction by playing a song.
From the age of 10, BRG would rap with friends over grime beats during the genre’s mid-Noughties heyday, only to see the scene gradually eroded as police shut down gigs and the media refused to take it seriously.The suppression of British rap in recent years has been even more profound.
Less need for establishment approval
Yet for all the negative press and police attempts to stamp out the scene, drill is already the most pervasive UK rap sound ever, both in British culture (where Cobra meetings have been held specifically to deal with it) and the wider world (see the influence on huge North American rappers such as Drake and Pop Smoke).
With less need for establishment approval, rappers such as BRG can now push identities previously absent from the mainstream. Most UK MCs to date have sounded either distinctly London or Jamaican. BRG is British but also African. “I feel like I have to embrace where I come from,” he says.
He is not alone. Shaybo gave a recent freestyle, rapping in both English and Yoruba. J Hus has established Afrobashment as part of the UK rap landscape. Ivorian Doll’s roots are in her name. And Pa Salieu, who guests on BRG’s “Party Popper” remix, burst on to the scene in January with the unstoppable “Frontline”, rapping about his Gambian heritage and referencing Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots, and referring to himself as a “dark black yute”.
Dark-skinned women come up in BRG’s lyrics, a contrast from the light-skinned girls most often seen in rap videos. But he plays down talk of colourism in rap. “I’m not trying to start a problem here. I’m just speaking on my preferences. I’m all for women empowerment.”
After half-an-hour’s conversation and an increasing number of interruptions from friends at BRG’s end, the line goes dead. Calls back go straight to voicemail. Did police shut down his lockdown gathering? He calls back some hours later to apologise, explaining that his phone had died. “It wasn’t an illegal barbecue,” he laughs. Then, more seriously: “One of my guys’ aunties passed away from Covid-19. We was throwing a barbecue like it’s a wake.”