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THUG LIFE: Drill music as a periscope into urban violence in the consumer age

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Abstract

This paper seeks to develop an understanding of interpersonal violence within an urban landscape. An increase in violent crime has garnered intense media attention with drill—an emerging subgenre of hip hop—being sighted by media outlets as a causal factor for the rise in gang-related violence. Within this perspective, the Metropolitan Police took action, which affirmed this narrative. This paper seeks to refute such simplistic discussions of interpersonal violence whilst recognizing the opportunity such notions pose for academics to utilize knowledge of subcultures to explore possible insights into the wider understanding of violence and capitalism.
Authors- Adam Lynes and Craig Kelly
BJC Draft
Thug Life
Introduction
The historic relationship between street gangs and hip-hop music dates back to the birth of the genre
(Hagedorn, 2008). Numerous hip-hop artists have had, or continue to have, a close association with
prominent street gangs, and a smaller number of artists have acknowledged they were once members
of a street gang (see Kubrin, 2005). A complex and multifaceted relationship exists between street gangs
and hip-hop music and it is important to avoid reductive accounts of this relationship. However, we
must also be brave enough to acknowledge that a relationship does indeed exist. In this paper we argue
that it is now time for the social sciences to engage in a concerted intellectual attempt to untangle and
shed light upon this relationship, clarifying its various features and identify the fundamental causes that
led to the relationship’s formation. To that end, we draw upon some hitherto underused and often
misunderstood concepts and frameworks with a view to illuminating a complex cultural dynamic often
judged too politically and intellectually sensitive to justify critical attention.
Violent crime in London rose significantly in 2018. Media attention was drawn to an emerging subgenre
of hip-hop music called ‘drill’ (Fatsis, 2019). The media’s perennial search for novelty and, when
addressing social problems, its propensity to identify only the most simplistic proximal causes, led a
number of outlets to suggest that drill music was driving the city’s young people towards deadly
violence (see Knight, 2018; Cohen, 2018; and Nsubuga, 2018). Cressida Dick, the head of the
Metropolitan Police, petitioned YouTube to remove content featuring, or uploaded by, a number of drill
artists. Dick’s intervention resulted in the removal of around thirty videos, and some drill artists were
blocked altogether (see Waterson, 2018). To a popular readership, all of this seemed to lend credence
to the suggestion that drill music was causing violence, or at least that certain drill music artists used
the music genre to incite violent crime.
Shortly afterwards, two drill music artists were sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two
years, for breaching an injunction by performing drill music and posting videos that incited and
encouraged violence against rival gang members (DJ News, 2019). Of course, such simplistic causal
accounts tell us very little about the complex relationship between music, culture, everyday life and
the contexts in which violence arises and is enacted (Ilan, 2020; Fatsis, 2018 and 2019). They tell us
nothing about why this medium is chosen by specific urban populations as a means of communicating
threats, status claims, mockery and retorts, or how the content of such music relates to the subjective
experience of everyday life in marginalised urban neighbourhoods (ibid.). In constructing such
simplistic accounts, media commentators overlook the possibility that the forms of braggadocio and
direct threats we see in drill videos are not particular to this music genre. Clearly, such performances
exist as a perennial feature of urban social reality (see for example, Anderson, 2000; Winlow, 2001;
Winlow and Hall, 2009; Bourgeois, 2010; Mullins, 2013; Ellis, 2015). Threats to other gangs or
specific individuals certainly didn’t magically appear as a feature of everyday social reality as drill
music began to take shape. It is imperative we dig deeper.
Of course, the simplistic causal account that we have outlined above is problematic not simply because
it is simplistic, and not simply because it ignores the actual causes of violent crime and the contextual
realities that frame its enactment. Media stories that position drill music as a cause of urban violence
also, with varying degrees of subtly, tend to reaffirm the view that young urban black men and the
forms of culture that appear tied to this population constitute a threat to the civic mainstream. These
stories, structured in relation to the assumption that urban black men are more likely to be criminal and
violent, appear to have fed into the vague police cultures that sustain racialised stop and search practices
in the capital (Delsol and Shiner, 2015; Flacks, 2017). Virk (2018) reports that the Metropolitan Police
have in fact used stop and search powers to disrupt the filming of drill music videos. The actual causes
of violence are incredibly complex (see for example Winlow, 2015; Ellis, 2015; Ellis et al., 2017) and
deserve to be treated as such. If our goal is to understand the causes of rising levels of urban violence,
we must accept that there are no easy answers. Below we begin to untangle the relationship between
drill and violence. The first step is to establish some reasonably functional contextual parameters.
Drill: Context and History
If we are to construct a useful account of the relationship between drill music and violence, the first
step should be to place this specific musical subgenre in the context of contemporary consumer culture
(see Yousman, 2003; Hayward, 2004; Perry, 2004; Hall et al., 2008; Hunter, 2011). Consumerism
intrudes upon the internal life of the subject in ways that are only now beginning to be understood (see
Hall et al., 2008; Winlow and Hall, 2016). As many theorists and researchers have found, consumerism
erodes collective identities and projects (see for example Baudrillard, 2007) inspires a particular kind
of possessive individualism (see for example Bauman, 2000), and foments envy and a general disregard
for the well-being of others (see for example Žižek, 2002). It dissolves traditional forms of value and
seeks to establish the accumulation of money and the sign-value of consumerism as the sole measure
of a good life. Consumerism, as the hegemonic ‘meaning system’ of contemporary popular culture,
therefore provides the background against which contemporary urban life plays out. We can quite easily
identify processes of commodification in all music genres (see Adorno, 2016), but it seems reasonable
to position hip-hop a musical form that developed during the consumer age and evolved in parallel
with consumer culture as the archetypal musical genre of twenty-first century consumerism. We
should also note that British hip-hop has long attracted critical attention from the police (Bramwell,
2015). Bakkali (2019) suggests that road culture is a UK-specific cultural formation that draws upon
Black Atlantic popular culture (Gilroy, 1987). Drill is tightly connected to road culture (Ilan, 2020). As
Bakkali (2019) claims, road culture should not be defined purely in terms of race and ethnicity (see also
Gunter and Watt, 2008). Drill music offers young people a means of expression, a means of mediating
often complex social relationships and a means of achieving a degree of status relative to the social
field. Money and consumerism mix with threats, mockery and claims of violent potential. That is not
all there is. As we will see, drill is also a specific urban construct rooted in the experience of class and
oppression (see Galtung, 1969 and Fatsis, 2018).
Drill appears to have been developed by Chief Keef and numerous other artists on the South Side of
Chicago in 2011. It grew rapidly and began to develop a degree of mainstream popularity. Following
the death of rapper Lil Jojo in a drive-by shooting in 2012, linked to a dispute with the man widely
believed to be the creator of drill, Chief Keef (Harkness, 2013), drill began to be regularly connected to
the perennial problem of inner-city violence. Chicago was and is a city with very high levels of urban
violence (Irwin-Rogers and Pinkney; 2017; Pinkney and Robinson-Edwards 2018), but in the last ten
years or so there has been a tendency to connect Chicago’s longstanding violence problem with what is
a relatively new form of music. Harkness (2013), claims that the sheer number of gangs and gang
members in the city are a key part of the problem, and he also notes that many of these gangs contain
active or peripheral members who make drill music. Of course, even if we accept that the presence of
and proliferation of gangs in Chicago shape violence rates, we must also note that gangs cannot in and
of themselves be considered to be the fundamental cause of murderous violence. Gangs, and more
importantly the immediate urban milieu that shapes gang life, may form part of a causal chain that leads
to violence, but gangs are also an effect of a deeper lying cause (see Hall and Winlow, 2015).
Drill is known for its hyper-masculine, overtly violent content (Ilan, 2020). Drill artists often make
explicit reference to unsolved murders, and direct threats to other artists are also very common (Irwin-
Rogers and Pinkney, 2017) though as Ilan (2020) affirms, to take all such content literally ignores the
complex realities. By mid-2015, drill had proliferated across the globe and London began to see the
emergence of a fledgling drill scene. Whilst various subgenres of hip hop, most notably Grime
(Bramwell, 2015), have been part of mainstream British culture for some time, the drill scene in London
and Birmingham quickly gained notoriety.
The murders of drill artists such as Showkey (Offord, 2016), Tuggzy (Booth, 2017), Skeng (Morrison
and Mitchell, 2017), Mdot (BBC, 2016) and Incognito (BBC, 2018) clearly played a role in establishing
in the popular imagination a firm relationship between drill and violence. The arrests of high-profile
drill artists also drew attention and appeared to further the mystique of the scene. Nino and KK, artists
from South East London connected to the B-Side Gang, were convicted for the murder of a record
producer connected to the Splash Crew (Sullivan, 2017). M-Trap 0, from South London, was convicted
for the murder of Jermaine Goupall, at the time only fifteen-years-old (Badshah, 2018). Baby R, from
Croydon, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and other charges (Truelove, 2017). Reekz
mb was arrested for attempted murder (Ballinger, 2018). Most recently, Unknown T and another
defendant were charged with violent disorder and murder for the death of Steven Narvaez-Jara on New
Year’s Day 2018. The pattern appeared clear.
Methodology
This paper seeks to move beyond the tired stereotypes perpetuated by the popular media, though due to
the lack of academic focus upon the subject media sources must be relied upon. However, we have no
intention of simply applying moral panic theory to this developing cultural trend. Moral panic theory
is, we argue, ill-suited to getting to grips with the radically transformed culture in which we live (see
Horsley, 2017, for a thorough and convincing deconstruction of the place of moral panic theory in
contemporary criminology). There has been no mass ‘panic’ about drill music. A significant proportion
of the UK population probably have not even heard of drill music, let alone formed firm ideas about its
purportedly regrettable outcomes. This is not to say that this musical form and its associated cultures
have not attracted negative headlines and draconian police action (Fatsis, 2019). The institutions of the
state and the corporate media, it seems, no longer needs to carry the population along with scare stories
to justify the criminalisation of particular urban populations. Nor has there been any great attempt to
suggest that drill music is immoral, save for the direct suggestion that it inspires or glorifies violence.
In these secular times, in which traditional concepts of morality appear to have fallen into generalised
accounts of ‘values’, moral stories in the popular press are few and far between. Even those stories in
the press that have addressed drill music and the involvement of some drill music artists in violence
have not been positioned on the front page, and this fact also tells us an additional story about the
descent of traditional morality: The killing of young, working-class, urban black men is now simply a
filler story, a sad indictment of our times, but certainly not something to get animated about.
To get to grips with what drill music tells us about road culture and urban life we need to draw upon
intellectual resources that are better suited explaining contemporary social and cultural phenomena. We
start with a descriptive account of the long and complex relationship between violence, street gangs and
hip-hop music. We focus on Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent. We will then draw upon these
resources to develop a critical account of urban violence in the consumer age.
Conceptualising Violent Realities
There is a long history of academic and popular interest in the interplay between violence and popular
cultural trends (Kelly et al.,2018). Since the 1960s in particular, various genres of music have been
cited by the media as the driving force for various forms of criminal or deviant behaviour (Tucker,
2002). For the most part, the state and various institutions of the corporate power structure appear to
have subscribed to what we might call a right-realist perspective. However, and more
contemporaneously, critical scholars have acknowledged that social media usage can be an aggravating
factor in contemporary forms of urban violence (Irwin-Rogers and Pinkney, 2017). Pinkney and
Robinson-Edwards (2018) claim that the violent lyrics often utilised in drill, and more broadly
throughout hip-hop, are examples of what Surette (2015) calls performance crime. Put simply, the street
scripts the screen and the screen scripts the street (see Hayward and Young, 2004).
Academics keen to establish a causal link between media forms and violent crime have tended to utilise
the deeply flawed psychological evidence gathered by Bandura et al., (1961, 1963). One of the central
problems of utilising Bandura’s general framework is that it is blind to a whole host of contributing
factors that are external to Bandura’s rather basic focus upon the subjective consumption of media
symbolism. We hear nothing of the broader context of socialisation and experience. We hear nothing
about narratives of morality, about the cultural contexts inhabited by thinking and feeling subjects, or
about those internal processes that sift, sort, appraise and apply forms of cultural symbolism.
As Ray (2011: 6) notes, the social context for ‘both the performance and understanding of violence is
of central importance’. According to Bufacchi (2005) there are two ways of conceptualising violence.
First, there is the often narrow ‘minimalist conception’ that focuses upon bodily harm through physical
force (Glasser, 1998). Stanko’s (2001: 316) oft-cited definition of violence violence as ‘any form of
behaviour by an individual that intentionally threatens to or does cause physical, sexual or psychological
harm to others or themselves’ fits firmly in this category. However, whilst Stanko’s body of work
around violence has added much needed nuance around the gendered perspectives of violence it can be
argued it fails to account for a rounded notion of the breadth of violence in both the epistemological
and ontological sense. Scholars as far back as ancient Greece have recognised the complexity of such
notions.
Much like Freud’s tripartite understanding of the human condition; Homer, Plato and subsequently the
German idealist Hegel have recognised the Nous (Reason), Thumos (spiritedness) and Epithumia
(desires) were in an incessant battle with one another. The Thumos was central to this in relation to
understanding violence is underpinned with the importance of honour, prestige and accomplishment at
the fore. It is from this perspective of the yearning for recognition as an individual that underpin the
emotions which provides the context for violence, offering a more complete conceptualisation of the
subject. From this understanding we can recognise the need for a ‘comprehensive conception’ of
violence.
Comprehensive conceptions of violence attempt to capture forms of violence and subsequent harms not
recognised by the definition offered by Stanko. This latter approach can therefore attempt to capture
forms of harm that may be significant but are not necessarily physical. Galtung’s (1969) concept of
‘structural violence’ is notable here. In Galtung’s conceptualisation, job insecurity, unemployment and
the removal of welfare entitlements can all be categorised as expressions of structural violence. For
example, some individuals and communities can suffer greatly as a result of the political beliefs and
ideological commitments of others. Žižek (2008) has also written important works that seek to clarify
the meaning of ‘structural violence’. In a characteristic dialectical inversion, Žižek draws our attention
not to those forms of violence that disrupt what would otherwise be civilised normality, but to the actual
constitution and reproduction of civilised normality as such. For Žižek (2008), structural violence is the
form of violence that needs to take place to reproduce our sense of normality. It is the form of violence
implicit in our current way of life. It is a violence that is so ubiquitous, so all-encompassing, that it
barely registers. For example, we may judge the ongoing destruction of the natural environment to be
an expression of structural violence (Bonds, 2015; 2016). We may also consider the harms of sweatshop
labour around the world to be expressions of structural violence. Both of these forms of violence, in the
present ideological context, essentially need to take place so that we can continue on as consuming
societies.
Structural violence should thus be considered to provide a zero point against which we can judge other
forms of violence (which, in Žižek’s tripartite schema, are subjective violence and symbolic violence).
Subjective violence violence committed by a clearly identifiable subject, like a gang or an individual
and symbolic violence a violence of symbols, signs, words and narratives both, in essence, disrupt
the ‘normality’ established by the grinding everyday nature of structural violence. Žižek’s (2008) goal
is to broaden out our conception of violence. He wants us to look away from spectacular forms of
disruptive violence like a shooting or a stabbing on the streets of South London and consider those
forms of violence that shape our experience of everyday life. As Žižek suggests, it is only when we
consider these underlying, everyday forms of structural violence that we can begin to move close to the
fundamental truths that shape the spectacular forms of subjective violence that tend to grab the headlines
and draw our attention as social scientists. The following examination is underpinned by the Žižekian
perspective on violence. Focusing on the realities of drill music and the immediate contexts that gave
rise to it allows us to catch sight of the grinding structural violence that underpins our present way of
life.
Competition and Clashes within Hip Hop Culture: A Brief Overview
Since the beginning of hip hop New York in the 1970’s, machismo has been intrinsic to the art form.
Initially DJ’s utilised emcees to promote their performance prowess to the crowds but the emcees soon
began promoting themselves within these braggadocios moments. During this seminal period, content
largely revolved around the lyrical dexterity of the artist and their ability to motivate the crowd.
However, when Kool Moe Dee humiliated the jovial emcee Busy Bee over a perceived slight in the late
1980’s, the notion of rap diss and ‘beef’ was born, and soon became an integral part of hip hop culture
(Nguyen, 2014). The first ‘disses’ on recorded media came soon after in the form of the now infamous
‘Roxanne’ tapes, solidifying within the culture the commercial potential of successfully humiliating a
perceived opponent.
As rap music became increasingly profitable to both artists and record companies, the politics of
consumer culture soon began to influence the battles between emcees. Due to the increase in popularity
emcees soon emerged from the west coast, including NWA, Snoop Dogg and other well-known
Californian artists moving the scene away from New York, generally regarded as the ‘birth place’ of
hip hop (Stolworthy, 2017). These artist used raw, honest and hyperbolic lyrics to reflect the chaos of
the lived experience of street life in Los Angeles, a city struggling with gang warfare and a crack
epidemic which framed the habitus (Bourdieu 2002) in which these artists came from. This furthered
the scripts discussed by Surette (2005).
The New York based hip hop record industry, media outlets and, arguably most importantly, radio
stations regarded the upcoming west coast ‘G-funk’ gangster rap as a threat to the hegemony of east
coast rap and attempted to subjugate the new sound (Westhoff, 2016). The overtly violent lyrics of the
west coast rappers, reflective of their ‘street’ perspective, soon developed into diss tracks which were
exchanged between artists from each coast. The nature of battle rapping quickly morphed, soon to
include territorial, gang related references. Death Row Records, headed by notorious Blood gang
member Marion Suge Knight, was founded alongside the genre’s transitional period, consolidating
existent underlying relations between gang lifestyles, rap music and now mainstream consumer culture
Following his release from prison, Tupac Shakur signed a record deal with Death Row Records, a
decision that became the catalyst to the most notorious and profitable rap ‘beef’ in history.
Whilst early pioneers had emphasised socio-political consciousness as well as jovial, carnivalesque
rhymes, consumerism had always featured. As the early nineties progressed, the most commercially
successful rappers moved from aspiring to possess attainable consumer products such as a pair of
Adidas trainers (Patton, 2009) to more expensive items such as cars and private planes (Coward, 2015),
realistically unobtainable to the majority, at least by conventional means. As the industry grew, the
possessions flaunted by the artists became increasingly extravagant objects of desire. In essence the
street culture of hip hop had grown from and subsequently went through a hyperbolic transformation
which was increasingly out of touch with the audience that consumed it (Ferrell et al., 2015). It is
important to note this transitionary period occurred coinciding with the onset and legacy of Reagan’s
neo-liberal politics. Such transitions effectively denigrated the distinctive counterculture of modernity
that Gilroy (1987) had observed within the culture.
Tupac Shakur & Biggie Smalls- Profitable Street Capital
Tupac Shakur (16/06/1971 - 13/09/1996) was an American rapper and actor who came to embody the
1990s gangsta-rap aesthetic (Westhoff, 2016). Tupac’s early career established him as a hard-edged
social commentator with songs such as "Brenda's Got a Baby" documenting an underage mother's fall
into destitution, and "Soulja's Story" causing media and political controversy as it told of "blasting" a
police officer and "droppin' the cop". It was subsequently heavily criticised by the then U.S. Vice
President Dan Quayle, who stated that "there is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be
published…it has no place in our society” ( cited in Drummond, 1992). His third album was written
while in prison on sexual abuse charges .Disparately on the gold-certified single “Keep Ya Head Up,"
he empathised with "my sisters on the welfare," encouraging them to "please don't cry, dry your eyes,
never let up." Tupac's fourth album was his debut at Death Row records. It was an unrepentant
celebration of the thug lifestyle and often characterised as ‘gangsta-funk hedonism’ (Marriott, 2018).
Within this we can garner the perspective of Ilan (2020) who draws attention to the lyrics in drill often
not being as literal as one my first suspect, but a complex and multifaceted reflection of street culture.
The album eventually became diamond certified. On September 7 1996, whilst in Las Vegas with Suge
Knight, a fight broke out between a Crip gang and Tupac after they had watched a Mike Tyson bout at
the MGM Grand hotel. Knight and members of his entourage, who were affiliated with the rival Bloods
became involved. Later, as a car that Tupac was sharing with Knight stopped at a red light, the rapper
was shot. Tupac later died in hospital from his injuries.
Biggie Smalls (21/05/1972 09/03/1997) was a hip-hop artist said to have single-handedly reinvented
East Coast hip hop (Brown, 2004). He began selling drugs at age 12 in Brooklyn. Biggie received a
five-year probationary sentence in 1989 after being arrested on weapons-possession charges (Scott,
2001). Two years later he was charged with dealing cocaine in North Carolina and spent nine months
in jail (Scott, 2001). Upon his release from prison he made a demo tape under the pseudonym Biggie
Smalls. His debut album, Ready to Die, was released on Bad Boy Records in September 1994. On the
album’s less mainstream singles, Biggie did not attempt to hide his street capital credentials, utilising it
to enhance his consumer capital. This is most prominently displayed within the song “Gimme the Loot”
in which Biggie and his younger self discuss the ways in which they plan to rob members of the public
and others involved in organised crime (Hatchman, 2015). Whilst working on music for his debut
album, Biggie Smalls met Tupac Shakur. Their encounter took place at a party held by an L.A. drug
dealer (Westhoff, 2016). After this meeting Tupac mentored Biggie, with Biggie even asking at one
point if Tupac would become his manager.
Coast to Coast Profit
This relationship changed on November 29, 1994 when Tupac was shot five times during a robbery in
a recording-studio lobby in New York (Ladd and Brennan, 2017). Shakur believed Biggie and his label
boss had orchestrated the attack (Ladd and Brennan, 2017). This was reinforced when two months later,
Biggie's single "Big Poppa," was released which included the song "Who Shot Ya? .Tupac interpreted
this as Biggie provoking him (Ladd and Brennan, 2017), and released a response in the form of "Hit
'Em Up," the following year, on which he gloated to having slept with Biggie's wife. In August 1995,
upon the release of Tupac from prison, Knight attended an annual awards show at Madison Square
Garden's Paramount Theatre. Death Row spent $100,000 on its opening-act stage show, which included
life-size jail cell replicas- again using street capital as a marketing tool. Suge took to the stage to accept
his label's award for best soundtrack and pointed to Sean "Puffy" Combs, the head of Bad Boy, Biggie
Smalls' label. Alluding to Puffy's tendency to insert himself in his performers' works, Suge said:
"Any artist out there wanna be an artist, and wanna stay a star, and don't have to worry about
the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancingcome to Death
Row” (Kantrowitz, 2016).
The ongoing rivalry was thus thrust into the media spotlight (which the media labelled the ‘East coast/
West coast beef’) and led many to believe that Biggie was behind Tupac's death shortly after. Reflecting
on Tupac’s death, Biggie acknowledged the transformative power the fall out caused with entire ‘coasts’
picking a side in the context of the violent rhetoric. Specifically, he noted his regret in the two failing
to reconcile and set an example to the fans and entourages who became embroiled and who were heavily
influenced by the record companies.
Biggie was murdered in the early hours of March 9, 1997 after leaving a party in Los Angeles. Whilst
waiting at a red light in his SUV, a vehicle pulled alongside and a gunman opened fire (Kading, 2011).
On the 25th of March, 1997, Biggie’s second album Life after Death was released posthumously, going
on to sell over five million copies (Caulfield, 2018). The early demise of the artists emphasised the
notion that violence can be extremely lucrative to the record industry. The legacy of the artists, both in
terms of record sales, literary publications, films and television shows charting their careers and the
coastal feud they were embroiled in reinforced this commercial potential.
Violent Lyrical Blueprints for Capital
Following the deaths of Tupac and Biggie the hip hop genre went through a somewhat transitory period.
Whilst songs directly insulting other artists still proliferated and garnered much attention within popular
media (for example, Nas and Jay-Z), the violent rhetoric decreased, with artists mindful of the
devastating effects of violent street culture encroaching upon mainstream music culture could bring.
Although the popularity of the genre was increasing, the socio-political context that had been prevalent
since the early origins of the hip hop genre (Kitwana, 2005) were relegated from mainstream release
and coverage, subjugating such artists to ‘underground’ popularity as the lyrical focus of mainstream
artists became increasingly sexualised and materialistic.
By the turn of the millennium the genre had, at least in main stream culture (Ilan, 2012), become a
commodity of commercialised consumer culture with sexualised overtones with plentiful tales of drug
lords and ‘ghetto folk-lore’. However, around the same time, artist 50 Cent’s debut single How to Rob,
opening with a tribute to Tupac and Biggie, followed the blueprint of the ‘Roxanne’ tapes, with a four
minute graphic account of how he intended to rob significant artists throughout the music industry. The
resurgence of hip hop’s violent subject matter had begun. The progress made since the deaths of Tupac
and Biggie began to flounder. 50 Cent subsequently accelerated to superstar status whilst the subject of
many controversial episodes, having been shot multiple times and stabbed (50 Cent, 2007). With many
explicit references to his supposed gangster persona and successful consumer life style, his first major
album, Get Rich or Die Trying in 2003 was released whilst engaging in ‘beef’ with artists on the Murder
Inc. record label. The music industry was once again central to violent street conflicts with the album
signifying a return to the era prior to the passing of the aforementioned artists. The album contained a
slew of monologues re-enacting fictional drive-by shootings against his perceived opponents which
eventually led to various violent altercations between the opposing factions. Unlike the preceding case
study though, both artists survived this particular ‘beef’.
Understanding the evolution of hip hop culture is critical to our understanding of the subgenre of drill
and its violent lyrics. Many of the artists within this emerging scene did not live through the
development of the wider genre. Their experience of the culture is signposted by fruitful careers being
built on the foundation of lyrical expression of violence directly targeting other artists, especially when
we consider the history of the garage and grime sub-genres in the United Kingdom (Ilan, 2012). That
the younger generation are structurally blocked en-masse from attaining the consumer success of
established artists by legitimate means, does not negate the desire to attain such goals. The rise of social
media has enabled young aspiring artists to reach wider audiences without the need to engage with the
‘gatekeepers’ of previous generations such as record labels and radio stations. In the most basic sense,
the rap ‘beefs’ abjectly synonymous with gang culture in the hip hop sphere have become the blueprint
to successful music careers for drill artists.
A Periscope into Consumer Capitalism and Inter-Personal Violence
It is clear that the catalytic relationship between drill and rising violent crime is fraught with doubtful
viability (Ilan, 2020). As Kubrin (2005) states violence is far more complex that the discursive language
as a form of expression utilised in the genre. By examining drill and the case studies presented we aim
to establish and enable criminological investigation to specifically develop knowledge of gang life in
the United Kingdom which as Harding (2014) asserts, has until now overwhelmingly ignored socio-
economic factors. Harding (2014) highlights that Wacquant (2008) proposes that social and economic
marginality leads to ‘hyper-ghettoisation’. From this standpoint we propose drill is acting as a periscope
into the chaotic gang orientated habitus (Bourdieu 2002) of some artists. The entrepreneurial culture
often seen within the lower socio-economic echelons of society (Winlow, 2001), aided by the rise of
social media use (Irwin-Rogers and Pinkney, 2017) and the scripts (Hayward and Young, 2004) set by
American hip hop artists has provided a platform for drill artists to bring to the fore caricatures of the
lived realities of economically marginalised youths in austerity Britain (Ellis, 2019) subjected to a
justice system rife with racial inequality (Hall et al., 1978 and Fatsis, 2018) .
Ultra-realism is built upon an original account of the subject as it interacts with the socio-economic
milieu (Hall and Winlow, 2015). Ultra-realists have attempted to push beyond mere proximal causes to
identify the fundamental causes of negativistic phenomena that exist at the core of our social and
economic system. Ultra-realists have curtly dismissed the social, cultural and criminological literature
associated with the cultural turn and encouraged criminologists to accept that our arrival in a hyper-
consumerised Anthropocene era necessitates new ideas and deep thinking about the foundations of our
present way of life. Ellis et al., (2017) claim that violence is ‘often connected to a sense of loss and
humiliation that is gendered and culturally affirmed in a way that reproduces a physically aggressive
form of competitive individualism in which others are seen as substitutes for the original assailant’. In
their detailed study of violent men, Ellis et al., (2017) have this to say of their respondents:
‘Where other men bow their heads and walk away, our respondents see
themselves stepping forward to meet challenges head-on. Where other men
dream of responding violently to threats and insults, our respondents actually
live the dream and impose their will upon all who question their supremacy.
Where other men live lives of quiet despondency, trapped in dysfunctional
relationships and in jobs they hate, our respondents imagine themselves as
titans of a free market in which any determined individual willing to do what
is necessary can be a winner’ (Ellis et al., 2017).
Hall (2012) and Hall and Winlow (2015), perhaps the most influential ultra-realists working today, have
constructed a number of concepts that can assist us untangling the relationship between violence and
drill. Hall’s (2012) theory of the pseudo-pacification process is immensely detailed, but his basic claim
is that the significant reduction in physical violence associated with the historical shift from the middle
ages to the modern age should not be read as the triumph of civilisation over barbarism. Rather, this fall
in physical violence involved a concomitant rise in symbolic violence. Actual physical violence needed
to be curtailed in order that the early capitalist economy could grow. Trust in the rule of law needed to
me fomented. People needed to believe that business deals would be upheld and that they would not be
robbed as they transported their goods to market. However, violence did not disappear. Rather it was
forced into the symbolic dimension, where its energy could be harnessed and used to drive forward the
economy. The law restricted physical violence, but in the symbolic dimension we were encouraged to
be aggressively self-interested in the battle for our material wellbeing and social significance. This was
not a civilising process, as Elias (1994) had claimed, but a pseudo-pacification process. The
contemporary consumer economy is, as many theorists have noted, animated by envy and social
competition (see Hall et al., 2008). We may believe that we have overcome violence, but symbolic
violence lies at the very core of contemporary culture. The great oligarchs of the contemporary period
do not need to hire private armies or strike breakers to solidify their control. They can cause irreparable
harm to entire communities by signing a contract or pressing a button on a keyboard.
Hall (2011) does acknowledge that falling murder and interpersonal violence rates in the classical
industrial capitalist period did indicate ‘limited success’. However, due to a series of economic crises
and a push for more neo-liberal agendas this pacification process would witness a breakdown.
Combined with a push for a de-regulated economy alongside ‘consumerism’s encouragement of the
return of competitive individualism’ (ibid), and the deterioration of the ‘economic and social
interdependencies that had built up during the classical capitalist era’ (ibid), Hall asserts that
increasingly antagonistic foreign policies and violent state action in ‘strike-breaking and maintaining
public order in the USA further justified violence as an instrument in satisfying desires’ (pg. 83).
Tough masculine cultures that were cultivated for industrial, social control and military
functions in the classical capitalist era did not need much convincing or permission, and rates
of murder, violent crime and petty interpersonal violence spiked up alarmingly in the mid-1980s
in the USA and Britain in the chaotic, impoverished spaces thrown up by the shift from
productivism to consumerism (Hall, 2007: 83).
This breakdown in the pacification process was subsequently tied to the decline in community values,
and the ‘most selfish, predatory, reactionary and short-termist elements ascended to the top and glorified
by the media, beg[inning] to influence the general cultures in the USA and Britain’ (pg. 83). Through
this personal ‘emancipation’ to strive towards individual success and increased encouragement of
consumption, the civilising process was, Hall argues, no longer necessary in an age of ‘globalised
flexible accumulation and competition between permanently uprooted individuals’ (pg. 76). As a result
of this change in the political economy one of the more contemporary and critical criminological
questions ‘concerns the possible return of interpersonal violence as a routine aspect of everyday life’
(pg. 77). Specifically, despite the often referred to ‘dark figure’ of unrecorded violence ‘renders
statistical pictures of non-lethal violence problematic and unreliable’ (pg. 77), there is an agreement
amongst many criminologists that there has been an increase in the rates of inter-personal violence in
both the UK and USA (ibid).
In attempting to explain this rise in inter-personal violence, it is important to consider the significance
of special liberty a consequence of capitalism that has, according to Hall and Wilson (2014), stripped
away many of the pre-capitalist, collectivist ideals and in its stead created an environment in which the
right to freely express one’s motivations and yearnings is continually exerted. This breakdown in the
pacification process has created the 'dark side’ of liberal individualism, a sociopathic ‘anti-ethos that
consists of a sense of entitlement felt by an individual who will risk harm to others to further his own
instrumental or expressive interests’ (Hall & Winlow, 2015; see also Hall, 2012). Writing in this
tradition, Winlow has also suggested that:
The individual is therefore as free as the external control system allows him to be to act with
impunity, free to rob, plunder and destroy without ever acknowledging the harms their activities
visit upon others (Winlow, 2014: 175).
This form of special liberty is not limited to the structural elite class, and this breakdown in the pseudo
pacification process and the rise of the neo-liberal political economy has resulted in this form of liberty
existing within the 'general cultural current' (Hall, 2015, pg. 129). Individuals from all echelons of
society have the permission and the inclination to inflict harm on others - 'to simply get things done in
order that the competitive logic of business can be served’ (ibid). This mind-set - shaped and encouraged
by the contemporary political economy reverberates throughout the entire social structure, from
corporate boardrooms to ghettoes. Hall states that:
To the subject of special liberty, who regards himself as a miniaturised sovereign state, the
everyday 'other' individual is a sublimated variant of homo sacer, a worthless unit not
necessarily to be killed - although in extreme cases this does happen - but to be exploited with
impunity in order to serve the logic of the market and the enrichment of the master (Hall, 2015:
129).
The machismo that has been intrinsic to hip hop culture from its early conception has amplified to its
current form. Overwhelmingly driven by the introduction of the genre as a cultural commodity
(Hayward, 2004), this was magnified by the media and record labels in a bid to garner higher profit.
Whilst the skilful lyrical braggadocio began as a harmless game of lyrical chess, such events began to
reference violence against ‘opponents’ parallel to the rise of neo-liberalism,. We propose this is an
example of the degradation of pseudo-pacification which has been clearer in elements of road life
(Bakkali, 2019) and thus drill.
Often coming from the most marginalised facets of society, hip-hop artists increasingly focussed upon
the pursuit of success within consumer culture. The competitive individualism discussed by Ellis et al.,
(2017) is displayed vividly, with rappers increasingly utilising aggressive lyrical content (and on
occasion aggressive physical manifestations of such content) to instrumentally ensure they can become
the titans of a free market and ‘win’.
This paper proposes that the beefs of Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and 50 Cent epitomise special liberty.
Therefore, special liberty is the crux of the relationship between hip hop and gang activity. As hip hop
became mainstream and consequentially more profitable, rappers invariably exercised special liberty.
Not only did the aim of diss tracks cease to be playful exercises, the artists, emboldened by the record
executives and media, specifically aimed to end careers and ultimately lives, with such actions resulting
in the deaths of prominent artists as discussed earlier in this piece. By record companies letting artists
release songs referencing not only violent threats, but in the case of Tupacs song Hit Em Up, explicit
references to sleeping with his opponent’s partner, both the industry and the artist displayed their
perceived special liberty. A catalogue of examples are seen within the career of 50 Cent whom went as
far as finding a rivals (secret) child and his mother, taking them out for dinner, and then posting the
images on social media furthering this proposition. Examples of special liberty within drill culture are
plentiful. As Ilan (2020) notes, examples of drill artists openly goading whilst stood in their rivals
postcode are abundant. During research for this paper videos were found showing a drill artist being
forced to eat a house brick as retaliation for disrespectful lyrics he had uploaded to YouTube previously.
The drill artists the media have focussed upon are of a time and culture that is disproportionately
affected by knife crime and such acts are perceived as routine and normalised. Simultaneously, this
generation are living through a time where politics have transformed into a form of commodification,
where witty quips, referred to as memes, are spread across the same social media and offer the same
perceived opportunity to claw back meaning in their lives as a successful drill song. We argue this
absence of real politics and debate - in turn disavowing the political systems that create their trauma -
can help provide a better understanding of the physical traumas perpetrated in their own areas.
Essentially, rather than making the rise in knife crime attributable to drill music, it would be better
suited to begin by viewing drill music as intertwined as a signifier of deep structural issues within the
lives of disenfranchised youths (Galtung,1969) who are relentlessly subjected to the inherent violence
of the neo-liberal epoch (Zizek,2008). To perceive otherwise, as the Metropolitan Police evidently have,
would be as Ilan (2020) describes- street illiterate. Further evidence of this turn to commodification
ramped up by competitive individualism at the hands of neo-liberalism can be found during a historical
glance over the music of Tupac. His status initially materialised from his political messages and focus
on empowerment and revolutionary lyrical content. However, within the time he joined death row
records, a change in direction is evident. What was previously described as lyrics of empowerment for
BAME communities and women shifted into contradictory content fuelled by importance of
commodities and symbolisation - especially in relation to women. Importantly, this was also the period
in which the ‘East Coast vs West Coast beef’ gained traction, displaying again the rising influence of
the neo-liberal epoch in the context of special liberty and eventually providing a blue print for the
attainment of success, which acted as a script for future generations of marginalised youths (Surette,
2015).
Conclusion
With reference to the work of Surette (2015), and acknowledging that hip hop is from the beginning a
product of street culture and has long had intricate ties with both socioeconomic deprivation and gang
lifestyles, it is viable to perceive hip hop as a looking glass into road life (Bakkali, 2019; Ilan, 2012).
Whilst we emphasise that the lives and careers of hip hop artists are not to blame for a rise in violence,
they are proposed as a fascinating demonstration of the detrimental effects of consumer culture and neo-
liberal progression. The lyrical content, blue print’ and stark demonstrations of special liberty within
popular culture has in essence scripted (Surette, 2015) the habitus (Bourdieu, 2002) of young gang
members in the United Kingdom, just as the gang culture has scripted the lyrical content of drill artists.
The lyrical content of some artists, including references to unsolved murders and other acts of extreme
gang related violence serve as exemplifiers of special liberty being actioned (Tudor, 2018; Winlow,
2014) in conjunction with consumer culture.
Further afield, in the Chicago drill scene this is also evident, with artists emboldened via the sense of
special liberty to the point of live streaming drive-by shootings (Pinkney and Robinson-Edwards 2018).
The expressive forms of inter-personal violence within marginalised communities are being wrongly
articulated by the media and police service alike (Ilan, 2020). Such instances are reflective of symbolic
violence brought to the fore with the structural violence (Galtung, 1969) exacerbated, yet hidden, within
a capitalist consumer culture (Hall et al., 2008). Drill artists from marginalised communities are on
occasion involved in such violence engrained within road culture (Bakkali, 2019). However, to utilise
the ghetto cultural expression (Ilan, 2012) to further the criminalisation of such notions is myopic and
seeks to further perpetuate the marginalisation of such groups, thus furthering the disavowal of the
objective violence Žižek argues (2008). Ilan (2012) details the dilution of street cultural tropes by the
mainstream music industry. Though, in the discussion of drill and the blueprint put forth by Tupac and
Biggie, drill has resisted such dilution- thus allowing the media and government to further the disavow
of harms the neo-liberal epoch has brought upon the youths lived reality. When Tupac Shakur inscribed
the acronym ‘THUG LIFE’ across his abdomen, the phrase it professed The Hate You Give Little
Infants Fucks Everybody’ was perhaps before it’s time. The internal debate Shakur had around the true
nature of violence transcended those posed within his lyrics. It is within this context we can begin to
unravel the complexities of street culture, drill music and its relationship with violence.
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... Drill music has proliferated since 2010, particularly in London, and it is primarily associated with young black men in deprived localities where knife crime is prominent (Ilan, 2020;Kelly, et al 2020). However, it should not be viewed as directly attributable to rising knife crime. ...
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As debates on the rise of violent crime in London unfold, UK drill music is routinely accused of encouraging criminal behaviour among young Black Britons from deprived areas of the capital. Following a series of bans against drill music videos and the imposition of Criminal Behaviour Orders and gang injunctions against drill artists, discussions on the defensibility of such measures call for urgent, yet hitherto absent, sociological reflections on a topical issue. This article attempts to fill this gap, by demonstrating how UK drill and earlier Black music genres, like grime, have been criminalised and policed in ways that question the legitimacy of and reveal the discriminatory nature of policing young Black people by the London Metropolitan Police as the coercive arm of the British state. Drawing on the concept of racial neoliberalism, the policing of drill will be approached theoretically as an expression of the discriminatory politics that neoliberal economics facilitates in order to exclude those who the state deems undesirable or undeserving of its protection.
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This article engages with accounts of the everyday experiences of young adults living in London who have been involved with road life (street culture) and how their narratives might help us to better understand issues of youth violence in the UK. Through an exploration of their experiences, this article argues that deeply embedded structural contradictions are leaving a generation of marginalised young people dying to live as they become locked in an existential struggle against a sense of malaise permeating many of their everyday experiences. These experiences of social suffering are conceptualised through ‘the munpain’. The munpain is a psychosocial concept which articulates the impact of structurally routed violence, inherent in late-modern neoliberal states, within the everyday lives of marginalised young adults living in a contemporary urban context. This article draws on interview data from two young men, Stephen and T, who have both been victims of knife crime and have spent much of their lives involved with youth groups self-identifying as gangs. In this article, I demonstrate some of the often unspoken struggles that saturate their lives. These experiences induce agentic responses as people seek to alleviate their suffering, at times affecting them in ways that lead to acts of violence. Moreover, I also elaborate on the inductive methodological approach employed to denote how ‘the munpain’ was developed while working alongside marginalised young adults.
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Due to enhanced audience participation and involvement in content creation and distribution, crime and justice has changed. This change came about with the emergence of new digital social media and is reflected in the growth of crime and justice performances. Performances today are ephemeral renditions created and distributed in millions of social media interactions. The irony is that performances previously were created for wide heterogeneous audiences, but access was limited by time, place and medium. In contrast, new media performances are usually directed at smaller homogeneous audiences, but access is potentially unlimited due to their digital nature. In this new social media reality, the altered nature of a performance has important implications for crime and justice. Whereas crime traditionally was comprised of low visibility events in which the actors strove to hide their identities, in the new media world surreptitious crime competes with a growing number of high-visibility crimes. This article explores how the associated evolution of performance has affected crime, law enforcement and the judicial system. The impact of performance crime and justice will continue to stress criminal justice systems and change the way crime and justice is experienced in the 21st century.
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This article sets out to (re-)introduce Black urban musical subcultures as valuable forms of creativity and public expression in an attempt to resist, criticize and expose their criminalization by the London Metropolitan Police. Focusing primarily on grime, a host of unfair and illegitimate practices adopted by the London Metropolitan Police will be discussed. This will demonstrate how the routine monitoring, surveillance and curtailment of Black people’s public identity (re)produces stereotypical associations of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups with violent, criminal and problematic behaviour. In order to challenge openly discriminatory attitudes towards Black urban cultural forms by the police, a counterargument which calls for their understanding as viable sources of positive and constructive public engagement will be offered.
Book
Using the findings from an extensive ethnogrpahic study of local residents, professionals and gang members in south London, and drawing on his vast experience and knowledge of the field, this bok proposed a unique theoretical perspective on survival in violent street gangs. I apply Bourdieu's principles of social field anlaysis and habitas to gangs. I establish them as an arena of social competition where actors struggle for distinction and survival, strviing to become 'players in the game', in the 'casino of life.' for these gang involved young people, success is determined by accuring and retaining playing chips - street capital.