The rising influence of South London's underground scene

South London often feels separate from the rest of the capital. It’s not uncommon for taxi drivers to refuse fares that will take them across the River Thames after a certain time, nor does the city’s vast Underground network even make more than a few ventures to ‘South’. It’s with delicious irony, then, that the area is producing some of the best underground music in the country.

Few have made an impact this year as much as previous Clash cover star Stormzy, for instance. The Norbury, Croydon, artist shot to national attention when his televised performance of YouTube freestyle ‘Shut Up’ led to a Christmas Top Ten and later a gold plaque. Stormzy has since gone on to tour the world, hire out Thorpe Park for his birthday, and announce Manchester United’s signing of Paul Pogba. All of this before his debut album has seen the light of day.

As big a role as Stormzy, along with others such as Novelist, have played in the renewed mainstream interest in grime, South London’s greatest musical export is its rap scene. Krept & Konan have shown their peers what can be achieved, securing commercial success while retaining their credibility. Section Boyz have followed suit, bringing out the biggest rapper in the world, Drake, as a surprise guest at one of their shows this year. Even the UK rap icon Giggs, who has been victim to questionable tactics from the police throughout his career, is having the best time of his career yet, charting at number two this summer with independently released album ‘The Landlord’.

There are new stars emerging all the time too, with Nadia Rose’s bars the backdrop to a TV advertisement for Lucozade Sport, teenage wordsmith Dave making waves with beyond-his-years lyricism, and 67 becoming a phenomenon with their take on Chicago drill music. Why, then, is so much of this happening in South London?

The environment and influences that inspire the best in these genres are certainly found elsewhere, but the sheer size of South cannot be underestimated - the borough of Croydon, home to six MOBO Award-winners last year, has a bigger population than cities such as Coventry and Nottingham. Factor in the perceived isolation from the rest of London and the feeling of neglect and frustration that comes with feeling left behind, and you have the perfect melting pot for the authentic street stories that the people crave.

The Internet plays a big part too. Genres that major labels, commercial radio stations and music video channels have not wanted or understood aren’t presented with as big an obstacle to being seen and heard. Online platforms such as Link Up TV and GRM Daily are growing every day, and with their considerable audiences it is easier than ever for underground talent to be successful independently. That goes not just for South London acts but way beyond too, so there’s plenty of reasons to be excited. For now, though, it’s the time of the Beautiful South, and it won’t be long before those taxi drivers recommend you pay a visit.

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All artists wear items from the Converse Essentials Collection. Sneakers are Chuck Taylor All Star '70 and One Star.

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67



International interpretations of genres can often feel like a pale imitation of the scene they are trying to contribute to, not least in the early attempts - when it wasn't uncommon to hear British people rapping with American accents! However, five-man South London collective 67 have crafted genuine evolution of the drill sound that exploded out of Southside Chicago circa 2012 with rappers like Chief Keef, Lil Durk and King Louie.

There are some parallels between the Windy City and 67’s home of Brixton Hill, which is no stranger to gang violence, and it’s easy to see why for group member Scribz “everything was relating to it,” but what is significant to their rise is the way in which they have brought their South London style and vernacular to the sound.

“Our music’s influenced by our scenery and our lifestyle, and South London plays a big part in that,” says Scribz. “South London’s not like everywhere else. They look at it like the gutter.” Unapologetically local phrases such as ‘ten toes’ and ‘opp blocks’ are commonplace in 67’s music and have subsequently entered the vocabulary of their fans, the number of which swells with each day.

Their fanbase does not, however, include the police. “They keep on stopping shows, and postponing shows all the time,” Scribz explains, just a couple of weeks after their UK tour was cancelled. “That’s been the biggest hurdle, [but] fuck ’em and keep moving. It’s been like that from the start, before we were a proper brand.” Scribz returned to the group this summer after a two-year ASBO banned him from making music - however, his likeness to 67’s mysterious masked member LD, who Scribz claims to have ghostwritten for, has raised a few eyebrows.

What is clear is that the crew’s ascent in the last couple of years has been considerable. Debut mixtape ‘In Skengs We Trust’ spawned tracks with millions of online views, while recently released independent project ‘Let’s Lurk’, the title track of which features Giggs, broke into the national album chart. They have almost single-handedly made drill music a force in the UK rap scene. Understandably, there is now an ever-growing list of drill acts coming out of South London. “They’re following the formula,” says Scribz. “We took the wave and mastered it, and now everyone else is on it.”

It speaks to 67’s impact that they no longer feel the need to look to drill’s birthplace for inspiration. “The mad thing is, we don’t listen to Chicago artists no more,” explains Scribz. “We listen to (Atlanta rappers) Future and 21 Savage, (and Philadelphia's) Lil Uzi Vert, but apart from that it’s just the UK people around us. The younger generation around us has taken drill and remixed it with some new lingo. That’s what we love to see. We feel like we’ve helped lives, you get me?”

With that outlook on things, it’s hard to see 67 as the threat to our safety that outside observers would have us believe. Take the foot off their neck, and who knows where else they could inspire.

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RAY BLK



The environment helping rappers and MCs to flourish in South London has also had a major impact on the music of Ray BLK, a singer-songwriter in Catford, Lewisham, whose talents are blossoming from the same influences.

“In school, everyone made music, even if they were shit,” she laughs. “I grew up around a lot of boys rapping in the playground and I’d always try to get involved whenever they’d let me.” Ray was part of a crew in her school days, which also happened to include a future Grammy nominee and his brother. “It was myself, MNEK, Bartoven and two other guys that no longer make music, and we formed a rubbish version of N-Dubz. We were called NFC - we thought we were so sick!”

While NFC’s music is sadly not online to enjoy in retrospect, there are still plenty of nods to grime culture in Ray’s work today. Take the concept for ‘50/50’, her debut music video: “Growing up in South London I love grime music, and watching the videos it’s always the main person and then a bag of friends behind him. Those videos are hard, so I wanted to flip that and do one with all females to show we can do it too.” It is perhaps such tributes that led to one music magazine recently reporting on Ray as a grime artist, much to her amusement.

Pride in her hometown emanates from her music too, with Stormzy-assisted single ‘My Hood’ celebrating South London fried chicken franchise Morley’s, mopeds racing outside her house, and the life-changing view from Deptford’s Pepys Estate. Regeneration projects in Lewisham may soon put pay to that world, however, as South London becomes a prime target for gentrification. “Years to come, this place might look different and the people around here might be different,” says Ray, who is unconvinced it will all be beneficial for the area. “You can feel the poverty here and there’s crime, but there’s a real community that you can feel, and I feel like that could soon be lost, which is sad.”

Sadness and melancholy play an important part in Ray's writing. Her recently released mini-album ‘Durt’ laments the downfall of teenage peers (‘Baby Girlz’) and offers cautionary tales to open hearts (‘Hunny’), while last year’s free breakout project ‘Havisham’ was inspired by the pained Dickensian character she discovered while studying for her English Literature degree. It’s Great Expectations and the countless books taken from a local mobile library growing up that Ray feels she owes her pen game to.

“They were just so entertaining,” she says, “and the way they’re told grips you. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve taken from reading: how to entertain by telling your story.”

There is plenty of page-turning songwriting on ‘Durt’, a seven-track project that took Ray over a year to complete, as she “wanted to make sure it was perfect.” Such an absolute ideal is subjective, of course, but just as Ray’s South London is her idea of perfect, so is she of ours.

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All artists wear items from the Converse Essentials Collection. Sneakers are Chuck Taylor All Star '70 and One Star.

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Words: Joe Walker
Photography: Tom Fletcher

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