On South London, music as therapy, the power of language, Drillosophy and an eye-opening trip to Chicago.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a vocation is “a type of work that you feel suited to doing and to which you should give all your time and energy, or the feeling that a type of work suits you in this way”. Opening my laptop, mind pre-loaded with questions about lyricism and Drillosophy, it’s clear that Ciaran Thapar has not only found his, but made it a vehicle for tangible, impactful change. As he answers my video call on a Thursday night from his home in Stockwell, I’m immediately struck by his enthusiasm and his passion. “Honestly I could talk about this for hours, so I won’t get too carried away”, he’ll go onto say numerous times during our hour-long conversation, such is the depth and detail of his insight.
Ciaran, a youth worker, mentor, published writer, co-founder of music education programme, RoadWorks, and soon-to-be author, is perhaps best known for his association with Drill music — “I know everyone knows me as the drill guy but my career is about fighting against injustice” — but his story to this point began long before any interaction with music. “I started mentoring a teenager as part of a scheme five years ago while I was doing my masters in Political Philosophy at LSE”, he explains. “I’d done a year working in advertising and found the whole thing vacuous, so I applied for a masters, got on the course and then thought to myself that I could spend that year in deep study and thinking about what I wanted to do. I was lucky enough to be able to live with my parents in the suburbs, it was a privilege really, and even though I knew I wanted to do something socially impactful, it gave me the time to think. It wasn’t just the reading and writing and studying and thinking that would end up defining my life though, it was the fact that I signed up to this mentoring scheme.”
“I know everyone knows me as the drill guy but my career is about fighting against injustice”
Ciaran was first linked up with a 12 year-old boy called Jhemar Jonas, with the pair sharing a mutual love of music and lyrics. “Doing those fortnightly sessions with him was really beneficial”, he reflects. “I used to go to see him and we’d just spend a few hours talking about music lyrics. I’d print them out on sheets of paper and we’d go deep into them and dissect them, which became a pattern during the sessions. The first song we looked at was ‘If I Ruled The World’ by Nas. I really enjoyed it and used that experience with Jhemar to get into youth work full time. I ended up making mentoring teenage boys my specialism.” Six years on and Ciaran still mentors Jhemar, who is now 18 and the focal point and main character in Ciaran’s first book, which is due for release in 2021.
Alongside his mentoring work, Ciaran was also carving out a reputation as a gifted young writer during his time at LSE, traversing everything from politics — “I’d written some bits on multiculturalism and British society for The New Statesman, my fundamental interest in everything I do” — to photography and a handful of commissions on music. His biggest scoop was yet to come, however. After moving to Brixton shortly after finishing his Masters, Ciaran’s youth outreach in schools and mentoring work with boys like Jhemar gave him early, first-hand insight into a raw, lived-in and hyper-localised new sound bubbling up on the streets; UK Drill.
“I’d moved into Brixton, was working in schools full time as a youth worker, volunteering at a community centre in Loughborough Junction and also working at a school in Elephant & Castle”, recalls Thapar. “At that exact period of time, crews like 67, 150 and Drill as a whole was like the best kept secret of the exact location I was working in. I had this crazy window into it from early on and from a very social perspective. I’d be chatting to a young person and we’d get into talking and it turns out this is the music he’s listening to. It wasn’t like it was ‘ah, this song is getting me gassed’, although it did, it just made me think that this is actually really important, it was a voice. I basically took the thinking and writing I’d been doing and applied it to drill really, and that’s when the journalism element started.”
Writing on UK Drill for the last three years, Thapar has penned insightful stories on the sound and its wider cultural story for everyone from The Guardian to Noisey, FACT, Crack Magazine and The Face, interviewing some of the biggest breakout names (Fredo, M Huncho, OFB, Skengdo & AM) in UK Rap along the way. But far from chasing his own headlines, as with all his work to this point, everything feeds back into his passion for youth work and challenging existing structures; providing platforms for the platform-less. “It’s always been about leveraging and advocating for people that I work with who wouldn’t otherwise have these platforms”, he concludes. “All of my writing is bound by that … injustice, really.”
Growing up, Ciaran’s household was blessed by the warm sounds of his dad’s vinyl collection — Motown, Soul and Rock — and he saw music very much as a coping mechanism, describing it as a way of “navigating life” and everyday struggles; “it’s your comfort zone, a place you can escape to”. His own listening habits saw him gravitate towards UK Garage, Hip-Hop and RnB during his early teens, before catching the Grime bug at 15 and “that was it for about five years”, he says with a smile. “I was proper nerdy about music. I’d read about it to try and understand where it was coming from socially and what it meant. Like, why is that UK Garage sounds so happy and celebratory? Why is that a timestamp of the late 90s and what does it mean for us? And like, even me listening to it on the radio as a kid, how did I feel at that time? All of those sorts of questions are really important to me.”
And these questions would continue apace with Drill. “It was like nothing anybody had ever heard before”, he says, leaning back and scratching his head a little. “Not only does it hit you with this darkness, there’s something about the sound and the aesthetic — the slang, the body language, the simplicity of some of the lyrics, the complexity of some of the lyrics, the bleakness. Something about that was telling me everything I needed to know about doing my job properly. It was reflecting my reality in music, because I was working with that exact demographic of young people. I could obviously have a bit of distance from it, it’s not like I felt the fear that these guys feel or I was going hungry or trappin’ or whatever, but there was something about it that really resonated with me.”
“Not only does it (Drill) hit you with this darkness, there’s something about the sound and the aesthetic — the slang, the body language, the simplicity of some of the lyrics, the complexity of some of the lyrics, the bleakness. Something about that was telling me everything I needed to know about doing my job properly.”
Matched up against the formative hip-hop and grime of his teenage years, Thapar notes a key difference between drill and other breakout, localised genres. “Grime was sick, but it wasn’t my reality necessarily. I saw a truth in it and it spoke to me but it was a form of escapism to some extent, in the same way listening to Dipset and G-Unit was”, he explains. “I’d never been to New York but listening to them, I’d get gassed and feel like I’d been transported there. With Drill, I don’t feel like that was the case for young people, especially in London. The music didn’t play that same role, it spoke to them in a similar way but it was literally reflecting a reality that only they felt they were living. It was very much ‘no adult can chat to me’, no adult knows what its like to be so socially anxious, so ostracised and beat down by modern society. You can’t speak to me, but this music can.”
On a purely musical level, drill’s sonics are well documented to have been influenced by Chicago Drill — a sound pioneered by rappers like Chief Keef and others — but already the UK strain has already started to flourish way beyond the streets. The beats — typically thick-edged, sludgy and dark — are matched by lyrics that range in their complexity but are always defined by their delivery; slow, syrupy and structured almost off-beat, the UK drill flow has become a phenomenon. “Drill guys don’t have to put their thousand hours in to get views on YouTube or to be seen or recognised”, Ciaran notes. “Those original names like LD and Harlem Spartans were skilful MCs, but it’s never been a prerequisite.”
An eye-opening trip to Chicago in 2019 would compound Thapar’s thinking, as he got to grips with the sound and the culture that inadvertently birthed the Drill explosion in the UK. “I basically went down a Drill rabbit hole for about 10 days, it was nuts”, he says with a chuckle. “Like even the word itself, Drill, people write about it as if it only translates to shooting someone and there is an element of that, but it’s not the whole story. The slang that originated in this specific pocket of the south side in Chicago, like, if you were ‘doing a drill’, you were just going out to do something. Obviously it’s attached to violence as well, but the slang coalesced around the idea that you’d just done something and now you needed to come back and rap about it, there was an immediacy there. You’re not Kano, spending hours writing, listening to and studying your craft, going on pirate radio and fucking up your bars, going back to practise and correct things. You are a gangster on the streets, so you’d go out, do a drive-by, come back and get straight in the booth. The flow is therefore going to reflect that lack of preparation.”
While Thapar now acknowledges that UK Drill rappers now subscribe to a certain sound aesthetic — one that rappers like Headie One have taken pushed into new spaces (see his recent mixtape, ‘GANG’, with super-producer Fred Again) — a conversation with Chicago-based journalist David Drake, the first writer to interview Chief Keef while on house arrest and an influential voice in the city, offered even more insight into why the Drill flow is so distinct. “He said to me that the reason Chief Keef sounded slurry in his bars and didn’t really rap tight over his instrumentals was because he didn’t want it to sound too polished”, he recalls. “Like his thinking was, if I sound too polished, I’ve not been out on the streets. In order to sound like a real authentic killer, my music needs to reflect the fact I’ve been out there doing it. David Drake actually said to me that he thought Chief Keef was playing around with it deliberately back then, so when people would call him out and say he couldn’t spit, he didn’t care. He didn’t give a shit because he wasn’t following any blueprint before him.”
Within the wider rap scene in the US at the time, the ramifications of Keef’s popularity were huge, particularly on the music industry and the long-standing, traditional roadmap for success. “Where as Hip-Hop was all about practising your bars and refining them for performance and to entertain people with, the Drill sound totally rejected that”, Thapar explains. “That same nonchalance and neglect of that aspect of performance was applied to the music industry then, too. Suddenly you had Chief Keef who could get a million views on YouTube, get signed for however many millions of dollars and have the whole world singing his tracks, and all he needed was a video camera and a home studio. He didn’t need industry studios or gatekeepers, the bloggers of the 2000s. It represented a complete power dynamic shift and it still represents that now, even in the UK. Suddenly what’s popping wasn’t what XXL were putting on their covers, it was what rappers were uploading to YouTube from home.” Thapar goes onto mention Professor Forrest Stuart, his host in Chicago and local expert on the city’s Drill scene and the intertwining sociology of social media. “He taught me most of what I know about the scene in Chicago”, he enthuses, “and his new book (‘Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music and the Power of Online Infamy’) is ridiculously good, way ahead of its time.”
Taking this knowledge back to the UK and still bound by his passion for youth work, Ciaran co-founded RoadWorks in 2019 — a musical education programme aimed at young people and inspired by his own experiences over the last five years. Launched as a pilot last summer with close friend Reveal, a fellow youth worker, MC, founding member of UK Hip-Hop group Poisonous Poets and bastion of musical knowledge — “I don’t know anyone that knows more about Hip-Hop than him” — RoadWorks uses Rap and Drill music as a medium to help young people engage with topics like critical thinking. “Obviously we’re not prioritising engaging an Eton boy with classical music”, Thapar notes, “we’re prioritising the young people that tick all the boxes of disadvantage or disenfranchisement that mean that they don’t get a fair shot at education. Fundamentally, it’s about making education inclusive using music.”
The first RoadWorks venture proper? Drillosophy. “So I woke up maybe five, six weeks ago during the beginning of lockdown after spending the first week racing through my book, which was awesome”, Ciaran explains. “But in terms of being an effective youth worker and someone who was active in my community, I didn’t really feel that for about two weeks. I felt more peaceful and rested but I was ethically lacking in my daily routine. So, the plan for Roadworks was initially to go slow and then smash it when my book was done, so I could give it my full attention. Through the work we’ve done in schools over the last year or so though, we do have an amazing pool of resources that uses music, sociology, philosophy, trauma-informed youth work … basically cutting-edge youth work that absolutely works. It just so happened that I’d just spoken to Kwabz who runs Mixtape Madness in an interview for my book and he was saying on the phone that they were looking to support people financially with any ideas or content that could work for them. I said that me and Reveal were talking about how we’d love to film some videos from home and Mixtape Madness got behind it straight away and bought us cameras to film with. From there, I started neglecting my book and we reached unhealthy levels of productivity, but Drillosophy was formed.”
Condensed into six filmed video pieces (episodes one and two are online now, with a further four to follow), series one is a direct response to inequality and solving problems in society, only accelerated to reflect the moment we find ourselves in. “I think we were always planning on putting out a video series, but it might have taken two years without coronavirus”, explains Thapar, “but these videos aren’t just done over night. They’re the result of hundreds of hours of conversations and not just across music culture either. Me and Revs read everything there is to read about the sociology behind things and the newest research coming out about how certain technologies are influencing education, so we really know our stuff. What we’re doing now is a culmination of all those things in one place and it’s really exciting.”
The first episode, ‘Skengdo’s Cave’, is a play on Plato’s Cave — a classic allegory of Ancient Greek philosophy that explores perception — and a workshop (featuring Skengdo & AM bars) that Thapar has delivered for over 30 hours in the last few years, while episode two (‘Therapy In The Trap’) looks at Aristotle and catharsis via the story-telling in the lyrics of rappers like Ambush and Krept & Konan. Each episode also comes complete with editable educational resources which can be downloaded for free via the Roadworks website, making the Drillosophy programme adaptable for the classroom too. “You’re basically building your own curriculum I guess?”, I ask inquisitively. “Yep, that’s exactly it, that’s what we want to do”, responds Ciaran emphatically.
With Drillosophy taking off almost instantaneously, Thapar’s book debut — to be published by Viking UK (Penguin) — had to take a momentary backseat. Inspired by his youth work, ‘Cut Short’ details youth violence in London from 2015 to the present day and begins by zeroing in on the summer of 2018. “The book starts at the end of July 2018 with a big burst of chaotic violence that’s happening in Brixton”, Ciaran explains. “I spent about six months researching a three day period in particular. I wanted to talk to people in the community and focus on how local people were affected by it. Their stories weren’t in the headlines or reported on in the media and they weren’t told in music either, because a lot of it back then was all about bravado.”
The story then reverts back to Thapar’s first meeting with Jhemar — the first boy he ever mentored — back in January 2015 to ask the question, how did we get here? Although a narrative non-fiction book, it unpicks the underlying social issues of youth violence via telling the stories of three main characters, including Jhemar. “The main characters are three young men that I’ve mentored and they go from being aged 12, 13 and 14 to being 18, 19 and 20 over the course of the book and they overcome various different things”, he explains, “and each of the chapters is a bit like The Wire. I’ve chosen a different lens to tell each different part of the story from.”
With the final deadline looming, Thapar will pen the epilogue over the next few weeks — it is the realisation of his life’s work so far and a testament to the spirit and the passion that he pours into every thing he does.
“I am trying to make a dent in our society with the book, for sure, and with Drillosophy too”, he concludes as we start to wrap up our conversation for the evening. “I want to raise awareness and make people feel the inequality that exists in our society. It’s easy to know about it, but to feel it and to care about it is a different thing entirely.”
Read more about Roadworks, Drillosophy and Ciaran’s work here: