Words: Richard Hudson-Miles Images: Sam Thacker
In 1972, the sociologist Stanley Cohen wrote an influential book called Folk Devils and Moral Panics. It focused on the mass media demonisation of the Mods and Rockers during the 1960s, particularly following their violent, organised confrontations on the Brighton seafront. Fifty years later, this book still has much to teach us about the media stereotyping which youth subcultures face, especially rappers. As the up-and-coming Leicester rapper StudioWyzz could tell you, no recent musical subculture has been demonised as much as UK Drill music.
Still only eighteen years old, Wyzz released his fifth single, ‘Swerving’ on 27th January. This follows his last single, ‘No Drop’ recently topping over 2 million downloads. This was achieved with zero marketing, zero press, minimal budget, and just the support of Leicester independent label HQ Recordings. ‘No Drop’ features an distinctive old piano sample called Ylang-Ylang, revived by French producer FKJ, which Tik-Tok users have popularised as the background to many user videos. Throughout his previous singles, Wyzz has used unusual samples like this to develop a more conscious, at times Jazzy, form of rap music which he calls ‘Chill Drill’ As the name implies, this is a deliberate departure from the aggressive lyrics, hard beats, and violent machismo which characterises much Drill music. The term Drill itself is street slang for a gang shooting. Though his music is inspired by Drill, the baggage associated with this scene is so heavy that Wyzz distances himself from it. He admits, “My flow is inspired by Drill”, but “I am not a Drill rapper; I am just an artist”. In particular, Wyzz is critical of how formulaic Drill music has recently become: “When Drill blew up in the UK, it REALLY blew up”. But “that same sound was re-used so much. When you listen to the same songs over and over again, it gets to a point where you can’t stand those songs anymore. I feel like I got to that point with Drill”.
Instead, Wyzz and his producer Maniscooler developed a more transatlantic sound, which fused the best of classic American hip-hop with the energy of the contemporary UK rap scene. Maniscooler: “A traditional Drill song has really heavy 808s”. Instead of repeating this formula, Wyzz’s sound uses the “classic bass that you hear in American hip-hop. You can hear that in No Drop, you can hear it in Sip…”. Listening to these tracks, you can definitely identify distant echoes of artists like The Pharcyde, or Tribe Called Quest, even though these artists were recording before Wyzz was even born. Maniscooler also has tried to infuse the production with “soulful, lo-fi, RnB melodies”. Also, “Motown; the kind of stuff that Kanye would have been choppin’ up in 2003”. The background to the single ‘No Drop’ is unusual. It originally was a freestyle which Wyzz recorded directly onto Tik-Tok, over the generic stock beats built into that app. Half-way through the video, Wyzz turns that camera round, donning the black Wayfarer shades which have become his trademark, with a signature “Aaaaaiiiiiight; fuck it!”, before blasting off another verse. This video quickly turned viral, gathering so many likes in America and the UK that HQ Recordings felt they had to release it as a single. The video references this social media hype, beginning with Wyzz pulling his hood over his balaclava, surrounded by SMS notifications popping, one after another, from fans encouraging him to “drop that asap it’s cold” and “post it on Spotify” and simply “DROPPPPPPP ITTTTTTTT”.
Despite the progressive character of his music, Studiowyzz’s new single is closer than any of his other tracks to the quintessential Drill sound. Though Wyzz has moved in different directions, when you watch the ‘Swerving’ video, you can see the affection he still has for the Drill subculture. It has all the classic tropes – the gangland urban outlaw protagonist, dressed all in black, dodging police cars and helicopters, in his supercool sports car. However, the video was primarily intended as an affectionate home to The Fast and the Furious, hence the prominence of the midnight blue Nissan Skyline. The title is slang, roughly referring to “using your street smarts when you get caught in the wrong situation”. ‘Swerving’ is also an attitude or way of life, typified by the hustler or roadman. But rather than celebrating criminality, Wyzz and Maniscooler insist that the song is also a cautionary tale: “We are trying to educate people, not trying to encourage people to commit crime. We are trying to spread the message to be careful. We are saying that you don’t want to end up like Wyzz in the video. He trusts the wrong people, makes the wrong choices, and ends up landing in a cell”. As suggested, Drill music is relentlessly demonised by the tabloid press. Hysterical reporters rush to connect it to any incidence of gang violence, knife crime, or young, black criminality. Some news reports claim that Drill music has directly caused copycat murders. In this face of this media hysteria, many Drill videos seem to double-down on this criminal image, presenting the rappers as indivisible members of tough street gangs, with faces concealed behind balaclavas, throwing territorial gang insignia to the camera, and conspicuously displaying their money and jewellery as if taunting the viewing public.
StudioWyzz’s work deliberately short circuits this vicious cycle of labelling and acting up. Sure, he wears a black balaclava in his publicity images, but this is almost a prerequisite of the genre. At the same time, his image also feels like a playful pastiche. In his videos, signifiers of gang culture are always juxtaposed with cultural references from outside the Drill scene. For example, in ‘Sip’ video he wears his balaclava alongside a James Bond style tuxedo, sipping Courvoisier like an elegant city gent. Wyzz insists he is not attempting to represent any gangs or territory, in Leicester or elsewhere. This is possibly the reason why he has as many fans outside of the city, even as far as Australia. Within minutes of talking to him, you can recognise an intelligent, experimental, even sensitive, artist. Consequently, all your preconceptions of Drill artists are shattered. Wyzz insists that his main inspiration is his mum, and big sister, who raised him and his siblings after emigrating to Leicester from Jamaica. He dedicates his success to these women and their struggle. He also has an incredible creative family to support him at HQ recordings, who are currently developing plans for some live shows to promote the latest single. Expect more sipping, swerving, and sophistication from Wyzz when the tour reaches a venue near you.