Drill rappers have no reason to trust journalists: Google any member of the drill scene and you’ll usually see at least one tabloid story painting them as a criminal. Interviewing a drill rapper can be nerve-racking. Aside from the obvious menace upon which the genre thrives, your first challenge is that most are cagey facing up to questions. Then there’s the issue of opps. Most drill rappers have fierce rivals; mention them and you’re in dangerous waters, open to accusations of trivialising life-and-death conflict as though discussing a soap opera. Any question deemed too prying can end a conversation.
Yet as I dial the number I’ve been given for the prison phone of the most influential drill artist in the UK, I’m relaxed. Such is the reputation of LD: according to anyone who’s met him, the de facto figurehead of pioneering drill group 67 is a man of warmth and openness. He may have opps – 67’s rivalry with fellow Brixton group 150 was one of drill’s foundational beefs – but he says gang conflict is behind him, and I sense a level of respect from all corners for an artist who’s done so much for the scene. Is this true? Or romantic naivety?
“It god-damn better be true!” LD laughs. “I don’t have no problem with no one in the scene, so… there’s no reason why someone wants to say something bad about me.” I’m reassured within seconds. LD is impossibly laid-back for a man serving his sixth stint in prison at 28. He speaks candidly and wisely, with opinions on everything from violence in art to the prime minister (“he probably means well” but is “a madman that don’t even comb his hair”).
67 are the reason I and millions of others first became so fiendishly addicted to drill. The story goes that Chicago rappers like Chief Keef and King Louie invented the genre around 2010 with raps about retaliation between gangs. But it was 67 who bossed the London scene, developing the sound that has since taken over the world.
First drawing viral attention in 2014 with LD’s “Live Corn”, 67 started life as a musical collective with six childhood friends from Brixton Hill, a neighbourhood in south-west London. They were then known as 674, another name for a group calling itself OSG, which in turn came from a group called BHB. Decipher those acronyms for yourself, but you’ll hear LD shouting “OSG” on his new album. Six, seven and four happen to be the numbers you press when punching ‘OSG’ into an old burner phone.
674 became 67, who became a vast collective with rotating cast members, releasing a string of gripping mixtapes and solo projects while boasting a proud set of values (“67 ain’t a gang, it’s a family,” rapped LD’s cohort Monkey on early track “67 (Today)”). Founding member Dimzy has the voice of London at night. The mercurial SJ is fire if you can find him. AK is among the best new kids on the block.
From the beginning, there was police pressure: shows were shut down, tours cancelled and videos removed from YouTube. LD was originally known as Scribz, until an injunction banned him from making music under that name on the grounds that his songs encouraged violence. His solution was to adopt a new persona, going by LD and rapping behind a mask. Similar to that first worn by the late MF DOOM, LD’s mask became an icon of a scene that was attracting listeners across the planet. Today, in western Sydney, viral drill crew ONEFOUR credit 67 as their main inspiration. Groups like GTA in Kenya and Life Living Records in Ghana revel in a similarly tense sound. LD is planning a “Brexit remix package” featuring collaborations with drill artists from around Europe.
Before that comes Who’s Watching, his debut solo album, mostly recorded before he went inside but with occasional contributions down a phone line. Each cell in most British prisons now comes with a mobile, albeit with no internet. LD speaks from HMP Isis, in the outer reaches of south-east London. He says he’s “just moved into the penthouse suite”, a comfy situation arranged by one of his “favourite governors”. “I got my TV on my wall, got some big-arse speakers and that. I’m like the only one on the wing with my own shower in the cell.” He stops short of bragging. “Same way, it’s still jail, innit. Like, I’m banged up behind my door, I can’t even open it, got some plastic window, it’s freezing, the heater works when it wants to work… it’s tapped.”
LD was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in December 2019 after being found guilty of conspiracy to supply heroin and crack cocaine across county lines (as the Daily Mail gleefully reported). He denies all charges and says the conviction is the result of “past stuff”. When police – reportedly as many as 200 officers – raided a property in November 2018 and made 16 arrests, LD wasn’t one of them. He and fellow 67 founder ASAP were arrested later, charged for their involvement in the operation between February and May 2018. In June 2020 LD had his sentence cut short and now hopes to be out by October.
LD says his own lyrics were used against him as part of the prosecution, with lines like “On the way to a show now and I'm stilling smelling of the bando, on the motes with ASAP, making sweeter drinks than mango” (from LD and Dizzee Rascal’s “Stepped In” – a “bando” is a drug dealer’s base) being presented as evidence in court. “I was just laughing,” says LD. “They’re just lyrics. Until you can show me evidence which is facts, it’s just lyrics, which makes it… fictional.”
The transition from making money on the street to becoming a successful musician is a challenge every drill artist faces. (Headie One’s 2019 album Music x Road is a paean to this inner conflict.) Drill fans hearing of their favourite rapper’s return to prison often ask: why can’t they just leave the roads and focus on music?
“The sad thing is I did leave the roads,” says LD. “But, like they say, your past follows you. Which is basically what this tape’s about. I thought, ‘Yeah cool, I’ve left this life, I can go and chill,’ not knowing I was being watched.” On the Who’s Watching intro a voice intones “nothing’s changed” down a phone-line. He means his constant battles with the law won’t change him, but could also be talking about the enduring tension in his music.
Third track “The Ride Out” is a film. It begins with LD phoning a mate about an unfriendly lurker in their ends. The two of them get in the car and ride out in search. After combing the area, the other guy says, “There they are.” “What, you leaning out?” LD asks. “Nah,” comes the response: “Jump-out gang.” (“Jump Out Gang” is also the name of an old 67 song, which dubstep pioneer and DJ Kode9 dropped at the last gig I went to. It tore the roof off.) LD’s next verse, detailing the aftermath of the encounter and the unwanted appearance of police, is visceral, storytelling rap at its electrifying best.
Just do it and skate. Did everything bait.
We know that we hit him for sure, but where he got hit? That’s up for debate.
Bro said arm and waist, I said that we hit him in the waist and face.
Everything go so smooth, we need to get back without getting a chase.
But as soon as I said that: jakes.
Bro said ‘floor it’–
As he says “floor it”, revs of bass surge up from beneath like an engine. It’s a rush like seeing a car chase in the cinema. By the song’s cliffhanger ending you’ll be itching for a sequel.
“The sad thing is I did leave the roads. But, like they say, your past follows you. Which is basically what this tape’s about. I thought, ‘Yeah cool, I’ve left this life, I can go and chill,’ not knowing I was being watched” – LD
For LD to be prosecuted for the vivid bars in “The Ride Out” seems as ridiculous as Matt Damon being arrested for his role in the Bourne films. Or it should – but LD’s relationship with police goes way back. As a mischievous kid he once nicked a bunch of walkie-talkies from a storage room on his estate. That led to his first time in a police car. “I wasn’t old enough to get arrested,” says LD. “I was with my cousin, we got caught and he got put in handcuffs. They just put me in the van. I remember going to Brixton police station and my mum coming to get me. I’m sure I was, like… eight.”
LD was raised by his mum and grandma, alongside two older brothers, two younger sisters, one younger brother and one younger step-brother. His mum worked several jobs: nursing, cleaning, security. His dad would visit on birthdays, but LD has since lost touch and hasn’t spoken to him since starting his rap career. (“He’s got his own family,” LD says now.)
Growing up, LD and best mate Dimzy would listen to Giggs, an underground legend from neighbouring Peckham, and street-rap heroes from 00s New York. French Montana and Max B’s “Playing in the Wind” was among his favourites. “I always used to spit the bars, but remix it,” he says. Instead of French’s “Me and Max like brothers,” L would rap: “Me and Dimz like brothers.” (Years later LD, Dimzy and Giggs would rap “67 my brothers” in the hook to their devastating single “Let’s Lurk” during a rare London show at XOYO.)
LD says school was among his happiest times. He was “one of the shy guys, but cool with all the right people, if that makes sense”. His favourite subject was English, and he remembers studying Of Mice and Men like so many British kids his age. Before he could sit his GCSEs, he was expelled, because of “madness”. One vague reference is made to this in another interview and he won’t reveal much more, but following the incident his friends started calling him Li’l Dice, after a character in City of God. In the classic Brazilian hood film, Li’l Dice is a boy no older than 12 with an endearing grin and a revolver, who shoots and kills several people while he and his friends are holding up a brothel. He later becomes a psychopathic drug lord, after changing his name to Li’l Zé.
“Someone said I reminded them of how Li’l Dice was moving at the time, before he becomes Li’l Zé,” LD explains. “It’s gonna sound crazy but he was ugly but cute. That’s how they described me as well.” It stuck, eventually providing the initials with which LD would rise to fame.
As UK drill’s first icon, LD is now forced to watch from behind bars as the scene expands. Artists like Headie One and Digga D have become household names – pop stars, even. “You see them two, I’m proud,” says LD. “If it was some arsewipe I might think differently, but cos it’s them two… I’ve seen their journey. I’ve seen them start off, where I’ve started before them. I proper respect them two.”
But drill’s insidious side remains. The most rabid fans still post “scoreboards” on social media, awarding points to artists based on real-life acts of violence, including murder. It’s clear LD has never faced a question on this before. “Scoreboards for what, though?” he asks, possibly playing for time. He’s alluded to the phenomenon on songs including Slay Products’ “Products Like Slay” (“The scoreboard’s looking ridiculous”). “Oh, yeah, OK…” He laughs a little. “I never needed to watch the scoreboards, ’cos when I was on road 67 was on top on everything.”
A typically clever answer, with a typically dark subtext. It’s tempting to conclude that authentic references to violence – drillings – are what makes drill drill. In a 2019 Vice documentary, J Emz, a rapper from Sydney’s ONEFOUR, declares: “What makes us a drill group is that we actually do what we rap about.” Does LD agree with that definition?
“Nah,” he replies. “I used to. To me it used to matter, when I came up. But I just know rap’s rap. People are gonna lie, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I respect real rap, cah I can relate to it, but I ain’t got nothing against a guy that’s lying, if he’s good. It’s music, innit, that’s his job.”
What about him? Will he always rap about drilling? “Errrr… that’s a good question,” he answers, contemplating his very being. “They’ll say it’s not an LD tune if I don’t talk about drilling, but… I plan to stop talking about it one day.” LD may yet leave drilling well and truly behind him. But drill will always be synonymous with LD.
LD’s album Who’s Watching is available to stream now