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UK drill

Mask Off: how UK drill subverts reality, fantasy, and public image

The Winter issue of Dazed explores the elusive duality of identity amid UK drill’s many masked figureheads – ft. MC Meekz, TeeZandos, M1llionz, and more

Taken from the winter 2021 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

“No one cared who I was until I put on a mask.” The image of a drill rapper is unlike that of any other musician. Since the sound spread from Chicago to London in the 2010s, artists have twisted their identities in increasingly subversive, creative, and practical ways, masking up in videos, creating myths, and refusing to reveal government names to the press. But as viral musicians step out of obscurity and their influence bleeds across the Atlantic, where is drill identity headed from here?

TeeZandos has a complicated public image. “If you asked a random drill fan to describe me they would literally say, ‘Oh, the girl that worships the devil’, says the 19-year-old drill rapper. “It keeps people on their toes, but no. It’s kind of like people got the wrong idea from what I said. But I just let it go anyways. I don’t care.”

Zandos grew up in Hackney and has several viral singles to her name, including last year’s “Highlander”, “Phone Call” (with emerging south-east London drill star Fizzler) and the recent “UH”. She broke through in 2019 with the head-rattling single “Need Focus”, which saw the rapper declare herself “Satan’s disciple” in a verse referencing a passage from the Bible. She instantly divided the UK drill scene, attracting fans with her charisma and cunning lyricism while alienating some religious listeners, who were turned off by her apparent embrace of the devil. Threads on the UK drill subreddit argue, “TeeZandos coulda gone so far in the industry” were it not for her “devil talk”.

“I grew up in a God-fearing house,” says Zandos, addressing the haters with a sigh. “And it was just never for me. I used to cry in church. I hated it so much. Then, as I got older, I went through sinister things, stuff that a child from a God-fearing home shouldn’t see. Then I started getting bullied and all that stuff. And then I discovered Satanism.” She stresses that Satanism is not about devil worship, but about being your own God. “So I said, ‘I don’t want to be a Christian. I want to be a Satanist. And I’ve been a Satanist since I was, like, 13.’”

Zandos’s image is a battle between fantasy and reality. Like many drill rappers, she’ll insist that her public persona is all natural, simply the product of her own personality. But she also knows that her penchant for provocation, her flagrant disregard for other people’s opinions, and her wanton approach to pissing people off are all part of her appeal. As a teenage artist with a complex public image, she embodies many of the unique challenges surrounding
identity in UK drill.

Emerging in Chicago around 2010, drill has been associated with violence since the beginning. When London crews like 67, 150 and the Harlem Spartans started emulating the Chicago sound around 2012, allegations – from police, politicians and the tabloid media – that drill was contributing to a rise in knife crime in the capital were not far behind. Drill artists were forced to contend with their songs being removed from YouTube, shows being shut down and even the possibility of police banning them from making music altogether.

Amid the moral panic, drill artists needed inventive solutions just to get their music heard. One answer was to obscure their identities, striving to keep their government names away from police and the press and hiding their faces, first with balaclavas and then with increasingly creative masks. It wasn’t long before the drill rapper’s public identity became an artistic statement in and of itself. As much as a method of hiding personal information, it was also a way of standing out from the crowd.

67’s ringleader Scribz, for example, was handed an injunction preventing him from releasing music under that name, so he changed his moniker to LD and started wearing a Phantom of the Opera-style mask on stage and in videos. Mancunian MC Meekz maintains a seriously low profile, perpetuating an enigmatic image and never revealing his face on camera. And north-west London’s Kilo Jugg takes the embrace of enigma to the nth degree, becoming known for a schizophrenic ability to switch between mournful, Autotuned trap and conversational drill after blowing up around 2019 with singles like “Mota” and “2Pack”. He avoids interviews whenever possible and wears a tentacled balaclava resembling Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean. “What do you know about Davy Jones?” goes a recurring sample in Kilo’s discography: “Not much.”

V9 is not quite as elusive. Through viral hits like “Charged Up”, “AVEN9ERS” and “Hole in One”, he and his childhood friends Unknown T and KO have put Homerton, east London, on the UK drill map. Known for his humorous Twitter presence and lascivious way with lyrics, V9’s top lines include “kick a man’s nan for backing her grandson”. He’s also one of the most instantly recognisable artists in the scene, owing largely to a mask he lifted from the Marvel film franchise, Deadpool. V9 calls the mask the best idea he’s ever had, but insists it wasn’t chosen with a view to creating a specific persona, or as a way of hiding his identity from the authorities. “I’m an outstanding civilian, I don’t need to hide from the police,” he says, then laughs. “You see me? I’m the same guy with or without the mask. That’s how I act. I actually just act like Deadpool. I’m a joker, man’s tapped, man’s all of this. It’s me being me.”

When you talk to V9 it’s not hard to get what he means. Nothing about his mannerisms, his approach to interviews or his way with words feels especially calculated. His Twitter feed is a case in point. “My t-shirt was hella creased yday,” he tweeted recently. He’ll also regularly tweet insight on football, basketball and anything else that crosses his mind.

“I’m just being me, innit. There’s no strategy,” he says. For V9, personality and public image are the same thing.

Other drill artists are more candid about their reasons for wearing masks. Known for murky singles like “Naruto Drillings” and its KSI-featuring remix, Offica cut his teeth as an aspiring rapper in his hometown of Drogheda, a small village on the east coast of Ireland, while making music from behind a balaclava. “Then I wanted to do a bit of marketing with my next track,” he says, “so I got an Obito mask.” Obito Uchiha is a ninja from Masashi Kishimoto’s cult manga and anime series Naruto. “I knew that it was a popular mask,” says Offica. “And people would be like ‘Oh, nobody’s done that before,’ and they’d be able to identify it almost straight away, because Naruto has such a big fanbase.” Google “Obito quotes” and you’ll soon find the line: “No one cared who I was until I put on a mask.”

“Only idiots think there’s an image you have to keep up as a drill artist... I didn’t listen to drill music and then start doing bad shit. It was just how I was” – TeeZandos

But Offica appeals to fans on other levels, too. In late 2020, his crew A92 started blowing up after clips from their Plugged In freestyle on Fumez the Engineer’s YouTube channel began circulating on TikTok. The freestyle was streamed so many times as a result that it broke into Spotify’s viral charts in countries around the world, including Australia, Sweden and the UK. Fans were drawn to Offica’s mask, but also to his use of Yoruba slang, a signifier of his Nigerian heritage. Comment sections beneath Offica’s songs on YouTube are filled with stuff like, “If you watch Naruto and you are Yoruba and if you listen to UK drill, Offica is made by GOD, personally, for people like us.”

Offica was one of the first drill rappers from outside of London to start racking up big numbers on British YouTube channels like GRM Daily and Mixtape Madness. He’s often mistakenly referred to as a UK drill artist. “Yeah, please: I’m not from the UK,” he says. “I’m from the Republic.”

Perhaps the most successful UK drill rapper from outside London is M1llionz, who hails from Handsworth, in north-west Birmingham. He’s had hits with “Y Pree”, “B1llionz” and the raucous “Lagga”, and enjoyed collaborations with the likes of Digga D, Pa Salieu and Chicago’s G Herbo, but his native city remains crucial to his identity. “I feel that Birmingham is extremely present in everything I do,” says M1llionz, noting that his hometown concert was the first date to sell out on his recently announced tour. “I speak about my experiences living here often, which I feel my fans can relate to.”

The M1llionz flow has now been copied so many times that talking about it, especially online, is now a bit of a cliché. “In this corona pandemic, got my mask on, the fed can’t tell me to take it off,” he mutters in his viral hit “Lagga”, not so much rapping, more crafting an elaborate storytelling monologue in which every syllable happens to fall in time with a beat.

In stark contrast to V9 and Offica, M1llionz represents a new, distinctly 2021 approach to image, one defined by barefaced honesty. He doesn’t wear a mask for cameras or hide his emotions on record: his are richly descriptive tracks from the environment he grew up in. Expressing his innermost feelings hasn’t always been easy, he admits. “This is not something that I was 100 per cent keen on before, as I’m a private person,” says the rapper. “However, I’ve learned that I need to be transparent with my fans and be honest with how I feel, what I’ve gone through and am going through. That allows my fans to relate to me more.”

TeeZandos is effortlessly relatable in real life, but like a lot of drill rappers seems reluctant
to maintain any kind of presence in the public eye. “I don’t like people,” she says. “I don’t like anybody. I don’t have friends because I hate everyone that’s my age.” She says she can’t go to Tesco any more without being recognised, though she rarely engages with fans who approach her on the street or online. “I’m watching behind my back all the time, because I don’t know what people want to do to me. So when people tell me they enjoy my music, it’s just ‘thank you’ and I keep it stepping.”

While Zandos may not care what people think, every time she avoids interacting with the public it only adds to her reputation as a misanthropic, give-a-fuck rock star. Rappers like V9 and Kilo Jugg have created personas based in fantasy and folklore but, like Zandos and M1llionz, it’s still realness that fans seem to value above all else. “You need to show them that we’re actually normal people,” says Offica. “We do normal stuff.”

Beneath the bravado, the masks and the controversies, there’s a rawness that glues drill to the edges of sonic possibility. It’s here where all the complexities around UK rap identity melt away. “Only idiots think there’s an image you have to keep up as a drill artist,” says Zandos.

“Everything that drill rappers were talking about, I was doing. I didn’t listen to drill music and then start doing bad shit. It was just how I always was. Now it’s a part of my identity, because that’s what I am.”