Look at the Scoreboard: On the Rise of Headie One

Colin Gannon explores the work of the Tottenham drill rapper.
By    September 17, 2019

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In the space of a few weeks last year, Headie One turned from a respected but relatively obscure UK rap entity into a hellraiser. After the Tottenham rapper was physically attacked by rivals at a university, a video of it went viral, much to the drill rapper’s dismay. In response, he dropped ‘Know Better’, a withering, speaker-busting diss and calculating industry warning shot. His trademark ad-sib — ssh — hissed conspiratorially beneath the wailing production, sent beef-hungry YouTube comment sections into overdrive. This retaliation rapidly accelerated his career. And just over a year later, 24-year old Headie has become his scene’s biggest and most urgent talent. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. 

Earlier in the decade, a third prison stint left Headie dissatisfied with the trajectory of his life. Although he’d rapped casually since he was 13 — freestyling with friends from his estate, occasionally going to local studios and laying down songs — he had no grand plans to be a full-time artist. Up to a point, basic survival took precedence.

Headie initially entered the national limelight for all the wrong reasons. Viewed as a rising star in drill after his brushes with virality, the rapper was singled out in 2018 as a societal menace — the subject of various newspaper hit pieces. Like countless black artists before him, he was forced to defend his craft in interviews in response to reductive, misguided, and racist questions. One of his shows was even shut down by police. 

Then as now, knife crime plagues London. As a result, creators and followers of the nihilistic-seeming scene have been castigated and blamed for fanning the crisis’ flames. But knife crime has in part become fear-mongering shorthand in England for young, black men in tracksuits acting out violent fantasies. Most alarming of all is how certain artists and alleged “gangs” have been outright banned from making or releasing music by unrepentantly racist institutions. Demonization is rife, and the threat of censorship remains very real. Amnesty International has repeatedly warned that black teenagers in London are being targeted along racial lines by the police for simply associating with the scene. 

A local incarnation of the inky, minimalist trap originally concocted in Chicago by Chief Keef and other baby-faced acolytes, the UK scene has been under sustained siege; similar to the way the bludgeoning style had originally elicited outrage in America. Taking inspiration directly from Chicago, producers, rappers and videographers began reinterpreting the inchoate style through a distinctly English lens. It wasn’t until many years after these artists began making this music, in 2018, when the moment seemed ripe, that the English mainstream cynically began taking notice, desperately clawing for easy answers to a complex question. 

As their forebears before them, drill’s progenitors on the British Isles describe in vivid detail the minutiae of drug dealing and violence (normally knife-related, with word likes dip and splash interchangeable for stabbing), of postcode rivalries and triumphant bravado. They conjure up an existence of forever looking over your shoulder, articulating the granularity of life in these impoverished estates. Sometimes gang rivalries do spill into the music. But outside of the Top Boy-core accents, the kind Drake colonizes and repackages as radio singles, colorful references to soccer players and English soap operas and British food and drink are what lend the music a cultural specificity. Songs are by turns blunt, funny, violent, scornful and ostentatious, often all in one verse. 

Made almost exclusively by groups of young black men living in social housing estates dotted across the English capital (and across the UK), their art is disseminated, in increasingly experimental form, through videos on channels like Link Up TV, GRM Daily, SBTV and Mixtape Madness. Amongst UK music scenes, drill is notable for its popularity: Videos, even those from upstarts and unknowns, regularly clock up hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of YouTube views. Social media is also, in many ways, the genre’s lifeblood, giving it an audience beyond artists’ local communities. For the unacquainted, the sound has the scaffolding of Chicago drill, but it is more sonically malleable, relying less on blunt-force trauma than on an anxious brio. Remember: This is the country that birthed the hyper-kinetic sounds of both garage and grime. 

The moral panic described, a lightning rod being weaponized by a craven poor-and-minority-hating elite, has done little to worry Headie One. During the ensuing nationwide campaign by a rabidly right-wing and reactionary British media and the Metropolitan police to outlaw facets of this burgeoning scene, the industrious Tottenham spitter dropped his second mixtape of 2018, The One Two, following on from an instant street classic, The One, released just after Christmas. “Sirens / All you ever hear hear on the block is sirens,” went the chorus on Sirens, a UK afrobeats-meets-drill jaunt sandwiched between slow, degenerative drill songs. 

The same year that he astutely channeled the eardrum-splitting daily anxiety that affects an abandoned generation of English youngsters, he wrote a love song about tracksuits, further warming himself to the Nike Tech-wearing masses. Hailing proudly from Broadwater Farm, what is often referred to as the “most infamous housing estate” in Tottenham, a diverse section of the north London borough of Haringey, Headie is conscience-stricken but unapologetic. He’s smart, witty, charismatic, and unbothered by critics and rivals alike. Realism is fundamental to his image and his music, resulting in songs that skew vivid and observationalist. “My life doesn’t have a filter, so why should my music?” he told GQ last year. 

Unwrapping the impact of his latest mixtape, which arrived late last month with the commercial might of an album (he is backed by a major label), is not difficult: Headie cemented himself as the UK’s next high-flying rap star. Despite at times not being as lyrically potent and sonically muscular as The One, Music X Road, stacked with street smashes and the Dave-featuring 18Hunna (the highest-charting drill song to date), showcases his abilities like no other tape. It is, as commercial mixtapes go, uniformly excellent. The album title, evoking the unconquerable tensions between the streets and music that still affect his life, gives you some idea of how scrupulously he approaches the craft. 

Up until this latest release, Headie had amassed six mixtapes (three solo offerings, three collaborative efforts with RV), demonstrating a work ethic mostly unrivalled in the scene. Interestingly, his short-list of five all-time favorite rappers — Notorious BIG, French Montana, Max B, Styles P, Drake — makes perfect sense: He pulls, with varying degrees of success, from each of their styles, complementing their influences with a rarified snarl, a dash of patronising Britishness. On the latest project, he’s a little wiser and a lot more emotionally available — even if that’s unfiltered anger. Commandeering a blustering, baritone growl, as well as an understated knack for melody, his music has poured out of speakers all summer around his hometown. He’s in line to be Tottenham’s biggest star since Skepta, which is no mean feat. 

His flow is unpredictable, earthy and technically audacious — but most exciting of all is his toying with sounds and genres. He could’ve easily made a mixtape chock full of blood-soaked, queasy drill beats, the kind that sound as serpentine as they do outright riotous.  Production with church bells and plaintive pianos where the bass slithers and worms with the force of a small hurricane, where drums click and crackle — songs whose videos are edited to maximize the genre’s deep-rooted parochialism. But he’s chosen a less choppy, burly path in the pursuit of rap virtuosity and and pop eclecticism; a still-in-development yet refreshing amalgam of afro bashment (J Hus), drill and grime. “Now they say that I’m the king of drill, trap, rap,” he lists off on the irresistible ‘Both,’ which samples Ultra Naté’s ‘Free.’ “I’m doing it all.”

Bouncing, teeth-baring and generously versatile, Music X Road is a great introduction to Headie. The opening six track run — which includes Both and 18Hunna alongside the introspective, Drake-inspired Music X Road; the wonky bloodlust of Ball in Peace; the dancehall-tinged drill of Rubbery Bandz; and the superbly wavy Back to Basics with a hungry-sounding Skepta — is among the strongest in rap this year, either side of the Atlantic. It’s even got a Nav feature, his best work with a UK artist since he helped ghost-write Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner. 

The album’s altogether more polished than Headie’s past work, but it doesn’t sacrifice another factor why his music hovers tauntingly above rival drillers: His writing betray a candour only a few peers have even approached. “My pa’ went and took my mum’s pic’ off the wall; I think he couldn’t cope,” Headie confides on the pensive title track, tearing down the wall that sometimes exists between drill fans and its artists, before deadpanning: “Now he ask how I spend all these long nights in the cold, ‘cos I spent a quid on a coat.”

The deftness of his songwriting has given him an edge, putting him out ahead of the likes of Digga D, Russ, Lotski, LD, censorship victims Skengdo and AM, the recently incarcerated Unknown T and a whole host of YouTube channel-level rappers. Headie emits levels of charisma and self-awareness that we just haven’t seen from many others in English drill. You can practically hear the stardom bursting out of his voice, a potent blend of J Hus’s tuneful sing-rapping, Maxo Kream’s booming frankness and idol Styles P’s fearsome delivery. What’s important to understand is that he is not legitimizing UK drill; after all, it has sounded loud and vital and interesting for years now. Through sheer grit and musicianship, Headie’s emerged as the scene’s multi-dimensional frontman, helping give it a cultural afterlife that few imagined was possible. 

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