Words by Mardean Isaac
Photography by Hayley Louisa Brown
After being released from his fourth spell in prison in February, and days before lockdown started in March, Loski teased his way back into music with the oblique single “Allegedly”. The track showed the rapper handling the conflicting forces in his life with dexterity, opening with a light-hearted take on the misery of incarceration and parrying the hearsay surrounding his character, actions and loyalties. After months of speculation, Loski, now 21, reclaimed the narrative of his street legend while deepening the mystery of the life behind it.
Loski, the brightest star of the Harlem crew from Kennington, south London, made some of the most iconic early UK drill anthems. Tracks like “Hazards” and “DJ Khaled” (with MizOrMac), both of which were released in the summer of 2016, captivated music fans and burrowed into public awareness. London drill, inspired by Chicago drill, was ruthlessly local. It consisted of very young people depicting street realities in street code.
Drill became a guide through one of London’s shadow-worlds: postcode conflicts and drug pathways interwoven into the rest of the city but separate from it. It was the rawness of drill which counted against drill artists when their music was linked to knife crime, in a narrative that seemingly immediately became its own cycle: the killings of young Black men flashed into public life, were briefly used as the object of commentary, and then receded into broader indifference.
Harlem Spartans always projected camaraderie as an antidote to their circumstances. But over the past two years, imprisonment and tragedy have wracked the group. Blanco and MizOrMac have also been incarcerated (and since released). Members SA and Bis were killed in July 2018 and December 2019 respectively. To much of the wider public, those deaths were reminders of the knife crime epidemic, but to closer observers they also brought home the ongoing proximity of danger to even ascendant drill musicians.
On his debut album Music, Trial and Trauma: A Drill Story, Loski seeks to take the lead in documenting both the pain and the aspirations of his drill generation. The record is divided into three parts, each of which frame a mood and a phase of life. (It is introduced by a mock ITV news report from Loski’s trial: “Is he a criminal gang member, or is his crime not cutting ties with friends he grew up with?”) The first segment demonstrates Loski’s mastery of the drill sound he helped pioneer. He appears with Tottenham standard bearers Bandokay and Double Lz from OFB on “Basil Brush”, and with Blanco on the plangent “Anglo-Saxon”. He trades intricate verses with MizOrMac in “On Me”, who delivers a vividly grim performance exploring the damage he’s incurred through violence and jail. After a prison-based interlude, a celebratory section attests to the flair Loski has always shown in mixing gangster aesthetics with groovier and looser sounds, this time with features both British (Stormzy, Aitch) and global (Davido, Popcaan).
The album’s final part explores new tones and substance. “Blinded” flips the sample and the concept of The Streets’ inverted party anthem “Blinded by the Lights”: the blue lights of the law obscure Loski’s vision of his own path. “Black” sets pride and positivity against confessions of personal trauma and anxiety. But on “Life so Deep” (featuring Emeli Sandé, the first woman to appear on a Loski track), Loski uses his knack for provocation in a narrative form. Looking outward, he puts together a story encompassing many lives, serving as a diagram of the self-perpetuating violence that has taken some of those closest to him. “When will it end?” he asks in the chorus, responding with the stark refrain: “I don’t think it ever will.”
BRICK: What’s this period been like, leading up to the release?
Loski: Obviously, because of the lockdown, you can’t do certain things, so that’s a bit jarring. But everything else is good, man. Working towards everything. I just want to see the outcome once it’s released.
BRICK: You were in Nigeria recently. What was that like?
Loski: I was there at the end of September. That was a trip, though man – a completely different experience. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I was surprised, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it so much. It was the complete opposite to what I thought it would be like.
BRICK: What surprised you the most?
Loski: How they have fun and how we have fun is two different ways. They just party and have fun every night; music, food. It’s just nice, a nice place to be.
BRICK: Have you travelled much before?
Loski: A few places, but never Africa before. That was a good first.
BRICK: What about Jamaica?
Loski: No, I haven’t been. Hopefully I’ll go soon, after this lockdown.
BRICK: You do use a decent amount of Jamaican slang.
Loski: It’s where my family’s from, so maybe you catch onto stuff.
BRICK: The album was recorded in London?
Loski: All recorded in London, with my producers. I don’t think I’ve ever recorded out of London.
BRICK: What excited you or interested you about making an album?
Loski: I was always working towards my album, I just unfortunately went to prison last year. I’m just catching up on everything I missed out on, and I feel like I’m a year behind everyone, so I just have to work ten times harder. Apart from that, everything’s still the same. But the work rate has to be stronger. Just keep going.
I think what’s going on now, a lot more people have gone number one with albums than ever before, outside of Stormzy and Dave. People are doing a lot better right now than before. But with my genre of music, drill, there hasn’t been a sick album or project to speak for our generation. I don’t think anyone’s put together a sick project to speak for everyone else. But I think that everyone in the industry is coming with something dope. Everyone’s work rate is sick. That’s what’s pushing everyone and making everyone come through so much.
BRICK: What’s the coming period looking like for you?
Loski: I'm focused helping this album grow and grow and grow. And non-stop working. Working towards my next project. Keeping my fans good. I’m just focused on my music right now. Anything else is irrelevant.
BRICK: Are there albums you grew up listening to that influenced you as total bodies of work?
Loski: Not necessarily. I used to listen to all sorts of music. Maybe Giggs’ Walk in da Park or Nines’ From Church Road to Hollywood. But not a lot of albums. A lot of Chicago drill: Reese, Durk, Keef, and those guys.
BRICK: Are there people around you to bounce ideas off or seek advice from, when it comes to music, or is it mostly led by you?
Loski: I speak to my team about stuff, and they talk to me. Management, the label, PR team. We talk on what’s going on to help me go forward. But the end decision will always be me, on what I do or don’t want to do. It’s not like I get forced to do something or feel like I have to do anything. Anytime I feel I have to do something it’s because I know it will benefit me. People have inputs and ideas, and I have my own.
BRICK: The first part of the album is a pure drill section, the flows are incredibly tight and hard. Is that technical side of things something you still work on and push yourself on?
Loski: Yeah. It’s the sound I come out of and my core fanbase appreciate that, so it’s only right that I give it to them. And as well as music, it’s a story. I have to start at one period of my life and finish at another. And that’s where I felt it was right to start with the drill sound.
BRICK: The middle section has more choruses and anthems.
Loski: More upbeat; club songs. Good features. That was to reach out to a different audience, not just drill. I think I achieved that with the middle section.
BRICK: And that "2AM" track, was that just a vibe you caught?
Loski: Just trying something different, that people won’t expect. Like I did with “Forrest Gump”.
BRICK: And the last section is the hardest to define.
Loski: Yeah, it’s a deeper section. On the things I’m speaking about, the subjects that I’m mentioning. So it’s more my vulnerable side, the side I don’t speak about as much.
BRICK: And this was a good time to explore that side.
Loski: The best time to explore, yeah. They’ve heard the drill, they’ve heard the happy-happy stuff, you know? So just give them the real side, real life situations.
BRICK: “I’m in the field like Anglo Saxons” is a great line, showing how there’s always been violence here: white people used to fight in a different kind of field.
Loski: Yeah. Definitely. I try to refer to historic moments, or TV programs, or something that would make other people be like: oh, he said that, you know? Rather than being so blunt about stuff. It just brings more excitement to songs, really.
BRICK: On “Allegedly” and in the video for “Hazards 2.0”, in particular, you show that in your world, especially technologically, there’s a lot of gossip, bullshitting, real or fake snitching.
Loski: Yeah, There’s a lot. I think that’s with people in general. You don’t need to be an artist for chatter to be happening. That could be anyone’s normal day and life. There’s always people making assumptions, or having anything to say. So it’s just a way to show people how to deal with it. I don’t really address situations a lot. If someone says something, I don’t go on the internet and be like, no, this is what happened, or this is how it happened. I mostly respond in my music, to say I do see what everyone’s saying, and this is reality.
BRICK: Do you enjoy writing in a way where the listener has to have the right knowledge to grasp what you’re saying?
Loski: I only write in the studio. But I write on how I’m feeling that day, even if it’s something in the past, but I’m feeling that way today, I’ll write on that moment—that present moment. If something happened even three years ago, but that’s how I felt, I would rap about it, like I was there three years ago. It may sound like it’s in the present, majority of time its in the past. And then when things get released, it’s not like it gets made and released tomorrow. There’s always a process.
BRICK: Right, there’s a lag, so people make more assumptions, I guess.
Loski: Yeah, deffo.
BRICK: Do you feel there’s a connection between how you’re feeling in the studio and the things you remember at a given time? Do you access your memories in a different way depending on your mood?
Loski: Of course. You put energy into how you’re feeling, even if you’re trying to channel it to the way you want it to be. If you’re feeling a certain way, you’re gonna act on that feeling, at that time.
BRICK: You and your peers were ahead of the curve in rapping about certain aspects of crime that are now being discussed very widely. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Loski: That’s just how a lot of people grew up around me. Because we didn’t know any better, that’s just all we knew, that’s all we could speak on. People are just speaking on stuff now because it’s spoken about so much. If they lived it, they would have understood, instead of having the opinion they have now.
BRICK: On “Life’s so Deep”, you come to a dark conclusion about the cycle of youth violence in London. Is it harder to explain to the outside world since people come into the situation with assumptions or judgements?
Loski: I don’t think it’s harder. Maybe just within myself, it might have been harder because I wasn’t comfortable speaking about certain situations. But I always knew what the situation was, it’s not like I was blind to it or anything. I was living a certain way, so I would know exactly what was happening and what would go on. Sometimes you can’t control a situation, as well. So it’s best not to speak on certain things. But once you’re comfortable, being open to the public or whoever, it’s much easier.
BRICK: On “Life’s so Deep” it comes in the form of a tightly written story. Certain things are out of your control when they happen, but when you write about them, you have that control.
Loski: I always wanted to do a rap story. The idea came from that. And then it was, what story to write? And I thought, why not make a story about reality, and what’s going on in the majority of neighbourhoods. It was easy to write that story because I know a lot about what goes on. But I wouldn’t have thought about writing something like that two years ago, because I wasn’t comfortable enough to speak about that stuff. But now I’m much more comfortable.
BRICK: You were always telling stories, on your earlier tapes, but more so in snapshots. On this album it’s drawn out a bit more.
Loski: Yeah, deffo.
BRICK: Do you pay much attention to how these issues are discussed outside of music, by the media or politicians?
Loski: No, not really. That’s their job. They probably had nothing to speak about that day so they just wanted to hit the news and speak about that. But all of that blaming drill stuff, it don’t really bother me like that. It more bothers me when they get other people to speak about situations they know nothing about. But I wouldn’t go on the internet and say ‘why is this person speaking about this?’, you know? People are going to have their opinions regardless. As long as I can keep doing what I’m doing to benefit me and keep myself positive, I don’t really care what’s going on.
BRICK: Rest in peace, Bis and Latz. How have their deaths changed your life or your perspective?
Loski: It makes you more dull. Not as happy. You’re upset some days. I’m trying to use it more as a positive reflection than just being negative. At first, you don’t want to hear all that stuff. Everyone goes through stuff different. I can be in the mood some days, not on others. I just try to use all of that negativity and put it into music, you know? Because music’s almost like a painkiller, a medicine.
BRICK: And the more positive moments on the album, because of the pain, it feels like the happiness is realer, somehow.
Loski: Yeah, definitely. When good things happen you appreciate it much more, because you know stuff can get real so easily.