Skengdo x AM Are Looking Forward

Words: Jesse Bernard
Photography: Hyperfrank

In early September, 2019, rapper AM was on a panel at Red Bull Music Festival’s Coded Language event alongside Wretch 32, poet Bridget Minamore and journalist Kieran Yates. It was a particularly enlightening moment for AM as he and Skengdo, his childhood friend and musical partner, have largely had to fight on two fronts: a battle against the media and public opinion, and the other with the police. AM spoke in depth about the ways in which multiple languages are spoken intergenerationally in his household, due to him being first-generation East African. Then there’s the language he communicates to the world, one borne out of growing up with Brixton’s Jamaican community. Bilinguality comes second nature to young black people from immigrant families, often acting as translators for older families, and if they were using other art forms, Skengdo x AM would be lauded as literary geniuses.

Later that month, I spent an evening with the drill duo at Shoreditch House, where I saw a maskless AM for the first time. It’s been a busy period for them as they’re preparing for a comeback after a brief hiatus. While it’s difficult to not talk about the past two years and the injunction that has prevented them from performing “Attempted 1.0” earlier this year, little space has been given where they’re able to be themselves publicly. There were delicate moments in our conversation where it seemed as though they were beginning to let down their defences, and while us being in Shoreditch House may have influenced AM’s decision to not mask up, for him to feel comfortable and safe enough to do so was amazing to see.

The duo never set out to be the bricklayers of the UK drill scene, circumstance and environment led them down that path. Nor did they begin as a rapping duo. They had known each other since being young children, and although AM lives in Brixton, he would grow up hearing mostly Francophone music from East and Central Africa, where his family is from. Skengdo, on the other hand, had been rapping for some time—for pleasure more than anything else—but everyone knew AM had the ability. “Feds came to my door at one / Tried to ask if I bunned that don / Shit den, I don’t speak English / “Non j’étais à la maison,” AM raps on 2017’s Mad About Bars, exemplifying the ways in which rappers creatively contort language to articulate street codes and police harassment. It’s something familiar to their Brixton ancestor, Linton Kwesi Johnson, who wrote extensively about police interactions as one of the forefathers of dub poetry (“Out jump tree policeman / All a dem carryin baton. Dem walk straight up to me and Jim / One a dem hold on to Jim / Say him tekin him in,” he spits on “Sonny’s Letter”).

“One day I just heard him rapping about an apple, describing it in so many different ways and that’s when I was like, ‘Nah, we’ve gotta try something,’” says Skengdo, speaking on AM’s early bars. “We went studio and made our first track, ‘Hammers’. But even then, we weren’t too serious about it and back then, getting 80,000 listens was mad for us.” Language and the creative use of it may not be something they consciously think about but it’s what had made Skengdo x AM pioneers of a scene still in its early years. “We’re just Skengo and AM,” he adds. “We grew up together. It’s not like we met in college and just decided to jump on music—we’ve been bredrins since knee-high, so we don’t really approach our working relationship any differently.”

“It’s hard for us because we have one chance when it comes to the language we use—one wrong thing and it’d get us into trouble again.”

They tell me they’ve been given support by friends, family and management, however both Skengdo and AM expressed their frustrations that not a single MP or senior representative of parliament—besides Dianne Abott—was present at a debate held by Krept & Konan in Westminster earlier this year. Even then, Abott failed to take a hard stance against the criminalisation of drill, when she said: “Drill music can be violent, and I have to be clear, when they do directly incite violence then the police should investigate. However, we do know that the root cause of violence on our streets is much wider than music.” Few have addressed the exploitation of the scene and it becomes an issue of ethics, particularly when platforms continue to profit from the streaming of “Attempted 1.0” and other songs, while they cannot perform them. Up until this point, the duo hadn’t even considered it: “I never thought about it that way but it makes a lot of sense and it’s very funny how they can pick and choose who they prevent from succeeding,” AM says. “Spotify have been allowed to run this type of music but we can’t perform it? It’s very tricky.”

The injunction itself prohibited members of 410 from entering SE11, as well as mentioning rival crews. The very system that has given very little by way of social mobility and opportunities, deems the public gathering of young black men a threat to society and public safety. It’s these fears that have prevented them from performing shows this year—despite Form 696 no longer in existence—and even in their attempts to engage with the government, they’ve been ignored. “Nobody’s really trying to stick their neck out and be in the line of fire, hence why a lot of other artists don’t speak out,” Skengdo tells me.

As the decade draws to an end, Skengdo x AM are quietly hopeful and looking forward. I was conscious of not wanting to dwell too much on the past, and as much as it informs the path we tread, it doesn’t have to be our present—easier said than done. All they are seeking is the liberty to use language in a way that is normal to them and share it with the world. “It’s hard for us because we have one chance when it comes to the language we use—one wrong thing and it’d get us into trouble again,” AM says with uncertainty. Music has not only provided Skengdo x AM an outlet, it’s also presented a viable career option for the pair; but before they’ve even had a chance to take flight, they’ve had to spend unnecessary time being considerate of the language they use in a climate where the prime minister himself can get away with murder. “One of our main goals to rebuild that trust with our fanbase and get us back into the routine of listening to our music on a regular basis, and without that slow down, we would’ve reached a lot more people,” AM adds.

“We’ve got the likkle melodies and dem tings there—not so much the double-tap drill—we’re coming with a much more chilled vibe,” Skengo says of the direction their new music will be taking. It appears to be a natural way to curtail the censorship that’s blighted them so far, and while it shouldn’t be the case, their aim is to expand the soundscape of drill. In reality, drill already sits within the universe of UK rap but audience and public perception both admire and abhor it as the ‘other’—which, in essence, it is, but not for the same reasons. “We’re still not happy with the verdict because there’s still a lot of pressure and restrictions on our music,” AM tells me. “We’ve been forced to adapt and find new ways to release music. Nine months down the line, it’s kicked in that this injunction is real and it’s on us for two years. We’re just trying to stay out of the line of fire while not losing our careers.”

“No one saw us coming.”

Given that UK drill it still largely underground, there’s still a frontier that has yet to be explored. “People didn’t know the UK could do it like that and I think that’s why it’s had such a big impact,” says Skengdo. “No one saw us coming.” The lack of understanding, and unwillingness to understand the other, hasn’t allowed us to appreciate the sonic diversity of a scene that’s only a few years old. “UK drill, in its own respect, is a big scene, considering it’s gone global and it’s earned its respect and place,” AM adds. The advancements of music technology have created an environment for drill to explode in ways where it took grime that bit longer as the world was transitioning from analog to digital. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why people can’t understand drill; few saw it coming, and it’s disrupted British culture in a much more conspicuous manner than grime did in its earlier years, largely because it’s not prescribed to any one region.

AM sees drill inviting R&B into its space, similar to how grime did with its offshoot R&G—it’s inevitable. Artists will eventually want to start making music that some would say, “appeals to women” but while everyone can and would enjoy it, black music genres are generally quite boundaryless. “I feel like it’s going to happen, the same way it did with rap before the R&B came in,” he says. “Rap battles never had singing but it evolved, and with mainstream songs, having a rap verse is natural. Drill is a form of rap anyway, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen.” Skengdo goes on to say, “People don’t want to be associated with drill, but there’s gonna be a point when they will and it’s already started to happen.” Popular culture often chews underground subcultures and spits them back out in a homogenised form, and Skengdo fears that people will ignore that drill is often by a very particular lifestyle, one that young, working-class blacks in Britain can truly understand.

The duo are meticulous in the way they’re handling their career. Music wasn’t an intentional course they took but, as time has gone on, they’ve found purpose and it’s empowered them. Both Skengdo and AM sound rejuvenated and ready to take on the world—especially on Back Like We Never Left, their latest project—and although it was an miscarriage of justice and an encroachment on their liberties, the injunction has given them purpose. They may not realise it just yet, but in the years to come, they’ll be cited as unflinching pioneers who spoke for a generation of young black men who are simply seeking a future.

Posted on October 04, 2019