The sound of the near future in film and TV has typically been characterised by dramatic synths that reflect the conflict between man and machine. Think of Vangelis’s atmospheric Blade Runner score with its memorable Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser, or the sparse orchestral cues heard in more recent projects such as The Handmaid’s Tale. Now, a new series is about to take a very different route.
Jungle is the debut TV project from burgeoning production company Nothing Lost, best known for directing London rapper Big Tobz’s “Woke” music video, which got them on the shortlist for the Saatchi & Saatchi New Creators Class of 2019. Available on Amazon Prime Video now, the show follows a group of strangers whose lives are interconnected by a series of bizarre events.
It’s set in a dystopian, inner-city London, against the backdrop of an original soundtrack of drill and rap. While exact plot details in the lead-up to the series release have been kept intentionally cryptic, showrunners promise that it will resonate with viewers. “It’s the urban jungle that we live in, and the rules that apply,” show co-creator Junior Okoli tells me. “Survival of the fittest. Kill or be killed.”
Since Headie One stormed his way into the Top 10 with “18HUNNA” in 2019, UK drill has crept ever closer to the mainstream, bolstered by the success of groups including K-Trap and 67. Yet the genre has also courted controversy amid a moral panic surrounding its lyrical content. Born out of the South Side of Chicago and arguably popularised by US rapper Chief Keef, drill shares some similarities with trap music but is often darker and more anarchic in tone – aided by lyrics that focus on the real-world views and experiences of its artists.
Some lawmakers have argued that this serves as a catalyst for actual crimes. The same year Headie One made the UK charts, fellow rappers Skengdo & AM made legal history by receiving a suspended nine-month sentence... for performing their own music. “I feel violated,” Skengdo told The Guardian, while AM said: “We don’t have a lot of power, ultimately. I feel like the authorities have taken advantage of that.”
Recent developments indicate that the general public’s perception of drill is changing, however, with Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ single “Body” and Central Cee’s mixtape 23 both topping charts in the UK. Asda’s “Arrive Like You Mean It” campaign, meanwhile, depicted schoolchildren rapping over a KZ-produced drill beat, placing the genre in a decidedly more family-friendly setting. Yet its murkier origins mean it is arguably the most fitting sound for a dystopian future. In Jungle, this transpires as a society where inequality, institutional racism, disenfranchisement and neglect still persist.
The preconceived notions of drill weren’t lost on Okoli and series co-creator Chas Appeti when they were creating Jungle. “We went to great lengths, not to necessarily challenge stereotypes, but to give insight,” Okoli says. “Stereotypes are there for a reason, that’s just the truth of it, but sometimes they’re unfounded – a lot of stereotypes are based on ignorance.”
Addressing their decision to focus on the drill scene, Appeti explains that they wanted to communicate with a younger demographic through music. “I think it just comes down to the times that we’re in, and it just happens now that the youth of today are listening to drill,” he says. “If you were to go back maybe seven, eight years ago, it might have been grime. A little bit further than that, it might have been UK garage.”
As the current socio-economic state of the UK makes this a time of anxious uncertainty, the series’ themes seem pertinent in their ability to bridge the gaps between demographics, whose mutual fears have different catalysts. The luminous neon backdrop is tinged with a bloody red a few minutes into the first episode: the glimmering optimism of a bright future subverted by the merciless reality of the present. It speaks to the need to survive by any means in an unforgiving and demanding city.
With Jungle finding its home on Amazon Prime Video (which reaches 46 per cent of UK households), introducing a wider audience to the maligned world of drill in an authentic manner was one of Nothing Lost’s aims.
“Jungle is essentially trying to be that conduit between two worlds – the world of the youth, and other civilians who we share the city with,” Okoli explains. “We’re all linked by six degrees of separation, and we need to have this open dialogue so we can get to understand each other and the different dynamics that form our city. It leads to a lot more harmony, understanding... less ignorance.” For Okoli, Jungle gets to the root cause of the issues that drill artists are rapping about: “You can’t remedy a problem without first diagnosing it correctly.”
To help with this, the team brought together a group of emerging artists – from Unknown T to Bandokay – with a number of well-known faces, some of whom made their acting debuts on the show. Several female MCs are involved, including IAMDBB and TeeZandos. Yet Okoli is quick to point out that gender parity, in a world in which male artists still dominate, wasn’t necessarily the goal here. “There wasn’t a mandate to follow: the message isn’t for a particular colour, creed or sex, it’s for a whole culture,” he says. “We wanted them involved, but more for what they bring to the project as a whole... Every character on there has earned their place.”
For IAMDDB, though, the representation of Black women in this male-dominated industry was paramount in her approach to the role of her character, Mia. “We have to put on this brave face and carry ourselves a certain way,” she said at a launch event for the series earlier this year. “Every corner we turn, there’s always someone trying to take advantage, thinking we’re weak, that we’re miseducated, but that’s not the case.”
We have to put on this brave face and carry ourselves a certain way
Perhaps more unexpected are appearances by household names from the UK rap scene, namely Dizzee Rascal and Big Narstie. At first glance, their inclusion seems at odds with the show’s forward-thinking, youthful narrative. But, as Appeti explains, it’s all about showing how far rap has come in the UK. “There are some really interesting collaborations, and it’s all about educating people on the next people coming through, because music moves fast,” he says. “It’s almost like passing the baton. When you can do that, you can see it visually. So I think that’s quite an interesting dynamic.”
Tinie Tempah, one of the most significant crossover artists of the 2010s, agrees with this sentiment. “Being heavily a part of grime and influenced by grime, I know that when something is kind of at its early stages, or it’s just kind of beyond its inceptions slightly, it’s usually deemed in a particular way and got a bad light cast on it because there’s a lack of understanding,” he tells me.
Thanks to successful collaborations with pop acts such as Jess Glynne and Swedish House Mafia, as well as his work as a label boss, property developer and fashion icon, Tinie’s career represents success in the hustle culture that governs the world of Jungle. Of course, it wasn’t without its detractors: “But I know that over time, if you look at something like grime, it produced so many stars, so many stars that are even shining brighter than ever today.”
Jungle means Tinie can now add “actor” to his extensive CV, after years of waiting for the right moment. “If you think of Evita, you know, that’s Madonna, isn’t it,” he says. “If you think of Grease, that’s Olivia Newton John – she was a [singer] at the time. So musicals have always been artist-led, as opposed to just a cast of actors... it adds authenticity to the musical element.”
Netflix’s Top Boy underwent a similar process of casting musicians, and also offers commentary on inner-city strife. Rapman’s Shiro’s Story, released in 2018, draws on the musical genre, with dialogue being delivered in the form of rap as opposed to spoken word. But Nothing Lost feel that any comparison to similar shows does Jungle a disservice. They want people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be given the opportunity and freedom to share their own individual stories.
“[Chas and I] weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouths, and we feel very blessed as to what we’ve made with our lives – it wasn’t handed to us,” Okoli says. “[Jungle] really shines a light on the zeal and talent that is in the ‘hood’ – you just have to look for it.” He’s convinced that their backgrounds – different from that of your average studio executive – are what give Jungle its edge: “Once given the opportunity, you’ll be amazed at what people from a not-so-typical background can do.”
‘Jungle’ is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video