Blade Runner, quads and Dizzee Rascal: the story of TV’s first drill musical | Television

Jungle is not the most conventional TV show you will ever watch. In a way, it’s a spiritual successor to Top Boy, given its compelling storylines and cast whose crime-based livelihood circles London’s drug trade. But it’s also a musical – in fact the first drill musical on TV – and most of the actors are prominent British drill and grime MCs. It also takes place in an alternate sci-fi reality where England’s capital is full of fictional technology, such as under-the-skin watches, cars with barcoded number plate numbers, and police armed with electrified billy clubs. If you had to give it a genre, it would be crime-fi-rap opera.

“We didn’t just want to make a typical gangster drama,” says Jungle co-creator Junior Okoli. “Congratulations on all the productions ahead of us, I think they did a great job, but we wanted to do something completely different.”

Jungle is the television debut of Okoli and co-creator Chas Appeti. Appeti is a music video creator that was “shot for pretty much everyone in the UK scene – Giggs, Lethal B, Chip, Ruff Sqwad, Tinchy Stryder”. Okoli worked in artist management — with a sideline as a mixed martial artist — and as he traveled the world with musicians, he found that wherever he was, he saw the same thing happening as he did in his hometown: inner-city poverty leading to a life of crime.

RA as Slim in Jungle. Photo: Delroy Matty/Prime Video

When the pair met, they started working on videos together and decided to create Jungle to “shine a light on that kill-or-be-killed mentality that comes with living an impoverished life, with a lack of opportunities.” “. In the end, they successfully pitched it to Amazon and soon made the show — though the first encounters had a decidedly odd feel to them.

“After about five or six sessions, I realized they were all googling my name and watching my cage fights,” Okoli says. “My fights were pretty brutal at the time, so they must have thought I was an absolute savage!”

Given their background in the music industry and a desire to engage young viewers, telling the story through song felt a natural fit. Or at least it did for them, if not for the talent involved. “They hated it at first. They absolutely hated it,” Okoli says of trying to convince a cast of MCs, including Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal, and Big Narstie, to collaborate on using their rhymes for the show, despite that. they usually make solo music.

“At first it was something aloof like, ‘Who’s that guy telling me what to do – with a guy in the corner taking notes?’ We had to gain their trust and respect, so we ended up talking to them outside their homes, sitting in their car, just trying to understand their background and history and what inspires them.”

Ready to go... gang members ready to race in Jungle.
Ready to go… gang members ready to race in Jungle. Photo: Delroy Matty/Prime Video

The result is a story that flashes seamlessly from traditional dialogue to segments delivered entirely in rap. The first three episodes — all of which were released for preview purposes — centers on a robbery gone wrong, perpetrated by the unwilling criminal and soon-to-be father Gogo (Ezra Elliott) and his terrifyingly violent co-worker Slim (played by the British rapper R.A.). While the stick-up is full of barked voice prompts to hand over the load, a low bass line kicks in for the aftermath and the robbers kick in for some frenzied post-match analysis. At one point, Gogo has a triple rap off with himself, trading bars with his inner good voice and bad voice.

“If you were in the studio with us when we wrote it, you would have thought, ‘What kind of world is this?’” Okoli says of the complex writing process, which involved telling a story about both music and dialogue. They took lyrics created by the cast (or rap ghostwriters for the actors who weren’t also MCs), then rewrote the spoken word segments to remove or add extra material, depending on how well the rhymes fit the plot. .

Just in case that wasn’t tricky enough, the lyrics had to be written in total ignorance of the show’s overall plot. Appeti and Okoli kept the scripts a secret from the cast members because “London is a very small place. We didn’t want the scripts to come out,” as Okoli puts it.

Shooting was no easy feat either. Once the London councils heard the words ‘drill musical’ they immediately refused permission, as the genre has often generated headlines accusing it of inciting violence. But since the series focuses on downtown crime, the script is so full of street fights and gang gatherings on the estate that this wasn’t an option. “We’d jump on Zoom calls, show them we’re real people, and they’d say, ‘OK, cool! We’re going to help you!’” Okoli says. Not that this was an attempt to restore Drill’s reputation.

IAMDDB as Mia in Jungle.
IAMDDB as Mia in Jungle. Photo: Delroy Matty/Prime Video

“It was not our intention to address the stigma associated with drilling,” Appeti says. “We are storytellers. But drilling is just another art form. Hip hop initially had the same, UK garage did, even jungle. Any genre that is new and cutting edge is stigmatized in the beginning.”

“You can’t suppress popular culture,” Okoli says. ‘That is not possible. It does not work. The more you try to shut it down, the more popular it becomes.”

Even without opposition from the council, Jungle’s scenes aren’t exactly the easiest to film in a crowded metropolis. At one point, a massive gang of mobsters gather in Canary Wharf on quad bikes, where they hold a strategy meeting to the soundtrack of roaring engines. In another example, a female retiree bursts out of a building and fires a shotgun after departing robbers before unleashing a fearsome attack dog.

“It was Junior who had to hold that dog before it was released! He actually struggled with it. I swear the dog tried to grab it for a walk!” says Appeti.

“At some point,” Okoli says, “it turned to me and I could see in its eyes that it was thinking, ‘Shall I just bite that guy?’ It doubled back to give me a second after I let go, but I had already closed the door by then.

One of the most striking things about Jungle is how visually stunning it is. Any interior looks like it belongs in an Instagram shoot, whether it’s bathed in neon red light or so mahogany, it could be an old-school gentlemen’s club. Cars are the kind of vintage cars you would expect to see in a Hitchcock movie. London itself has been reinvented as something out of Blade Runner, lined with Dubai-height skyscrapers where women dance on giant video screens.

“Blade Runner is my all-time favorite movie!” says Appeti. “But from the start, our mission was to make sure every shot looked so good it could be taken and placed on the wall [like a picture].”

The stylized images contain generous use of slow-motion. In one scene, we see a character graphically killed in literal bullet time, with the projectile moving millimeter by millimeter across the screen, until it launches an arterial bloodstream that slowly fanned out across the screen. It’s like the second coming of The Matrix.

“When I was a kid, I was so blown away by The Matrix that I said, ‘I want to do something like that!’” Okoli says. “But as a young boy driving around Streatham I had no idea how. I didn’t know how to get into that field. Brit school was for a certain kind of drama school individual, and that wasn’t me. You notice that later in life you unconsciously try to imitate these inspiring moments.”

Poundz as Marcus in Jungle.
Poundz as Marcus in Jungle. Photo: Delroy Matty/Prime Video

Okoli has put so much of himself into Jungle that he acts as the narrator, breaking the fourth wall every episode to deliver a monologue. In one, we’re treated to the heartwarming story of him buying his first bike, while charmingly enthused by black-and-white footage of a radiant child holding a mini-Chopper while a merry soul plays. In another speech, he delivers a motivational speech urging viewers to “read every book you can” and “dream so big that you feel uncomfortable telling your dreams to narrow-minded people.”

These are the show’s most emotionally gripping moments, and they make perfect sense when you consider that Appeti and Okoli long for Jungle to serve as a warning of inner-city poverty that sucks young people into crime. After all, the more personal you can make the story, the greater the chance that it will have an impact.

“We don’t want people sitting in front of the TV thinking, ‘That was a good story,'” Okoli says. “We want viewers to know that our background didn’t make us this success – it’s what choices you make, how fierce you are, how hard you attack it. If people get inspiration from Jungle, it should be the creatives from this world. We are trying to beg more people to do this.”

Let’s hope that happens. After all, jungle can’t be the only crime-fi-rap opera out there…

Jungle can be seen on Prime Video from Friday 30 Sept.

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