Jungle is not the most conventional TV show you’ll ever watch. In one sense, it’s a spiritual successor to TopBoy, given its gun-toting storylines and cast whose crime-based livelihoods circle London’s drug trade. But it’s also a musical – TV’s first drill musical, in fact – and the bulk of the actors are prominent UK drill and grime MCs. It’s also set in a sci-fi alternate reality where England’s capital city is full of fictional technology such as under-skin watches, cars that have barcodes for number plates and cops 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 to all the productions before us, I think they’ve done an amazing job, but we wanted to do something totally different.”
Jungle is the television debut of Okoli and co-creator Chas Appeti. Appeti is a maker of music videos who’s “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 noticed that wherever he was, he saw the same thing happening as in his home town: inner-city poverty leading to a life of crime
When the pair met, they began working on videos together and decided to create Jungle to “shine a light on that kill-or-be-killed mindset that comes with an impoverished life, with a lack of opportunity”. Eventually, they successfully pitched it to Amazon, and were soon making the show – though there was a decidedly strange feel to the initial meetings.
“About five or six sessions in, I realized they were all Googling my name and looking at my cage fights,” says Okoli. “My fights were pretty brutal at the time, so they must have thought I was an absolute savage!”
Given their music industry backgrounds, and a desire to engage young viewers, telling the tale via song felt a natural fit. Or at least it did for them, if not for the talent involved. “They hated it at first. They definitely hated it,” says Okoli of the attempt to convince a cast of MCs including Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal and big narstie to collaborate on using their rhymes for the show, despite usually making music alone.
“At first it was this very standoffish thing like: ‘Who is this guy telling me what to do – with some guy in the corner writing notes?’ We had to gain their trust, and respect, so we ended up talking to them outside their houses, sitting in their cars, just trying to understand their background and history and what inspires them.”
The result is a narrative that flits seamlessly from traditional dialogue to segments delivered entirely in rap. For the first three episodes – all that were released for preview purposes – the action centers on a robbery gone wrong, committed by reluctant criminal and father-to-be Gogo (Ezra Elliott) and his terrifyingly violent colleague Slim (played by UK rapper RA ). While the stick-up is full of barked spoken instructions to hand over the payload, a low bassline kicks in for the aftermath, and the robbers launch into rap for a frenzied post-match analysis. At one point, Gogo has a three-way rap-off with himself, trading bars with his inner good voice and bad voice.
“If you were in the studio with us when we were writing it, you’d have been like: ‘What world is this?’” says Okoli of the complex writing process, in which they had to tell a story across 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 either remove or add extra material depending how well the rhymes tied in with 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 secret from cast members because “London’s a very small place. We didn’t want the scripts getting out,” as Okoli puts it.
Shooting was no mean feat either. As soon as London’s councils heard the words “drill musical”, they instantly refused permission, because the genre has often generated headers blaming it for inciting violence. But given the series focuses on inner-city crime, the script is so packed with street-based confrontations and estate-based gang meetings that this wasn’t an option. “We’d jump on Zoom calls, show them we’re straight-up people, and they’d go: ‘OK, cool! We’re going to help you!’” says Okoli. Not that any of this was an attempt to rehabilitate drill’s reputation.
“We didn’t set out to address the stigma attached to drill,” says Appeti. “We’re storytellers. But drill is just another art form. Hip-hop had the same sort of thing at first, UK garage did, even jungle. Every genre that’s new and cutting edge gets stigmatized at first.”
“You can’t suppress popular culture,” says Okoli. “You can not. It doesn’t 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 fare to film in a packed metropolis. At one point, a gigantic crew of gang members gather in Canary Wharf on quad bikes, holding a strategy meeting to the soundtrack of roaring engines. In another, a female pensioner bursts from a building and fires a shotgun after departing robbers before unleashing a terrifying attack dog.
“It was Junior who had to hold that dog before it was released! He was basically wrestling with it. I swear the dog was trying to take him for a walk!” says Appetit.
“At one point,” says Okoli, “it turned to me and I could see in its eyes it was thinking: ‘Shall I just bite this guy?’ It doubled back to get me a second after I’d let it go, but I’d closed the door by then.”
One of the most striking things about Jungle is how visually stunning it is. Every interior looks as if it belongs in an Instagram shoot, be it bathed in neon red light or so mahogany-clad it could be an old-school gentlemen’s club. Cars are the kind of vintage vehicles you’d expect in a Hitchcock movie. London itself has been reimagined as something out of Blade Runner, lined with Dubai-height skyscrapers where women dance on gigantic video screens.
“Blade Runner is my favorite film of all time!” says Appetit. “But from the start our mission was to make sure that every shot looked so good it could be taken and put on the wall [like a picture].”
The stylized footage includes liberal use of slow-motion. In one scene, we see a character being graphically killed in literal bullet time, with the projectile moving millimetre by millimetre across the screen, until it launches an arterial spray of blood that slowly fans out across the screen. It’s like the second coming of The Matrix.
“I was so blown away by The Matrix when I was a kid that I said: ‘I want to do something like this!’” says Okoli. “But as a young boy running around in Streatham, I had no idea how. I didn’t know how to get into that field. The Brit school was for a certain kind of individual stage-school, and I wasn’t that. You find yourself, later in life, subconsciously trying to replicate these inspiring moments.”
Okoli has put so much of himself into Jungle that he serves as narrator, breaking the fourth wall every episode to deliver a monologue. In one, we’re treated to the heartwarming tale of him buying his first bike, as he charmingly enthuses over black-and-white footage of a beaming kid holding a mini-Chopper while joyful soul plays. In another, he delivers a motivational speech that urges viewers to “read every book you possibly can” and “dream so big you feel uncomfortable telling your dreams to small-minded people”.
These are the show’s most emotionally affecting moments, and they make total sense when you consider Appetit and Okoli’s desire for Jungle to serve as a warning about inner-city poverty sucking young people into crime. After all, the more personal you can make the story, the more likely it is to have an impact.
“We don’t just want people sitting in front of the TV going: ‘That was a good story,’” says Okoli. “We want viewers to know that our backgrounds didn’t lead to us having this success – it’s what choices you make, how vehement you are, how hard you attack it. If people take inspiration from Jungle, it should be that the creatives are desde this world. We’re trying to implore 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 is on Prime Video from Friday 30 Sept.