UK rap critic Joseph 'JP' Patterson speaks to the "first artist with a Criminal Behaviour Order affecting the type of music he can put out" in a new interview, ahead of BBC Three's documentary Defending Digga D.
The rapper explains what it's like to make music under police monitoring - and says there's a "human" side to the figure he's often portrayed as.
Twenty-year-old rapper Digga D – real name Rhys Herbert – is one of UK drill's most valued players, known for adding fun and frolics to this overtly dark and menacing sound and scene.
With its roots in early-2010s Chicago drill, London road rap, and grime, UK drill is a movement that the world has been fascinated by since making its mark in 2015 – initially spurred on by Brixton's Grizzy and M Dargg's Look Like You in 2014 – with emerging scenes now found in places like Ireland, Brooklyn, and even further out to Australia and parts of Africa.
For Digga D, who even at his young age is considered one of the sound's forefathers, his journey started in 2015 as part of the crew 1011. But it was a particular freestyle in 2017 – Next Up? – that stopped everyone in their tracks.
Heads in the music industry began to turn, and they quickly found themselves in "next to blow" conversations.
But there was one member whose stylings stood out the most, and his name was Digga D.
Barely 17 at the time, his confidence on the mic was something you'd expect from somebody twice his age – with the rhymes to boot – showing his star potential early on.
Drill music has been under much scrutiny since its surge in popularity in recent years, with many seemingly uncomfortable with these young black voices speaking their harsh, front-door realities. Others think drill encourages violence.
In 2018, just as his music career was starting to take off, it was Digga D who became personally involved in this sometimes harsh world, after he and other members of 1011 were convicted of conspiracy to commit violent disorder.
Digga was sentenced to a year behind bars.
Since then, Digga D has been back to prison three times, including for breaching the stringent conditions of his Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO).
As part of his release conditions, he was banned from going back home to London and, after being released from prison, was made to stay in an approved premises hostel in Norwich.
He was fitted with a GPS tracker on his leg and was made to check in with probation every three hours - at 11am, 2pm, 5pm, 8pm and 11pm every day.
But what made Digga's situation stand out was one particular condition of his CBO: he has to notify the police when he uploads any new audio or visual material - including where it is uploaded and song lyrics - within 24 hours of upload.
He's believed to be the first artist to be given a CBO that affects his ability to put out music, which - according to his lawyer - gives the police and probation the ability to control and censor his art.
Despite his unusual circumstances, Digga says he's now used to the monitoring of his music. "It sounds bad, I know, but I'm just used to it now," he tells BBC Three over Zoom, as he fries up some breakfast in his kitchen.
"It's still stressful but it's something that you learn to adapt to."
When the terms of Digga's CBO were ordered in 2018, the Metropolitan Police denied it amounted to censorship.
Det Ch Supt Kevin Southworth said at the time: "When in this instance you see a particular genre of music being used specifically to goad, to incite, to provoke, to inflame, that can only lead to acts of very serious violence being committed, that’s when it becomes a matter for the police.
"We're not in the business of killing anyone's fun, we're not in the business of killing anyone's artistic expression - we are in the business of stopping people being killed."
"A Criminal Behaviour Order tends to be imposed by a criminal court after conviction," says the artist's lawyer Cecilia Goodwin, who also appears in the documentary and admits she didn't know who Digga D was before being contacted by his team.
"There's a list of about 18 to 20 people that Rhys isn't allowed to associate with, most of whom make up his friends from school or friends from his area or people that the police deemed were part of a gang that he was part of.
"It's supposed to target really serious antisocial behaviour and it can be for a different length of time. It's dependent on the behaviour that the police are trying to deal with and obviously how long they feel that it would take for someone to change their ways and their path."
It's even more difficult to manoeuvre when you're a musician on a mission to succeed in such a fickle, here-today-gone-tomorrow type of industry.
"The order determines what sorts of things Digga can talk about in his songs," Cecilia says. "So it tries to control who he can talk about, what he can talk about, the areas that he can talk about. And also it goes even further because, visually, there are certain things he's also not allowed to portray. So it's very tricky. It's quite difficult working within those parameters when you are a drill artist."
Before he releases any music, Cecilia has to go through his lyrics. When Digga was preparing to release his 2020 track Woi, for example, he had to talk Cecilia through the song line by line.
One line she flagged was: "Jump out, try put him in a coffin."
"It's a dance move, it's on YouTube," Digga explains. "It's a meme, it's on TikTok."
Digga's track Woi has been viewed 13 million times on YouTube and is one of the most successful drill solo singles of the year.
His 2019 single No Diet, meanwhile, has sold more than 200,000 copies with 20 million views on YouTube.
'I've always been motivated'
Digga, who started writing music when he was 12, grew up in West London listening to Jamaican reggae and dancehall.
But he started getting into trouble when he was young, too. He was arrested at school in year eight after being caught with weed. He was taken to Wandsworth police station and kicked out of school.
He continued to get in trouble with the law and ended up not taking his GCSEs.
Reflecting on his past, Digga says he regrets the things he's done but realises he can't go back and change things.
"I've learnt from my mistakes," he says. "I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't make some of the mistakes I made, but I'm not a man that likes to live in the past. I like to move forward and I think about the future a lot.
"Jay-Z did what he did, and look where he is now. French Montana did what he did, you know what I'm saying? Biggie, 2Pac, all these rap legends – people have a past. It's just about moving away from it and having a positive future."
"I think [Digga] was a criminal, he made some decisions in his past, which were terrible decisions really," Cecilia says in the documentary. "But it doesn't mean that he should be written off."
Digga says he's motivated to succeed, in large part so he can help look after his family and friends.
"I've always been motivated. I just haven't had the time to do what I want to do because of prison. My tape [Double Tap Diaries] got released while I was in prison, and I didn't get to see what No Diet done because I went to jail three days after it dropped."
Despite his success, Digga has continued to face some of the harsh realities of life.
While Digga was recalled to prison in 2019, Cecilia got a call from his mum, who was in a very emotional state, saying her son had been stabbed. She believed he was dead.
Digga had been stabbed in the eye and the attack left him almost blind in one eye.
"The problem for Rhys is that the world he's coming out of has caused him a lot of enemies and I guess part of that is being in a gang," Cecilia says. "Those are the things to expect if you lead that lifestyle."
So how long might Digga face these conditions?
"For Rhys, his one is for five years," says Cecilia. "The only way that you can get a CBO removed is by basically going back to court and applying for it to be either varied – so you could say, 'Look, can you take out some of the terms?' or you'd be saying, 'We don't think this should be imposed for as long as it's been imposed for' – or you're challenging it and saying: 'This is not workable.'
"So that's something that, obviously, we are discussing in the background, because the CBO brings so many challenges that make it difficult for him to be able to continue to earn a living and make music and to allow him to be creative.
"The lucky thing I would say about Digga D is that he's such a brilliant artist, creatively. He's been able to try his best to try and create music without getting himself breached."
'I'm human as well'
A new BBC Three documentary Defending Digga D, from filmmaker Marian Mohamed, reflects the bonds Digga has made with the people he works with every day, including Mixtape Madness, one of UK rap's most important YouTube channels run by a group of up-and-coming music executives.
"It's very important to have a strong team behind you," Digga D says, "because if you don't, you won't feel like anyone's supporting you. You'll feel like you just want to give up.
"For me, it's always nice to have that push. I don't give up easily anyway, but it's always nice to have that extra push and that advice from people that's on your side."
Cecilia has high hopes for Digga's future, too. She says in the documentary: "I truly hope that the lifestyle he had before he'll leave behind and just be able to live a life free of violence, free of the threat of violence and free of the police and probation. And I think he can do it, it's just about being mentally focussed and keeping his head down."
Another thing that shines through in the documentary is just how young Digga D is, despite the things he's been through and the things he's done.
In one scene, for example, after he'd been allowed to move to a rented property, he's seen laughing, joking, and wrestling around on the floor with his mates as they decide where they'll put the newly ordered IKEA furniture - like anyone else on the cusp of adulthood.
In another scene, he spends time running around on the beach in Great Yarmouth, taking pictures with his fans.
And since his release from prison, things have continued to move fast for Digga. He performed at Wireless Festival this year, which in the past has hosted Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rihanna.
It was the first time in Digga's career that he had ever performed on stage.
Digga D's manager, Bills, explains that with his youth comes insecurity.
"Behind the scenes, he's not as secure as people think," he says in the documentary. "Everyone is around for the shows and the music videos [but] little do they know that the night before man is insecure as hell.
"He's a living, viral sensation and that's not easy to deal with, bruv."
Digga wants people to go away knowing that he's not the monster he's sometimes portrayed as.
"Some people will hear my music and think the worst of me, but I think the documentary shows that I'm a cool guy because I actually am.
"If you watch some of my old videos where they say the music was dark, you can see my personality in it, like me dancing with my friends and laughing.
"I'm human as well."
And now watch...
'Everyone Thinks I'm A Violent Animal': Digga D sits down with BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ and The Rap Game UK host DJ Target
Originally published on 24 November 2020.