Top Boy: How Drake went from watching the show to reviving it

By Imran Rahman-Jones and Kameron Virk
Newsbeat reporters

Image source, Netflix

Five years ago, an Instagram post from Drake started a series of events that will end on Friday with the release of a new Netflix series.

The Canadian artist posted a picture of actor Ashley Walters in the east London crime drama Top Boy. He was a fan of the cult show.

But the biggest rapper in the world was disappointed to find out it had just been cancelled by Channel 4.

For most fans of the show, that was that - they had to make do with the eight episodes which had aired over two seasons between 2011 and 2013.

But Drake - being Drake - had the power to bring it back.

"Next thing I knew, we were sitting in a room with Netflix. And here we are," Ashley tells Radio 1 Newsbeat at the premiere of the show's revival.

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Drake - executive producer - was greeted by screams and cheers when he arrived at Hackney Picturehouse for the premiere

"It's amazing to be back," says Ashley, who's played main character Dushane since the series started.

He tweeted Drake after seeing the original Instagram post in 2014 - to which Drake replied: "That show is just too good."

"I ain't gonna lie - in the beginning, I was slightly starstruck meeting him," says Ashley, who was known as Asher D during his time as member of the pioneering UK music group, So Solid Crew.

"But obviously he's a big fan of the show, and the actors in the show as well. So there's a mutual respect there."

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Rapper Kano (left) plays Sully, Dushane's former right-hand man

Top Boy's first two seasons were praised for their authenticity and accurate reflection of life on a Hackney estate.

"The show's about London... it's about our life, our culture," says Ashley.

That could be why, as Ashley says, Toronto-born Drake "didn't want to change anything creatively... it was just about remaking the show that he loves so much".

As an executive producer, Drake - a well-known fan of British music and culture - wants the show to feel as close to the original as possible.

"At first it was kind of, just for me, I was like - I need this back. But then I realised how much it meant to so many people," he told Netflix at the premiere.

When the revival was first announced there were rumours of the Canadian making a cameo appearance - but as far as we know, he won't be in it.

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Shone Romulus (left) returns as Dris in season three

Part of Top Boy's authenticity came from the actors in the show.

There were seasoned actors - such as Ashley Walters and Benedict Wong - but a lot of the cast had little or no acting experience.

Grime MC Kano played main character Sully, while fellow artists Bashy (who had acted before) and Scorcher also had roles.

The cast also featured the likes of Michaela Coel and a then-unknown Letitia Wright, and young people from estates around where the show was set in east London.

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Rapper Dave (left) joins the cast for season three, in what is his first acting role

The new series also showcases talent we haven't seen acting before - including musician Dave.

But Ashley says he wasn't hired because of his profile.

New character Modie was meant to be much older than 21-year-old Dave, but his strong audition won him the part.

"Dave's music has skyrocketed, but he was already filming Top Boy way before that," Ashley says.

"I always understood that as a musician, he was really in touch with himself... and that reflects on the screen as well."

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Mercury-nominated rapper Little Simz plays Dushane's love interest

Little Simz has been acting since she was a child, but the Mercury-nominated rapper is another new addition to the cast.

She watched the first series of Top Boy when she was still at school and grew up not far from Hackney, where it's set.

"I remember talking about it with my friends," she says.

"Just being so proud that there was something on TV that represented us, our culture and our story.

"So six years on, to be a part of that story is insane."

She adds: "All the topics discussed in the series are happening in today's society.

"It's great that the show can hopefully open more eyes."

In the past, Top Boy's storylines have focused on issues such as gang warfare, gentrification and poverty.

The same topics come up again in the Netflix revival, mixed in with nods to the current political climate.

"As I was writing the show, issues like the Windrush deportations came up," says creator Ronan Bennett. "And we've got Brexit references in the show."

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Top Boy is set in east London against a backdrop of rising rents and property prices

Hackney is an almost-textbook example of gentrification - when a poor neighbourhood is renovated.

That can increase rents and property prices, pushing out low-income people who can't afford to live there any more.

The entry of a drug-dealing, middle-class white couple into the new series hints at the pace of change in the area.

"You can't blame people... you know, coffee shops are nice, and having smashed avocado on sourdough is nice - but there's a price to pay," says Ronan.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ronan Bennett created Top Boy after years of living in Hackney

The Hackney resident had ideas for the third series of Top Boy before it was cancelled by Channel 4. He deliberately left series two on a cliffhanger.

"It's thanks to Drake, primarily, that we're back," he says.

But he admits he didn't know who the Canadian rapper was before they first met.

"I said to my kids, 'I'm going to meet some singer.' They said, 'Who is he?' And I said, 'somebody called Drake'.

"They did a double take."

"He's just a really nice man," adds Ronan.

"'We want to add gasoline to your fire,' was what he said. 'Just do what you do, and I'm there to help you'."

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Sully became Dushane's rival in season two

Although he's lived in Hackney for a long time, Ronan is a Northern Irish man in his sixties - hardly like the characters he writes in the show.

He's not precious about the script - if the actors want to change a line to make it more authentic, he's happy to.

"On the surface he looks like just some white guy from Northern Ireland. But actually, it goes a lot deeper than that," says Ashley Walters.

"Imagine [Ashley's character] Dushane was a writer - for him to write his own story, he's only going to write it in one dimension, whereas Ronan's got the overview."

He adds: "We always bring people on from the community to help us make this story true."

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Micheal Ward, who plays Jamie, is this season's star - and it's his very first role

The slang and the storylines make this a very British show.

But Ashley's convinced the new series, which will be released worldwide on Netflix, will translate - and not just for anglophiles like Drake.

"What makes it palatable for everybody is that we round off these characters, we humanise these characters.

"To do that, you have to talk about the issues that surround their lifestyle and talk about what makes them do what they do.

"And that's pretty much politics, you know, in the UK, and everyone's into politics in some form."

Media caption,
Why Drake is at the London premiere of a cult British TV show

"Obviously, we don't have the same accent, but we speak the same," says Drake.

"It reminded me of people that I grew up with, or guys that I know... so I just felt super connected right away."

He says there are universal aspects to the stories and characters, which resonate around the world.

"It could be in the middle of Hackney hustling, it could be in music, you could be building houses, you could be doing whatever.

"But to be undisputed - where your peers respect and fear you at the same time - that, to me, is a top boy."

Top Boy streams on Netflix from 13 September.

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