Jungle isn’t the most conventional TV show you can watch. In a sense, it’s a spiritual successor to Top Boy, given its storylines and gun cast whose crime-based livelihoods surround London’s drug trade. But it’s also a musical – television’s first musical, in fact – and most of the cast are top British MCs. It’s also set in a sci-fi alternate reality where the English capital is teeming with fictional technology like subcutaneous watches, cars with barcodes for license plates, and cops wielding electrified clubs. If it had to be given a genre, it would be crime-fi-rap-opera.
“We didn’t just want to do a typical gangster drama,” says Jungle co-creator Junior Okoli. “Congratulations to all the productions before us, I think they did an amazing job, but we wanted to do something totally different.”
Jungle is Okoli and co-creator Chas Appeti’s first television film. Appeti is a music video creator who “has filmed for just about everyone on the UK scene – Giggs, Lethal B, Chip, Ruff Sqwad, Tinchy Stryder”. Okoli worked in artist management – with a side hustle as a mixed martial artist – and as he traveled the world with musicians he noticed that wherever he went he saw the same happen. only in his hometown: inner city poverty leading to a life of crime.
When the couple met, they began working on videos together and decided to create Jungle to “illuminate that kill-or-be-killed mindset that accompanies a poor life, with a lack of ‘opportunities”. Eventually, they successfully pitched it to Amazon and quickly made the show – although there was a decidedly odd feel to the first meetings.
“About five or six sessions, I realized they were all googled my name and watching my cage fights,” says Okoli. “My fights were pretty brutal back then, so they must have thought I was an absolute savage!”
Given their background in the music industry and their desire to engage young viewers, telling the story through song seemed natural. Or at least it was for them, if not for the talent involved. “They hated it at first. They really hated it,” Okoli says of trying to convince a cast of MCs, including Tinie Tempah, Dizzee Rascal and Big Narstie, to collaborate to use their rhymes for the show, despite usually making music. alone.
“At first it was this very distant thing like, ‘Who is this guy telling me what to do – with some guy in the corner writing notes?’ We had to earn their trust and respect, so we ended up talking to them outside their homes, sitting in their cars, just trying to understand their background and their story and what inspires them.
The result is a narrative that seamlessly transitions from traditional dialogue to segments delivered entirely in rap. For the first three episodes – all previewed – the action centers on a robbery gone wrong, committed by reluctant criminal and soon-to-be father Gogo (Ezra Elliott) and his terrifyingly violent colleague Slim (played by British rapper RA). As the stick-up is full of barked verbal instructions to hand over the payload, a low bassline kicks in for the sequel, and the thieves rap off for a frenzied post-game analysis. At one point, Gogo has a three-way rap 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 would have been like, ‘What world is this?'” Okoli says of the complex writing process, in which they had to tell a story that was both musical They took lyrics created by the cast (or ghost rap writers for actors who weren’t also MCs) and then rewrote the spoken word segments to remove or add additional material depending on the quality of the rhymes linked to the plot.
Just in case that wasn’t tricky enough, the lyrics had to be written with complete ignorance of the show’s overall plot. Appeti and Okoli kept the cast members’ scripts secret because “London is a very small city. We didn’t want the scripts to come out,” as Okoli puts it.
Filming was no small feat either. As soon as councils in London heard the words “musical drill”, they immediately refused permission, as the genre often made headlines accusing it of inciting violence. But given that the series focuses on inner-city crime, the storyline is so filled with street fights and gang meetings on the estates that this wasn’t an option. “We were jumping on Zoom calls, showing them that we’re direct people, and they were like, ‘OK, cool! We will help you !’ says Okoli. Not that it was all an attempt to rehabilitate drill’s reputation.
“We didn’t seek to address the stigma around exercise,” Appeti says. “We are storytellers. But exercise is just another art form. Hip-hop had the same kind of stuff in the beginning, the British garage had it, even the jungle. Each new and avant-garde genre is first stigmatized.
“You can’t suppress popular culture,” says Okoli. ” You can not. It does not work. The more you try to close it, the more popular it becomes.
Even without opposition from the board, the Jungle scenes aren’t exactly the easiest fare to film in a crowded metropolis. At one point, a gigantic team of gang members gathers in Canary Wharf on quad bikes, holding a strategy meeting to the sound of roaring engines. In another, a pensioner springs from an apartment building and fires a shotgun after the robbers leave before unleashing a terrifying attack dog.
“Junior had to hold that dog before he was released!” He was basically struggling with that. I swear the dog was trying to take him for a walk!” said Appéti.
“At one point,” says Okoli, “he turned to me and I could see in his eyes that he was thinking, ‘Do I just have to bite this guy?’ He doubled down to grab me a second after I let go, but I had closed the door by then.
One of the most striking things about Jungle is how visually stunning it is. Every interior looks like it belongs in an Instagram photo shoot, whether bathed in neon red light or so covered in mahogany it could be an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. The 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 movie of all time!” said Appéti. “But from the start, our mission was to make sure that every photo was so beautiful that it could be taken and hung on the wall. [like a picture].”
Stylized images include liberal 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 jet of blood that slowly unfurls across the screen. . It’s like the second coming of The Matrix.
“I was so blown away by The Matrix as a kid that I said, ‘I want to do something like this!'” Okoli said. “But as a young lad running around Streatham I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to enter this field. The British school was for a certain type of performing individual, and I wasn’t that. You find yourself, later in life, subconsciously trying to replicate those inspiring moments.
Okoli has become so invested in Jungle that he serves as the narrator, breaking the fourth wall each episode to deliver a monologue. In one, we’re treated to the heartwarming story of him buying his first bike, as he charmingly enthuses over black-and-white images of a beaming child holding a mini-Chopper while the cheerful soul plays. In another, he gives a motivational speech urging viewers to “read all the books you can” and “dream so big that you feel uncomfortable telling your dreams to like-minded people.” narrow”.
These are the most emotional moments in the series, and they make perfect sense when you consider Appeti and Okoli’s desire for Jungle to serve as a warning about the inner-city poverty that sucks young people into the world. crime. After all, the more you personalize the story, the more impactful it is likely to be.
“We don’t just want people sitting in front of the TV saying, ‘That was a good story,’” says Okoli. “We want viewers to know that our track record hasn’t allowed us to have this success – it’s the choices you make, how outspoken you are, how attacking you are. If people inspire from Jungle is that creative people are of this world. We try to implore more people to do it.
Let’s hope that happens. After all, Jungle can’t be the only detective-fi-rap opera out there…
Jungle is on Prime Video from Friday September 30.