Under glowing street lights in a parking lot in the south London neighborhood of Brixton, the eponymous creator of PacmanTV – a YouTube channel featuring music videos of the city’s emerging rap artists – gets to work. With one hand on his camera lens and the other clamping his cellphone to his ear, the 24-year-old filmmaker barks orders at a rapper twice his size who’s late to the set. Because Pacman’s videos score hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of views, he can get away with being a little bossy.
“I’ve seen people get shot, I’ve seen fights and arrests,” says Pacman, who, given that he works with many gang-affiliated rappers, wishes to go by only his nom de guerre. “It’s stuff an ordinary citizen shouldn’t see, but all of the drama is just part of these guys’ lifestyle.”
The rappers featured in Pacman’s videos are part of the “grime” scene, a splinter of rap music that is less about swigging Grey Goose in the club, and more about smoking joints in the cold stairwell of a low-income apartment complex. Grime lyrics often chronicle an artist’s time in jail or see performers boast about the weapons under their beds or the bodies they’ve dropped. Others lyricize about the pointlessness of gang life. There’s a soap-opera quality to Pacman’s video collection, with rappers frequently trash-talking rival gang members in deft couplets. But one message runs as a throughline across all the clips: get online-famous or die trying.
Sometimes Pacman’s subjects come close to achieving both.
One night, while readying himself and his subjects for filming, Pacman suddenly heard two shots ring out. “This guy has been hit in his legs and waist,” Pacman recounts. “The guys I’m filming are just saying, ‘Let’s keep filming, we’ve paid for your time, he’ll be fine.’”
Pacman finished the shoot while police and paramedics in a helicopter attended to the victim. “That’s business,” he says.
Back in Brixton, Pacman launches a drone a hundred feet into the air to capture aerial shots of the urban landscape as the rapper JGang gets busy throwing bars down, his shades cranked hard against his face. A purple smoke bomb breaks on the ground, sending luminous smoke spiraling up into the apartments above. Windows swing open and an elderly lady sticks her head out, squawking at the noise. The shoot is complete inside of 20 minutes and Pacman is gone – just as the purple smoke curls into the air conditioning vent and sets off fire alarms in the building. Minutes later, police cars arrive, blue lights flickering.
* * *
The friction between gangs in England’s capital is constant. Four young men were stabbed to death in separate incidents on New Year’s Eve alone, and in February, 17-year-old Abdikarim Hassan was stabbed to death in a gang attack, becoming the sixteenth person to be fatally stabbed in London this year.
YouTube often plays a supporting role in these incidents of gang violence. In 2016, teenager Marcel Addai was chased down and stabbed to death after a series of tit-for-tat beef videos between two gangs – the Hoxton Boys and Fellows Court boys – were posted online. In one, Rickel Rogers, 21, who was sentenced to 25 years for the murder of Addai, rapped explicitly about hunting his rivals down with a gun, before saying, “This road thing gonna end one day, they say the only way out is jail or dead and I see both.”
According to London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, grime videos on YouTube provide both the accelerant and soundtrack to these turf wars. Khan said last summer that “life could depend” on YouTube removing videos which make threats or discuss extreme violence.
Among the alarming violence, Pacman follows the golden rule: just keep filming. He recalls one video shoot that got heated. After an argument between gang members had seemingly been squashed, both of them left the set, but one re-appeared later as Pacman was filming. “I’m looking down the lens and see the one guy [in] the background with this massive duffel bag and you just think, ‘Oh shit, he’s got a bat or a big knife.’” But as the gang member unzipped the bag, screaming repeatedly, “Where is he?” he revealed it was a shotgun inside. “Thankfully the guy he wanted didn’t come back,” Pacman says.
Pacman, who is of Nigerian descent, grew up in and around the East London district of Walthamstow. His unique movie-making career started early and by accident. “One of my mates got suspended from college and he hadn’t finished his video edit assignment,” Pacman recounts. “He wasn’t allowed back on campus to finish it, so he begged me to help him.” A teenager at the time, Pacman got hooked, downloading editing software and shooting music videos for other friends. “Then it started taking off,” he says.
He attributes the fact that he did not attend film school as a reason for his success. “I think people like the rawness,” Pacman says, referring to his videos’ ambiance. “The fact is it’s just me, a set of lights, a drone, some props.” He adds that the popularity of his channel has helped him get work filming artists across the U.K. and as far afield as France, the Netherlands, Dubai, and the United States.
Pacman declined to discuss how much he charges for his videos, but a good day will see a private message drop into his email, asking him to head to the Spanish coast to film a music video based around a pool party. Some rappers will fly him out to capture their birthdays or rapping in a new ride they’ve bought. “Artists want to be on the platform,” he says. “People are buying as much into people’s profiles as they are they music sometimes.”
Pacman, who sidestepped questions about where he got his nickname, leads a life of contradiction. On the one hand, he rides shotgun with London’s dangerous gangs, on the other he’s courteous, apologizing to people on the street and in nearby apartments for the noise. A noticeably thumbed Bible sits on his dashboard, wobbling about as the pedals hit the floor.
Residents who have come over to complain sometimes end up watching Pacman work up-close, dancing along to the music. “Neighbors see the police cars and the lights and they think some serious danger is happening,” Pacman says. “It’s just some guys trying to make some good music.” He asserts that most of the artists he films do not commit crimes, and many others have left the gang life behind, although a few subjects have had to cancel shoots due to an arrest or some other altercation.
In February 2014, rapper Terngu Agera, 23, from north London was making waves on the PacmanTV channel, under the name “Mover.” Several of his videos had clocked well over 600,000 hits, and he produced a video celebrating his one-millionth total view. In July of that year, Agera, along with four friends, attempted to mug Zydruna Laurinavicius, 38, in broad daylight as the construction worker returned home from a day on the job. As the victim fought back, he was fatally stabbed in the heart with a hunting knife.
Pacman declined to discuss this incident, but says, “All of my artists have their own lives. They send me a sample of their music and ask for a video … I can’t make choices for them. ”
A key part of the PacmanTV experience are the comments underneath the videos. Users stay loyal to rappers from their own postcodes – “Big up SW2!”, “Rep E6 mandem!” Some abuse other users, pouring fuel on escalating conflicts. One artist disses another and fans lather up for a reply video or a real-time, street-level retribution.
Pacman himself once got scooped up during a police raid at a house party during a shoot. “Everyone else ran and, being stuck with all my equipment, I got left with the tab.”
He says he was blamed by police, “for all the drugs dumped at the party and criminal damage because someone had kicked in a fire door to get into the party.
“But you’re not running anywhere fast,” he continues, “if one, you’re carrying a camera and lights; two, you haven’t done anything wrong.”
Pacman says all charges were dismissed and that he never uses drugs because it’d be “unprofessional.”
“I’d never get out my head at a party when I’ve got loads of equipment to lose,” he says. “I was at the wrong house party, that’s it.”
Pacman counts his mother among his biggest fans, though she understandably maintains a level of maternal trepidation over his career path. “The guy has worked hard and I am proud of him,” she says. “He is alone out there. He knows what he does, and the people he is seeing, but he feels quite safe; he tells me there is nothing to worry about.”
When asked if her son’s videos spur increased gang violence, she says she thinks it’s quite the opposite. “If I could tell the Queen about PacmanTV I would tell her to watch it. He has done so much to change young lives, to take them off the street and give them a chance at something.”
Many of the stars on the channel see music as a way of escaping violence in a city that, in their minds, only celebrates wealth. One of PacmanTV’s breakout stars, the group 67 LD, have a track called “Live Corn” – named after the ammo packed into an automatic weapon. Their frontman offers, “I don’t rap because I’m trying to get a deal, I’m just out here tryin’ eat a meal. I spend whole nights lurkin’ in a field. Ask them other niggas, they know how shit feels.”
The PacmanTV clip, shot at a notorious Brixton housing complex in barely an hour, has garnered three million views, with commenters leaving shoutouts from as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles.
* * *
Pacman rolls into Beckton, an East London neighborhood that was once feted to become a luxury commuter hub, but it never saw the funding and is now a loose network of stores, parks, and roundabouts. Below thousands of shabby apartments along the alien-looking railway that links the area to the rest of the city, Pacman’s latest video set doubles as a neat metaphor for metropolitan ambition.
Out on the street, Pacman’s busy sorting out his lights while a couple of rappers, including another of PacmanTV’s upcoming stars, Tallest Trapstar, work out their rhymes.
Tallest Trapstar – so called because he is willow-tree tall and raps about how he used to peddle drugs from a “trap,” which is slang for drug-selling spots – is a riddle, like many of Pacman’s stars. He’s keen to escape the gangs while paying homage to them. In a recent video, he used a gun shop as a backdrop. “That gun shop, it’s just a setting, a scene, to tell a story,” Tallest Trapstar says. “That’s what I’ve grown up with. I’m trying to get somewhere, far away from the negative things that people think of me.”
The night is relentless. Pacman next pulls over into a dark housing project in Hackney, East London. A group of young men are fidgeting about nervously, playing the same beat out of their phones over and over again. The central figure is the rapper Shortz. He has an expensive looking chain around his neck which hangs heavily on his slim frame. He claims it cost £10,000 for which he’s been “quietly saving all the pennies.” Despite the incongruous wealth, Shortz claims he “gave up the gangster stuff years ago.”
When the artists he works with cross a line, it has negative ramifications for PacmanTV. “YouTube has started taking my videos down,” Pacman says. “That’s the worst thing that can happen to my business.” He traces the video removals to a time shortly after some newscasts declared his videos contribute to gang violence.
A YouTube spokesperson, discussing the type of gang videos Pacman produces, said, “YouTube has always been a place for creative expression, but we also have rules that are rigorously enforced. We do not allow videos that are abusive or promote violence, nor videos that harass, bully or threaten. To ensure we understand local context, we work closely with the Metropolitan police to understand where there are real threats.”
Trouble with the law on the part of his stars aside, Pacman is hoping to expand his brand’s reach worldwide and wants to work with more established artists on more mainstream videos, both in the U.K. and abroad. He’s also looking to open a recording studio, a venture he says is all about giving back because many London rappers have difficulty booking studio time because of the reputation of the music.
“I feel like I’m making progress,” says Pacman, who once took meetings with rappers in chicken shops but now favors upscale hotel bars. “I feel very blessed.”