Junior Okoli and Chas Appeti don’t just want to tell you a story. In Jungle, their new, music-centric drama series for Prime Video, Okoli and Appeti — a creative duo together known as Nothing Lost — they want to show you the truth.
Jungle is a six-part series that traces the intertwining lives and actions of different strangers with their own unique struggles. Told through a mixture of dialogue and music (the latter coming from some of the UK’s biggest rap talents, from Jaykae to Poundz), its first episodes introduce us to a soon-to-be dad trying to escape gang culture and a young mother who will go to any lengths to protect her children. The series is set in a semi-fictional, dystopian major city in England, which the characters refer to as ‘The Jungle’. Think: towering neon signage lighting up the night sky and retro cars souped up with futuristic holographic dashboards, yet still populated by trigger-happy police, skyscrapers, and violence.
Over Zoom, Okoli stresses the importance of creating a sense of timelessness in their depiction of the big city. He and Appeti steer away from giving any specific periods of time or pinpointing real places throughout the series. “We didn’t want it to be set in the present day, because then 10 years from now people will say ‘That was just for those people’ and ‘Things have changed since then’,” says Okoli. “If you look historically at every city, there’s a common thread. It’s lack of opportunity, frustration, the have-nots. We wanted people to focus on that; the message.” But why now? Beyond their shared love of storytelling, Appeti says that the duo “stopped waiting around trying to see if something comes along, we should just do it.”
Before they came together to form Nothing Lost four years ago, Appeti was directing music videos for the likes of Tinchy Styder, Chip, and Giggs, while Okoli was a music manager who was discovering his passion for storytelling. The two hit it off and, after working on other videos together, began working on their crime drama. In the four years since conceiving the idea for Jungle in a café, to creating the pilot in a day-and-a-half, to the days leading up to the series’ release, the duo have been unwavering in their vision for Jungle: uncovering what makes us tick.
The first episode opens with a prologue about escapism and explores the true meaning of trauma. “We’re just wounded men out here,” says Gogo, one of the lead characters trying to escape the city, played by new talent Ezra Elliott. Acknowledging this trauma in people’s lives provided a jumping off point for Okoli and Appeti’s dissection of society. “For a long time, we didn’t know that we were traumatised. We just thought this is our natural disposition,” says Okoli. “Jungle is shining a light on what makes a demographic of people the way they are. The person you see walking down the street who looks aggressive or frustrated, they weren’t born like that. What series of events led to their demeanour? Ignorance is what breeds hatred and once you start to understand a demographic and a culture then there’s recourse for conversation.”
“[The musicians in the cast are] being put out of their comfort zone by playing a character, but we allow them to keep their artistic delivery and energy because it’s something you can’t take away from them”— Junior Okoli of Nothing Lost, co-creator of ‘Jungle’
Jungle works to uncover how poverty, class, and race intersect with violence, drugs and police brutality to infect communities in major cities. Okoli describes the series as “an abrupt slap in the face, a rude awakening and a splash of cold water on your face” and a means of working out how we learn from where we are today. It’s not for nothing that the show’s tagline is ‘This is not just a story.’
“It’s all real,” says Okoli. “It’s all collective experiences. That’s why we say, ‘You might be more comfortable to think of it as a story so you can switch off your TV at the end’ but that’s not the case for us because we can’t switch off our TVs. It is reality for us.”
Using UK rap, grime and drill throughout the series doesn’t just make for an incredible soundtrack — Okoli and Appeti champion it as a means of storytelling that they believe will resonate with a younger audience. “Jungle is somewhat Shakespearean in the sense that Shakespeare used poetry and hijinx comedy in his plays to convey a deeper message, to keep the viewer engaged in this more profound message,” says Okoli.
He adds that “a lot of it was based on how confident we knew an artist was. They’re being put out of their comfort zone by playing a character, but we allow them to keep their artistic delivery and energy because it’s something you can’t take away from them.” That’s why they recruited Britain’s best musical talent to the show, including industry titans like Tinie Tempah and Big Narstie. Casting talent for Jungle was like “assembling The A-Team”, says Okoli, explaining that the duo travelled across the UK with a briefcase and their idea.
The cast list is stacked with artists from the scene making their TV debuts, including Manchester-based singer IAMDDB, Homerton rapper Unknown T; Bandokay and Double Lz of Tottenham drill collective OFB; and Brixton-born grime legend RA (also known as Real Artillery), who plays Slim, a role that Okoli says was pretty much made for the musician. “I drove down to his studio in the middle of Brixton in the dead of night. We didn’t know each other but I was so passionate about him playing the character,” he says. “There’s 10 people in a small room and I’m trying to explain to him the concept of Jungle and how perfect Slim’s character would be for him.”
“When I got the script, I knew it was like something out of this world”— RA, actor for Slim in ‘Jungle’
“When I got the script, I knew it was like something out of this world,” says RA over Zoom. “Slim’s journey is basically something that I’ve been through in my life and the things I’ve seen. So it wasn’t really hard getting into that. The audience will understand him as they watch more. He’s got a very dark, uncompromising side to him.”
All of the genres featured in the series, from rap to grime to drill have had a rocky time when it comes to media portrayal. Drill in particular has been increasingly policed over recent years, with YouTube working with the Metropolitan Police to remove videos they believe “incite violence”. In 2018, a court order instructed artist Digga D to supply the police with lyrics before releasing music in case they describe “gang-related violence”. If found to, he could be sent back to prison. In 2019, drill rappers, AM and Skengdo were given a suspended sentence for performing one of their songs. RA believes that having such a big platform to showcase their artistry could be a step in rehabilitating the genre’s image. “Really, all it is is entertainment, and that’s what everyone gets misconstrued,” he says. “Now it’s mixed with acting, this is what was needed to show everyone’s talent, and that it is a good source of entertainment.”
Although all the featured artists are well versed in writing their own music and collaborating with other artists, writing for the show was where the real creative challenge began. In Jungle, music replaces dialogue much like in a musical; characters switch from talking in scripted dialogue to finishing conversations in head-to-head bars while driving in cars or sitting across the bar from one another. Okoli and Appeti delivered the script and the story outline, but it was up to the artists to find a way to agree on how to deliver their bars harmoniously with one another, as well as fitting in with what their characters would do. “We were feeding off each other’s energy and it went smooth,” says RA, before pausing to rethink. “OK, sometimes it was a likkle piece challenging, because sometimes other people aren’t on the same frequency. Or there were times that I was writing lyrics and Junior was like, ‘No, you need to change it and do it like this.”
Okoli agrees that it was challenging, since the music was written and recorded six months before they started shooting, or even built the set. This meant the artists were writing for a scene that they had no real concept of. “Chas and I had to connect those dots and make the artists comfortable,” he says. “I’d go to RA’s studio or someone else’s and we’d talk for a long time and eat and just try to get everyone in a creative and trusting space. Then the magic would happen.”
Okoli says they wanted to give people “an insight into how people survive and thrive in their environment”. The creators and the cast hope that Jungle will one day become a classic, with their message resonating for years to come. “Every artist involved knows what’s at stake here; the bigger message and the ramifications of Jungle,” says Okoli. “That’s how we managed to get so many people involved who don’t even necessarily like each other. They know that this is bigger than just them.”
Jungle is available on Prime Video now.