I can’t tell if the slang on Netflix’s ‘Top Boy’ is just better or sounds better because of the British accents

OPINION: One of my absolute favorite cultural imports is the show's slang, which I now try to incorporate into everyday life.

Cast of "Top Boy" (Netflix)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

There’s a lot of good television out there in the world to watch these days. It can almost be overwhelming at times. Between Bel-Air, Atlanta returning (tonight!!!!!!!!), South Side, Grand Crew, Bust Down, Run The World, Harlem, etc., there really is a plethora of entertainment for the urban professional (or not so professional but excessively urban) in you. One such show that recently returned to Netflix after a hiatus was Top Boy, the London-based drug crew drama that, of course, draws comparisons to The Wire or any other show where Black people sell drugs, or as they say in London-town, food. 

I love Top Boy, which is not only the name of the show but the British term for big boss man, the kingpin, etc. The top boy is the one who runs the drug trade. Top Boy is in its fourth season—seasons 3 and 4 are billed solely as Top Boy; there are two four-episode seasons titled Top Boy: Summerhouse, which aired in the early aughts (more on this later). The show centers around the drug trade in east London’s Hackney borough. 

While the show isn’t necessarily shedding new light on the drug trade—hip-hop, real life and the ’90s taught me everything there is to know—what it has done, at least for me and others who are unfamiliar with life in London, is give me a bird’s eye view of various parts of the Black community in London, some of the issues therein, and taught me a boatload of new slang. And real talk, I love all (well, most) of the slang. I love it so much that I’ve started to incorporate it into my own conversations. 

And real talk, I can’t decide if the slang is just better or if it just sounds better because of the accent I hear. Since we’re here and you’ve read this far, let’s discuss. Also, watch Top Boy. Also, I’m fairly certain that some things I will refer to as slang aren’t really slang but dialect, but I’m also fairly certain that slang sounds cooler than dialect, so roll with it.

Kano and Ashley Walters in “Top Boy” (Chris Harris/Netflix)

If you have the pleasure of being a part of what feels like a million group chats where I argue/debate/inspire daily, you know that I use the term “bruv” incessantly. Almost too much. I call everybody, bruv. Bruv, being, of course, the British way of saying, “bruh” or “brutha.” But “bruv” just hits different, and I do not know why, but I enjoy hitting folks with the “bruv” and them hitting me with a “bruv” back. It’s magic. 

A lot of the slang I hear on Top Boy feels like that to me. For instance, I believe the term “calm” is used the same way as saying “cool,” as in, “that’s cool,” but they just say “calm.” I haven’t fully worked that into my lexicon yet. Unlike “in a bit,” which seems to be like saying “see you later,” and I’m decidedly sure that “in a bit” said with that British accent is way cooler than “see you later.” 

Then there’s the whole adding of “innit” at the end of questions, as a question tag of sorts. “Those are my bricks, innit?” Hmm, maybe I’m not good at that one yet. Hell, I tried to recreate Juvenile’s “Ha” with “Innit,” and it just didn’t hit the same, but you get the point. I love it. I will succeed. 

There’s a litany of other terms, both slang and dialect, that appear all up and throughout Top Boy that are probably just regular terms/slang in London that I’m being exposed to. Instead of “the streets,” they use a sophisticated term of being out on the “roads,” which doesn’t sound nearly as menacing. As I mentioned earlier, Summerhouse is the Hackney estate that serves as the setting for much of the plot; estate in this sense is akin to our projects out here. Now, I love when something violent and hood sounding gets called a terrace, view or garden. Estate falls into that same category for me. Again, not quite slang, but enjoyable all the same.

And most importantly—and this is actually slang—drugs in London are “food.” That one had to grow on me, but by the time this final season wrapped (it’s eight episodes; I was very sad when I realized there were no additional episodes), I was ready to talk to the food dealers (servers?) in my neighborhood and see if they might not want to switch things up to throw the feds off their tails. I decided against this plan, for the record. Also, I can’t tell if “food” is the term for all drugs or just cocaine. That much wasn’t made apparent to me. 

And that’s the thing, it doesn’t even matter, because it sounds so cool to me. That same thing exists all over America. The way folks say things in New Orleans and the accent native to that region can make almost anything sound dope. Same with Philly. Or Boston or New York City or my personal favorite, Atlanta. Now I’m an accent person, so a person with an accent is almost always going to sound cooler to me than a person without one, but that also means that some things sound artificially better. I suppose it doesn’t matter; you speak how you speak and if that means growing up in London means you say “bruv” in a naturally cool way, and it adds something to Top Boy, then we all win. 

Anyway, check out Top Boy if you haven’t; the international street education is priceless in and of itself. Also, the show is full of artists from various music scenes in London; the main character Sully is played by Kane Robinson, who goes by Kano, who is a rapper, as is Little Simz, who plays Shelley, whose 2021 album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert might be one of the best albums I listened to all of last year. 

Dope, innit?

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

 Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

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