A Brief History of Drill Music, Globally

History of Drill, Chicago, London, and New York
Chief Keef and Brixton duo Skengdo x AM in the video for “Pitbulls” (Skengdo x AM/YouTube)

The following article was originally published in Across The Culture, a partner of Plugged.

The eruption of Chief Keef and Chicago’s drill movement in 2012 was instant rap lore. However, no one could imagine this hyper-real, hyper-violent sound would come to define the traditionalist hip-hop Mecca of New York City in the next decade.

Even crazier is that drill has stimulated the rise of hip-hop’s profile in Australia, Ireland, and most notably in England. 

The raw energy surrounding the original drill movement of Chicago has since become the basis for artists from the streets of England to speak their truths with stark honesty, causing a shift away from Grime as the dominant form of UK rap.

Drill music’s rise in England has also made London a hotbed for debates about gang violence and its origins, with politicians pointing to drill as the problem while activists and artists are quick to defend drill as only a symptom of the economic oppression and racism responsible for the desperate conditions in London’s ends. 

For all the jokes about UK pop culture being stuck in the Victorian era, it is actually the energy and sound of UK drill that has influenced the emergence of drill in New York City. With artists like Sheff G and Fivio Foreign leading the wave, the cadences and melodies of NYC drill owes much to London’s current rising stars. NY drill hits like Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party” and 22Gz “Suburban” and “Suburban, Pt. 2” were produced by London drill producers. 

Drill was already important in hip-hop history as Chicago’s local speciality. But now that it’s become the mainstream language of violent street struggle across hemispheres, we need to step back to get a good look at the evolution of drill. 


CHICAGO

Any thorough conversation about drill’s rise has to start in Chicago. There was a lot about drill in the early 2010s that shocked a lot of people. Most obvious is the blatantly violent flows and chaotic sounds that reflected the realities of its hottest stars.

Adding to that is how drastically different Chicago’s new rap stars were to the city’s reflective, poetic OGs including Common, Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest, and Kanye West. The fatal subject matter, unpolished vocal styles and unfiltered artist images made drill as anti-pop as possible.

But these factors, along with a heavily-trap influenced sound and catchy raw melodies, are also what made drill popular. 

The source of drill music, Chicago’s clique-based gang life run by teens and young adults, existed long before a young Keith Cozart dropped his first two mixtapes The Glory Road and Bang in 2011. The buzz was there, but once a shirtless Cozart and a teenaged Tavares Taylor linked and shot a video for regional hit “I Don’t Like” during Cozart’s house arrest, drill took a step onto the world stage without even knowing it.

From the online hip-hop community to music titans as diverse as Lady Gaga and Kanye West, the world finally knew Chief Keef, Lil Reese and the GBE imprint. What we didn’t know, however, was how important these names would become in hip-hop’s global history. 

After the success of “I Don’t Like,” including the memorable GOOD Music remix, Chief Keef’s career took a series of hard and fast turns. For the sake of brevity, here’s a timeline of detailed highlights leading us to Chief Keef’s status today:

  • He signed with Interscope in early 2013, dropped his debut album Finally Rich later in the year including his biggest commercial hits “Love Sosa” (platinum) and “Hate Being Sober.”
  • Finally Rich received mixed critical reviews and a #29 debut on the Billboard 200. The album has since been certified gold by the RIAA. Over the next year, tension between Keef’s camp and Interscope over legal issues and disappointment about the handling of Sosa’s career resulted in Interscope dropping the artist in 2014.
  • Leaving Interscope marked the beginning of a more adventurous musical period for Keef which saw him drop cult classic drill hits including “Macaroni Time,” “Faneto,” and “Earned It,” while inconsistently releasing singles and projects, including the long-awaited Bang 3 appearing in two parts in 2015 and four projects in 2017 including the album Dedication.

Considering the lack of polished major-label marketing since 2013, the continued presence and replay value of Chief Keef made his Interscope breakup a win instead of a loss. With complete creative freedom and a move to Los Angeles, Keef was able to become playful and experimental with his deliveries and production while sticking to his drill roots.

Though the mainstream world never touched songs like “Love No Thotties” or his sentimental Kanye collaboration “Nobody,” hip-hop’s future leaders studied Keef’s unleashed approach to melody and ad-libs intensely. Years later, an entire new class of American hip-hop artists including Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Lil Pump, Migos, and Travis Scott owe significant elements of their music to Almighty So. 

Chicago Drill Today

Along with Chief Keef, drill was kept alive and well in Chicago during Keef’s post-Interscope days by many artists. This includes Keef associates like the late Fredo Santana, Lil Reese, Ballout, and OTF’s Lil Durk. Outside of close Keef affiliates, Lil Bibby, G Herbo, King L, and Montana of 300 are artists that have had significant moments as drill leaders. Some refined drill melodies while others raised the bar for technical rapping.

Today, veteran figures in Chicago’s streets like FBG Duck (RIP) and Rooga are doing bigger numbers, while newcomers like King Von and Polo G are inviting themselves into hip-hop’s mainstream. With a mix of new regional leaders and crossover successes, Chicago’s drill scene has remained on hip-hop’s radar both in the underground and in the commercial game. 

The influence of Chief Keef on the newer crop of American artists has been mapped extensively now. But the seeds planted by the leaders of Chicago drill have now sprouted in places no one could have predicted when drill first hit the airwaves. 


LONDON

The rap scene most influenced by the rise of drill in Chicago wasn’t a neighboring Midwestern city like Detroit. It wasn’t another American city with a violent reputation like Baltimore. In fact, it wasn’t even a city in North America.

Given that the average American rap fan still thinks of the United Kingdom as tea and crumpets and archaic properness, no one stateside predicted Black artists from London and surrounding areas would be responsible for drill’s evolution. 

The London drill scene was born almost as soon as “I Don’t Like” became popular in 2012/2013. While the UK’s streets aren’t littered with guns, gang culture in London resembles Chicago’s in its scattered hood-by-hood structure and less organized violence, mostly replacing guns with bladed weapons as wild as samurai swords and 15-inch hunting knives like ZKs.

Pioneering groups of UK drill include 150 and 67 from Brixton, but more recent solo artists and groups like Harlem Spartans and Tottenham-based OFB have really forced drill into mainstream appeal in the UK. 

Many UK drill fans point to “Kennington Where It Started” by Harlem Spartans as a turning point for drill going from lively underground wave to the dominant sound of UK rap.

Along with the elevated songwriting, the now-famous one-liner “Question/If gang pull up, are you gonna back your bredrin?” from recently slain rapper Bis (Biz) made “Kennington” the final crack in the damn holding drill back from the spotlight. Since “Kennington” dropped in early 2017, drill artists have surged on the UK Official Charts, including top-10 singles for Headie One and Russ, with top-40s from other rising artists including DigDat, Poundz, and Digga D. 

What Makes UK Drill Unique?

UK drill differentiates itself from Chicago drill both musically and culturally. There are general similarities in the violent aspects of each sound, but UK drill commits to cold, sparse beats with militant hi-hats, sliding 808s, and more space for vocals. Good examples of this are the projects Drillers and Trappers 2 by Headie One and RV, as well as Double Tap Diaries by Digga D.

In terms of vocals, popular UK drill artists use many punchlines, metaphors, and double entendres within tight flows. Lately, melody has been more emphasized given drill’s chart success. Some artists like Headie One and Russ are adept solo melodizers, and all drill artists are reaching out to the adjacent sing-rap kings of UK hip-hop for wavier hooks and verses including D-Block Europe, Nafe Smallz, and M Huncho. 

In terms of culture, UK rap artists are generally first or second-generation Brits, many of whom are West African and/or Afro-Caribbean. For this reason, the accents and lingo that dominate both grime and drill are huge blends of pidgin English and patois, sprinkled with British, Somali, and Arabic slang. 

UK drill continues to grow in stature in Europe, Canada, and slowly but surely in the States. Drill in the United Kingdom has also sparked fierce debates about the true nature of street violence in England, with a focus on London. Like Chicago’s drill scene, UK drill has opened the public’s eyes to the stark realities faced by London’s low-income youth of color. Also like American political leaders such as Rahm Emanuel, British leaders have scapegoated the music as the source of unrest rather than as a symptom.

Drill has been central in major publications such as The Guardian, BBC and The Independent crafting the story of the UK’s political negligence of issues affecting Black Brits including the awkward #KnifeFree campaign using chicken boxes and the horrible response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy


NEW YORK CITY

Surprisingly enough, drill is the first hip-hop movement in which UK artists influenced an American wave. In particular, New York City has seen an emergence of its own drill movement coinciding with the subgenre’s success across the Atlantic.  

UK Drill’s Influence on NY Drill

Much like London artists, the pioneers of drill in New York were also inspired by Chicago drill artists to vividly chronicle local gang life block by block. Though London drill did not birth New York drill, New York drill artists have taken many of their sonic cues from London artists including production styles and cadences.

A good example is Pop Smoke’s 2019 hit “Welcome To The Party” produced by East Londoner 808Melo who first worked with UK artists such as K Trap and Headie One before becoming a staple in New York’s drill credits

Along with similar lifestyles and shared sounds, many of New York drill’s leaders are first-generation Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino Americans much like many London artists are first-gen Black Brits. Notable examples include Sheff G, whose family is both Haitian and Trinidadian, 22Gz who is of Guyanese descent, and Pop Smoke (RIP) being Panamanian and Jamaican.

Shared cultural backgrounds help explain the strong ties New York has to London drill, with London rap fans being some of the earliest supporters of New York drill. 

The vast majority of New York drillers are from Brooklyn, and in the same way drill in Chicago and London maps out gang activity with near-Google Maps accuracy, New York cliques and gangs are seeing their stories gain validation through music.

Established music publications have little information about today’s New York street setup, but through drill music, two major movements that capture Brooklyn’s gang activity have been identified: Woos and Chos.

What Makes NY Drill Unique?

Based on notable tracks and discussion surrounding them such as “Big Opps America” by Jezz Gasoline, “No Suburban,” by Sheff G, and “Blicky” by 22Gz, sets within the Woo and Cho movements seem to be mixes of Bloods, Crips, and GDs. This includes known rappers such as Bobby Shmurda and his GS9 Crip affiliates, the Blixkys which includes 22Gz, and Movin Gang which includes Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow. 

The distinct voices and cadences of New York drill artists are carrying these localized street stories into mainstream spotlight. With established producers such as WondaGurl and CashMoneyAP learning how to reproduce the newer drill sounds of Brooklyn and London as seen on tracks like Pop Smoke’s “Christopher Walking,” the emergence of New York drill might put the subgenre over the top in the same way trap became an essential part of the music industry, with its elements of trap found in today’s rap, pop, and even country hits. 

A defining element of NY drill’s biggest artists is their vocal presence. There are certainly wordy, technical rap performances in the scene, but NY drill artists often leave a lot of room in between bars trusting their voices to fill up the space. This works particularly well for the deep, resonant vocals of artists like Pop Smoke (e.g. “Shake The Room,” “Foreigner”) and Sheff G (e.g. “Feel Ah Way”).

NY drill beats accompany these booming voices well, as they have UK drill structure but are not as cold and minimal. The differences are slight since both scenes are fueled by the same producers, but NY drill rappers tend to pick busier beats than their UK peers. UK drillers like the space to get off their wordplay and punchlines, and NY drillers like to bellow short bars that linger as the beat rampages.

Peep these two examples of bare-bones UK drill production: “Already” by Headie One (2018) and “Double Tap Days” by Digga D (2019).

Now compare those beats and artistic choices to ones like Pop Smoke’s “Dior” and Fivio Foreign’s “Wetty.”


Wherever drill music goes, its roots are organic and unifying. The emotionless chaos portrayed by a group of teens in Chicago became seeds that grew a whole language for artists trapped in hoods worldwide to connect with one another. Due to drill, the many similarities of street life from Chicago to New York to London, and even cities in Australia and Ireland, have become more apparent.

International collaborations between drill artists have already happened and are opening doors for a bigger culture of global rap collaborations. UK drill rapper DigDat had a Tee Grizzley feature on his debut album Ei8ht Mile this past January, and American rappers GunnaLil BabyRoddy Ricch and Casanova have also made UK link-ups for official releases in the past two years. 

Drill is on the up, and for every critic of its repetitive, violent themes, there are thousands of fans who see drill’s raw energy transcend cultural borders and take sharp snapshots of daily oppression. 

This article was published via partnership with Across The Culture.

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