From Chicago to Brixton: The surprising rise of UK drill

Birthed in Chicago’s blighted South Side in the early 2010s and popularized by artists like King Louie and Chief Keef, drill music – an aggressive descendent of trap – has all but faded from view in the US. Now, you’re more likely to hear the familiar distorted beats rattling from the schoolyards and buses of South London. Youth worker Ciaran Thapar investigates a very British phenomenon.

If you walk along a busy street in south London when schools are finishing for the day, amongst the clamor of teenagers congregating at shops and bus stops you can hear references to local music. SoundCloud clips play from smartphones and lyrics are yelled between different groups of people.

“Drill,” one of my students at a school in Elephant & Castle told me, when I asked what music he listens to. “It’s what we’ve grown up around.”

As a youth worker in the southern quadrant of the city, I hear this sentiment expressed more and more. Via its social media presence and DIY work ethic, London’s very own strain of drill music – the dark, aggressive cousin of trap rap, birthed in Chicago in the late ‘00s – is taking over as the dominant sound in urban youth culture.

Carns HillPhotography by: Tristan Bejawn

“A lot of kids in south are stuck in that one world”Carns Hill

“The younger generation aren’t going to relate to rappers who are 29, they’ll relate to a rapper that’s 18, who can reflect their own day-to-day,” producer Carns Hill explains to me in a pub on Brixton Hill. “Maybe they’ve just been in college, or in trouble with the police, or joining gangs. A lot of kids in south are stuck in that one world.”

Over the last few years, the 32-year-old has been steering the drill sound in collaboration with fellow Brixton Hill natives, 67. Armed with Hill’s instrumentals and industry know-how (he studied music technology at university), the group is becoming one of the biggest names in UK underground music. Their London shows may have been canceled at the end of 2016, but 67’s Let’s Lurk tour has recently completed a leg in Scotland, and the crew have featured in a cypher video for Beats by Dre headphones.

“They’ve matured. They’ve got a brand. Like Rodney P, like So Solid Crew, like Giggs before them, 67 are the voice of the youth of today,” Hill continues, placing them in a lineage of era-defining south London MCs going back over two decades.

For teenagers in south London, and increasingly elsewhere, no other drill outfit comes close to the popularity of 67’s main members: LD, Monkey, Dimzy, Liquez and ASAP. They have managed to transcend the internal logic of the drill world and the petty ties of fierce postcode loyalty that plague it. Some local fans will flat-out refuse to listen to – or at least admit to listening to – music being made by artists from a rival part of town. But the sheer quantity of addictive output that 67 have produced under Hill’s sonic guidance – accompanied by high-quality hood videos that have set the standard for the rest of the genre – has made their rise undeniable.

Featured across their three mixtapes to date have been the likes of ‘Hookahs’ and ‘Skeng Man’, as well as ‘Take It There’, whose crisp, colorful music video first exposed the group to more widespread appreciation up and down the country when it first aired. On last September’s Let’s Lurk mixtape, their most recent body of work – whose artwork is fittingly a blacked-out map of the crossroads at the centre of Brixton – is the well-known title track with Giggs, and the late-night anthem ‘5am Vamping’. Other noteworthy tracks are the Oxide & Neutrino-influenced ‘Bound 4 Da Reload’, and their feature on the London supergroup New Gen’s compilation project, ‘Jackets’.

Chicago drill music exploded onto the international stage in 2012 after a series of YouTube videos by Chief Keef went viral. For the first time, the genre transcended the trappings of its Windy City birthplace, where more homicides took place last year than in New York and Los Angeles combined. Up until that point, it had been a specific, localized phenomenon, as charted by Forrest Stuart, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. But carried by the youth population’s comparable inner city lifestyle – one driven by poverty, territorial gang rivalries and hyper-masculine bravado – drill settled amongst the housing estates of south London.

Since its cross-pollination, it has adapted to its new environment, rising in the slipstream provided by more established London genres. It can now be understood as the nephew of road rap, the London-centric gangster rap pioneered by figureheads like Nines (from Harlesden, in north-west London), and Giggs – who reached out to collaborate with 67 because his son expressed an interest in their music.

Drill also shares important traits with grime, the most cherished cultural treasure in the land, which received similar negative attention from police in its own formative years. Both ring with the same rebellious adolescent tone. Their artists rely upon a mutual all black tracksuit dress code, and employ the same fused British-Caribbean-African slang lexicon to communicate their respective modes of social commentary.

Furthermore, in the lyrical economy of drill music, what artists say, and whether they act on it – commonly in the form of a threat directed at their ‘opps’, or enemies – has surfaced as the main currency of musical value. This raw metric might be compared to the early days of grime, when MC clashes would translate into genuine beef over claims made in freestyle lyrics – think Ghetts vs Bashy, or Dizzee Rascal vs Crazy Titch. But since its resurgence and rise to global acclaim as a polished, collaborative movement, this is less a characteristic of grime in 2017 than the skillful craft of hype MCing and catching a wheel-up.

“The name was just thrown on there because people at the time were listening to Chicago music”Carns Hill

None of this is to suggest that London music is easy to categorize right now. Quite the contrary. The fluid, undefinable eclecticism that is coming to define the city’s musical output has been captured perfectly by Nathan Miller in his documentary LDN. South London artists like Dave, Krept & Konan and Section Boyz have all achieved transatlantic recognition by dabbling in different combinations of these genres. Tottenham’s man of the moment Abra Cadabra, despite hailing from far north of the river, can surely be classed as close to drill when he puts out songs like ‘The Roads’. (“There’s a lot of people that didn’t like drill last year but like it now,” he notes in his Practice Hours episode for Rinse FM. “Because it’s popping. Everyone’s listening to it.”)

When I ask him about drill music’s Chicago roots, Hill makes it clear he finds the appropriated name problematic. “The name was just thrown on there because people at the time were listening to Chicago music,” he said. “The way of spitting is faster now, we’ve got our own formula. It’s like when grime was garage, but then it separated. UK drill is at that stage now. Personally, I think it needs a new name.”

The bass of drill music is like the deep shudder of a double-decker London bus engine, and its beat pattern is stitched together by tinny 808 drums and decorated with moody instrumental melodies. This style is being constantly innovated by Hill with each of his productions – from the delicate bells of his lifelong friend Papi’s ‘Run With The Runners’ to the stretched Eastern vocals on Youngs Teflon’s ‘Me Again’, and 67’s most recent single, ‘WAPS’.

“It’s rough, rugged, quite violent…but that’s because there is a lot of violence in the world. You might have a completely different type of trap that focuses on glamorizing a lifestyle…but drill is more about issues and troubles. The hardships of growing up.”

Photography by: Tristan Bejawn

“If Chicago drill is a gun, ours is a knife”

Gang activity has long been a problem in south London. No art form reflects its grip on the psychology of local life more than drill. The social context for many black, working class young men in inner London is all too often conditioned by a financially squeezed and unengaging education system, widespread unemployment and fractious relationships with the local police. Fewer and fewer youth services are being made available to them. Gary Younge has been correct to link this precise condition to a spike in knife crime as part of The Guardian’s ongoing ‘Beyond The Blade’ campaign.

All of these factors compound the claustrophobic postcode beefs across south London that have cemented over the last 15 years. The act of carrying a knife – a ‘shank’ or ‘dipper’ – has been normalized for those who live day to day in fear of an attack, or who are trying to signify and fulfil their active reputation on the roads. Drill lyrics explore this topic – paranoia and pride – more than any other. Repeated allusions are made to wielding a knife. Some have been delivered through quintessentially British cultural references: “Dip like custard creams”, “shakes from the spear like William”, “loyal to my shank like the Sikhs dem”.

“If Chicago drill is a gun, ours is a knife,” one boy told me on a visit to the Marcus Lipton community centre in north-east Brixton, where I volunteer. The institution rests on strip of land that has for years been a knife crime hotspot of London, positioned in the shadows of Loughborough Estate and a stone’s throw from the infamous Angell Town Estate, where Drake-endorsed local legend Sneakbo grew up. This area is now home to the drill group 150 – 67’s sworn opps – who released one of the most original-sounding drill songs of 2017 this month with ‘Inda Brix’. Their video for ‘So Chatty’ is filmed entirely on the back streets of Loughborough Junction that surround the community centre (the building itself is visible at 1:51).

The boys at Marcus Lipton can explain drill’s social dynamics and recent history – who stabbed who, who snitched on who – with intricate detail, like local news reporters. I run a discussion group there on Friday nights, and during a session recently I held up a piece of paper with the word “drill” written on it, asking participants to say the first thing that popped into their heads. Among the responses were “drugs”, “badness”, “anger”, “knives” and “balaclavas”. None of them are over 15 years old.

You can look at a map of south London and scroll through the comments written beneath drill videos on YouTube to study the cartography of how the scene is growing, and how it is intertwined with gang warfare. In Brixton, 67’s rivalry with 150 is regarded as the formative drill war. 86 are from Tulse Hill, 410 are from Myatt’s Field, and Siraq are from Somerleyton Road, near Brixton market, where gentrification is transforming the local vicinity quicker than anywhere else in the capital.

Three south London MCs have been killed in the last year: 22-year-old Tuggzy, 17-year-old Mdot and 16-year-old Showkey. The latter two tragedies were affiliated with gang tensions across New Cross and Lewisham, in the south-east. More teenagers than ever are developing collective identities by attaching themselves to gangs and their music. Some groups – including 67’s youngers – have racked up hundreds of thousands of YouTube views for their block videos. Their artists make constant references and hand gestures not only to knives but guns, often while wearing balaclavas and Halloween masks.

Harlem SpartansPhotography by: Quann

Zone 2, from Peckham are beefing Moscow, or 17, of Brandon Estate off the Walworth Road. The latter released the anthem ‘Moscow March’ at the end of December last year; in a tactical move, the former managed to film their video for their response, ‘Zone 2 Step’, on the latter’s turf – the ‘opp-block’. Meanwhile in Kennington Park Estate, surrounded by Victorian townhouses and leafy, walled-off gardens, live Harlem Spartans. In their music they talk proudly of the Kennington area, calling it Harlem. Several of their MCs were sent to prison in March, but Harlem Spartans still added to the roster of dance-themed songs this week with ‘Kuku Bop’.

Since its original conception, hip-hop and its descendant genres have been the topic of a chicken-and-egg debate. Do violent lyrics reflect an honest social reality and therefore serve the purpose of empowering its artists? Or do they reinforce and exacerbate the issues they describe? For outsiders trying to understand the closed world of drill music, it might be easy to lean towards the latter, cynical position. But to do so would risk ignoring the epic workload of the people making the music, and disregard the fact that drill has become their attempt to make something constructive, or at least commercially viable, out of narrating their lives to the rest of British society and beyond.

One overarching theme kept recurring in my talk with Hill: how he is using music to empower the people he has grown up with. It’s even reflected in the name of his mixtape, Family First.

“When you do express yourself, understand that it is an art.”Carns Hill

“Once I feel like my local community is in a better place then I’ll do other stuff,” he says. “That way people can know that if things have failed in their lives, there are other options. You don’t just have to be a rapper, you can be a producer or an engineer, a video man, a film editor…it’s a scene that is developing with more jobs every single day…I want the youth to see that.”

What does the future holds for UK drill music? “We want the fans to see: it’s starting here,” – Hill stretches out one arm to the left – “but it’s gonna end here.” He stretches the other to the right. “It’s a progression. When you make music, you express how you feel. But when you do express yourself, understand that it is an art. And as an art, it should be valued.”

Ciaran Thapar is on Twitter

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