Drill music is one of the most enduring and distinct genres to emerge from the 2010s. No, I’m not talking about music made with power tools. I’m talking about a sonic marriage between Trap Music and Gangsta Rap, with a little bit of Electronica sprinkled on top for decoration.
Likely, you have never heard of this genre before. But, you’ve probably heard a piece of music that can fall under the “Drill” banner within the last fifteen years.
The genre has grown tremendously since its inception…
Yet, it remains what many would call a “niche” sound. And because of this, mainstream support has come and gone. So, you might be asking, “What is Drill Music?“
Well, I’ve decided to take an in-depth look at the birth and history of Drill music, the musical aspects that define the genre, as well as some examples of Drill musicians and their releases.
Origins, History, and Influence
Drill music was birthed in the early years of the 2010s as an offshoot of the already popular Trap genre. Drill and Trap music both share the common influence of Hip-Hop, R&B, and some electronic music.
But, as we progress, it will become clear that Drill music is not tied to any specific set of production techniques or sonic attributes. It is much like Hip-Hop in that it transcends the music and spills over into all facets of culture. It is almost a way of life.
South Chicago and “Dro City”- The Early 2010s
To gain a small understanding of Drill “culture,” if you will, you must familiarize yourself with its birthplace. Most would agree that Chicago is where the genre was first produced. Specifically, a gang-affiliated collection of city blocks called “Dro-City” in Woodlawn, which sits in the South of Chicago.
The South Side of Chicago was in the middle of a homicide and violence crisis during the formative years of the genre. Small gangs would violently have it out, for control over nothing more than a few city blocks.
It was within this hostile environment that the first pioneers of Drill music spent their formative years. This would inevitably end up having a major impact on the nature of the music they were going to make.
The Hard Knock Life…
Many rappers from the early Chicago Drill scene came from places where they had either been regularly exposed to or participated in violence and/or illegal activities. Often from a young age.
Artists and their work are often-times a reflection of the society that produced them. Drill music is a vivid example of this. It was a glass of cold water in the face of a society that tried to fool itself into thinking it had conquered all its demons.
The content of modern Hip-Hop music…
And the way it is delivered by the artists can often paint a very scary picture. Drill music is perhaps one of the most unapologetically “raw” examples of this inherent darkness. The music represents the views of a very alienated group within a community that boasts liberalism.
Themes of violence, drugs, and wealth were nothing new to the Hip-Hop banner. But, the fierceness and instant popularity of Drill Music was a shock to many.
Even earlier rappers…
And, Hip-Hop artists from Chicago’s South Side, who were no strangers to “having it rough,” expressed mixed feelings towards the early success of such a controversial genre.
Lupe Fiasco notably said that “Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically – but just the culture that he represents.” After getting threatened by Keef on Twitter, Fiasco almost left music altogether.
The early Drill music scene was mainly carried by the power of YouTube. It is where the majority of artists released what would later become known as the first Drill tunes.
The Drill Chief
Perhaps the most notorious and most agreed upon creator of Drill music is Chief Keef. The popularity of his music, especially among high school kids from Chicago’s South Side, resulted in him becoming the subject of a bidding war between major labels. He eventually signed with Interscope.
Other artists like King Louie were getting signed around the same time. And, due to how quickly the sound could spread thanks to the internet, it took no more than a year or two for Drill to start getting serious attention.
Big names from the Hip-Hop, R&B, and Trap worlds started to collaborate with Drill artists. These included Drake and Rick Ross. And, perhaps most notably, Kanye West, who remixed Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like.”
Despite the enormous sizzle of its birth…
Drill music had other things in store than merely continuing in linear growth. Much like Ska music, it was going to die out on one continent and kindle a new flame elsewhere.
In late 2012, Chief Keef’s debut album, Finally Rich, was released to much anticipation. The album did contain two hits that previously had gone viral. But, the album ended up becoming a commercial flop selling only 50,000 records.
This resulted in Drill music quickly dwindling since it was deemed a quick “fad.” The Chicago scene had run its course.
UK and Brooklyn Drill – Mid to Late 2010s
By the mid-2010s, major label interest in Drill music had essentially died out. This mattered little for the survival of the sound, though. Drill music had already planted enough seeds of influence to start new sounds elsewhere.
The original Chicago Drill sound had begun to influence the styles of UK-based rappers and producers. Most notably in the Brixton area of South London. Initially, the new sound didn’t sound very “new” at all since the original Drill Music sound was still very prevalent.
UK rappers rapped about violence and hedonism in excess. The “rags to riches” by any means necessary mentality was just as strong on the other side of the ocean, it seems.
These rappers and producers began adapting their sound. Often by combining it with a British style of gangsta rap called “Road Rap.” As a result, a new genre that would later become known as UK Drill Music started to take shape.
Like many of the rappers from the early Chicago scene…
The English rappers were often affiliated with gangs. Living in “rough” neighborhoods, they chose a life of criminality due to the belief that they would never be able to improve their quality of life otherwise.
Just like the first iteration of Drill music, UK Drill was the subject of much controversy due to the often violent, explicit, and provocative lyrics. Some folks even went as far as to say that this new Drill music was responsible for an increase in knife crime in London.
There were even some cases where UK Drill music videos were getting censored. The Crown’s Prosecution Service used names and acts in the lyrics to link certain persons to gangs when they had denied affiliation in interviews or statements.
Some of the early pioneers in the UK Drill scene…
These included 150 (now known as CBG), Stizzy Sticks, Grizzy, and M Darg. The group credited with taking the early Chicago sound and morphing it into something unique to the UK is the Brixton Hip-Hop collective 67.
Two of the early pioneering producers of UK Drill are Carns Hill and QUIETPVCK, who worked with 150 and 67 in their early days. One of the members of 67, LD, has been unofficially crowned as the Godfather of the UK Drill sound.
While the Chicago Drill sound was inspiring a rough-edged, fast-paced alternative on the other side of the Atlantic, it was simultaneously also starting a new fire back home. To be specific, in Brooklyn, New York.
One of the most successful subgenres of Trap and Drill music. The scene started in early to late 2013. But, the first real exposure of Brooklyn Drill to a big audience was the 2014 single “Hot N*gga” by Brooklyn-based rapper Bobby Shmurda.
Early Brooklyn Drill Music had a very dirty sound, drawing heavily from the original Chicago sound. Other early rappers in this scene include Rowdy Rebel, Bam Bino, Money Millz, and Dah Dah.
By 2015, Brooklyn and UK Drill became so intertwined that it was hard to distinguish between the two. The UK sound and production style had jumped across the Atlantic. Most likely due to the success of early underground UK Drill Music hits like “Let’s Lurk” by 67 featuring Giggs in 2016.
Neither Brooklyn nor UK Drill attained much mainstream success…
However, the sudden mixing of the two started a wave of success. In 2016 and 2017, two viral hits emerged, which saw Brooklyn Drill being fused with UK Drill production. 22Gz’s “Suburban” and Sheff G’s “No Suburban.” These are now considered seminal tracks in the history of the Drill genre.
The most notable success to come from the fusing of the two genres was Pop Smoke. In 2018 He began taking the mainstream music world by storm with hits like “Welcome to the Party,” “Dior,” and “Gatti.”
Not only did these songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100, one of them earned the rapper a Grammy nomination. Unfortunately, the controversy expressed in his music ended up catching up with him, and he was murdered in 2020.
After the merging of the two sounds…
Groups on either side of the Atlantic began enjoying success. Both UK and Brooklyn Drill became known to the world. In the UK, the release of “Kennington Where It Started” by the Harlem Spartans sparked the rise of UK Drill in the mainstream music world.
The UK Drill sound would go on to influence musicians and producers. Most notably in Ireland, The Netherlands, and Australia. There are also UK-influenced Drill scenes in Spain, France, and Ghana.
Brooklyn Drill Music would go on to grow into a wider New York scene. As well as influencing the generation that encompasses the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The story of Drill Music has, in many ways, just begun…
If the genre has proved anything, it’s that it lends itself well to influence and reinvention. It might take a bit longer than two years this time. But there’s no telling what the future holds for a genre that is still developing in many ways.
The term “Drill” comes from the South-Side of Chicago. The slag originally referred to retaliation in some kind of conflict, but it could mean causing conflict as well. Although, the term later became so widely used that it can essentially mean anything.
As for the originator of the term, Pac-Man from Dro City is widely considered the first person to use the term when referring to Hip-Hop music. He also happens to be viewed by many as one of the first artists to perform in the Chicago Drill Style.
What Is Drill Music? – Musical and Lyrical Aspects
We should now be familiar with the origins and notable persons involved in the genre. So, let’s take a look at some of the defining musical and lyrical aspects of Drill Music.
Remember that new influences will likely widen or change the definition of Drill Music. So, don’t take what follows as set in stone.
Lyrics and Delivery
Typically, the lyrics of Drill music deal with life on the street. The original Chicago Drill was a far cry from the earlier Chicago rappers in terms of the lyrics and delivery.
While most people were singing and rapping about the attainment and enjoyment of wealth, the early Drill artists rapped about death, crime, drugs, poverty, and discrimination without shame. The sound is gritty, sharp, and dirty. And the delivery is nihilistic, aggressive, or plaintive.
The musical tone of Drill music is influenced by and similar to Trap music. Although, original Drill songs ran at a slower tempo, around 60 to 70 beats per minute. Some producers worked at double the tempo. Roland 808 Drum machines and samples of their sounds are often featured in later Drill music.
UK Drill music is often faster, makes use of 808 samples exclusively, and features influences from Grime music. There’s heavy use of sliding bass instruments, hard-hitting kicks, and very dark melodies played on aggressive and sharp synths.
The Tresillo hi-hat beat is a favorite amongst UK Drill producers. UK Drill can often run at tempos of 138 to 151 BPMs.
On the other hand…
Brooklyn Drill combines the original American gangsta style of Chicago Drill and filters it through the 808 and hardcore synths of UK Drill music.
This makes for a very aggressive and in-your-face sound that demands attention by fierceness, not pleasantry. Vocal tracks are often heavily manipulated using software like Autotune.
What is Drill Music? – Examples of Drill Artists
So, that’s the history and musical characteristics of Drill music. Now, let’s take a look at some examples of artists who have been important to the development of the Drill sound.
It should be no surprise that Keef is on the list. The truth is it would be almost impossible to have an informative discussion about Drill music without mentioning his name. Born Keith Farrell Cozart, Keef was an avid rapper and musician from a very young age. He began releasing music as early as 2011.
When he got arrested for firing a gun inside a car, he was placed under house arrest. During this period, he posted several videos on YouTube. These videos have since become heralded as some of the first Drill releases ever.
One of Keef’s early releases, “I Don’t Like,” quickly became viral and caught the attention of Kanye West. West remixed the song into a successful track, and Keef was lifted from obscurity.
By late 2011…
Major labels were in a bidding war to sign the sixteen-year-old rapper. 2012 started with the young Keef signing with Interscope records. The value of the deal was $6 million over three albums.
He was also promised his own label and was given a further $440,000 to start Glory Boyz Entertainment (GBE).
Keef’s Debut album, Finally Rich, was not the commercial success hoped for by labels. But, it will go down in history as one of the seminal releases in the early years of Drill music.
Even though he’s stepped away from making music to focus on business, Bibby cannot be left out of the Drill story.
He hails from the east side of Chicago and has a similar tone to Keef. But, he is more lyrical in his approach. His vocal lines are often more melodic and less choppy. Not that he doesn’t have plenty of bite as well.
After singing with Kemosabe records, he released the first of three mixtapes, Free Crack, in 2013. His following mixtapes were released to great acclaim by fans and peers alike.
Bibby announced that he was going to take an extended hiatus from making music. He wanted to focus on managing and making a success of his label, Grade A productions.
He has since signed a plethora of artists, most notably Australian rapper, The Kid Laroi, and Juice World. Both of whom have enjoyed international success.
Louis King Johnson, Jr. is another Chicago native noted for being a lynchpin in the development of Drill Music. Also for promoting his city, Chicago, to such an extent that it became the hottest city in Hip-Hop in 2012.
One of the most prolific artists in the scene…
King Louis has released more than 20 mixtapes and albums. He got his start by handing out CDs and flash sticks at bus stops and parties.
He kept producing music even after getting hit by a car and breaking both legs. His independent efforts ended up in him getting signed with Epic Records in 2012.
He has collaborated with Kanye West and was hailed by West as an up-and-coming artist when he was just starting. His mixtape, Boss Shit, is considered by many Drill fans to be “The Shit.” It’s that simple.
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What Is Drill Music? – Final Thoughts
So, there you have it. Everything you need to know about Drill music, where it came from, and how it evolved and influenced other music. Hopefully, you feel a bit more clued in now. Remember that as the genre develops, much may be added to the already rich story of Drill music.
Until next time, happy listening.