Drill music originated in the South Side of Chicago around 2008. At the time, mainstream hip-hop comprised of club bangers about the high life – like T.I.’s 2008 anthem “Whatever You Like” in which the rapper croons about a life of luxury; “Hundred K deposits/Vacations in the tropics.” As violence and homicide were sharply escalating in Chicago, a generation of young artists created a subgenre of hip-hop that conveyed the truth about gang life in Chicago.
Dro City rapper Pacman is credited as the first to apply the term drill but it took a few more years for the style to develop into what we can drill music today. Drill is slang for shooting someone, and the music itself is a gritty and unfiltered representation of gang culture. The genre is related to trap, gangsta rap, and footwork.
Drill music doesn’t have rigid stylistic boundaries or production styles; it’s more of an outlet, an approach, and a commitment to reality in sharp contrast with the fantasy world of mainstream hip-hop. The genre is characterized by a menacing yet cinematic sound, monstrous 808s, syncopated snares, and gritty lyrics that cut to the chase.
Chief Keef is one of the early drill artists who cemented the style. In an interview, he said of lyrics:
I don’t even really use metaphors or punchlines. ‘Cause I don’t have to. […] I’d rather just say what’s going on right now.
At the age of 16, living with his grandma after being released from jail for gun charges, Keef released the single “I Don’t Like.” The single was remixed by Kanye West and reached the Billboard Rap Top 20. His debut album, Finally Rich, released in December 2012, popularized the new genre.
Drill was one of the first genres to emerge exclusively via streaming. At this stage in the aughts, artists could create a thriving music scene with an internet connection and DIY videos. The raw music videos, gritty lyrics, and ominous sounds of drill quickly drew the attention of mainstream artists, big labels, and the far reaches of the internet. Many producers were quick to emulate the fresh, aggressive sound and sell their beats online. By late 2012, mainstream rappers like Kanye West and Drake were collaborating with drill musicians. West cited drill as an influence on his 2013 album Yeezus, which featured vocals from Chief Keef and King Louie.
As with anything popular on the internet, drill quickly garnered fans all over the world, and producers started their own local drill scenes. In 2012, UK drill emerged in London, particularly in Brixton. The prominence of UK drill influenced other regional scenes in Australia, Ireland, and Brooklyn.
Brixton has a history of gritty and aggressive music, which is probably why drill adapted so well across the pond. Since 2012, UK drill has evolved its distinct style of production, taking influence from earlier British genres such as grime, UK garage, and road rap, a British style of gangsta rap. UK drill differs from Chicago drill in its preference for sliding bass and a faster BPM, adapted from grime. Today, drill is one of the most popular subgenres in the UK.
Like Chicago drill, UK drill relies on streaming to distribute music, particularly YouTube. Online streaming platforms have their advantages, allowing for a far reach and viral success. However, this visibility has also made drill artists a prime target of British Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick in numerous legal battles that have resulted in controversial censorship of artists.
In June 2018, a UK court prohibited the members of the drill group 1011 from mentioning death or injury in their music. They were also banned from mentioning certain postcodes. The court order required them to allow police to monitor their music video shoots and performances and notify police within 24 hours of releasing a new video. In another unprecedented move, Cressida Dick successfully petitioned YouTube to remove 30 drill music videos from the platform. In 2019, The Lambeth Gangs Unit handed out suspended sentences to drill duo Skengdo x AM for performing “drill music that incited and encouraged violence against rival gang members and then posted it on social media.”
Britain has a long history of moral outrage over new music, followed by attempts to censor artists. New genres that emerged in the UK over the past hundred years, like jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, punk, jungle, garage, and grime, were quickly labeled by the mainstream media as morally corrupt and treated as a public enemy. Local police shut down clubs, BBC banned songs, and record pressing plants refused to print records they considered to be blasphemous. The most notorious attack on music was the Criminal Justice Act of the ’90s, which made it illegal to play music “characterized by repetitive beats” to a gathering of over ten people. The CJA, an attempt to criminalize and stamp out rave culture, was met with widespread outrage and protest.
Although the British media and police are waging a targetted attack on drill music, the sound of UK drill has captured the attention of fans and artists worldwide. The influence of drill has come full circle; as the drill scene in Brooklyn came into its own, artists found themselves buying beats online from UK producers and forging connections over DM and email. AXL Beats, a young teen in London, started making beats on his phone and uploading them to YouTube using “drill beats” in his key words. He was quickly flooded with messages from Brooklyn artists looking for a fresh sound. At that time, nobody knew that a young London producer would play a central role in defining the Brooklyn drill’s emerging sound.
Brooklyn drill began bubbling up in the mid-2010s. At this point, it wasn’t labeled as drill yet, but artists were looking for a new production style and sound, taking their cues from Chicago. As these artists carved out their style, the UK influence snuck in. Brooklyn rappers scoured the internet for beats with a fresh sound and found themselves messaging producers like AXL Beats. Initially, they didn’t know where these producers were located, unknowingly collaborating with UK-based drill producers. This collaboration established a unique hybrid sound for Brooklyn and developed a strong connection between Brooklyn and the UK.
By the late 2010s, Brooklyn drill artists had honed their sound and gained local popularity, although the genre was not yet considered viable for mainstream audiences. In 2018 Pop Smoke burst onto the scene, instantly becoming an icon of Brooklyn drill and pushing the vibe in a different direction. His track “Welcome To The Party,” produced by 808Melo, busted Brooklyn drill wide open, establishing a sound that was just as menacing as it was danceable. The track was an immediate hit, quickly remixed by mainstream artists like Nicki Minaj, Meek Mill, and British MC Skepta.
In an interview with Complex, AXL Beats said of the track:
It changed the whole vibe of the sound. That kind of started a whole new direction: party drill music.
This era brought about success for artists like Pop Smoke, 22Gz, Fivio Foreign, Sheff G, Sleepy Hallow, Curly Savv, and Blixky Boyz. Most of these prominent artists regularly collaborated with UK drill producers such as 808Melo, AXL Beats, Ghosty, and Yoz Beats.
22Gz and Sheff G are credited with solidifying the Brooklyn sound and aesthetic, but it was undoubtedly Pop Smoke that pushed it over the edge. Even at a young age (Pop was only 19 when he got his career started in 2018), everyone that met with him immediately recognized his superstar power, and big music execs and managers were quick to back his next moves. For his debut mixtape, 808Melo flew out to Brooklyn and tracked all the songs with Pop in a few weeks. Meet the Woo was released in 2019 and featured another massive hit for Pop Smoke – “Dior.”
Now the whole music industry was watching Brooklyn drill artists with a hawk eye, with major labels going into bidding wars over Brooklyn rappers.
Later in 2019, Fivio Foreign released his hit “Big Drip” produced by AXL Beats. The success of this track led to a seven-figure deal with Columbia Records, landing him on the same roster as Adele and Beyoncé.
At this point, Brooklyn drill was shooting right to the top. Like the UK scene, Brooklyn artists now had caught the attention of the NYPD. Rising drill stars like Pop Smoke, Sheff G, and 22Gz were booked to perform at the New York music festival Rolling Loud. In November of 2019, festival organizers received a letter from the NYPD pressuring them to remove these drill artists from the roster. NYPD assistant chief Martin Morales concluded his letter stating that “The New York City Police Department believes if these individuals are allowed to perform, there will be a higher risk of violence.” Ultimately, 5 New York rappers were removed from the lineup.
Despite the widely publicized removal of drill artists from this festival and smaller clubs refusing to book local drill artists, Brooklyn drill continued to rise. Weeks after Fivio released his hit “Big Drip,” Drake used an AXL Beats beat for his track “War.”
The next week, Travis Scott linked up with Pop Smoke for the track “GATTI,” produced by a trio of UK producers; 808Melo, AXL Beatz, and MobzBeatz.
Only a few months later, tragedy struck when Pop Smoke was shot and killed during a home invasion. This loss was a big hit to Brooklyn drill, which was shortly followed by the Coronavirus pandemic. Drill artists are determined to keep pushing the sound, and the world is still listening.
Pop Smoke’s debut album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, was released posthumously in July 2020. All 19 tracks on the album charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although Ireland is most commonly known for its traditional music and enormously popular bands like U2, the Pogues, and The Cranberries, Ireland has had an underground rap scene since the ’80s. In the past few years, drill scenes have emerged in the cities of Dublin and Athlone. Drill bubbled up in Irish housing estates for all the same reasons that it popped off everywhere else – young people want to see young artists talking about real life.
Ink is considered the godfather of Irish drill. His crew in Dublin started this local style of drill around 2015. After facing racism throughout his life, Ink was compelled to embrace his mixed heritage and express his identity through music. Drill has become a way for young artists, especially Irish born of African ancestry, to carve out their own identity and form of expression in Ireland.
Like all the other drill scenes, Irish drill is distributed through YouTube. In an effort to stay ahead of the backlash against drill artists all over the world, Ink puts disclaimers on all of his music videos. Irish authorities haven’t focused on drill artists yet, but they know the day will come, especially as local artists become more widely known.
Looking for more widespread acceptance, many young Irish drill artists rap with variations on the London accent. Like their heritage and musical influences, the accent is a hybrid of Irish, African, and British. JB.2 from Athlone is another popular Irish drill rapper due to his unique flow. At 17, he posted a freestyle that went viral and changed his life. Before going viral, he spent his time playing kickball, going to see movies, and tirelessly working on his flow. JB.2 says that growing up in the hood surrounded by negative energy and doubts fueled him to turn his emotions into something positive – to prove people wrong.
The drill scene in Ireland is only just emerging. It represents a new beginning and an opportunity for young people to forge their own music scene and cultural movement.
In 2019, Australia’s first drill artists, a group called ONEFOUR, went viral with their track “The Message.”
The group comes from Mount Druitt in Western Sydney, which is a multicultural area mainly populated by migrants from the Pacific Islands, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. ONEFOUR is the first group to put out music that represents the experience of young Pacific Islanders. Like all other drill scenes, ONEFOUR were inspired by drill specifically because it was a vehicle for truth. Feeling unseen by the mainstream culture but closely watched by the police, they could express themselves through music.
The production style, slang, and overall aesthetic are highly influenced by London. Like Irish drillers, these boys grew up with a hybrid identity not represented in mainstream Australian culture. They gravitated much more towards the cultural offerings of London, picking up the aesthetic from music videos. Repping this aesthetic is like wearing a badge; if you’re wearing the Nike TNs you’re a young Aussie hoodlum. This shoe is aggressive and evil-looking – which is precisely why they are the one and only shoe to wear. Of course, this aesthetic suits drill perfectly.
Unfortunately, ONEFOUR is finding it impossible to book local gigs with the authorities following their every move. Police have pressured promoters to stop them from booking ONEFOUR. It’s the same old story; the backlash against drill rests on the claim that this kind of music will inspire people to commit acts of violence. Fans and artists all over the world beg to differ. Including the Trap Lord himself, A$AP Ferg. In May, Ferg linked up with ONEFOUR on their track, “Say it Again.”
ONEFOUR was due to headline their first Australian tour last November, but the tour fell apart when promoters and venues faced pressure from police. With the inhospitable response in their homeland, they’re forced to stick with music videos hoping to gain enough international acclaim to land some gigs abroad.
That’s our introduction to drill around the globe for now. We shall see where it pops up next. If you want to read more on drill or watch some great mini docs, check out my resources below 👇
“10 Of the Best UK Drill Tracks, According to 67.” DummyMag, 12 Jan. 2017, www.dummymag.com/10-best/10-of-the-best-uk-drill-tracks-according-to-67/.
Australia’s Drill Scene Is a War Zone | Gangsta Rap International. Noisey, 23 Dec. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4Dxs4nEY84.
Fazal, Mahmood. “Nike TNs: Australia’s Most Fuck You Shoe.” Vice, 7 May 2017, www.vice.com/en_au/article/nz8npb/nike-tns-the-shoe-that-defined-2000s-australian-suburbia.
Herlock, Ethan. “8 UK Drill Artists Pushing the Sound Forward.” Red Bull, 22 Jan. 2020, www.redbull.com/gb-en/best-uk-drill-artists.
How Pop Smoke and Fivio Foreign Took Brooklyn Drill Global | Diary of a Song. The New York Times, 30 June 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYWEHvVIGYE.
The Irish Drill Scene Won’t Be Stopped | Gangsta Rap International – Ireland. Noisey, 10 Dec. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=rg3JLUDFKPE.
Koku, Danielle. “‘We Own the Ball Now’: How UK Producers Set a New Standard for Drill.” Mixmag, 14 May 2020, mixmag.net/feature/uk-drill-producers-chicago-us-rap.
Martin, Felicity. “Behind Bars: After Years of the UK Banning Music, Attempts to Censor Drill Break Alarming New Ground.” DummyMag, 28 Jan. 2019, www.dummymag.com/features/behind-bars-uk-banning-music-censor-drill-alarming-new-ground/.
Peters, Micah. “The (Finally) Rich History of Drill Music, Drake’s Plaything for 2020.” The Ringer, 21 Jan. 2020, www.theringer.com/music/2020/1/21/21074750/drake-war-travis-scott-drill-music-chief-keef-headie-one-sheff-g-pop-smoke.
Schwartzberg, Lauren. “Drill or Be Drilled.” Dazed, 26 Apr. 2013, www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/16057/1/drill-at-will.
Skelton, Eric. “How Brooklyn Drill Became the New Sound of New York.” Complex, www.complex.com/music/brooklyn-drill-the-new-sound-of-new-york.