Drill originated in Chicago but took on a new life in the UK, and despite media indifference, it now sits on the brink of the mainstream – here’s everything you need to know about it
Grime renaissance aside, in the last couple of years London road rap has diverged down two paths. One led to the sunlit uplands where J Hus, Kojo Funds, and Belly Squad lean-and-bop to autotuned afrobeat. The other swerved south of the river, into the icy underworld of UK drill.
Drill originated in Chicago, going global in 2012 via rapper Chief Keef and a round of pants-wetting from the liberal media. The UK version obviously owes a huge debt to the genre: it deploys the same melancholic, trap-tinged beats, the same slang, and the same nihilistic fixation on violence. But differences have emerged, not least the fact that the mainstream press has almost totally ignored UK drill. Most obviously, AutoTune is all but absent from its UK version. Keef uses his mournful voice as an instrument, blurring with the stabs of the synth, but British drillers use a harsh, stripped-back delivery indebted to grime. The two-step space which echoes in grime instrumentals also billows through UK drill beats. There are exceptions – American drillers can go sparse and UK drillers can get hype – but the London sound is far less lush than the Chicagoan original.
Writing about US drill in Chicago magazine, Whet Moser said that “it’s not even fatalistic, because that would imply a self-consciousness, a moral consideration, that isn’t there in the lyrics. It just is, over and over again.” Thanks in part to close scrutiny from the Met, UK rappers have developed a more ironic and allusive style, couched in a distinctive South London patois – ‘ten toes’, ‘ding-dong’, the Arabic akhi for brother. The playfulness of lines like “trapping’s not great… it’s lovely” goes hand in hand with a self-identification as ‘grubby’. This is music for cold, rainy streets, kebab joints and filthy trap houses, not swanky clubs and mansions.
Similarly, UK drill is defined by an estate-bound, hyper-local mentality. In a scene structured around pre-existing gang rivalries, crews bang out not for their city or their borough, but for the fifth and sixth digits of their phone number. UK drillers invade their rivals’ favoured chicken shops and urinate on their street signs, while YouTube commenters track skyrocketing ‘scoreboards’ of stabbings in and around Brixton.
But despite media indifference, a lingering indebtedness to American culture, and a culture of tit-for-tat violence which has left scores of youths stabbed and several dead, UK drill is at the brink of the mainstream. These are the collectives doing the most to push it onto the global stage.
“67 are on your clart and you ain’t on nuttin,” the rapper formerly known as Chipmunk told Yungen during their highly-publicised beef last year. The mere mention of the Brixton Hill crew allegedly silenced Yungen, and solidified 67 as the top dogs in the UK drill food chain. Key man Scribz spent years rapping under a pseudonym and a DOOM-like mask, thanks to a court injunction banning him from any media appearances. Though 67 incorporated the ban into their mystique (“no face, no case” ), it showed how the Met police systematically frustrate drill rappers’ attempts to switch street crime for the music industry. Seminal early track “Live Corn” directly borrowed a beat from Chicago driller LA Capone, himself shot dead at the age of 17. But they’ve come a long way since then. Mixtapes 6ix 7even and In Skengs We Trust are among the most cohesive statements yet from a scene still defined by YouTube hood videos and Snapchat leaks, while UK hip hop godfather Giggs gave them the Peckham seal of approval on last year’s crossover hit “Let’s Lurk”.
150 hail from Angel Town, a notorious estate that was recently the subject of a weirdly voyeuristic series of articles in the Evening Standard. Boosted by association with legendary Brixton rappers Ard Adz and Sneakbo, they’ve developed a high-octane, ad-lib, and sound effect-heavy style, beautifully showcased on their gassed-up Westwood set (“Your favourite rapper got his name from rapping”).
150 are symbiotically locked in a beef with 67 and other affiliated crews, which has left 150 frontman Grizzy stabbed in the face. For example, their track “4 Door Truck” lifts the beat from 67’s “Skeng Man”. Grizzy utters his bars in a grim monotone, name-checking a Tulse Hill youth stabbed to death in 2010 when he spits: “Should have stayed in school like Zac.”
Some of these threats are hollow – 150’s Mdargg and 67’s Asap are reputedly cousins – but some are all too genuine. The half-hearted ‘all events shown are entirely fictional’ disclaimer at the start of each gorgeously-produced hood video can safely be set aside, as the very real threat of violence keeps tracks dropping at a frenetic rate. Check out “Salute”, where 150 members spit black magic threats over menacing glockenspiel beat.
Kennington’s Spartans have a brighter sound than many of their rivals, switching up flows as they trade bars like “Spartans dip like custard cream” on posse cuts which recall grime’s first wave at its most exuberant.
As such, they’ve occasionally been accused of making music for Snapchat, rather than the field. But while their pop-tinged hooks are capable of blowing up South London’s Snapchat circuit, Spartans like rising star MizOrMac overlay skittering beats with menacing, restless flows. “Hazards”, a sublime solo cut by the currently-imprisoned Loski, seems to pick up more breathless energy at every turn.
While Harlem Spartans have been badly affected by a wave of arrests (they shout out no less than ten imprisoned affiliates at the start of sparkling group track “Kennington Where it Started”), their 150-affiliated rivals 410 have perversely benefited from this mass incarceration, stepping up their workrate to release a recent string of bangers.
At the moment, the only drill rapper whose hype is on a level with Harlem Spartans’ MizOrMac is AM. In a sign of the scene’s health, all these crews have their affiliated younger sets, and AM has risen through the ranks in a matter of months to take his place alongside an older generation of 410 rappers. He’s all over 410’s mournful beats at the moment, issuing threats with a distinctive flow that constantly reinvents itself.
Another hot property at the moment is PS, a Peckham rapper who apparently combines a prodigious musical output with a college education, a professional football contract at Barnet, and a certified reputation in the streets. His crew Zone2 are blowing up, steamrolling rival crew Moscow 17 in an ongoing beef.
Recent cut “Whos Badder than We” showcases the stop-start beat flips which characterise London drill, as chimes and gunshots switch places in the mix. It also incorporates footage from their crib session with Tim Westwood. The vicar’s son and veteran DJ has done more than anyone to promote the music into the UK urban mainstream, and is probably the only person in London to have 67 and 150 on speed-dial.
Other acts worth checking out include 86 from Tulse Hill, 67-affiliated K-Trap, Edmonton’s straight-to-the-bone A1 from tha 9, and the adrenaline-fuelled 28s. But like Zone2, many of these crews have been accused of cloning the Brixton drill style. So who is going to push the music on to the next level?
The afrobeats/drill division mentioned earlier was an over-simplification. Tottenham rapper Abra Cadabra switches effortlessly between icy threats and afrobeat crooning, and in 2016 crowned a huge year by picking up a MOBO award for his soaring collaboration with Krept & Konan. He’s not really a drill rapper in the sense that 67 are, but draws on the drill vibe and aesthetic to create something more varied, more experimental, and more unique to London.