// by Caleb Oyekanmi //
UK ‘drill’ music is one of the fastest-growing British music genres- but will it follow in the footsteps of its rap predecessors?
Drill music as a genre originated in Chicago, with artists like Chief Keef and the late Fredo Santana bringing the style into the mainstream. The genre became so popular that Kanye West and even UK group Boy Better Know remixed the hit Chief Keef song, I Don’t Like. The Brixton-originating UK drill scene, as stated by Dimzy from the popular group 67, gained great influence from this sub-branch of US hip-hop.
It is clear that British genres influenced UK drill as well. Drill utilises the fast tempo of grime and UK garage. The general feel of the lyricism seems to have been passed down from UK road rap, which became popular in the late 2000s with artists like Krept and Konan, and of course the household name Giggs who produced what is arguably the UK national anthem, Talkin’ da Hardest. This mixture of influences makes it impossible to pin drill down to a particular sound, and it is therefore better defined by the culture that surrounds the music.
The most major pioneering groups were 150 and 67. They effectively created the genre in the early 2010s by making diss tracks about one another, before they moved onto making more general music.
Knowingly or unknowingly, virtually everyone reading this article would have been exposed to UK drill. It would be difficult to have gone anywhere from late 2017 to early 2018 without hearing Man’s Not Hot by the comedian Michael Dapaah, acting under his comedic persona, Big Shaq. What many do not realise is that it is in fact a remix of 67’s popular song featuring Giggs, Let’s Lurk, with a beat that was originally used by another group, 86. The character Big Shaq is in fact a parody of the kind of lyrics and personalities that UK drill comes hand-in-hand with. MelaTwins’ Fleek Bop, whether intended to be serious or not, is another song enjoyed as a parody of the scene. The genre must at least be somewhat popular if it can be joked about. Yet, UK drill music is still, at this point, not mainstream.
The major reason for this is the lyrical content of the genre. It is incredibly violent. After all, ‘drill’ is a slang word meaning gun. Most drill groups are named after the gangs that the members come from, and therefore violence is naturally part and parcel of the genre. Harlem Spartans member MizOrMac’s Grip and Ride is not even 3 minutes long, yet I count 49 explicit references to violence within it. Combined with allusions to drugs and robbery, the lyrics are not relatable to the vast majority of people. UK rap and afro-swing often sees the same type of violent lyricism, with most artists in those scenes coming from similar backgrounds to those who represent UK drill. However, the violent lyrics in a song like Samantha by Dave and J Hus generally come with happy and relaxing instrumentals, as opposed to the dark and gritty production style typical of drill.
Misogynistic lyricism doesn’t seem to hinder rap in general- one only needs to look at the popularity of Slob on my Knob by Juicy J to see that. However, UK drill sees sexism expressed with an air of brazenness that I have yet to see from any other genre. There is the occasional moment of redemption: the first verse of No Hook by Harlem Spartans sees MizOrMac mention the “poor condition of women”, acknowledging the concerns women are faced with. Yet, this is the exception, not the rule. If you want to get a flavour for what you’re in for, take a listen to Skengdo x AM’s Behind Barz freestyle.
Another major problem is that the lyrics would not be understandable to the vast majority of people. Not many would get the artists’ vernacular. In the short 5-line chorus on Harlem Spartans member Loski’s Hazards, Loski makes at least 15 references for which one would need to understand the jargon in order to work out what he is trying to say. Moreover, the lyrics often refer to specific people. In Zone 2’s recent freestyle on Tim Westwood’s show, they began by firing shots at Harlem Spartans and Moscow17 group members. This was then referenced by 410’s AM on Attempted 2.0. These are secluded references one could only understand by appreciating both the language and the story behind it.
The lyrical content is likely part of the reason why it is incredibly popular amongst those who do understand it, but this is not as appealing to the mainstream audience. Compare a song like Mad Max by OFB, where you may not understand a single part of the chorus, with Ramz’s Barking. You can easily appreciate the premise of the song even if you don’t understand what Ramz’s background is.
Popular UK drill groups are often slowed by losing members. 3 of Harlem Spartans most prominent members (MizOrMac, Blanco, and TG Millian) are currently in prison, all 3 getting jail-time shortly after the group started to get some buzz. 67’s most major member, LD, was in prison from November 2017 until just recently, interrupting the group’s tour. Many drill artists struggle to separate their old life from the new, perhaps because their old life is such a major feature of the music that they make. Many popular artists have unfortunately passed away. 814’s Showkey and M-Dot, both of whom were featured on Channel 5’s Gangland documentary sadly passed a few years ago, shortly after the documentary was filmed. Imagine if the newly-popular American group Brockhampton, after releasing their first major album Saturation, had lost half of their major members- it is undoubtable that their progress would have been slowed, if not completely halted.
The lyricism is generally not very inventive and is sometimes even out-of-time, meaning that if you’re looking for some Kendrick Lamar-style, eye-opening wordplay, drill is not the genre for you. This represents a wider problem that drill faces: the music is generally not very well-polished. The genre is also very repetitive. You can listen to a lot of songs without even realising that the person rapping on the track has changed. UK drill is flooded with frankly weak attempts at the style of music. This means that there are only a few artists and projects that stand out.
Yet, despite all of its setbacks, the UK drill scene is certainly growing. 67 have had a European tour and have performed at major festivals like Glastonbury, Wireless and Reading. Loski and solo-artist SL both performed on the Wireless main stage with Section Boyz in 2017. OFB’s Headie One and 410’s Skengdo x AM are performing at Reading Festival in August of this year.
The appeal of UK drill music is understandable. Instrumentals on songs like Know Better by RV x Headie One or Waps by 67 are both exciting and distinct. There are easily recognisable elements of the music: Headie One is famous for his ‘they think I do juju’ line and his ad-libs; Harlem Spartans’ Kennington Where it Started and Skengdo x AM’s Think Again had one-liners that were all over social media upon their release; 410’s AM and 30 from B-Side both have easily recognisable voices- the list goes on.
The unique flow that is brought through by the artists on songs like Gentleman by SL or Sav12 x S1’s This Beef Can’t Settle is combined with consistent and unique ad-libs and energy that can only be brought by having multiple people on one short track; Zone 2’s No Hook is a great example of this. This is what makes UK drill attractive to a wide audience.
The movement can rightly be compared to the rise of grime, which had a much slower emergence than UK drill did. The major moment in the creation of the grime genre was Wiley’s Eskimobeat, which came out in 2002, but the genre has only become widely popular in recent years. The mainstream views UK drill similarly to how it viewed grime in its early development. Grime’s early lyricism was just as violent and aggressive: this is evident if you watch early grime clashes (a good one to watch would be that between Skepta and Devilman in Lord of the Mics) or even just listen to regular grime songs (Tempa T’s Next Hype or Lethal Bizzle’s Pow (Forward) are excellent examples of this). Yet, as it grew, the artists began to become more diverse in their ability and the genre snowballed into what it is today.
That could certainly happen for UK drill. 67 recently expanded their horizons, making the song Tour Team with the grime artist AJ Tracey and Wat Up with Nadia Rose. Loski featured on the new song London’s Calling with artists like AJ Tracey and Avelino. It seems that drill is moving off of just Soundcloud and YouTube, and out of the underground onto major streaming sites and radio shows. It is seemingly only becoming more and more popular, and I would not be surprised if the young artists become as well-known as the likes Stormzy and Boy Better Know sometime in the future.