Drill rap, with its dark beats, slow tempos, and lyrics about guns and drugs, has become a generational sound. It reflects the anger, foreboding, and ambient bad vibes of our historical moment as powerfully as any music that has ever been made. And it has created a potent language for a community to talk about the urban war zone that is home.
The genre took shape in Chicago’s South Side in the early 2010s, with artists like Chief Keef and Lil Durk establishing its dark, melodic aesthetic. It spread across the country and into London, where it intermingled with grime and garage rap to mold U.K. drill, then landed in Brooklyn and the Bronx in the summer of 2017, where it became the soundtrack to gun violence that left many neighborhoods resembling a war zone.
Now, New York City is at the center of drill’s global explosion. The style has been embraced by young people in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, who connect with rappers like Notti and Dougie B over earbuds, Snapchat filters, and Instagram Stories. But the popularity of the sound is also bringing attention to some of its harshest aspects. Diss tracks and songs mocking the dead have always represented the darkest side of the subgenre, but they’ve exploded in volume and scale this year, with gatekeepers—social media platforms and “beef pages”—fanning rivalries like a gladiator duel for their own financial gains.
A few years ago, Sheff G and 22Gz were among the first rappers to prove that New York’s drill scene could be just as big as Chicago’s or the U.K’s, despite the deep animosity between competing crews. They and other rappers like Bizzy Banks, who has spent time on Rikers Island for assault and drug charges, have been able to use the power of social media to gain fans and boost their streaming and radio counts.
But while many other kids who make drill music want to be the next Pop Smoke or Sheff G, most of them won’t land a record deal and few will be able to turn rapping into a remunerative career. For those who do, the pressure to stay on top is as intense as the threat of losing their lives to gang warfare or drug dealing.
To survive, many drill artists have honed their craft, becoming adept at crafting beats that rely on manipulated samples and the quintessential drill drum kit. They’ve also mastered the art of the video, capturing a gritty reality that can be as much of a detritus to their careers as a new pair of Jordans. In this age of digital consumerism, a savvy clip can propel an artist to fame and fortune in a matter of seconds. But just as quickly, an online rant can lead to real-world destruction. It’s a dangerous dynamic that has been in play since the rise of YouTube and social media. And the killing of Notti shows how even online bravado can have violent consequences. drill rap radio