Artillery Row

The gentrification of Drill

The bleak origins of Drill music shouldn’t be forgotten

Ed Sheeran, fresh faced warbler, is Britain’s top musical star, with more than 150 million records sold. When he appears in the video for the UK drill artist Tion Wayne’s remix of his song “Bad Habits”, then, it shows how mainstream the rap subgenre has become.

The video, frankly, is a bit embarrassing. Sheeran throws up gang signs with the air of a young man attending a fancy dress party. Over on the /ukdrill subreddit, there was great amusement: Man’s got all 27 residents of his village in Suffolk on his blade.

This is a joke, naturally, but the best jokes emerge from a distant place of truth. Drill, as a genre, was marinated in gang warfare between groups of young black men. Filled with brooding and aggressive lyrics, and set to ominous, haunting beats, it revelled in darkness. 

Early drill artists like Chief Keef and Lil Durk emerged from the streets of Chicago, where rap could be an escape from impoverished conditions but also a means of perpetuating feuds. For example, in 2014 the Chicago rapper Lil Marc dropped the song “No Competition” in which he mocked several dead opponents, and was promptly shot to death while he waited for a bus. Rhymefest, a veteran Chicago rapper who co-wrote Kanye West’s iconic “Jesus Walks”, called drill “the theme tune to murder.”

It would be preposterous to think there wouldn’t be gang violence without drill, but it can clearly be a tool in gang violence

Controversial as it was, it was popular, influencing Kanye’s 2013 album Yeezus. UK Drill soon developed as a raw, jagged variation on the formula. Groups like 67 and 150 drew inspiration from British grime as well as their Chicagoan cousins.

Unfortunately, UK Drill was also scarred by death. As explored by tireless online documentarians like “Trap Lore Ross”, rap groups could emerge from rival gangs, trading threats and insults through their songs. The song “Moscow March” by the London group Moscow17 is a good example of the sound of the genre. Sadly, two members of the group, Rhyheim “GB” Barton and Saddique “Incognito” Kamara, were soon murdered.

Such killings are often glorified through song. “No Censor”, by the Moscow17 rivals Zone 2, celebrated the “smoking” of these men in the lines, “Incog got put in a spliff/GB got put in a spliff.” This was no isolated incident. The song “Murdered” by the group OFB contains the lines:

Lampz got murdered
K1 got murdered
Chop got murdered
Mello got murdered

Lest one think the song was merely documenting events, young OFB member Jayden “SJ” O’Neill-Crichlow was convicted for his involvement in the 2019 murder of Kamali “K1” Gabbidon-Lynck (his friends say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and not responsible for the killing). A live “crib session” filmed between Gabbidon-Lynck’s murder and Neill-Crichlow’s arrest at the home of ageless British DJ Tim Westwood – whose house has hosted more people who wanted to kill each other than Joe Biden’s — had to be censored for various references to murder victims and their relatives.

The police have struggled to contain what they consider, with some justice, to be incitement to violence. Videos have been pulled from YouTube. Concerts have been banned. In one bizarre and undeniably comic twist, 67 member “Scribz” was banned from performing music and was swiftly replaced with “LD”, who looked and sounded very much like Scribz except that he wore a metal mask

This raised valid questions about police overreach, not least when drill lyrics began to be used in trials of young rappers. Of course, a rap brag should not be seen as an iron-clad confession. Would we arrest Nick Cave for murdering Kylie Minogue? Still, left-wing critics of the Crown are naïve or disingenuous to dismiss the aggressive content in drill music as mere “posturing”, or comparable to Mark Wahlberg performing in the role of a killer, or comparable, as one enterprising defence lawyer attempted to argue, to the Rolling Stones. In his song “Youngest In Charge”, the aforementioned SJ rapped:

Like, everyone’s trappin” and everyone’s bangin’
I think I might just stop rappin’…
They ain’t done no blammings or splashings

Blammings and splashings, for people even more sheltered than me, are shootings and stabbings. So, some rappers might be “posturing”, but others are not – and they rather resent the people who are. To reduce their songs to fantasy is patronising, and, worse, trivialises the events they refer to. 

This year, for example, Vanessa Carlton responded to critics of her decision to let young rappers from Jacksonville, Florida sample her song “A Thousand Miles’ in their soon-to-be hit “Who I Smoke” by saying that nobody objected to “Stuck In the Middle With You” being played in a torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. The difference is that Quentin Tarantino created fiction while “Who I Smoke” mocks the deaths of real young black men. Her attempt to be respectful ends up demeaning to the dead.

What is sad, apart from the obvious, is that drill artists make very compelling popular music

Of course, it would be preposterous to think there would not be gang violence without drill music. The Bloods and the Crips, the most famous gangs in America, were formed in the late sixties and early seventies. Gangsta rap, never mind drill, did not appear till the mid-80s. Still, it can clearly be a tool in gang violence, and a means of glamourising it for potential recruits. In one interview, Incognito of Moscow17 said, “The crime that’s happening, right, music does influence it. You’ve got to put your hands up and say drill music does influence it.” He went on to say that poverty and boredom were factors as well, which was true enough, but the lyrics did not help. 

What is sad, apart from the obvious, is that drill artists make very compelling popular music. Take “Rich Porter” by LD. Okay, you will have to look past the fact that it is named after an infamous drug dealer and that the rapper has himself been jailed for drug dealing (he denies it). It is still a haunting song, anxious and arrogant at the same time. “Youngest In Charge”, if you close your ears to the lyrics, is strikingly composed and performed, with its eerie piano notes, skittish drums and fierce yet measured rapping. Its young author had a great deal of potential, wasted, apparently, because he and his friends thought that it would be a good idea to hop on bikes and go to seek their enemies. It is sad — though not, of course, as sad as a young man being killed.

Still, young rappers have found ways to transcend or bypass this violence. Tion Wayne, after spending sixteen months in prison over a nightclub brawl, focused on his music and became a real breakout star. Headie One, a founder and elder statesman of OFB, became an underground sensation with hits like “18Hunna”, despite somehow getting involved in a punch-up with Tion Wayne on, of all things, a flight. American rap mogul Drake collaborated with Headie One, to add an urban edge to his syrupy tracks. UK drill producer Ghosty – who memorably said an inspiration behind his eerie sound is Britain, because it is a “gloomy place” — has worked with the American drill star 22Gz. 

The gentrification of a form of popular culture might be no bad thing when its origins are so bleak

Headie One’s younger associates in OFB have found success as well. In one interview, Double Lz and Bandokay (who happens to be the son of Mark Duggan, whose death sparked the London riots ten years ago) reflected that dwelling on their rivals in their songs only gave them publicity. True, but there is a broader lesson there. Defining your music by your enemies can drag it down but that is more damagingly true in life, where you can, and probably wiłl, end up in jail or dead as a cycle of retaliation spins without anyone remembering how it began to move.

“I try to be peaceful,” raps Headie One on “Teach Me,” from his conflicted debut album Edna, “Tell the G’s not to put teeth in.” Edna is as poetic as the genre has ever been. “How can those nightmares share the same space I’m supposed to dream with?” Headie raps, musing on his “secrets”. One hopes that young men from the scene can transcend such “nightmares” and stop throwing themselves against the wall of gang violence. But the dead and the imprisoned should not be forgotten as pop stars like Mr Sheeran grin their way through “gun lean” poses. The gentrification of a form of popular culture might be no bad thing when its origins are so bleak. Yet those origins should be remembered as they were. That, at least, is the respect that they are owed.

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