Drillers Without Borders

Words: James Keith
Photography: Chris Loutfy

At this point, UK drill’s heritage has been pretty exhaustively documented. Born in Chicago in the early 2010s before migrating to London, the sound has flourished all over the world at an exponential rate in the past couple of years. No longer restricted to obscure YouTube channels, drillers are now welcomed into the church and the charts as the tabloid perception of a scene led by gang violence is gradually being washed away.

Now drill is reaching out beyond London, finding audiences and new talent across the UK and beyond, even finding a home in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It’s also been commented that drill is no longer restricted to just inner cities, either; now suburbs around Barcelona, Dublin and more are getting on board and bringing their own flavours to the table.

We’ve highlighted one act from each country as a jumping-off point. The artists we’ve highlighted here are fairly indicative of the scenes around them, but the ultimate point of this piece is to show you where you should be looking and to give you the tools to get to the heart of it.

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Australia

Australia’s grime scene has already had a modicum of global attention, but there’s also a drill scene that deserves a chance. OneFour are widely considered to be at the forefront of the country’s nascent scene, but more and more are cropping up too. One of the first things you’ll notice about the Oz brand of drill is the hooks; they’re more anthemic than the UK’s which tend to be more restrained and more consistent with grime’s call-and-response-type bars, specifically designed for crowds to shout them back.

As is the case with a lot of drill scenes around the world, Australia’s is not without its share of controversy. Last year, a riot broke out outside of The Gasometer Hotel in Collingwood, Victoria, after a show headlined by homegrown talent The Alpha. In the wake of the incident, it was reported that some of the songs The Alpha had performed in his set were dedicated to slain teenager Laa Chol, who was murdered in a tower-block flat several months before the show.

Naturally, the press and police were quick to link both the riot and Chol’s death to drill music in much the same way as we’ve seen here in the UK. As a result, Australia’s drill musicians have seen a similar blowback to their British counterparts with the police placing extra scrutiny on drill events and the rappers, DJs and producers being booked. Let’s hope this changes soon.

Republic of Ireland

The Irish drill scene stepped up a notch in terms of popularity late last year when former member of Athlone-based crew 090, J.B2 (now going by the name Mr. Affiliate) and AV9 member Chuks put out the scene’s first million-view video with their Russ collaboration “Link Up”. Then there’s the homegrown platform, Dearfach TV, which was founded in 2017 and then capitalised on the attention brought by J.B2 and Chuks to reach its current levels today where it regularly sees tens of thousands of views on videos without breaking a sweat.

Lyrically, the influence of the Irish accent is subtle, but it’s there. According to Sequence, founder of New Eire TV, the complex and evolving definition of ‘Irishness’, racial identity and the influence of U.S sounds have their parts to play. And, like some of the other scenes in this list, much of the Irish drill scene has popped up not in the inner cities, but in the surrounding suburbs.

“Over in England, they were just lucky enough to build a style and you can see how it worked out for them,” Sequence explained to i-D. “The Irish accent is not as appealing to [audiences] as people think… I don’t think people would take a black Irish rapper rapping in an Irish accent seriously yet.” On a positive note, the same was said of London accents in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. So while sometimes people can be slow to get on board with change, they can sometimes surprise us.

Spain

Of every scene on this list, Spanish drill might be the best example of a scene being sculpted by the native language. While most drill artists are known for their slower, more considered flows, the nature of the Spanish language massively ramps up the speed of their rhymes. Spanish language drill (and rap in general) has had kind of a soft introduction to English speakers via the various Latino communities up and down the U.S. However, it’s worth pointing out that most of the sonic and lyrical references made by Spanish drill rappers are to the UK scene, not the U.S. In “Back To Back” by KG and B10, for example, it’s Headie One they salute (I’m the one like Headie) not Chief Keef.

Speculation aside, one of the key names you need to get familiar with is 970 Block and, in particular, their members KG, El Patron and Yxung DY. And, if you’ve watched the video above, it should go without saying that solo artist and 970 collaborator B10 should be pretty high on that list too.

France

France’s love affair with hip-hop is nearly as old as hip-hop itself. Some of the bigger names like Booba, NTM and others have made their way into the English-speaking world (not least because of the latter’s era-capturing contribution to cinematic masterpiece La Haine), but the new wave of drillers like Kaaris emerging across the Channel are more than deserving of international attention. Even if you’ve never gone down the French drill rabbit hole on YouTube, there’s already a very good chance you’ve already enjoyed the French language being sprayed over drill, thanks to none other than AM, whose Behind Barz session with Skengo featured some bars in French.

Running counter to the Afro influences of the likes of MHD or the old-school approach of Medusa, French drill is as dark and unforgiving as its international counterparts. The music emanates from the “banlieues”—highly neglected neighbourhoods surrounding Paris that are often mired in gun violence and in 2005 were the spark for the city’s infamous riots—and it reflects that chaos, violence and poverty in unflinching detail. However, even in the gritty output of scene leaders like Kaaris, Ixzo and Mac Tyer, there’s still a certain melody to both their flows and production, due in some part to the prevailing popularity of trap and Afrobeats in France.

U.A.E.

Getting to grips with a genre can be difficult when there’s a language barrier. For that reason (as well as his hit-maker status), one of the best Arabic artists to get familiar with would have to be Freek, aka Somali-born, UAE-raised Mustafa Esmail, who fluidly switches between Arabic and English so you’re not entirely in the dark.

You may have already seen one of his hits, “Wala Kilma”, which recently enjoyed a bit of viral success, but he’s been grinding away for a few years now. As with one or two other artists and scenes in this list, the line between drill and trap can get a little blurred, but more recent material from Freek is your best place to start if you’re looking to stick solely with drill. What makes the Arabic drill (and trap) stand out is the scene’s enthusiasm for blending their Arabic heritage with the usually ice cold minimalism. The result is a much denser production mixed with melodies and rhythm that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.

As Freek told Gulf News last year, “I think it’s important for me to use Arabic in music because it adds value to my identity. If I rap only in English, what makes me different from people living in the States or Canada?”


Posted on April 29, 2019