Words: Yemi Abiade

In a recent TRENCH article, writer Jesse Bernard dug through the confines of black British music, concluding that its respective scenes continue to undergo a state of transition. With grime well into its so-called ‘second coming’ and Afrobeats (plus its various mutations) still at an embryonic phase of development, our sounds have yet to reach a peak over the last few years of unprecedented success.

Of all the UK’s underground genres, the emergence of UK drill has arguably been the most controversial. Conceived on the fertile streets of Chicago in the early 2010s, and born on the gritty ends of South London some years later, its intense, pounding sounds have made the genre and its disciples enemies of the state. The mainstream has wholly ignored it, politicians continue to link it to the increase in knife crime and gang culture in the UK capital, and social media has created online beefs that spill into real-life postcode wars.

Drill, first and foremost, serves as social commentary on the harsher side of the tracks—far removed from the idyllic utopia the powers that be would want you to believe about London and the UK—and is sonically as gripping as any other UK genre. Typically, it is defined by its thumping drum patterns, menacing basslines, murky synths and overall cold, metallic aesthetic, acting almost as a soundtrack to the estate. Its material, from the likes of 67, 86, 150, Zone 2 and K-Trap, is hyperlocal, with vivid accounts of trapping in the bando, facing up to opps in their ends and stepping to anyone that dares to disrespect.

While street politics and the inevitable violence it bores is a problem, these are young black men telling their stories, navigating through the world with the hand they’ve been dealt—that being the state unjustly overlooking them at every turn by way of cuts to local services, including youth clubs, and the ongoing negative perception of young black men. The drill avenue is a genuine one in making a better life for themselves and, while this may be contradicted by their material depending on who you ask, for some young people in the UK, drill music has become a saving grace, preventing jail or even death. On a surface level, a lot of drill has been dismissed as sounding identical, with similar flows and rappers clad in the same all-black dress code, but that does a disservice to the various personalities, codes and creeds which exist within the genre.

Like hip-hop and jazz before it, there are levels to the genre that separates artists from their contemporaries. For example, while K-Trap conceals his identity with a balaclava and 67 have their own masked marauder in LD, their material couldn’t be more different. K-Trap offers expert knowledge on the drug game on tracks like “Watching”, with an authority that separates him from his peers. Meanwhile, as arguably drill’s most successful group to date, 67 have the luxury of trading gang talk for straight flexing, bragging about their riches and female partners over sounds that aren’t prototypical drill (see: “Saucy” from The Glorious Twelfth).

These are also young men with personality; compared to the turbo-charged energies of 67’s LD, Reekz MB and Youngs Teflon, young prince SL is noticeably laid-back in his delivery and, on viral smash “Tropical”, it suits the playful, unintimidating sounds that surround him. Clearly then, there is more to drill than gangs and the trap.

Slowly but surely, the sound is expanding beyond its gang-repping milieu. Loski, a vital component of Kennington drillers Harlem Spartans, has locked the scene off with recent single “Cool Kid”, swapping gritty sounds for smoother, Afrobeats-leaning production and braggadocious material that warrants the song’s title. This is completely different to the territorial bars his group spit, showing that these young men are more thoughtful and forward-thinking in their music than meets the eye. Elsewhere, Headie One incorporates a melody that most singers would be proud of in the eponymous opener to his recent mixtape, The One, proving that the genre is dynamic enough to anoint a singing driller as one of its champions. Drill has proven successful on a wider scale also; don’t forget that North London’s Abra Cadabra picked up a MOBO Award in 2017 for his anthem “Robbery”, an extraordinary accolade for a sound still in its infancy. Consequently, the appeal for the sound is there.

In its immediate future, more key players in the genre will emerge, and the sounds and material probably won’t stray too far away from its menacing foundation. But with its main representatives expanding their repertoire as previously mentioned, it is only a matter of time until drill gains further recognition from outside of its environment. Namely, charting in the UK Top 40 and a change in mentality from mainstream forces from seeing these artists as part of the problem of inner-city London life, and accepting them as they have Stormzy, Giggs and J Hus. Just as grime emerged from the Operation Trident era and became a worldly sound, the same can, and will, happen to UK drill.

Collage images by Hyperfrank and Quann.

Posted on March 29, 2018