UK Drill Is Adjusting.
Give It Time.

Words: Yemi Abiade

UK drill is evolving, much to the displeasure of spectators, commentators and general haters who want to see it gone. Early last year, I pondered the capabilities of the genre to reach the heights of the UK music mainstream and, a year on, nothing was the same. Drill has seen much controversy in its short lifespan as many have attempted to drag it through the mud, failing to recognise the realities it speaks to and the opportunities it gives young black people at large. A sound that evolved on the streets of South London in the early 2010s (via Chicago), the ominous tenets of the genre—haunting productions, violent, coded language and the seemingly intimidating presentation of rappers—are what propelled UK drill to infamy, via anthems like 67’s “Let’s Lurk”, LD’s “Live Corn” and Headie One’s “Know Better”. But in just over a year, it has proven capable of diversifying, of softening its tone, and of its children bearing success.

2019 proved exceptional for Headie One, whose Music x Road project earmarked him as a burgeoning artist, sans drill. Always carrying that energy, he glided over a multitude of sounds and produced one of the tracks of the year in “Both”. Currently in prison, his return is a much anticipated one for the UK music scene, proving his transcendent rise to the cream of the crop. Concurrent to his success was the rise and rise of Brixton duo Skengdo x AM. Despite being in the midst of a gang injunction and suspended jail sentence, slapped on them by the police due to lyrics in their notorious track “Attempted 1.0”, they have effectively adjusted to their resulting musical compromise: less violent lyrics. Their 2019 project, Back Like We Never Left, was a victorious moment—a sign that they could not be silenced or deterred by their legal situation, and proof that they continue to carry the fighting spirit UK drill has needed to survive.

Meanwhile, Drillminister (aka Saskilla) is proving an authority in the scene, an articulate political commentator on platforms like Good Morning Britain and This Morning to add a touch of sophistication in the eyes of the mainstream. Even further underground, new stars such as Bandokay & Double Lz, TeeZandos and Fizzler are making names for themselves with distinct styles informed by other dominant UK subgenres such as trap, Afroswing, and even UK garage. These young artists, while keeping drill at the centre of their artistry, are showing that the genre can co-exist with others and even borrow from them to become more of a dynamic sound in itself.

The women have also been shaping up to cut through drill’s male-dominated milieu. With just three official tracks out, South Londoner Shaybo has turned heads in a short time with her intricate rapping style and effortless flows. The future is bright for the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of the South’ as she slowly proves to be a complete package. On the same trajectory and with not many tunes out, Lavida Loca’s gritty lyricism is enticing and, after a short stint in prison, she is drill through and through. Spitting real raps with enough intensity to rival her male counterparts, she can already count famed music producer Fraser T. Smith as a collaborator, speaking to her fast-rising position in the game.

As much as drill rappers are making waves throughout London and the UK, the genre’s producers have begun to play a key role in the sound’s spread overseas. The infiltration of UK drill Stateside is the work of beatmakers such as 808Melo, whose recent credits include the late New York rapper Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party” and “Dior” as well as Travis Scott’s JACKBOYS collective and their song “Gatti”. The Ilford producer’s relationship with Pop has proven the catalyst for US rappers’ recent adoption of the UK drill sound. Another fast-rising producer is AXL Beats, the brain behind Drake’s recent forage into drill, “War”, and Fivio Foreign’s hood anthem “Big Drip”. Meanwhile, New York’s G4 Boyz are also embracing the sound on December 2019 single “Local Scammer”, proof that a new generation of rappers are finding familiarity with a UK sound to craft their art and tell their stories. The kind of recognition previous generations of UK artists were pining for, now a fairly huge indication that UK drill is established.

Succinctly wrapping up UK drill’s controversial journey is the recent YouTube Originals documentary, Terms & Conditions: A UK Drill Story, which analyses its rise, its links to knife crime in London and its future, from the perspective of rappers, police officers, lawyers, community leaders and mothers who have lost their children to violence. It is a harrowing look into how the links to knife crime have harmed the genre, while also displaying that the real-life situations of rappers can be entangled with the epidemic of violence. But what it underpins is that, though drill rappers can come from violent backgrounds, those backgrounds don’t always define them, and their music is their expression of life in that world. Yes, the likes of the late Showkey, Incognito and others the drill scene have lost over the years are clear indications of its links with violence, but the documentary shows there are also stories such as Kidavelly, a young rapper very much from the streets but now enlightened to change his life through music. The documentary does much to break down the complexities of drill and its reputation, displaying that while the musical side is on the rise, the moral side (in relation to knife crime) remains sticky.

But, through it all, the past year has displayed UK drill’s incredible resilience. Attacked from all corners as much as it has been celebrated, the sound has adjusted to its established artists blossoming, a new generation arriving and its transportation from London’s hoods to their North American equivalents. It remains the premier sound of the UK capital’s streets, while simultaneously being taken more seriously in boardrooms and major label meetings worldwide. For a genre still in its infancy, that is a triumph all on its own.

Posted on March 27, 2020