Drill rap is mostly what you’d get if you combined the trap music subgenre with the lyrics of gangsta rap. Born out of the experiences of the youth living in Chicago, drill rap would have a short-lived lifespan in the mainstream media. Its blunt lyrics were almost a cry for help, describing the plight and violent situations many people grew up in inside wildly underserved and alienated communities. While drill rap isn’t one of the biggest genres in the hip hop world, it means the world to the people who can relate to it.
In this article, we’ll look over the history of drill music, talk about the intense reactions to the genre many had, and go over some of the most important drill rappers in history.
History of Drill Music
Drill rap originated in the Woodlawn neighborhood area of Chicago during the 2010s. The term drill is slang that can be used to mean fight or retaliate, but it can mean anything from girls getting ready to go out for the night to all-out war in the streets. It’s the scene where Chicago hip hop really took off in the 2010s, originally starting as a grassroots kind of movement that took root in a mostly closed-off community. The main inspiration for the genre, at least from a music perspective, was the popularity and success southern rappers found with trap music.
Drill inherently contains violent themes, which are mainly a product of the life experiences of the rappers who pioneered the genre. The South Side of Chicago has seen an ongoing homicide and gang crisis. Drill rap came out of those areas and is massively influenced by the experiences of the young people who grew up around that violence as a part of their normal everyday life. It’s representative of both a specific style of hip hop and a severely alienated group of people within the US.
YouTube was the place where many young drill rappers found their first levels of success. In our modern era, the ability to publish your music and creative works on a platform of that size, and make it easily accessible, is an integral part of the modern music community and it’s no different with drill rap.
Dro City native and rapper PacMan coined the term drill music in his 2010 single It’s a Drill. The song was directly relating the slang term to the shootings taking place in the area.
Chief Keef is the man responsible for bringing drill rap to the mainstream hip hop scene more than anyone else. His viral hit songs Love Sosa, I Don’t Like It, and Bang in 2011 and 2012 would earn him a record deal with Interscope Records. Around the same time, King Louie was also offered a record deal at Epic Records.
By 2012, major hip hop names began collaborating with drill rappers, including Kanye West and Rick Ross. Drill would become a big influence on Kanye’s Yeezus album, which also featured vocals by both Chief Keef and King Louie.
Drill would seem to fizzle out as just a hip hop fad. Chief Keef, the widely-held biggest name in the genre, released his debut studio album in 2012. While it’s described as a classic drill album and the template for the genre as a whole, even receiving great marks from critics, it was a major failure. Finally Rich sold only around 50,000 copies, making it a major flop and causing most recording studios to lose interest in the genre in the US.
While Chicago drill rap had a short lifespan and fizzled out pretty quickly, another scene was emerging. It began making its way across Europe and by the late 2010s, drill music was a mainstream genre. UK Drill music would evolve into its own distinct style separated from the Chicago scene and mostly pioneered by the group 67. That group would have its own fair share of controversies, being labeled as a gang organization by British police, having shows shut down by police, and eventually being caught trafficking drugs throughout the UK.
Brooklyn drill would be influenced by both the UK and Chicago drill rap scenes, coming to fruition in the late 2010s. It would go back into the mainstream in 2019 with remixes and collaborations between drill rappers and big hip hop names like Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill.
The UK drill rap scene really took off, mostly spearheaded by the group 67. That scene would eventually spawn the Brooklyn drill scene after Pop Smoke collaborated with drill rappers in the UK and reintroduced their sound in the US as Brooklyn drill.
An unfortunate side effect of the genre being rooted in gang violence was also the beef between the many different groups vying for control and influence. Diss tracks got the most views on YouTube when compared to normal songs discussing life experiences. Sadly, those songs would be a matchstick thrown onto a pool of gasoline, igniting sprees of violence in retaliation for the diss tracks. In New York especially, these became common and saw fatal attacks on rappers like Tdott Woo and Pop Smoke. Eventually, many drill rappers and DJs simply refused to play or make the songs for fear of further escalating the violence.
Major Characteristics of Drill Rap
One thing most people will never understand is what it’s like to grow up in the challenging, violent, and gang-centered streets where drill music originated from. The biggest influence on the music itself was that environment and drill rap served as an outlet for mostly young rappers to express what their lives were like and how things were for them. YouTube served as a platform for them to get their work out there to broader audiences than the tightly-controlled territories and streets that drill music originally called home.
David Drake of Complex Magazine said drill wasn’t defined by any particular production style, it was “the entirety of the culture: the lingo, the dances, the mentality, and the music, much of which originated in ‘Dro City,’ a gang-defined territory of city blocks in the Woodlawn neighborhood.”
Drill rap is best characterized by ominous beats and incredibly blunt lyrics. Rappers describe their situations in ways that might send shivers down your spine, but they’re incredibly honest about it and aren’t holding back things that might make you feel squeamish. The music focuses on slower tempos and dark atmospheres, with lyrics centered around the criminal activity the rappers witnessed on a daily basis. I would think a relative comparison for it would be that drill music is to hip hop what extreme metal is to rock. It’s not a one-for-one comparison, but it seems to fit, albeit not perfectly.
An analysis of drill rap would tell you it relies on simple and direct lyrics, not wordplay and metaphors. According to Chief Keef, the simplistic flow is a stylistic choice. Despite that, it’s easy to see the trap music inspiration behind the drill music scene, despite consistently recording at a much slower beat per minute tempo, typically ranging between 60 and 70 beats per minute. The slow tempo allows artists to deliver unhurried lyrics that are almost in a talking tone and almost always some sort of threat.
The slowed-down tempo, compared to trap music, also allowed more space in the song. While it gave artists room for ad-libs, allowed tension to build up, and included long stretches without drum kicks, it could also leave the style airless and plodding.
One of the things about drill music that’s most unsettling is that drillers tend to be young, with most of the prominent artists in the scene gaining a following while they’re still in their teens.
Reaction To Drill Rap
Drill rap received some major reactions from public audiences experiencing it for the first time. Most of them either had no idea what situations these rappers grew up in or never cared, but they definitely didn’t expect the blunt reality of what they were hearing. I’ll give you a second to guess whether there are more positive or negative opinions about drill rap out there… Yep, you guessed it; it’s widely assumed to be an awful thing by a lot of people. I’ll give examples.
Chicago rappers from before drill rap was popularized and mostly had mixed reactions to it. Lupe Fiasco would go on a radio interview and say that “Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically, but just the culture that he represents … The murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing, and you see who’s doing it and perpetrating it—they all look like Chief Keef.” That prompted Chief Keef to respond on Twitter by threatening Fiasco, who nearly gave up music entirely after the fact. Rhymefest would tweet out that drill music is “the theme music for murder.”
The New York Times would describe drill in this way:
With rare exceptions, this music is unmediated and raw and without bright spots, focused on anger and violence. The instinct is to call this tough, unforgiving, and concrete-hard music joyless, but in truth, it’s exuberant in its darkness. Most of its practitioners are young and coming into their creative own against a backdrop of outrageous violence in Chicago, particularly among young people—dozens of teenagers have been killed in Chicago this year—and often related to gangs. (There’s a long history of overlap between Chicago’s gangs and Chicago’s rap.) That their music is a symphony of ill-tempered threats shouldn’t be a surprise.
Then when you look at the UK drill rap scene, you find a bit of a different take on it. The Children’s Society has an entire web page dedicated to drill rap. While it serves as a minimalist definition of the genre and explains a bit of the history, it certainly disapproves (probably in the most polite English way possible).
After wondering whether drill rap is the source of violence or merely a symptom, the page gives brief descriptions of the history of drill rap and how it came to be. It describes it as popular with the younger generations that grew up in deprived areas. The article goes on to say that the influx of drill rap was the fueling source of violence in London according to the chief of police, and discusses the city asking youtube to take down any videos glamorizing violence.
It then wraps up by talking about how music is a way to work with young people and that criminalizing the genre isn’t going to change anything at all. It’s safe to say that it was not welcomed with open arms on the other side of the pond.
As recently as 2022, drill music has found itself at the center of some controversy. It was connected, fairly or not, with real-world gun violence in New York and other major cities thanks to the gang violence surrounding industry names like Pop Smoke, Tdott Woo, and a few others. In response to the diss track side of the scene, New York DJs and music influencers stopped playing gang and diss records. In February of that year, New York city mayor Eric Adams would criticize drill music and said that it was actively instigating violence in the streets. A few days after that press conference, he met with local drill rappers to find some agreement regarding their music.
A Symptom of a Real Issue
It’s hard to look at the history, the quote, and the themes of drill music and not feel at least a little bit sad. It’s not like the rappers coming out of the scene had any choice about their situations. Remember that Chief Keef was 16 when he signed his record deal, King Louie was older, but then Lil Mouse was only 13.
I’m not qualified to speak on societal issues and I know I’ll never understand what it was like for those guys. But drill music was more than just a genre and it’s worth taking the time to understand what it was there to say.
Drill rappers weren’t out there talking about all of that violence to sound cool, have a tough image, or anything relatively like that. Drill rap is one of the most visceral genres because it’s blunt, nihilistic, and, most importantly, based on real-life experiences. That the drill scene exists at all speaks to major societal issues and shines a light on what can happen when disenfranchised communities are left without lifelines.
For many kids in the genre, drill music was a symbol of hope. Its popularity was a lifeline away from the lifestyle they were sucked into and never chose, whether that was a conscious realization or not. I won’t sit here writing this and pretend I understand how it was for any of them, how they felt, or act like I can relate to the situation. I also understand this entire section is entirely based on my own uneducated opinion. It’s just tragic to see legitimate children rapping about violence on this kind of scale and it shows the massive disconnect between mainstream media and music from the plight of real people who are left without any help.
Does Drill Cause Violence?
One question that probably needs addressing is whether or not drill causes violence or is just what you get when kids get into violent situations. While politicians have and will blame anything possible for rising crime rates (except themselves), that’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a music genre. It’s also a trope they fall into every decade or so, blaming criminal activity on whatever popular hip hop trend is going on.
The reality is that drill music is representative of the community it came from. People are quick to turn to violence to solve issues where these rappers are from. Drill music reflects that harsh reality, with the deaths of some prominent names in the genre only making the issue seem worse.
In all honesty, drill music probably has incited some violent incidents. But those were most likely just reflex reactions to slights in diss tracks. People aren’t inspired by drill music to grab a gun and go shoot someone. It’s the other way around. Drill music is inspired by the violent reality of the rappers’ everyday lives and the culture they grew up in. To say drill music causes violence would be the equivalent of saying a spoon made me fat or blaming social media for violent outbursts when someone is feuding online.
Most Successful Drill Rap Artists
Chief Keef was undisputedly the biggest star of drill rap and the person who brought it to the mainstream music world. He originally attracted attention on the south side of Chicago with his mixtapes The Glory Road and Bang, which along with some other YouTube videos became the forerunners of the drill music genre.
I Don’t Like became a hit single in Chicago and would be remixed and recorded by Kanye West alongside Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Big Sean. This release pushed Chief Keef out of obscurity and into the nationwide spotlight.
By 2012, he became the subject of bidding wars between different record labels, eventually signing with Interscope Records. The deal allowed Interscope to pull his contract if his debut album failed to sell 250,000 units, and it barely sold 50,000 despite featuring guest appearances from 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, and Lil Reese.
Unfortunately, the album’s flopping would spell the beginning of the end for drill rap in the mainstream hip hop world. As the biggest and most influential drill artist, Chief Keef’s album failure caused record labels to lose faith in the genre and begin pulling contracts.
The failure didn’t mean the end of Chief Keef’s music career, though. He would continue producing music and experimenting with his sound, though never reaching the success and notoriety of his earliest mixtapes and music.
Spin magazine stated that King Louie was one of the Chicago rappers that made Chicago the hottest rap scene in the country in 2012. He built a following through one-on-one mixtapes and would hand out his CDs at bus stops and parties. Louie’s first two released mixtapes in Boss Shit and Cloud 9 got him noticed, but his career would get put on hold after he was hit by a car.
Louie signed with Epic Records in 2012 while on a trip to Los Angeles. At the same time, Kanye West’s remix of Chief Keef’s song came out, and Louie was among the up-and-coming artists mentioned by Kanye on the album.
King Louie then appeared on Kanye’s Yeezus album, performing a verse and hook on Send It Up. While he was shot in the head in 2015, Louie survived the incident and has continued releasing music as recently as 2022.
67 originated as a hip hop collective in England made up of rapper LD, Monkey, Dimzy, Liquez, 67 Sj, and ASAP. Since then, they’ve expanded to include quite a few other members. 67 is widely regarded as the most influential group in the UK drill scene, and were nominated for the Best Newcomer Award at the 2016 MOBO Awards.
If you couldn’t guess from the section on the UK reaction to drill music, 67 are popular in the UK, but not with authorities. The group has been labeled as a criminal gang and had several shows shut down by police even though their first tour completely sold out.
Pop Smoke was one of the most influential artists in drill music outside of Chicago. After collaborating with UK drill rappers, he reintroduced their minimal instrumentation as Brooklyn drill music. His work would see him signed to Republic Records in 2019, and his second mixtape would debut at number seven on the Billboard 200.
Unfortunately, two weeks after the release of his second mixtape, Pop Smoke was murdered in a home invasion in Los Angeles.
50 Cent would be the executive producer on Smoke’s posthumous studio album debut Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon. It debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and all 19 tracks charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
Lil Mouse was another one of the viral rappers to come out of the Chicago drill music scene around the same time as Chief Keef and King Louie. He would be co-signed by Lil Wayne at the only thirteen years of age.
Young Chop was the producer behind Chief Keef’s hits I Don’t Like, Love Sosa, and 3Hunna. After meeting Chief Keef on Facebook, Chop produced many of Keef’s songs, with his mixtape Back From the Dead is the first record produced by Young Chop.
He would be one of the most important producers in drill music, founding his own independent record label called Chop Squad.
Final Thoughts on Drill Rap
Drill music emerged from the tragic ways of life that many of us would be horrified by, but was an everyday event for the kids who grew up in the place it came from. For many of the kids who emerged onto the drill music scene, it was an outlet to express themselves and describe their own experiences. It was also one of the few hopes they had to cling to get out of that situation and improve their lives.
A combination of slower, trap-music-Esque beats, blunt lyrics describing the harsh reality of life in impoverished communities, and a rap style that didn’t focus on metaphors and wordplay were defining characteristics of drill rap. In the end, drill rap may have had a short-lived stint in the mainstream music world, but it pulled the curtain back on the plight of some mostly forgotten people and meant everything to the artists who were involved in it.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.