If you've never heard of the term drill music, or drill rap, you may have listened to it before but not recognized the style. It's not as mainstream as other forms of music, but it means a lot to those that can relate to the lyrics and the city from which it originated. Keep reading to learn more about drill music definition, its history, and the pioneers and songs that embody the music.
Drill music is a form of trap music known for its violent and dark content. Originating from the south side of Chicago, this subgenre of hip hop music focuses on the daily occurrences and crime that occurs in the city. The term drill is a slang word used in the streets that denotes someone using automatic weapons.
Not shortly after it emerged, drill musicians started getting picked up by major labels, and the artists and music style received a lot of media attention. There isn't a strict style that drill music adheres to, but the music itself has distinct dances, terminology, and a mentality that emanates from the lyrics.
Many of the components that make Drill music what it is, comes from Dro City, which is a chain of city blocks with heavy gang activity in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
When you ask, what is drill music?, these are the top three characteristics that are unique to the genre both in the United States and internationally:
The environment that Chicago drill artists are used to is both dangerous and emotionally taxing. These emotions tend to come through in the delivery of their lyrics. They use a monotone, straight-faced vocal style that conveys what it's like day in and day out on the streets of Chicago.
With trap music as a primary influence, drill artists frequently used autotune devices to add to the emotionless, cold quality of their rap style. Other forms of drill music like Brooklyn drill and UK drill go away from auto-tuning in exchange for a more expressive style and delivery.
One of the key characteristics of drill music is the raw and violent nature of the lyrics. They're dark, cynical, and representative of a difficult lifestyle that would drive most people over the edge. The language is typically slang and contains profanity, but there's still an artistic element to what's being said.
They swap out clever wordplay and metaphors for a straightforward recollection of events with no emotion or reaction to the actual words being said. Some of the accounts are horrific, but reflective of the life they've grown to be accustomed to. Death, drugs, guns, violence, this is the reality they've faced and the components for most of their songs.
As an aside, Brooklyn and UK drill have a wider range of topics that they usually rap about, not necessarily as consistently dark.
Famous drill producers such as Young Chop was the overseer of many hits from Chief Keef and other notable drill artists. His production style was similar to that of trap music. He heavily utilized 808 drum machine beats (60-70 beats a minute), bare-bones production, and catchy melodies with an ominous undertone.
Other drill artists like Headie One uses faster beats and hone in on the melody more. Brooklyn drill artists like to stand out with a warmer delivery and production.
While there is still some debate about which area made drill music the most popular at its height, the Chicago style is the most distinct and gets credited as the original.
Here are some of the most popular songs and artists that come to mind when you think of drill music:
While it may have been men that largely received the attention for drill music, there was indeed a period when women helped to put this genre on the map before Chief Keef. Quickly becoming a hood classic, “Go In,” a single by Shady, rose to prominence and captured the attention of many who listened to and liked drill rap.
D Gainz was the music director for this track, and he appealed to a handheld, manic shooting style. In the video, all of the women in the neighborhood interact with one another amid chaos in the streets. While it appears like there's a huge ruckus going on, they seem to thrive in their comfort zone.
Shady makes two points that she wants to stick with listeners: the threats that she makes are very real, and she'll look good as she executes said threats. One of the girls in the video is shown dancing and flaunting her handgun as they all partake in rapping with Shady and Katie Got Bandz. Katie eventually makes her singles called “Pop Out” and “I Need a Hitta.”
Known as the song that set the blueprint for what drill music is at the code, Chief Keef is well known for the single “I Don't Like.” In this song, Keef raps at a pace that isn't rushed, almost like someone intoxicated. The lyrics spew venom of hatred for everyone and everything.
He says he hates the clothing brand True Religion, people that are snitches, and those people that don't like him because he doesn't like them. Certain types of women, men that don't want to fight, and being stalked are all things he enumerates that he doesn't like.
He doesn't wear a shirt throughout the video, he has short dreadlocks, and he tries to keep the jeans he has above his knees. The beat is by an artist known as Young Chop, and it has become iconic and often mimicked by other artists. Widespread fame ensued after the release of “I Don't Like.”
On the single, “Kill Sh**,” artists Lil Herb and Lil Bibby bring a lot of energy to the track, but they show no emotion or reactions to the things they're saying in the video. It comes off as if these chaotic and dangerous stories they're narrating could be told as a bedtime story considering how normal the circumstances are to them.
Lil Herb and Lil Bibby were teenage rappers that had deep and raspy voices that made them seem older than they were. Yet and still, they are kids telling the story about their rite of passage that involved high levels of drama, crime, and constant violence. They did not need hooks, as they delivered one-liners that easily captivated the attention of the listener.
One line, rapped by Lil Herb, “Know a couple n***** that's down to ride for a homicide when it's drama time,” lets you know everything you need to know about how exposed they were too horrendous acts that other kids their age wouldn't be able to comprehend.
Once in 2013, when asked what the difference was between himself and Chief Keef, King Louie, a prominent drill rap artist, stated that those young guys were wild. Well, a year later, two teens even younger than Keef emerged, RondoNumbaNine and L'A Capone, and they created “Play for Keeps.”
Throughout the video, they flash semi-automatic weapons as they're smoking and hanging out with other teens their age. It became common for rappers that were barely 16 years old to speak on the atrocities they'd seen in their neighborhoods with raw aggression that was sometimes off-putting.
The feelings it conveyed were that of an environment and an atmosphere that strips your childhood away before you've even had a chance to experience it. Unfortunately, that same year, L'A Capone was murdered and RondoNumbaNine received 39 years in prison (2016) for murder.
Young Pappy was the underdog for drill music. It seemed like he was ushering in the evolution of the genre. Hailing from the Northside of Chicago, Young Pappy's aggressive swag in his music video established him as one of the great representatives of drill. “Killa” spoke to the struggles of growing up in the streets of Chicago and watching those you love fall to gun violence.
He speaks about how your loyalty gets tested when you come from and are raised by the streets. He says it's a life that most can't handle and aren't ready for. He has influenced many other artists such as Tay-K and other notable drill artists.
“Slide” came on the scene at a time where the drill scene was gaining momentum in both Brooklyn and the UK. However, the 2018 single “Slide” serves as a reminder that the home of drill will always be in Chicago.
Duck goes on to use a sing-song delivery while at the same time shooting a traditional drill video. The video featured hooded guys that were pointing their weapons at the camera.
The song is about gaining entrance into a party; however, the party is only for people who are tested and authentic. Moreover, the song affirms the artist's willingness to get into a gunfight and claims most people aren't willing to do so. The chorus repeats that this is a party that only “real” individuals can gain entrance to.
When it comes to drill rappers, Pool G is perhaps the most accessible artist since Chief Keef. He possesses a songwriting approach that's retrospective and structured. His music makes it apparent that he's aware of the Deep South's current wave of street tales such as Kevin Gates and Youngboy, “Never Broke Again.”
However, his influences hail from Chicago and include G Herbo's storytelling, Young Pappy's underground mentality, and Lil Durk's feel for melody. The song alludes to how fame can change a person but in the video, Pool G asserts that he is unaffected by fame in this way.
As a result, he's the same guy that he always was. He affirms his loyalty to his gang members and mourns the memory of some of his fallen comrades. This genre has become ingrained in the culture of rap and it continues to influence younger generations as we transition to the next decade of rap.
Below are several drill musicians who have been seminal to the development of the subgenre:
Chief Keef is a producer and American rapper who hails from Chicago, Illinois. He is perhaps the first superstar of Chicago Drill music. Chief Keef scored a Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart thanks to the success of his 2012 song, “I Don't Like.”
At the age of 16, he got his break and signed a multi-million dollar record contract with Interscope Records. Moreover, he's the CEO of Glory Boyz Entertainment, his later imprint which was later renamed Glo Gang.
Oftentimes his musical contributions have been overshadowed from time to time because of his beef with other artists as well as his legal troubles. Regardless, his impact on twenty-first-century hip-hop is sizable, to say the least.
Lil Bibby is a younger artist who is from the East side of Chicago. Although his style, drill, was put on the map by Chief Keef, critics often credit Lil Bibby for being more lyrical than his counterpart.
As a renowned Chicago rapper, he was publicized on many media outlets as a performer to watch immediately after the release of his mixtape in 2013.
In many of Lil Bibby's songs he outwardly affiliates himself with ‘EBK', an acronym for ‘EveryBody Killer'. He decided to step away from performing in 2017 to put more of a focus on his record label.
King Louie followed his friend Pac-Man and became one of the earliest creators and advocates for Drill rap. To date, he has released several mixtapes such as Jeep Music, Drilluminati Drilluminati 2, and Tony.
Furthermore, Spin Magazine honored King Louie for being the Chicago rapper who made Chicago the “hottest hip-hop” scene in 2012. King Louie released his first mixtape, “Boss Sh*t” in September 2007.
His career would later come to a halt after being hit by a car. However, he'd eventually find his way back and release a series of mixtapes that were made available for online consumption.
Fredo Santana was an American rapper from Chicago who met his untimely demise on January 19, 2018. He was the older cousin of Chief Keef. He had a similar style to Keef, with his own flair that he brought to drill. Nonetheless, with the same distinct untamed aggression.
Moreover, he was the co-CEO of Chief Keef's record label Glory Boyz Entertainment. His debut album was released on November 20, 2013, entitled “Trappin' Ain't Dead.”
Pop Smoke was a rapper from Canarsie, Brooklyn, New York who passed away on February 19, 2020. He was notable for the distinctive Drill-style rap that he used in his music.
“Welcome to the Party,” would be a platinum-selling single from his debut mixtape entitled “Welcome to the Woo”. Posthumously his album “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon,” would go on to debut at the top of the Billboard 200 in 2019, and all 19 of his tracks from that album would land on the singles chart.
The inception of drill music dates as far back as the 2010s, a time where Chicago's hip-hop began to infuse Atlanta's trap music into their style.
The Beginning of Drill Rap
Though initially a method of expression for the difficult lives that these rappers lead at an early age, still music has since become so much more in the world of hip hop.
The First Occurrence of Drill Rap
A rapper by the name of PacMan who is from Dro City is given credit for being the first to use the term “drill” to refer to a shooting. In 2010 he released a single “It's a Drill” that references the term.
Furthermore, this song would serve to catapult the genre by serving as a model for future artists such as Chief Keef. As a result, Chief Keef would go on to release the 2012 single, “I Don't Like,” and Kanye West's remix and this would garner national attention to drill rap.
Keef and fellow drill music artist, King Louie would join forces to record Kanye West's 2013 album, Yeezus. This notoriety would bolster other drill rappers such as G Herbo, Lil Reese, and the late Fredo Santina.
Unfortunately, the Chicago Drill scene and its fame would be short-lived, as Keef would be dropped by Interscope in 2014. Despite this, he'd continue doing music and it would take root in other places.
Since 2012, UK Drill has developed its own style of drill by implementing other elements from British genres that came before. These genres include UK garage, grime, and roadmap—the British version of gangsta-rap.
What makes the UK drill different from the Chicago drill is the fact that it uses sliding bass and has a faster beat per minute.
UK drill has been impacted immensely by the Chicago drill as well as by electronic music genres like grime. In 2015, Brixton, a rough South London neighborhood began to dominate the charts.
UK drill came to Brooklyn, New York by way of rappers like Sheff G, Pop Smoke, and other popular rappers. Interestingly, there were many collaborations between American drill professionals and UK drill producers. One example of this phenomenon would be 808Melo, who produced “Welcome to the Party”, Smoke's 2019 hit single.
In the past years, drill rap and its influences have been seen as far as Athlone and Dublin. What's more, drill has been cropping up in Irish housing estates because the youth wish to see younger audiences speaking in real-life situations.
Drill music came from humble beginnings and emanated from tragic events to burgeon into an international phenomenon. What can't be overstated is the interconnectivity of our world and how a fringe art style can become mainstream, packaged, and sent to millions.