Move over, Chicago: how the UK made drill its own – and then sold it back to the world

Thanks to incredible Brit talents such as 67 and Skengdo X AM, the uncompromising rap sub-genre is bigger than ever

Yes, Chicago’s Chief Keef is still the king of drill. After all, he created the genre in the early 2010s. But when you say ‘drill’ in 2020, you’re more likely referring to the sounds made famous by the UK. And these days our capital’s rappers’ anti-establishment lyrics aren’t only influencing UK culture, but the entire international rap scene.

“As we’ve seen from the late, great Pop Smoke, UK-influenced drill has made its way back to America”

The late, great Pop Smoke borrowed the UK drill sound and gave it some New York verve  and Brixton heroes Skengdo X AM recently released ‘EU Drillers’, a mixtape packed with drill artists from all over Europe. UK drill, then, is now more influential than ever across the world – no wonder a new documentary featuring all off the scene’s key players including Kidavelly and Drillminister, Terms & Conditions: A UK Drill Story, is landing on YouTube this week.

But let’s back up a little. When Keef dropped ‘Don’t Like’ back in 2012 – at the tender age of 16 – fans went ballistic for rowdy 808s and zooming top-lines. His dense lyrics, often focused on gang violence, were at stark odds with his minimalist sound. Yet he had curiously few successors in the US; the sound fizzled out across the pond. Lil Reece, Fredo Santana and King Louie didn’t attain the same status as Chief Keef.

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A couple of years later, though, south London’s 67 took over the genre, complementing the austere sounds with even more austere lyrics about the tragic violence they’ve witnessed over the years. Their take on drill boasted the speed and aggression of grime but with the 808s and pop appeal of trap. To UK rap fans, this was a new sound that was familiar enough to make them feel at home.

Having made UK drill popular, 67 inspired many other artists to adopt the genre. You could argue that without them there’d be no Harlem Spartans (the Kennington group who gave us Drake’s favourite driller Loski) or drill ambassadors Skengdo X AM. And that’s simply because the sound they created was so catchy that it was universally loved by all rap fans.

The genre’s fans now form a tight-knit community, and we’re not going anywhere. 67 took the sound from Brixton streets to massive YouTube views to being blared out of every decent part in the country – if they don’t play 67’s ‘Let’s Lurk’ or Loski’s ‘Teddy Brukshot’ at some point, you shouldn’t be there.

As we’ve seen from Pop Smoke, UK-influenced drill recently made it way back to America. He created UK-style drill and attract US listeners, a feat that once seemed impossible. The UK has americanised its rap sound and sought US approval for years (see Skepta‘s involvement with OVO and the A$AP Mob), so it’s nice to see the roles – finally – reversed. And, as Skengdo X AM’s brilliant mixtape proved, he’s not the only international star we’ve inspired.

Ireland has fostered its own drill stars in the form of J. B2 (aka Mr Affiliate) and INK, both of whom exemplify drill, albeit approaching it from different angles. J.B2 offers jumpy, idiosyncratic flows, whereas INK brings the rough sense of reality. And there’s even drill down under. Australia’s first drill group, ONEFOUR, mimic UK drill by exploring knife crime in their ‘areas’ (or, as we would say, ‘ends’).

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And, in an interesting case of drill going full circle, Skengdo X AM have even created a song with Chief Keef himself. There was little American support for their US-style drill track ‘Pitbulls’, perhaps because they – along with the rest of the world – have outgrown that sound. Maybe if the drill veterans rapped over a real drill beat – that is, a UK drill sound – it would have blown up more.

Still, we were thrilled to see the trio, from opposite sides of the pond, pay homage to the genre that they’ve done so much for. In a way, it felt like Chicago’s Keef was passing the mantle onto the Brixton duo. The king of the genre himself seemed to be acknowledging that London is now drill’s first home.

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