The Rise of Drill Rap

Drill rap is a genre that emerged in Chicago’s South Side in the early 2010s. Defined by dark, slow tempos borrowed from Atlanta trap music and simple lyrics delivered in a monotone or sing-song whisper, drill is distinct from other hip-hop styles that use wordplay and metaphors to tell stories. Instead, artists speak straightforwardly about street shit in monotone or shout-sing voices over a drum beat that’s frequently manipulated with Auto-Tune.

Until a few years ago, most of the artists involved in this style had limited mainstream exposure. But the rise of Chief Keef, who gained acclaim with his mixtapes The Glory Road and Bang before becoming a major-label star in 2014 with I Don’t Like, catapulted the genre into the spotlight. This, combined with the gun-strewn videos of fellow Chicago rappers and members of Keef’s GBE crew (Lil Reese, Lil Durk, and King Louie) and the proliferation of these songs on YouTube, led to a major surge in popularity for the young rappers who created this new sound.

But while some criticized the explicit language and gang violence in drill songs, others praised the genre for being honest about life on the streets. Many young people, including rappers who grew up in urban communities, live in violent environments that are exacerbated by systemic racism and social inequality. For many, rap is a form of creative escapism that lets them express the pain and frustration they feel about their circumstances.

When 18-year-old Chii Wvttz was shot and killed in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood earlier this year, it brought renewed scrutiny to the city’s burgeoning drill scene. Some, including newly minted mayor Eric Adams, saw an inextricable link between the music and bloodshed. Others, however, argued that criminalizing the genre won’t reduce the violence because it won’t address the root causes, which include childhood trauma, intergenerational family breakdown, and school exclusions.

The New York rappers 22Gz, Sheff G, and Pop Smoke represent the latest wave of the city’s drill scene. Each uses a different style of production and a unique flow to make their own mark on the genre. And while they may address the same themes as their Chicago counterparts — street shit, gang violence, and drug dealing — they often do so with their own style and a distinct sense of place.

Even Danny Brown, who’s made no secret of his distaste for the genre, hasn’t been afraid to give them props. “It’s not for everybody,” he says, but he adds that artists like Pop Smoke are worth a listen for their talent.

Other New York artists, such as FBG Duck and Sheek Louch, have been able to distinguish themselves from the city’s crowded drill scene by using samples, different flows, and leaning into unique vocal tones to set themselves apart. They’ve also used TikTok to build up a following, which has helped them to stay relevant during a time when fewer and fewer young rappers are finding mainstream success. drill rap