Drill Music’s Silk Road

Despite my Canadian upbringing, I’d spent a few years of my childhood between London and Birmingham, England. When I think back to that time of my life, I first remember the summers. Summer in the U.K. is weird. There’s like an atmospheric purge that fills the sky with the smells of burnt rubber, cumin and outdoor produce tables. It’s as if a century of smog from the industrial revolution is agitated by the summer heat after a long dormant winter. I think that’s actually exactly what happens.  

Since coming back to Canada, I’d never given any thought to those brief formative years in brick townhouses and royal blue school uniforms until only the last few years. The memories of that era are blurred, but the soundtrack still plays in my mind. My earliest experiences with British music are pretty predictable; Spice Girls, Sugababes, Craig David, that Aussie Kylie Minogue, though today the experience differs. Modern, popular British music consists of sounds cultivated by the diasporic African communities tucked away in the enclaves of London and other surrounding regions. The sounds are not totally new, but the mélange of non-British influences make for a unique and satisfying final product. In the mid ‘10’s (late, I know) I came across tracks that intentionally blended the genres grime, dancehall, R&B, drill, Afrobeat and hip-hop. The result? Off kilter riddims, simply layered harmonies, exclusively British and Afro-diasporic slang and extremely melodic hooks. The experience is best described as full bodied. It hits every note hidden in parts of the brain that aren’t used to being simultaneously invigorated with these sounds.  

The clearest, most recent instance of Black, intercontinental communication through hip-hop is both the emergence of the reinterpretation of Chicago drill music in the U.K, and the successive development of Brooklyn’s drill scene in New York City.

2012 seems to be a memorable year for most Black, North American 20-somethings. We think video games, pizza pockets, walking home in the heat from high school… and Chief Keef. The then-teenager spearheaded the mainstream exposure of an exclusively South Side, Chicago sound. There are a couple of hallmark musical traits related to all drill music; continuous high hats, invasive drums, an unorthodox 60-70 BPM, and gothic keys (organs, choirs, piano or even strings). 

Yeah, the themes have become more reflective of the artists’ current acquired wealth (women, money, cars, clothes etc.), but drill music was once defined as being a new age iteration of gangsta rap music. Reflective of localized colloquialisms, poverty, escapism, police brutality and intra-communal gang violence; the ensuing successes of Chicago drill music quickly made its way across the Atlantic, to the hoods of London, England. 

Mid ’10’s drill by London based group 67, pioneers in the scene

Although the gothic sounds and themes of Chicago drill music has certainly bled into the flesh of mainstream trap (see: Barter 6), I’ve always felt as though few artists engaged exclusively with the sound. There are too many sects of American hip-hop to allow Chi-drill to truly put its foot on the neck of consumers for a prolonged period of time. Before we knew it, another trend had emerged- “made in Atlanta” rap. Interestingly enough, as this former sound’s popularity waned in the U.S.A mainstream, it had reached other shores. It reminds me of how songs and films sometimes take an extra year or two to be released in certain foreign markets.  

U.K drill has a different flavour, but similar DNA to its American counterpart. They’re second cousins, not siblings. Other influences fill in the notches of the double-helix where Americanisms once latched. There’s a Jamaican Patois cadence, West African pidgin and localized terms no one outside of any given neighbourhood within the city would ever understand; all somehow expressed by a regional London accent. The subject matter was initially akin to Chi-drill’s themes, and oftentimes still is, but it quickly branched off and took on a life of its own, slinking its way into clubs & house parties rather than simply blaring through the block and within bando walls. The U.K.’s iteration of this sound made its way through the Western world’s West Indian and African diaspora, like trends regularly do in the age of globalization & social media, and whenever that happens, I think Drake’s ears perk up. 

Drake’s infamous “Behin Barz” freestyle.

Amidst this whirlwind of exchange, theft, inspiration, collaboration and digital international travel, which reached a fever pitch in 2016 (perhaps slightly earlier), there was something brewing in Brooklyn. 

Brooklyn based rappers Sheff G and Corey Finesse

When I think of North American cities most reflective of Toronto’s African and West Indian saturation, I immediately think New York City. The proof is in the drill, so it was only a matter of time. But what an interesting journey back to America, no? I absolutely love the way NYC sensibilities mesh with this British version of this sound. The accent, bombastic samples, communities and themes melt into the architecture already established across the Ocean by the Brits and innovated by the Chicagoans. There’s something so raw, unfiltered, cold-press, organic about black, diasporic youth communicating a shared experience, a shared feeling that is so hard to linguistically express, through sound. Unorganized and unconstrained. It doesn’t need to be sophisticated in order to be so rich. Here I am, archiving it through words in my journal, but it really doesn’t make the dent in the zeitgeist the actual artistry does. The Silk Road is the easiest and most apt analogy, with the travel routes and the usage of an almost totally sonic lingua franca. I find it really fun to track the silk road of modern Black music. The world can be lonely for the displaced, this makes it a little less so for many.   

North African French Rapper Hamza, experimenting with drill themes

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