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What is UK drill? A primer on the rising British rap sound

Despite punitive police measures and negative press coverage, the rap genre continues to be immensely popular. Here's some basic information you need to know before engaging in the debate.
Written by Red Bull Music
6 min readPublished on
UK drill is a big deal. Hip-hop fans recognise it as a major genre in contemporary rap, while the mainstream media has portrayed the music as being related to problems of gang violence, feuds and knife crime in London. From the rise of Brixton Hill group 67, to the police injunction on Skengdo & AM and Russ Splash’s Gun Lean dance – here’s an outline of the story of UK drill so far.

Where does UK drill come from?

To understand the musical development of UK drill as a genre, the best place to start is probably trap, the American style of hip-hop with roots in 90s records by Memphis acts such as Three Six Mafia. Trap began to bloom in the early ‘00s, particularly in Atlanta, and in recent years elements of the sound have dominated mainstream rap and many pop records. Trap music is defined by booming drum beats programmed on 808 machines with fluttering hi-hats, while synthesised strings, piano melodies and brass sounds often have a menacing or epic feel. Vocally, trap is often prioritises the rhythmic swing of the vocals and the charisma of the performer over complex rhyming patterns.
Around 2011, drill began to emerge in Chicago as a kind of offshoot to trap. There aren’t major musical differences between trap and drill. Although on traditional trap records you’ll hear a Southern vocal twang due to the genre’s capital being Atlanta. Chicago drill was nearly always dark, melancholic and morose in tone, reflecting the rising crime rates in the city. Key Chicago drill artists include Chief Keef (whose viral hit I Don’t Like was followed by a GOOD Music remix featuring Kanye West, Pusha T, Big Sean and Jadakiss), Fredo Santana, Lil Reese and Sasha GoHard as well as producers Young Chop and DJ Kenn.
After Chicago drill gained international attention, London artists began to put their own spin on the genre with local slang. Early tracks which could be considered UK drill include 2013’s Man Down by Scribz, Dimzy and Stack, and It’s Cracking by Stickz and MDargg. In 2014, Scribz re-emerged as the masked rapper LD and released Live Corn – an influential track on the UK drill scene.
In 2018, prominent acts from the UK and US scenes came together when north Brixton groupSkengdo & AM released the collaborative track Pitbulls with Chief Keef.

Who are the main artists in the scene?

There are many UK drill acts who achieve high streaming numbers and YouTube views as well as local fame, but among the most prominent are the Brixton Hill group 67 (who include LD as a member), K-Trap, Skengdo & AM (of the 410 crew), Lewisham rapper DigDat, SL from Peckham, Tottenham’s Abra Cadabra and Kennington crew Harlem Spartans – whose member Loski has become a breakthrough act in the contemporary UK rap scene.
Headie One, from Tottenham, is sometimes referred to as one of the biggest acts from the UK drill scene. However his style is different to the traditional flows associated with drill, and he’s suggested he doesn’t consider himself a drill rapper. In 2018, Unknown T broke through with the anthem Homerton B – which gained millions of YouTube views and reached No. 48 in the UK singles chart. While Homerton B was referred to as a drill track, Unknown T has said that he doesn’t see himself as a drill artist.

What’s so controversial about UK drill?

It’s probably fair to argue that violent imagery is a prominent characteristic of the lyrics in UK drill songs.
In recent years, the UK media has been reporting rising violent crime rates in England and Wales. The increase in mainstream media coverage and public awareness about violent crime seems to have coincided with the Metropolitan police and media paying closer attention to the UK drill scene.
Over 100 UK drill music videos have been removed by YouTube due to requests from the Metropolitan police. The police have also imposed injunctions on musicians to prevent them making drill music or censor their lyrical content. West London group 1011 were ordered to restrict violent lyricism and were ordered to notify the police about forthcoming videos and live performances. At the beginning of 2019, Skengdo & AM were given two year suspended sentences for breaking an injunction by performing the track Attempted 1.0 at a London concert.
Tim & Barry's Skengdo & AM freestyle

Tim & Barry's Skengdo & AM freestyle

© Tim & Barry

The subject of UK drill’s censorship has divided opinion. The police have claimed that UK drill music can cause serious violence, and therefore procedures to prevent artists from releasing it are necessary to increase safety in London. Some media outlets have also presented the argument that UK drill is a direct cause and catalyst for violence.
A more liberal view of the violent aspect of UK drill lyricism is that it is a symptom the socio-political problems of the areas which artists live in – such as the declining number of youth centres and cuts to police services – and that they have a right to reflect their reality.
Writing for The Guardian in response to Skengdo & AM’s suspended sentence, youth worker and UK rap journalist Ciaran Thapar argued that criminalising and censoring young people for making drill music “will be ineffective at achieving any reduction in violence because it simply does nothing to address its root causes: childhood trauma, daily poverty, stretched youth services, exclusionary schools, intergenerational family breakdown, and so on.” An open letter with 65 signatures from human rights organisations, academics, lawyers and journalists stated: “We call on the Metropolitan police to stop seeking these repressive and counterproductive injunctions. All artists should be afforded the same rights to freedom of speech and creative expression.”

So what’s next for UK drill?

For a number of years, UK drill has already been a cultural phenomenon. It’s not uncommon for an artist to reach over one million YouTube views for a track. The press attention around UK drill – both negative and supportive – has arguably coincided with a boost in the genre’s popularity.
Towards the end of 2018, Ciaran Thapar discussed the potential future of UK drill, talking to an industry expert alongside Headie One and rising 1Xtra DJ Kenny Allstar, and concluded that the genre seems positioned for greater commercial success.
Many prominent acts associated with UK drill such as LD, Loski and Unknown T have become increasingly versatile, rapping on beats which bear little resemblance to conventional drill.
At the end of 2018, UK drill artist Russ Splashreleased Gun Lean – a single which popularised a darkly humorous dance move – which peaked at no.9 in the UK singles chart at the beginning of 2019, also spawning a remix featuring drill rappers Taze, Digga D and LD as well as grime MCs Ms Banks and Lethal Bizzle. The track’s success was soon followed by Skengdo & AM being given a suspended sentence – highlighting UK drill’s mixed fortune of being under the spotlight.
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