- Words Ben Tibbits
As Drill reaches the boiling point of its popularity, we ponder the direction of the scene and the impact of social media on its authenticity, with the help of some of the genre's hottest newcomers.
The journey of any new genre or movement tends to follow a similar path. Rawness, originality and excitement turns to commercialisation, greed and hollowness, forcing every last derivative raindrop from its gratuitously greying skies.
The latest British movement to move from the edges of music and society into the starry eye of the mainstream is Drill. Similar to Britpop in the 90s, Drill lurked in the darkness, occasionally flickering a glimpse of mainstream attention, until a pinnacle moment came for it to blossom into a cultural phenomenon. With these said genres, there tends to be a handful of artists that commandeer the hype, fighting the cause with their sonic artillery and lyrical bullets. With Drill, it was crews like OFB and 98s who augmented what Godfathers like 67 and Harlem Spartans began, pushing the sound and, most significantly, selling records. Five or so years on, however, the sound may have reached its boiling point; left with scores of imitators, the classic Drill approach seems to be on its last legs, with the genre’s biggest artists straying away from its rather one-dimensional formula (Digga D’s new mixtape ‘Noughty By Nature’ proves a timely example). So, what next?
In order for a genre to elongate its time in the public eye and sustain itself in the mainstream, progression in image and style is critical, which can prove a slippery slope for any artist who attempts to pioneer this. With Drill specifically, one issue that has been invariably encountered in its evolution is the closed-mindedness of its fanbase. Over the past few years, when an artist has attempted to experiment with the sound to take it further, fans have tended to disregard, or even ridicule it. The prime example of this is ‘GANG’, Headie One’s joint tape with acclaimed producer Fred again.., which was respected and appreciated critically, but the reception amongst the Drill scene was lukewarm, with many fans unhappy to hear their beloved driller unveiling something unfamiliar to their formulated eardrums. Now though, thanks to Tik Tok and its increasingly youthful target market, Drill has found a new lease on life.
The impossible to ignore sub-sound is yet to be defined unquestionably, with labels like ‘Tik Tok Drill’, ‘Lo-fi Drill’ and ‘Sample Drill’ all thrown into the mix. Harbouring a sonic ethos that stems from melodic and colourful sampling, often from previously released and recognisable songs that have been manipulated in various ways like being pitched up or slowed down, the sound has been facilitated by Tik Tok and found a burgeoning fan base on the platform. Though difficult to pin down in its origins, it was perhaps Central Cee’s PinkPanthress sampling “Obsessed With You” that spear-headed the sound’s demand in the UK, with the song emitting influence for TikToks across the planet.
The cantankerous necromancy of Drill – its violent imagery, ominous production and Black-Spot death threats – is replaced by introspection, charisma and vibrancy. Rather than the artist stripping themselves of their identity and declaring their love and loyalty for their postcode gangs, this new generation of Drill artists flourish in their own individualism, unashamedly expressive in their feelings throughout their track’s various remixes. This earnestness has recently reaped rewards, with the more relatable strand of the boundlessly listenable style seeping into mainstream ears via radio play, publication coverage and social media.
There are scores of talented young rappers championing this new wave of Drill; on Tik Tok and beyond. Likeable duo A1 x J1 helped bring wider attention to the movement with “Latest Trends”, while SwitchOTR broke the internet with his commercial anthem “Coming For You”, with an OFB and Loski featuring remix. The two names that really stand out as key to the escalating prevalence of Tik Tok rap in the UK are ArrDee, who was the first and biggest Tik Tok name to flower through his online following then bloom into an industry sweetheart, and JBee, who has recently moved up a gear from Tik Tok favourite to signing a record deal. The young rapper epitomises all that is good about Sample Drill; emotive and vibrant, JBee drives forward the new wave with savvy confidence, showing an impressive depth of character and creative intricacy throughout his so far limited releases. I managed to catch up with JBee to talk about Drill and its stylistic development.
Labelling Drill as “sustainable” JBee commented, “I feel like music now is easier to listen to. People can relate to the music as we are talking about real-life situations that everyone goes through”. There is no doubt that Drill is becoming more consumer-friendly, and JBee is one of the names changing its listening landscape. When asked about why he has been able to make the treacherous leap from internet to industry, the star remarked “I am real, my music’s real and doesn’t fabricate anything. I genuinely talk about how I feel and that’s the major factor”. Drill is a genre built on authenticity; an inherently organic scene that sees ‘cappers’ instantly mocked and rappers bragging about their violent deeds. JBee upholds this ideology of honesty, but offers it in a different light, highlighting the realness of his feelings rather than his actions.
I also spoke to Benzz, the latest rapper plotting his surge from Tik Tok sensation to industry figure. Not definable within the Lo-Fi style, Benzz fills a similar space to Hazey, Central Cee and Arrdee, disregarding the foreboding ferocity often associated with the Drill sound and instead of flaunting his lively wordplay and zesty beat selection. His dynamic new track “Je M’appelle’”is brimming with memorable bars and ear-worm flows. Evidencing the way in which social media can kickstart a career, Benzz had an unexpectedly swift rise: “I posted my first video on Tik Tok from the school toilet seat. There weren’t any other major intentions other than that at the time. We didn’t intend on blowing up overnight but we hit 700k+ views and my talent was recognised instantly”. The rapper is a prime example of what flair, capability, and the right social media aptitude can achieve in the modern age. The newcomer is confident of a bright future for the genre: “The Drill industry is too smart to be quietened, there are too many forward-thinking producers and innovative marketing strategies for it to fade out. There will always be new ways to elevate the sound”.
Not everyone is convinced though – there are doubts of substance. With little-to-no new musical foundation and often many contributing creators, it’s almost like a Fordian Assembly Line, built as a marketable product rather than an art form. This lack of actual expressionism can make the listening process a hollow experience, with near-identical song structures, overly produced mixes, and analogous narratives. Furthermore, there is a blatant lack of grit, a feature that has been paramount to UK rap since the days of early Grime. This is no doubt a cause for cynicism for any students of rap, but the overawing consumerism of the youthful target market makes it a mollifying issue for the money-orientated industry.
I was keen to get the opinion of a rapper whose rise has been more typically organic. Berna, whose flirtation with sub-genres and his undeniably raw talent elevates him above many of his peers, has resigned himself to the Sample Drill wave: “It is what it is init. I feel like the NY drill scene killed it and that’s the type of Sample Drill I listen to more, but yeah I guess it gives opportunity for new artists”. Although far from just a Drill artist, with tunes like “No Sweat” and “Forty’”showcasing his versatility, Berna recognises the significance of the genre and what it has done for the wider rap scene: “Drill is, if not already, becoming the most popular genre in the world. It’s changing all the time with all these different kinds of beats. Samples and all that. I think it has embedded itself forever in urban culture”.
Drill is undoubtedly at a pinnacle stage of its development. Is there, like the artists have said, continuous room for expansion within the scene? Can Drill break the generic prototype of overwhelming popularity followed by unavoidable combustion? Is the capitalist ease in which artists can find fame online a positive sign of things to come, or a shallow estuary leading towards an ocean of tedious repetition?
These questions relate to the wider industry. It’s never been easier for artists to be noticed, and quickly cement themselves within respective scenes. Social media has changed the way we consume music, making it a more collaborative, user-friendly, and commercialised process. With the entertainment world heading in the same internet-obsessive direction, do we, the music lovers, merely accept the fate of eternally living in the past like some cassette-carrying carcass, or do we embrace the new dawn of two-minute songs designed for ten-second dances? It’s a dreary sunrise.