- Words Liam Cattermole
In 2023, UK drill is still the country's most popular rap genre. But are its biggest stars in search of something new?
“I’m going to be finishing the show tonight with a track by me and an artist called KO, a rapper from Homerton,” explained Joy Orbison at the end of one of his 2020 Radio 1 residency shows. “We’ve been working on some music together and this is something we did really recently. Unreleased, not even mastered, just wanted to play it tonight and share it with you.” In many ways, the show had been building up to this moment. Beforehand, the avant-garde electronic producer played tunes by the likes of K-Trap and BackRoad Gee, two artists who came up on drill but have since broadened their repertoires exponentially. Clearly, like the rest of us, he was caught up in the scene’s meteoric rise.
The KO collaboration, which would later be named “Movements”, was Joy O’s attempt at a UK drill track. Combining his idiosyncratic production with drill’s more ominous features, the song encapsulates the sinister sounds that defined the genre’s beginnings.
Part of drill’s early appeal was its gritty textures and authentically ‘on road’ sound. However, the aggressive, often hyperbolic lyricism, made others believe the genre ‘glamourised gang culture’. It made mainstream success for the OG sound difficult, and to this day, some of its biggest stars like Digga D still notify police and provide them with lyrics before releasing music.
UK drill has since accelerated to the fore of streaming services and the global music industry at large. In March 2021, Russ Millions and Tion Wayne released “Body”: a bona fide club anthem that veered UK drill away from the streets and into clubs across the country. Part of the track’s success was down to Russ’ catchy hook, more universally relatable subject matters and replicable dance moves. It’s a formula that’s worked commercially ever since, for him and many others enjoying chart glory.
Fast-forward to 2023, and UK drill is at a crossroads. As the scene grows tired of its old methods, artists appear to be looking for that next sound. Adam, one half of producer duo Star.One, believes we’re going to see more emcees hopping on dance beats. “In the UK we have garage and those genres seem to be the perfect fit. People like AJ Tracey have already had massive success with it. I think the next wave will see that dance-drill crossover.”
One artist who’s already embodying this hybrid is Kwengface. As far back as 2021, in interviews, the Peckham rapper was calling out the scene for becoming too saturated. Breaking through the noise, for his COLORSxSTUDIOS debut earlier this year, Kweng chose to perform “Freedom”. Produced by CZR Beats, the track switches between UKG drum patterns and sliding basslines, occasionally including both at the same time. The south Lononder adapts his flow with a nonchalance you’d expect from someone who’s spent over five years in the game. He’s visibly comfortable with the style, embracing its visceral dancefloor energy.
“He’s very authentic and not afraid to step out of his lane. I think his flow is sick,” Adam tells me when asked why Kwengface works well on the beat. “What I’ve found working with a lot of MCs, is that they are completely open to jumping on dance tracks. And once they do, it leads to more work and more experimentation”.
Since he released the COLORS show, doors have certainly opened for Kwengface. Last month, he dropped a collaboration with Joy O and Overmono. Titled “Freedom 2”, the turbo-charged rework flips the original on its head, adding cybernetic melodies and utopian basslines. It’s a hard-hitting club heater, filled with unadulterated euphoria.
Just weeks later, superstar producer Fred again… uploaded an unreleased Kwengface collaboration snippet to Instagram. A future house anthem, the track proves his lyrical dexterity over multiple electronic-focused genres, and with the attention he’s subsequently amassed, one can only presume other artists will follow the same path.
Electronic music’s interest in drill isn’t necessarily new. Back in 2019, Floating Points remixed Headie One’s Skepta collaboration “Back to Basics”, bending the artist’s flow patterns around a shuffling UKG beat. Six months before, Four Tet released a comparably melancholic rework of another Headie One single, “18HUNNA”. Back to Adam from Star.One, who sees plenty of production coherence between drill and UK-focused dance music. “In terms of drum structure, there are definitely similarities. UK drill is known for these crazy basslines, which have so much movement in them. That’s definitely a UK thing. UKG, for example, is synonymous with these rip-roaring basslines. I think that’s why so many drill artists can flow on garage.”
Maybe then, it’s UKG specifically that’ll soundtrack drill’s latest evolution. The genre’s prosecco-popping mix of vibrant vocal samples and gunfinger-worthy basslines is infectious; its greatest power lies in the sound’s versatility. And that’s appealing at a time when drill’s in a compelling period of experimentation. Nevertheless, we must praise producers like Joy O and rappers like KO for knocking down those initial boundaries. And hopefully, for originality’s sake, both sounds continue to coalesce.