Music is a form of art that allows for human interaction at its core, as a dialogue between musician and listener
Drill music, a subgenre of hip-hop music, is not as mainstream as its other hip-hop subgenres, but it manages to convey its direction to most, including those who might not be able to relate to drill music’s rich history.
The songs from this genre combine to develop a self-made soundtrack usually portraying a reality, against the backdrop of violent cities, particularly by young Black artists, who use this subgenre to reflect on their life on the streets.
Below, we delve into what is drill music, the history of drill as well as the top 10 examples of drill music.
Characteristics of Drill Music
Drill lyrics are often categorized as violent and gritty.
According to Lucy Stehlik of The Guardian, “nihilistic drill reflects real life where squeaky-clean hip-hop counterparts have failed.”
Drill lyrics contrast sharply with the subject matter of earlier Chicago rappers and contemporary mainstream hip-hop music, which tended to glorify and celebrate a rise to wealth instead of being a portrayal of daily life.
Drill artists abandoned metaphors and clever wordplay in favor of a style that resembled unemotional reportage or recollection, using lyrics and sound to emphasize frequently foreboding subject matter.
Newer Chicago drill artists have broadened the subgenre’s lyrical focus, whereas their UK and Brooklyn drill counterparts have always embraced a more diverse songwriting palette.
Drill rappers have a grim, monotonous, regularly categorized as deadpan delivery that is often filtered through Auto-Tune to evoke the emotionally draining atmosphere of their environment.
However, the UK and Brooklyn drill music avoid this technique and rely on emphasizing a more evocative performance.
Drill frequently pulls from a variety of sampling and editing techniques, namely vocals, synthesizers, samplers, audio editing software (digital audio workstation), and drum machines.
Drill music’s roots can be traced back to the early 2000s to the 2010s when it emerged as a darker sub-genre evolution of ‘trap’ music, which itself is a sub-genre of US hip-hop.
‘Trap’ is a term that commonly refers to the use of ‘trap houses’ in illegal drug markets, so named because a fortified drug house historically has only one way in and one way out.
The terms ‘trap’ and ‘trapping’ are frequently used interchangeably to describe drug dealing. It bears references to drug dealing as a ‘trap’ from which is difficult to escape.
While trap music talks about the dangers of manufacturing, using, and selling drugs, drill music recounts stories about guns, death, gangs, and violence.
Despite its many similarities to trap music, the speed of a drill beat is generally slower, with a moderate tempo having 60 to 70 beats per minute. Although, some producers work at double speed, for example, 120 to 140 beats per minute.
With only a few exceptions, this music is uncensored, raw, and devoid of glimmers of hope found in other branches of hip-hop music, focusing on rage and violence.
Although the instinct is to label this music as tough, unforgiving, and concrete-hard, it is surprisingly exuberant in its darkness.
The majority of its artists are young and coming into their own creatively against a backdrop of outrageous violence and brutality in Chicago, where they may be frequently linked with gang crimes.
Drill music is heavily influenced by Atlantic trap producer Lex Luger’s music.
Luger is well-known for his steadfast adherence to Atlanta’s trap sound, which he creates by using the Roland TR-808 kick drum.
He is renowned for his musical fusion of urban street hip-hop sounds with ominous orchestral instruments.
Other important predecessors of drill music include Shawty Redd, Drumma Boy, and Zaytoven.
Shawty Redd is known for his traditional trap style as well as his ominous, horror-inspired melodies and chord progressions.
His production works include Trap House, an album by Gucci Mane, and Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, Young Jeezy’s third studio album.
Drumma Boy is credited with the invention of extending sounds at the end of a verse, as well as the use of a rising effect before the beginning and end of each verse and hook.
Hip-hop, rock, pop, classical, soul, and R&B are just a few of the genres that he blends with his production techniques.
Meanwhile, the melodic production style of Zaytoven, who is also a talented pianist, benefits from the aggressive tone that is characteristic of his Georgian and Californian influences.
Producing Gucci Mane’s “So Icy,” which featured Young Jeezy and became a southern best-selling song, Zay established his name in the music industry.
It is easy to see the influences of these great artists and producers on drill music.
Drill Music: A Brief History
The subgenre of drill music is heavily influenced by trap music, another hip-hop subgenre that emerged from the Atlanta, Georgia, music scene.
Trap music shares the drill sound’s proclivity for dark, slow atmospheres with a lyrical focus on the dangers of criminal activity.
Drill culture encompasses everything (and can be seen as a lifestyle) from dances and music to slang and mentality.
It mostly originated in ‘Dro City,’ a gang-defined territory of city blocks in the Woodlawn neighborhood, on the South Side of Chicago.
Pac Man, the stylistic originator of the genre, is credited with being the first to apply the term to local hip-hop music in his song “It’s a Drill,” which was released in 2010.
Although his career was cut short by his death that same year, other artists took the song template he had produced to follow in his sonic footsteps.
Chief Keef is widely regarded as the primary progenitor and credited with the popularization of drill music, having brought it into the mainstream.
Upon recording multiple singles in 2011 and 2012, including “Love Sosa,” “I Don’t Like,” and “Bang,” which became viral hits, Keef was subsequently offered a deal by Interscope Records.
Chief Keef’s debut album, Finally Rich, released on Interscope Records in late 2012, would later go on to be dubbed a “classic” in the genre.
Despite the positive reviews, “Finally Rich” only sold 50,000 units and became a flop record, prompting record labels to abandon drill as a fad.
Following the success of rappers such as Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Lil Reese, Fredo Santana, G Herbo, Lil Bibby, and King Louie, who had many local fans and a significant internet presence, the genre entered the American mainstream in 2012.
Drill musicians received media attention and were signed to major labels as a result, overturning the producers’ previous decision of abandoning drill.
Many drill rappers used YouTube to release their music videos, which contributed significantly to the genre’s popularity.
Rappers from other scenes and hip-hop stars like Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), Drake, and Rick Ross started collaborating with drill musicians by late 2012.
Ye remixed “I Don’t Like” as “Don’t Like” for the 2012 GOOD Music compilation Cruel Summer, which featured Ye, Chief Keef, Pusha T, Big Sean, and Jadakiss.
Ye cited drill as an influence on his 2013 album Yeezus, which featured vocals by Chief Keef and King Louie.
After the initial fervor of the early 2010s faded, Chicago drill experienced a resurgence in the late 2010s with artists such as King Von, Polo G, and a revitalized Lil Durk, influencing many local drill artists.
While Chicago drill music faded from mainstream popularity, a new scene emerged in London, UK, particularly focused in the Brixton district.
Compared to the Chicago drill, UK drill music evolved its own distinct style of production.
It seemed to heavily draw inspiration from the drill’s early days and foundation while forming a more homegrown, UK sound.
UK drill group 67 is often credited for shifting the sound away from the Chicago influences, with LD – a member of 67 – being named the godfather of UK drill.
Early UK drill tracks by Stickz or GR1ZZY & M Dargg imitated Chicago drill tracks, save for the accents, and appeared within a year of the Chicago drill explosion.
UK drill frequently uses what is deemed as violent language and provocative lyrics in its music.
By mid-2012, UK drill music had gained prominence and had influenced other regional scenes including Australia, Spain, Ireland, and the US.
Drill’s open space offered room for other rhythms to hop aboard in the hands of young Black British producers smitten by Chicago drill but raised on a diet leaning towards grime, dubstep, and other dance music.
UK drill, which brings production influences from grime and UK garage, heavily influenced later Brooklyn drill productions.
On many tracks, such as Section Boyz’s “No Rules” from 2014, the snare on the fourth beat fades out as other percussive filigree fills in.
The same beat had been replaced by bubbling soca-style snares traveling twice as fast by 2016, as in 67’s “Let’s Lurk.”
Bobby Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel emerged as Chicago-influenced Brooklyn drill artists in the mid-2010s.
Meanwhile, Pop Smoke, Sheff G, Fivio Foreign, Sleepy Hallow, and 22Gz emerged as new prominent drill artists from Brooklyn in the late 2010s.
Artists such as Fivio Foreign, Sheff G, Smoove’L, Bizzy Banks, 22Gz, and Pop Smoke collaborated with UK drill producers such as 808Melo, Yamaica Productions, Yoz Beats, Tommyprime, and AXL Beats.
Pop Smoke’s song “Welcome to the Party,” produced by 808Melo, was a big hit in 2019 and received remixes from more mainstream artists Nicki Minaj, Meek Mill, and British MC Skepta.
Sheff G’s “No Suburban” (released in 2017) and 22Gz’s “Suburban” (released in 2016) have been credited with bringing attention to the Brooklyn drill.
Many of drill’s biggest hits at the time were nearly indistinguishable from trap bounce, although there were changes in the mood and attitude of the song.
As the tempos in the songs slowed, more room appeared for ad-libbing, building tension, using cavernous pauses between bass kicks, and long stretches with no drums at all.
However, while its sound provided an appealing template, Chicago’s unhurried approach tended to feel plodding and lifeless.
The Official Singles Chart’s Top 100 featured drill music for the first time in 2018. Seventeen additional drill singles had debuted on the charts by the end of 2020.
This comes to show that drill songs have become increasingly appealing and well-liked among a broad audience.
This is further evidenced by the fact that Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ “Body” became the first drill song to reach No. 1 on the charts in 2021.
10 Best Examples of Drill Music
1. “I Don’t Like” by Chief Keef ft. Lil Reese
Starting our list of best drill music examples with Chief Keef is a no-brainer.
After all, Chief Keef is largely credited with popularizing drill music by infusing his lyrics with references to gang violence, with which he had a personal history.
It is easy to admire his slickness as he sings “I Don’t Like” with a confident cadence, which continues to serve as an inspiration for many rappers today.
“I Don’t Like” did more than just push drill to new heights; it also altered the landscape of popular music.
The simplicity of the song is unmatched; the lyrics are vicious, with Keef listing everything he despises, including false True Religion, snitches, and his critics.
The drill music that followed was set in motion by Keef’s unhurried, ad-libbed delivery and jaded lyrics.
His music has occasionally been overshadowed by feuds with other artists and legal issues, but Keef’s influence on twenty-first-century hip-hop remains significant.
2. “B.O.N.” by King Louie
Before Chief Keef put Chicago’s drill on the map, it was already thriving, thanks in large part to King Louie’s music, which started making waves a year before Keef’s breakthrough.
King Louie might have begun his music career by handing out his CDs at bus shops and parties, but he quickly established himself as a well-known figure within the drill music scene.
King Louie rose to prominence with songs such as the scandalous “What That Mouth Do” and “Too Cool,” and projects such as Boss Shit and Man Up, Band Up.
Louie was signed to Epic Records in 2015, but his career was put on hold after he was shot that same year.
He began performing with celebrities like Ye, and he even wrote songs with songwriting greats like Frank Ocean, Mike Dean, and more.
The terrifying “B.O.N.,” still one of the best trunk rattlers to come out of the genre, is the pinnacle of Louie’s slow-down style, which sounds primal by today’s drill standards.
3. “Know Better” by Headie One
Headie One is another drill music pioneer who has risen quickly up the charts; after getting his start in the drill music world with the group OFB.
He is known for his public criticism of the police for attributing the cause of violence to drill music.
Headie One is one of the most inventive British drill musicians, known for being a master of hooks and ad-libbing.
His smash hit “Know Better,” which was included on the mixtape The One, catapulted Headie to the forefront of the UK music scene.
This drill song was a must-have for any teen hip-hop rap fan.
He is known primarily for his tracks “18hunna” featuring rapper Dave, “Only You Freestyle” featuring rapper Drake, “Ain’t It Different” featuring rappers AJ Tracey and Stormzy, and his solo single “Both.”
The single “18hunna” peaked at No. 6 on the UK Singles Chart, while “Only You Freestyle” peaked at No. 5 and “Ain’t It Different” peaked at No. 2.
4. “Welcome to the Party” by Pop Smoke
Pop Smoke, a Brooklyn-raised rapper, launched his musical career with his debut single MPR (Panic Part 3 Remix) in 2018.
He frequently worked in collaboration with British drill artists and producers who used more minimal and aggressive instrumentation than Chicago drill artists, reintroducing the sound as Brooklyn drill.
“Welcome to the Party” is Pop Smoke’s debut single from his debut mixtape Meet the Woo (2019).
Victor Victor Worldwide and Republic Records released it on April 23, 2019.
The rapper and 808Melo wrote the song, with the latter producing it entirely.
The official remix for “Welcome to the Party” featuring fellow New York rapper Nicki Minaj was released on August 15, 2019.
On August 21, 2019, a remix with British rapper Skepta was also released.
Both remixes were later included in the Meet the Woo album’s deluxe reissue.
In the music video, Pop Smoke raps about the streets and gang members while holding a small child in his arms, while a group of men says the names of people who are dead or have been imprisoned.
Pop Smoke’s voice has been praised for being absurdly and eerily deep within the chaos of the song, which has been described as having sinister and violent lyrics.
Music critics gave the song favorable reviews, with many praising it for making drill music popular.
Due to Pop Smoke’s thick accent and the drill beat from producer 808Melo, which has been described as haphazard and bass-heavy, the song is distinctly Brooklyn.
Complex, The New York Times, Pitchfork, and Time all included the song on their year-end lists for 2019.
The remix featuring Nicki Minaj peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 and No. 48 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in the United States.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) awarded it a platinum certification as well.
Owing to the track, Pop Smoke was an unstoppable force in terms of popularity until his murder in 2020. He reigned as King of New York for two years, pushing drill to its pinnacle.
5. “Chi-Raq” by Nicki Minaj ft. G Herbo
Who hasn’t heard of Nicki Minaj? Even non-fans will recognize the New York-based rapper’s name.
Nicki Minaj is an extremely versatile artist known all over the world for her animated flow in her rapping, alter egos, and accents.
As a result, it’s no surprise that she collaborated on a drill song with G Herbo in 2014.
After Chief Keef and the others began promoting drill music, it was only a matter of time before well-known artists who were not previously associated with the genre joined in.
In recent years, this has included artists such as Drake and Ye jumping onto the bandwagon.
But Nicki Minaj’s “Chi-Raq” was especially significant, not only because it featured Chicago drill star G Herbo (then known as Lil Herb), but also because it demonstrated that drill had a mainstream shelf life.
Produced by Boi-1da, Vinylz, and Allen Ritter, “Chi-Raq” has a hard-edged beat that teases and leaves Minaj’s fans wanting more.
6. “Go In” by Shady
Drill music was already on the rise before Keef arrived due to the influx of women contributing to it.
Before streaming numbers ruled the music world, a 22-year-old Chicago director named Duan ‘D Gainz’ Gaines released the music video for Pretty N Pink rapper Shady’s “Go In” on YouTube in July 2011.
Gaines had already established himself in the streets, producing songs and filming guerilla-style music videos for some of the hottest drill records of the time, including Lil Durk’s “I’m a Hitta.”
But he hadn’t yet worked with any of the drill scene’s female rising stars.
So when Shady and another Pretty N Pink member messaged him on Facebook, where they made and tagged Gaines in a video asking him to collaborate with them, he invited the South Side female rap group to his basement studio to record a song.
Because Shady was the only Pretty N Pink rapper who showed up, they decided to film an unofficial video in his basement before making the official video later that summer.
In the music video, Gaines honed his fast-paced, handheld filming approach, recording all the women in the neighborhood as they enjoyed the local mayhem.
Gaines had no idea Shady’s “Go In” video would become a defining moment in Chicago music history, for it ended up launching the career of the Queen of Drill, Katie Got Bandz, who appeared in the video holding a gun.
7. “Hot N*gga” by Bobby Shmurda
Bobby Shmurda is regarded as a forefather of Brooklyn drill music. In 2014, his song “Hot N*gga” peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, catapulting him to international fame.
“Hot N*gga” was a commercial success, earning Platinum certification in the United States.
Rowdy Rebel, who is a member of the Brooklyn-based GS9 crew, appeared on a remix of Shmurda’s hit single “Hot N*gga” alongside Fabolous, Jadakiss, Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes, and Yo Gotti.
The song and video gained popularity among Vine users in 2014, resulting in the ‘Shmoney dance’ phenomenon.
Beyoncé performed the dance move at a venue on her On the Run Tour in July 2014.
Following a touchdown, NFL receiver Brandon Gibson also performed the move, showcasing how famous the dance move had become in such a short amount of time pre-TikTok.
In August 2014, a reggae remix of the song featuring Junior Reid, Mavado, Popcaan, and Jah X was also released by the artist, showing how versatile Bobby Shmurda is when it comes to performing in different genres.
8. “Kill Shit” by G Herbo and Lil Bibby
Although Lil Herb (G Herbo, who is more into trap music now) and Lil Bibby have moved on from the drill subgenre, they still managed to give the genre one of its most memorable songs, which helped spread the drill craze.
The singers’ performance in this track is at a breakneck pace, but it is emotionless as if the stories they tell are far from shocking.
“Kill Shit” is a brutal track from two young artists who lay down rhymes that should have been beyond their years.
Their deep, throaty voices still manage to preserve an aura of innocence as they rap: “Know a couple n****s that’s down to ride for a homicide/When it’s drama time/Run up on a n***a with the llamas flyin’.”
Released so early in the rise of Chicago drill, the song, “Kill Shit,” helped serve as a foreshadowing of what was to come in the later years of the subgenre.
9. “Wassup” by Lil Reese ft Fredo Santana & Lil Durk
Following Chief Keef’s lead, a slew of other talented Chicago artists emerged.
Supa Savage is American rapper Lil Reese’s second mixtape, released on September 2, 2013.
Keef’s friends, Fredo Santana and Lil Reese delivered their rhymes in Keef’s signature style and sluggish yet confident tempo.
Lil Durk, however, has a drill verse that is seamless, with perfect flow and ad-libs.
The song has a southern tempo that is heavy on the bass, and its conciseness keeps the track from becoming self-defeating.
The track, with its bumpy beat, is considered a classic because Lil Durk’s style has always pushed the boundaries of the genre.
He brought melody to drill music, foreshadowing the current state of drill nearly a decade before it came to fruition, while his contemporaries focused on raw aggression in their bold lyrics.
10. “Body” by Tion Wayne and Russ Millions
“Body” is a song by British rappers Russ Millions and Tion Wayne that was released on March 25, 2021, by GDS Records and Atlantic Records.
Produced by Gotcha, the song’s promotion began a TikTok dance challenge as well as a remix released in April 2021 featuring Bugzy Malone, Fivio Foreign, Darkoo, Buni, ArrDee, E1 (3×3), and ZT (3×3).
“Body” reached the top of the UK Singles Chart, becoming the first drill song to do so.
It also topped the charts in Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, and reached the top ten in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Greece.
The song also charted in other countries, namely Canada, Portugal, Slovakia, Lithuania, Finland, Iceland, and Singapore.
The track’s ascension to the top is a defining moment for drill music, which has had a large and growing presence on the charts since 2018.
“Body” has been described as a boast about riches set to fast, clattering beats.
If anyone wants to know how much money Tion Wayne has hidden in a shoebox under his bed, the answer to that question, according to this song, is “more than a mil in savings / but you can still get a shaving.”
It just proves how another collaboration between these two British drillers was bound to be good, especially after their chart-topping collab “Keisha & Becky” in 2019.
What is Drill Music – Final Thoughts
Drill music might have originated in the South Side neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, but the hip-hop subgenre spread quickly across the world in such a short time.
It just goes to show how fans will flock to the type of music that they relate to or if they like the sound and feel of it.
Although the songs are infamous for their violent, almost savage, lyrics about guns, death, gang violence, and more, several songs have a positive vibe – some even have a melodious touch.
Whatever type of vibes you’re into, you can find a good drill song on this brief list.