Drill music, what can be simply described as a very dark, aggressive and nihilistic descendant of trap music emerged in Chicago in early 2010 in the midst of a murder crisis in the city, revealing the realities of a seriously alienated group within American society. Through the medium of social media, the phenomenon had a profound impact on youth around the world, settling in places with comparable inner-city lifestyles, those driven by poverty, territorial gang rivalries and hyper masculine bravado. One of those places ended up being housing estates in high crime areas of London. Despite an early reliance on American instrumentals, slang and style, ‘UK Drill’ has since matured into its own unique art form.
From the visual tropes displayed in YouTube videos – the all black tracksuit dress code so characteristic of British urban youth and an excessive usage of balaclavas – to the music itself, the slang more allusive and poetic, the delivery more plosive and abrupt primed by the British-Caribbean-African infused dialect of London, we see a genre very comfortable amongst British musical tradition. The instrumentals adopt a 2 step feel reminiscent of grime and accentuate the threatening feel of its American forefather by heavily relying on ominous piano riffs. The fluidity of the genre of the moment means that characterising the genre as ‘UK Drill’ is problematic, something which will stick until a more appropriate name comes along. I am an unashamed huge fan of the genre, fascinated by the creativity, energy and authenticity of the culture that these British youth champion. As I grew more familiar with the genre through social media two things struck me: how young the artists were and the fact that they were all male. This is in contrast to Grime which always featured female MCs. Thus, as we witness its growing popularity, the movement as a whole candidly reveals a lot about the values of the urban male working class demographic, especially in their formative years.
Talk of ‘war’ or threatening of shooting anyone who comes to their block is clearly hyperbolic, belying the reality of the UK, and lyrics such as “the opps got away..that was a glitch” or “chest shot, head shot” reveal a disassociated, game-like approach to serious violence
Over decades, gangs have solidified as a serious problem for young males in deprived areas of London. As various studies have established, they are a real source of identity for disenfranchised males and are necessarily defined in relation to opposing gangs. The UK Drill scene is structured around these pre-existing gang dynamics and is defined by an estate-bound, hyper-local mentality. No other art form reflects the psychology of London gang life so well. Lyrics often quote ‘opp’ or enemy songs in order to rebut them and direct violent threats. In the lyrical economy of UK Drill, what artists say, and whether they act on it has emerged as the main currency of musical value, in contrast to Grime where violence is used figuratively to represent one’s musical prowess. Other than a readiness to use serious violence the majority of subject matter revolves around a pursuit of money through illegal activities and a constant degradation of opposing gangs, laying bare the social currency of this male-dominated world. YouTube comments offer an insight into how this this limited range of acceptable topics is reinforced as those who mention feelings such as insecurity or any vulnerable emotions for that matter are instantly branded ‘neeks’ or ‘victims,’ words synonymous with social downfall in a very intolerant world.
Moreover, the diverse and evolving slang related to the activities expressed in the music shows that this is a source of excitement and pride to the artists. Not to belittle the serious violence that does occur in London, but the tone of the lyrics often ventures into the realm of fantasy. Talk of ‘war’ or threatening to shoot anyone who comes to their block is clearly hyperbolic, belying the reality of the UK, and lyrics such as “the opps got away…that was a glitch” or “chest shot, head shot” reveal a disassociated, game like approach to serious violence. More so, it shows the romanticised and idealised image of a warrior defeating their enemies and letting nothing stand in their way, as a role model for these young males. Whilst it is a clear signal of immaturity, the excitement and meaning that they derive from gang violence and other illegal activities is a sad indicator of the lack of youth services and available productive activities affecting many working class urban areas.
UK Drill also shows the extreme lengths that these young working-class males go to avoid being vulnerable. Particularly revealing is the approach towards the opposite sex. In UK Drill lyrics, the only acceptable interaction with women is sexual, and countless lyrics express a variation on the theme “show no love to the gyaldem (girls), to the mandem (boys) I keep 100 (stay loyal).” Objectification of women definitely plays a part, but the repetitive theme of “showing no love” and the ferocity of some of the lyrics suggests an emotional investment and a fear of being hurt and exposed. Moreover, every video features a large group of boys covering their faces either with balaclavas or masks partly justified due to the fact that videos can be used as evidence in court. However, the sheer extent of their usage, now at the level of fashion statement, implies a self-consciousness and an unwillingness to expose ones face, the most personal and interactive part of a body to the world. The gang mentality too clearly shows a feeling of safety and comfort in numbers, alleviating the insecurity that comes with facing the world on your own at such a vulnerable age in a harsh social environment.
Thus, Drill music lays out the ideal masculinity for many young men in working class urban areas across the UK. The masculine identity at the top of the social food chain is forged from revelling in illegal activities, acting as a merciless warrior in a hyper-local ‘war,’ loyalty towards other young males and possessing very little emotion, vulnerability or in fact humanity of any kind. I am continually fascinated by this parallel world that exists in London and in no way want to stop the creative efforts of these young artists, but to pick apart a UK drill video we see a lot of effort put into publicly boasting about how much one fulfils the criteria of this idealised masculinity. Evidently there is a great deal of insecurity behind this, understandable when coming from adolescents in such a tumultuous social environment. This is a phenomenon that coming the US and has impacted youth all over Europe. France is another prime example, with artists championing a similar lifestyle and ethos; placing a larger focus on the “banlieu” and shedding light on the social inequalities in France. This broad European trend of drill music sheds light not only a deep anger and social inequality, but a growing reliance on hyper-masculinity to express discontent.
Cover Photo: the Home of UK Rap