An Introduction to UK Drill

Dark, sundering, sliding 808s, complex, syncopated hi-hat structures, foreboding minor scale melodies and violent lyrics are the hallmarks of the British rap subgenre known as UK Drill. A sound that has cemented its place in UK popular culture as the sound of the streets, the youth and, increasingly, the UK top 40 charts.

Nascent UK Drill emerged from the UK Road Rap (The UK’s own brand of gangster rap which took off in the 2000s) scene and was inspired by its namesake Chicago Drill, as gang members-turned rappers found kindred spirits in their peers on the other side of the Atlantic who were living, and rapping about, a lifestyle they could relate to.

Both feature aggressive lyrics — which paint a stark picture of the violent reality of disaffected and disenfranchised young minority men from impoverished socio-economic areas — over a menacing beat, and, of course, the typical braggadocious flexing rap is known for in general. Beef with opposing gangs (opps), violence, retaliation and drug dealing are often visited topics in both forms of Drill.

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In South London, 2013, Brixton Hill gang 67 and Angell Town gang 150’s beef on the streets spilled over into music. Early pioneers of the scene, 67’s ManDown and 150’s It’s Cracking took Chicago Drill beats and laid patois-infused London slang over them as both sides took verbal shots at each other. It would take some time for UK Drill to diverge from Chicago Drill and forge its own sonic identity, but the foundation had been laid.

By 2015 that identity was beginning to solidify, taking influences from Grime (A fast-paced form of rap that evolved from the UK Garage and Jungle scenes) and Road Rap, producers began making beats that were denser, darker and faster than Chicago’s signature sound, and rappers picked up the pace of their flows to match them. 67’s Skeng Man and 150 allies 410’s No Hook are noticeably different from the tracks put out in 2013 and are arguably the best examples of an early UK Drill scene creating its own lane.

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In 2016 the sound of UK Drill continued to evolve and proliferate. 67’s Lets Lurk, featuring Road Rap legend Giggs, was perhaps the biggest street anthem up to that point since Giggs’ own Talking Da Hardest (often referred to jokingly as ‘the national anthem’) and the beat would become part of a worldwide viral phenomenon thanks to comedian Michael Dapah’s character Big Shaq’s song Man’s Not Hot.

The same year saw the emergence of three other influential South London groups. Peckham’s Zone 2 famously filmed the video for their track Zone 2 Step on their opps’ block, Moscow 17’s Brandon Estate, representing a huge provocation at that time (although it should be noted Lewisham’s BSide executed this concept first, filming Where They Hiding in Penge). Moscow 17 retaliated with the song Moscow March. Meanwhile, in nearby Kennington, Harlem Spartans were making waves with their track Call Me A Spartan. UK Drill classics were being born and South London was the birthplace.

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Harlem Spartans

Since then numerous groups and individuals from all over the city have burst onto the UK Drill scene and left their mark as the genre has continued to capture the hearts, and ears, of fans while morphing musically. Examples include West London’s 1011 (now known as CGM) and NGang, East London’s 7th, ACG and Homerton, plus North London’s OFB, NPK and TPL.

Although born in London, the UK drill wave has steadily swept across the length and breadth of Great Britain — perhaps the most notable artists being Birmingham-based SmuggzyAce and M1llionz — as well as abroad. There are Irish Drill artists — the likes of Chuks, Ink, Offica and J.B2 — and even Australian Drill artists, OneFour, all making contemporary UK Drill, often with a regional twist.

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Headie One

What began as an underground genre used for verbal sparring by street gangs has diverged within itself. Modern UK Drill runs the whole gamut of commercial viability and sounds — from polished club bangers to gritty street tracks — varying in pace, bounce, tone and subject matter, with songs getting millions of listens and views on streaming services as well as UK Top 40 Chart success — Headie One’s latest album Edna peaked at #1 on the charts. The genre even has a co-sign from Drake, who hopped on the UK Drill wave at the tail end of 2019 with the track War.

Part of the success and growth UK Drill has to be attributed to how personal, relatable and authentic it is. As the scene was growing, fans realised that rather than inaccessible pop stars living in their gated mansions with social media accounts managed by a PR firm, UK Drill rappers were teenagers and young men living on the same government housing estate as themselves, often responding to them personally through private messages on social media.

For years UK Drill artists were shooting videos on the same blocks where they live, the local high street or abandoned buildings. They started recording their music at the neighbourhood youth centre rather than a plush studio run by a record label, and they were universally unsigned.

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Digga D and his crew CGM before he got signed

The do-it-yourself attitude and feel resonating from both the music and videos added authenticity and a realness which was a far cry from the mainstream rap scene. This was not immaculately groomed and arranged pop music, this was something else entirely. These weren’t millionaires rapping about private planes and mansions, these were guys from your neighbourhood rapping about the grim reality of impoverishment, desperation and violence.

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Digga D in the music video for his track Woi

As the scene has grown, the videos from popular groups have trended towards a more polished look featuring models and luxury cars. Artists who’ve earned themselves a record deal — OFB’s Headie One and CGM’s Digga D, for example — have videos with all the trappings of success, indistinguishable from a mainstream rap video. However, there are countless artists that are unsigned and keeping the DIY spirit of the genre alive and well, proving that UK Drill has passed the litmus test for a genre’s longevity — the ability to hold mass appeal for a mainstream audience and maintain an underground sound for hardcore fans at the same time. Make no mistake, the UK Drill wave hasn’t crested yet.

Below I’ve listed 7 tracks I think exhibit the energy, emotion and vibe of UK Drill at its purest while also being influential on the scene. There are countless tracks that deserve to be on here but I had to narrow them down somehow. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist with many more tracks which you can find here.

1.(Harlem Spartans) Bis x Blanco x Active x MizOrMac - Kennington Where It Started (2017)

Widely considered one of the best UK Drill tracks of all time. The beat, vocals and visuals blend together seamlessly to give the viewer a glimpse of what it might feel like to be in the shoes of a Harlem Spartan in Kennington, along with a slew of instantly quotable lyrics.

Iconic bar: ‘Question. If gang pull up, are you gonna back your bredrin?’

2. (7th) CB - Take That Risk (2017)

Currently serving a 23-year sentence, CB’s mixtape A Driller’s Perspective is a seminal project. Often praised for his beat selection (Fumez The Engineer slays this one), delivery, and rudeness, Take That Risk exemplifies the characteristics that has garnered CB a cult following. He still manages to release music from prison albeit at a much slower pace.

Iconic bars: ‘I put rambo blades in chests / I put flick knives straight in necks / With a wap I’ll aim for your head / If you see me then you’re looking at death’

3. (Harlem Spartans) Loski - Money and Beef (2017)

Now one of the biggest names in UK Drill and earning some well-deserved commercial success, Money and Beef (from his mixtape Call Me Loose) shows off a young Loski’s skills at their finest and why he’s rated so highly. M1onthebeat provides the infectious low-key canvas for Loski to paint on as he switches flow multiple times like a seasoned veteran despite being a teen at the time. Incidentally, this track is so catchy even Drake had to sing along to it.

Iconic bars: ‘Baby does your boyfriend know that you say you love man? / If you really love me then you’ll hold on to my mash / I used to have a shotty looking long like Chan Kardash / Shit den, why my paigons got no cash?’

4. (1011/CGM) Digga D x Sav’O x Horrid1 - Play For The Pagans (2017)

Back when CGM were known as 1011, this track got a lot of attention for the rudeness and disrespect strewn throughout each member’s verse. Naming names and incidents, CGM courted controversy and used it to build a buzz that would eventually earn them mainstream recognition.

However, none of that would matter if the song didn’t have musical merit in its own right. The ominous minor scale piano keys perfectly accompanied by the sliding bassline and the trio’s slick wordplay and flows ensure this goes down in history as one of the hardest-hitting songs in the genre.

Iconic bars: ‘All this talk on my name / How many times have I made you run? / Teewizz got splashed and died / And I don’t feel sorry for his mum’

5. (OFB) Headie One x RV - Know Better (2018)

This track shot an already up-and-coming Headie One to the forefront of the UK Drill scene. After Headie was assaulted in Luton by gang members from Wood Green, an area of North London which beefs neighbouring Tottenham’s OFB, a man was shot in the Wood Green area the next day, allegedly in retaliation. The day after that, Headie released this track and changed the scene forever, using ‘shh’ in place of words which could possibly be incriminating or deemed to incite violence by the London Metropolitan Police.

This was key as the police had been ordering Youtube to take down UK Drill videos, and using ‘shh’ allowed Headie to avoid that while making listeners aware of the implications that ‘shh’ signified. ‘Shh’ was immediately added to the standard lexicon of UK Drill and is often used by other UK Drill artists to this day, while Headie has gone on to become one of the biggest rappers in the country.

Iconic bars: ‘They say I took a L in L / But shh made a W in W’

6. (OFB) SJ x Bandokay x DoubleLz - Ambush (2019)

The song that thrust the younger members of OFB into the limelight. The haunting melody and rumbling bass perfectly compliment the young trio’s effortless, boastful flows. SJ, regarded as the most promising of the three, had his career cut short as he’s serving a 23-year sentence for murder.

Iconic bars: ‘I’m in the back of this car, no taxi / Sadly, I beg a man please try mad me / You’ll see this hand ting get handy / Live-O corn when I slap this gladly’

7. Dutchavelli - Only If You Knew (2020)

2020 has most definitely been Dutch’s breakout year. Fresh out of prison, he’s been releasing banger after banger, linking up with some big names in UK music like Stormzy, Tion Wayne and M Huncho. It all started with this track, impressing fans with his gruff voice, hard bars and wordplay. He got his name from the fact he speaks fluent Dutch, having lived in The Netherlands as a child, and he also happens to be Steflon Don’s brother.

Iconic bars: ‘ Remember ’09 Christmas day on the strip I was doing up drills on a bike / I seen mum cry tears of joy that night when I told her I don’t sell white / (Feds asked me if I’m the man in question) / Of course I lied’

Ben is a half-Northern Irish, half-Chinese, Fourth Culture Kid based in Singapore, who has written for Discovery Channel, WWF and Asian Food Network.

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