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Hip-Hop Wars: The Dichotomy Of Drill Music

Words by Montel Gordon

Drill music is arguably the most popular genre and style in the UK urban music industry in this present moment in time. This year has witnessed the first drill rapper Headie One topping the charts with his debut album Edna. Nevertheless, the success achieved by drill music and its artists has not come without critics who claim the genre promotes violence, glamourises drug-dealing, and hinders society. Drill was birthed and popularised in Chicago in 2012, pioneered by Chief Keef, Lil Reese, Lil Durk, and Young Chop, receiving worldwide attention for its gory and violent lyricism. UK drill emerged during this same period, but it was not until 2015 it achieved nationwide prominence with Brixton-based rap group 67 single ‘Let’s Lurk’ featuring Giggs. This post follows the same theme of American sociologist Tricia Rose and her seminar work Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk About Hip-Hop- And Why That Matters where she discussed the dilemma of hip-hop culture during and before 2008 when the book was written where she cited “hip-hop is not dead, but gravely ill.” Here, I will predominantly discuss drill music, arguing to sides of the spectrum on the genre’s critics and defenders.


“It Causes Violence.”

The classic argument used for decades to describe gangsta rap and now drill music, “it causes violence”. Road rap or UK gangsta rap had its fair share of stick throughout time, pioneered by artists such as Giggs, Blade Brown, K Koke, Potter Payper, and groups such as Mashtown and SN1. Their lyrics often reflected the harsh realities of growing up in inner-city communities. In the aftermath of the riots in 2011, historian David Starkey infamously blamed the riots on rap music and black culture stating, “The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion”. He also added, “Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together… which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England. This is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.” Starkey was alluding to this ‘road rap’ which consistently came under fire for its nihilistic lyrics and violent narrative which was often argued by the media and police for instigating violence in the community.

Regarding the metropolitan police, they’ve been continuously staunch critics of road rap and now, drill. In recent years, we have seen the increased censorship of drill tracks by removing popular such as 1011- Up Next? from Youtube and even giving suspended sentences to musicians AM and Skengdo for performing their song “Attempted” back in 2019. As metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick quoted, drill music is about “glamorising serious violence”, with lyrics that describe “stabbings in great detail, joy, and excitement”. Future Prime Minister David Cameron echoed a similar statement in 2006 about BBC Radio 1 and presenters such as Tim Westwood. He claimed, “Do you realise that some of the stuff you play on Saturday nights encourages people to carry guns and knives?' Some people say that's part of the nanny state - I say the opposite."

It Glamourises Drug-Dealing”

Yet another criticism that has haunted hip-hop culture throughout the decades. Alongside the argument that it glamourises violence and portrays a nihilistic nature of many inner-city black youths, drill is often condemned for glamourising drug dealing. Since the rise of UK drill during the 2010s, police have feared the “glamourisation” of the drug trade by rappers could have pernicious effects on many young people. Nonetheless, similar to most elements of rap, from conscious to alternative and gangsta rap, white people have and continue to be the biggest consumers, and this is the content many of them want to hear. As author Bakari Kitwana notes, “The expression `wiggers' was a term that young white kids in the '80s who were into hip-hop--it was a term that was ascribed to them, because in those days, it wasn't fashionable to be a part of hip-hop, and their friends ridiculed many young white kids who were getting into hip-hop, and wiggers was one of the terms that were used to describe them”. Continuities begin to emerge between middle-class white audiences of gangsta rap in the 1980s and drill in present times with a Guardian article from 2019 stating “The popularity of this kind of rap to middle-class audiences is often down to tales of violence, drug-dealing and other assorted criminality being escapist”. Many white people feel drawn to these tales and narratives despite the majority of them never having any experiences these scenarios or even having any connection with these conditions.


"They’re Just Keeping It Real"

Similar to the argument presented by Tricia Rose, rappers are just ‘keeping it real.’ All the controversy goes towards the message of drill music and the overt violent lyrics, but not the poor socio-economic conditions of many inner-city black kids. The inner-city communities continue to be dwindled by government cuts throughout the last decades as more and more youth clubs continue to close. Youth services are a vital sector in the fight against violent crime in these communities, but their funding has declined throughout the years. Hence, it becomes increasingly more difficult to derive these kids from crime. Despite how horrific drill music may sound at times, these are the situations many youths find themselves in. For example, The Evening Standard reported earlier this year that London had 15,080 knife offenses recorded in the capital during the 12 months to the end of last September. However, music offers the opportunity to give rappers and those closest to them an escape route despite their poor conditions.

Nevertheless, the police continue to harbour opportunities for these artists as they did before with the controversial 696 live risk-assessment forms. It could be argued the police were attempted to censor young black, working-class kids trying to better their selves through music. As rapper Konan discussed, “So when, a little over a year ago, the Metropolitan police secured the backing of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to use the Serious Crime Act to prosecute drill artists, I was angry. This means that the police can now treat rappers releasing music in the same way they treat traffickers and terrorists. It means that the police no longer have to prove any link between a song or an artist and a specific act of violence to secure a conviction of “inciting violence.” ‘Keeping it real’ could ultimately have a deleterious outcome on your livelihood where you can find yourself in a position where you cannot release or even make money off music. So, instead of tackling inequality, disenfranchisement, or reversing the decades on neoliberal policies and what this done to the black community (i.e., lack of economic opportunity, the rise of crime, child poverty rates excelling, etc.), the government would rather censor artists for rapping about their realities.

"It’s Just Entertainment" –

At times, we often take rap music too literal as violence and sex sell, and this is not just a factor in rap music but movies and video games. A report of The Independent in 2015 concluded that “advertising and programs using sex or violence would decrease brand memory, brand attitudes and buying intentions. Because people pay more attention to violence and sex, both in programs and in the ads themselves, we thought the actual products being advertised would become less salient.” Although this does not relate to music, the critical point taken here is the fact people pay more attention to violence and sex. Again, likewise with the rise of gangsta rap, with the commercialisation of hip-hop as a whole, we begin to see it sway from its original socio-political message to an overt misogynistic, violent narrative. Rappers, hungry for a record deal, money, and fame, often resort to ‘selling a narrative’ to succeed in the music industry. The result, a facade created that you continually have to conform to stay current and, of course, make money. For those who continuously undermine and belittle drills artists and questions why these rappers are so prominent and are at the forefront of hip-hop, as Kendrick Lamar rapped on Hood Politics’ from his critically acclaimed 2015 album Too Pimp a Butterfly, “Critics wanna mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin, muthafucka if you did then Killa Mike’d be platinum.”

Overall, both sides have valid arguments for their disapproval and approval for drill music. It is evident that drill does glamourise drug dealing to an extent and violence; however, this is what the audience wants to hear and, a lot of the times, the realities many of these rapper’s face. Some blame can be placed upon the record industry to promote this music, but artists must blame the message they portray in their lyrics. But let me know what you guys think, who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong, or is their sense on both sides?

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