Ethan Herlock is on a campaign for there to be Harold’s Chicken locations worldwide.
Drill started in the cold and unforgiving Chicago streets, where its flag bearers rattled white suburban America with their tales of unremitting violence. From there, it spread to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, and shortly thereafter travelled the seas of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, settling in London before resonating in other diverse cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. UK music has historically looked to its western peers for inspiration: Road rap was essentially crunk but from an English perspective; while grime channelled the rapid-fire pulse of UK garage and the rugged cool of US hip-hop. UK drill is no different, a concoction of crunk, American drill, Southern trap, and road rap.
Its genesis traces back 2013 with 67’s “I’m OJ, I Don’t Play” and Stickz x M Dargg’s “It’s Crackin.” The American influence permeates these two tracks; the hook refers to the infamous O.J. case, the Chief Keef-esque adlibs, and Dimzy’s unnatural use of the word “homie” felt awkward at best. It was also prevalent in Stickz and M Dargg’s decision to spit over a Fredo Santana type beat. However, this doesn’t stem from UK rappers lacking direction but rather due to British contemporary genres being amidst a state of transition.
British music hasn’t existed as long as American rap and its relevant subcultures. UK Garage thrived off Thatcher and Major’s Britain, Grime assuaged anxieties at the turn of the millennium and UK drill was a voyeuristic but necessary peek revealing the economic and social damage that Cameron’s government imposed onto inner-city communities. It’s too soon to decide if these genres are “dead,” “dying” or “resurgencing,” it’s merely just growing. However, I spent my whole adolescence listening to Tyler, The Creator, Kid Cudi, Death Grips and MF DOOM convinced that I couldn’t relate to the seminal British anecdotes of Skinnyman, Klashnekoff or Dizzee Rascal. This is why I feel like this column is important, it’s for the youts that feel disconnected with the music outside of their doorstep. In tandem to this, coverage centring UK music is often limited to none and if it is, it’s often poorly executed.
UK drill initially honed its sound in Brixton, but slowly grew its roots. It began to ooze with Jamaican patois and UK lingo like “skeng,” “jakes,” “pagan.” One of the first prominent drill producers, Carns Hill became the US’s incarnation of Young Chop as he utilized chopped up vocals, chime-bells, glockenspiels, and stuttering 808’s. It became the canvas for the ignored to trumpet their dominance. It wasn’t fully fleshed out at the jump, but it was an honest bricolage of black British life.
Skengdo and AM – Back Like We Never Left
Skengdo and AM’s sophomore mixtape, Back Like We Never Left immediately felt like more than just a UK drill album. Just 21, the prolific duo repping Brixton gang #410 are the frontmen for a genre obscured by criticism and censorship. With a discography full of drill classics, they’ve demonstrated the potential to become transcontinental superstars.
Skengdo and AM career continued to consistently release songs, but their gift wasn’t appreciated by the Met Police’s anti-gang department, Trident. In December 2018, the pair became the first rappers in British legal history to receive a jail sentence for performing one of their songs, breaching an injunction handed out to members of #410. Issuing bans in an attempt to silence black art in Britain isn’t new but handing custodial sentences for violating that injunction is unprecedented and exposes Britain’s decades-long obsession with suppressing black voices. Their response to being pushed at the centre of a watershed moment in British legal history?? Shit, we’ll just drop seventeen new tracks. Before the release, they spoke with Labour MP Diane Abbot, and rappers Krept and Konan in the House of Commons debating the censorship of drill.
It’s a daring gamble to continue to release music when your career is threatened by incarceration and kafkaesque legal complications, but it’s one that Skengdo and AM handle with determination, wit and transparency. Through their 17-track mixtape, they mark their indomitability in the scene and a sheltered Britain with the dynamic “Intro:” “They mad because they know we’re back / They mad cause they know the feds on my arse won’t stop me from talking wass.”
Aware of the optics, Back Like We Never Left transcends scoreboards, nihilism and braggadocio. The duo knows their livelihood exists in stark contradiction to a Post-Brexit Britain that blindingly praises herself for its prowess and refuses to listen to any other orator that begs differently. “Bakerloo” starkly portrays the gun-toting and brick-chopping lifestyle. Over dazzling keys, AM and 410’s VI paint the overlooked details that most rappers miss: the paranoia of encountering strangers on street corners, talking to imprisoned friends through a glass panel and putting in rigorous shifts in the trap house to survive.
Although those moments are short-lived, one of the tape’s virtues is how unapologetic it remains. “3Jayslapit” lets Skengdo and AM go back-and-forth, engrossing us in the brutalities of taking an unlucky opp’s eye out and aiming at headtops. But it’s the freestyle bathed in white noise from an incarcerated 410’s Slapit that grips you at the end of the song. South London is packaged into the seventeen tracks and it hits you when you least expect it and while it’s sobering, it’s never drenched in excess sentimentalism.
Over the course of the project, Skengdo and AM take us back to where they hail from: the brutalist housing estate Myatt’s Fields South planted in the London Borough of Lambeth. They paint a Brixton that smells of Jamaican patties, Caribbean vegetables and weed before it became a gentrified hotspot.“Brixton Boy” is a speaker-bursting homage to the beloved area, featuring an out-for-bones verse from Brixton’s very own road rap veteran Sneakbo and an intoxicating hook from Lagos-based singer Oxlade. The tracklist is lengthy but it’s a fleshed-out timeline that references Drill veterans (Stickz and Grizzly), seasoned sophomores (M24, PS), rising newcomers and it’s at its strongest in the juggernaut posse cut “Fully Auto” as 410’s AM, Lil Rass, Sparkz, Blackz and Y.AM go neck to neck. The No-Hook ‘Crash x GBG’ with 150’s (close affiliates with 410) M24 and Stickz is a more sleek posse cut, while “Trapping and Stacking” boasts Rendo’s patois-infused rapping and AM’s baritone growl.
Back Like We Never Left lifts the Boyz In the Hood font for its cover, paying appropriate homage to another brilliant vision from an important voice from a place all often unheard. . By its end, all of the stylistic elements that rocketed them into the limelight are present. They establish themselves as one of the best duos in UK Drill and rep 410. The declaration is loud and unmistakable and we’re left fervently awaiting their next chapter.
Pop Smoke – “Dior (Perm x Skeng Remix)”
Drill vets Perm and Skeng link up again to deliver a remix of Pop Smoke’s “Dior” remix. The exchange of British rappers hopping on a Brooklyn brill track and Brooklynites hopping on UK drill shows a transatlantic cohesion between the two cultural exports. Perm and Skeng bring us to their parts of Clapham that aren’t peppered with exorbitant cocktail bars and middle-class white women drinking G&T on the overground, fuelled by Diane Abbott. Over the 808-Melo produced track; it’s Council block parties while the feds conspicuously watch over you, it’s Trapstar, Christain Dior, backstrap zoots, and Captain Morgan’s and Coke in disposable cups. There’s plenty of duos in UK Drill but Skeng and Perm are often swept under the carpet and this track reminds us that they’re a duo to watch out for.
KO – “Whip”
There are the literary conspiracies that suggest William Shakespeare may have used a ghostwriter. Some say it was Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan writer who was murdered. I think it’s probably a rapper from Homerton who coins himself, “Drilliam Shakespeare.” After dropping 2018’s This Sh#ts Ments, exhibiting off his over-your-head lyricism that isn’t any of that lyrical spiritual miracle content (sorry Joyner Lucas fans.) WHIP finds the potential Elizabethan ghostwriter comfortably in the pockets of the beat. If you think my assertion is hyperbole then listen to WHIP and ask yourself: Has Shakespeare ever made you feel the way you felt when you listen to the part where KO raps the bar: “Could never say they can’t find man / They know where KO be, no Bryant.”
SmuggzyAce – “Different Class”
The conversation orbiting around drill and to be honest, anything British has remained mainly London-centric. Birmingham especially gets the most hate for our accents, our drab town centre (we have an iron bull, fuck off.) SmuggzyAce, the founder of the WOIWOIWOI ad-lib is one of our finest Brum’s exports and solidly put Birmingham on the map within the drill scene. With lyrics that sound like Instagram captions apropos of your weed dealer’s Instagram: “If I bang my stick and you bang your stick, Different class.” He raps with glee on the last syllable in his Brummie accent, SmuggzyAce’s latest offering provides more proof that some of the best talents in Drill are outside of the M24.
Trapx10 – “In Store”
Trapx10 hasn’t stopped rapping since he blew up in the scene with his otherworldly input rate within a year, he’s proven himself a threat to the Drill scene that is arguably diminished by saturation. He dropped a “Mad About Bars,” “Hardest Bars Freestyle” and dropped his debut mixtape Clean Run. There’s no sense of fatigue within the South London rapper and “In Store,” states that on its chest. Trapx10 chooses to hone in crafting ghastly atmospheres with producer Ghosty who kicks off the beat with creeping synths and Trapx10’s unflinching, marble-mouthed delivery draws you into his state of mind with the music ting: “I would like to win a Grammy, that’s live, if not, I’ll be in the trap with grams.”
Vintage Drop: 67 – “Skeng Man”
67 dropped this track during a time where people predicted drill wasn’t a genre worth sustaining — its roots exposed fanboy tendencies in how UK Drill rappers copied Chicago Drill and received negative press for its intoxicatingly dark subject matter. In the heat of suppression (Scribz was hit with an injunction preventing him from performing live) and ridicule from the outsiders, they didn’t fold but instead created one of their most signature tracks. Not only is it their most signature track bar Let’s Lurk (which was heavily inspired by a 86 posse cut), it’s Drill’s answer of Fredo’s “They Ain’t 100,” it’s drill’s answer of Giggs’ “Talkin’ Da Hardest,” it’s that one Drill track that will always gather untameable energy when it’s played and its replay value shows no signs of withering away.
“Skengman” is an essential UK old school drill track because it embraces the rusty scaffolding of Chicago drill, an important facet of the-then fledgling genre. It’s not like they try to hide it neither – there’s Young Chop in the church bells and piano keys that creep up on you, there’s Chief Keef in Liqeuz’s dead-eyed flow, the L’A Capone level of aggression in SJ’s lyrics and thelLate Fredo Santana’s talent for songwriting is reflected in that iconic hook supplied by Dimzy.
However, it was “Let’s Lurk” that blew them into national recognition before it was hijacked by the comedian’s Michael Dappah parody of Drill called “Man’s Not Hot.” Drill before the pre-”Let’s Lurk” did receive a little backlash but it wasn’t until “Man’s Not Hot” grew incredibly viral, earning 339 million YouTube views (while the original video gained a decent 17 million.) The commodification of a genre that barely gained any support left a sour taste in the mouth of the drill community as we saw record labels, rappers and even politicians (yes, an actual MP quoted the lyrics during Parliament) jumping on the bandwagon while 67 had their shows shut down from the police.
Pretty much everything should be open to satire but it’s frightening vulture-like when a parody is heralded as a song that symbolizes the rise of drill (no, it’s not grime for the last time.) Shortly after the viral hype of “Man’s Not Hot” died down, music publications, rappers and music journalists dismissed the genre as quickly as they found it. Skengman fits comfortably in the early chapters of UK drill where it survived through an underground and local buzz. It was scarce but at least it wasn’t disingenuous. Honestly, it’s good for your health to revisit this song because it represents drill as an underground entity filled with respectful fans and tastemakers before Britain tried to swallow it as a commodity, repackage it as a surface-level parody and spit it back out as soon as the virality ceased.