Find Ethan Herlock rocking dreads at whatever uni has the dopest house parties in 2020.
#OFB Lowkey – “Playtime Done”
There’s one thing you’ll notice immediately in Lowkey’s music and it’s not the beguiling Jamaican patois that makes him sound like he drinks Wray & Nephew like water. Instead, it’s his gallivant repping for Tottenham — especially The Broadwater Farm Estate, a set of towers that became immortalized in notoriety after the Broadwater Farm Riot left a police officer dead (it’s also recently been associated with the unstoppable ascent of Original Farm Boys. )
Lowkey evokes that inky, nightmarish wrath in “Playtime Done” with a hardened, gully cadence that makes the OFB stalwart sound vehemently cold-blooded, while conjuring threats to whoever doubts his loyalty and his hood. OFB made 2019 their year despite rising starlet SJ’s incarceration, but 2020 might see the North London collective reinvent their block as a pantheon for maturing one of the most significant collectives in UK Drill.
#Straight3 Rushy x Lano – “Pretty Face”
Initially, I wasn’t sure if you could consider this a *drill* track but in a world where Headie One is cooing over Faith Evans chipmunk-pitched vocals, and Drake spits on Axl Beat and is considered UK Drill, anything goes (rumors say that the OVO sweatshop writers are still trying to write “Pusha T nearly got put in a spliff” bar somewhere in the War Remix ft Nav.) Eventually, I just thought fuck it and decided to write about it in-depth.
“Pretty Face” is Rushy’s fourth out-of-the-park in 2019, tagging along with Straight3 comrade Lano with bars rife of humor, cool and relatability. They both find their footing over the Billz x M1 produced beat that sounds like a conglomeration of the tropical-laced trap and the luxury-suite accustomed drill as they whip up flexes about bussdowns, drinking Magnums, smoking Cali, chopping bricks, and refusing to wife that baddie. It’s a little different from the trappy, intoxicating vibes that oozed out of Rushy’s previous singles: “Trippity,” “ATM” and “Hi Bye!” But everyone on Edgware Road smoking shisha is listening to this tune right now, thinking “Wow these niggas just like me.”
Russ (Splash) – Cookies
“Oh shit Russ did it again!” The marble-mouthed rapper says on his remix to his hit song “Gun Lean” that accumulated 11 million views on YouTube and became the first UK drill to reach Top Ten in the charts. That boast quickly became Russ’ Achilles heel as last year saw a plethora of mediocre loosies – the Gun Lean became impossible to extract from Russ’ career and worst of all, he’s complacent with that. It’s not even annoyingly contagious anymore, it’s just annoying. In “Cookies,” the lyrics are vapid where bars like “Got more bands than my opps and haters” sounds more like insecure trash talk rather than a bold, maximalist show-off, especially when you consider the robbery of his jewellery from a certain West London Drill collective.
Don’t get me wrong, Russ can rap but the odds were always against him. He’s often singled out for ruining Drill for making it “pop-ish” and being the most hated rapper by everyone with a British passport. However, Russ’ current streak of songs expose his exhaustion, struggling to come up with next Drill phenom that he executed wisely after a long “who did it first?” custodial battle with S1 (S1 later dismisses the dance in “I Ain’t the One 2.0”) and staged the set-up for the popular “Gun Lean” after he went viral for collaborating with an Irish rapper that showed no concern for the Queen’s English.
Russ appears to be satisfied as he sits on a throne of cultural significance that starts and ends with metrics and the brief trend of mandem wearing Kenzo Gun Leaning in the room of Pryzm that only plays “urban music” during the onset of 2019. Russ is right, however, securing the bag can be the best rebuff towards every Drill rapper and fan that wish ill will on him, but taking safe bets can be the greatest insult to one’s career too.
Richi (Malistrip) – “Oh Please”
The voice is the centerpiece of rap and in a scene where rappers often cover up with balaclavas, hoodies, scarves and even a Deadpool mask, the voice is reinforced as the sole guide in a concrete habitat where most of its talents are essentially faceless. Richi uses his raspy bark that sounds like it was composed off a no-meat diet of Shisha, Pall Malls and purple drank — his crystal clear diction rising above the baroque violins and pulsating bass slides. “She asks what I love and I told her, lean, codeine,” he admits bluntly, like a proud child of America’s Greatest Songwriter.
It’s not like Richi solely relies on his voice to pique our interests though. His strength as an orator shines as you can’t help but bop your head when the bongo drums charges a double-time pulse midway through the first verse and Richi easily finds the pocket of the beat, rapping about his growing success of self-employment through the vicarious notifications on his brick phone, getting noddy and jeeting, and daring his haters to show their gunpower.
#CGM – “10+1”
You might know CGM as part of Ladbroke Grove’s gang 1011, the gang that got hit with a pretty famous injunction after their famous “Next Up? Freestyle” launched them into the eyes of Britain. Their devil-may-care songs such as “No Hook” and “Play For the Pagans” became a wet dream for Trident workers who spends countless hours deciphering Drill lyrics and the eleven circle of Hell that is the YouTube comments underneath UK Drill videos. After an extensive investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service, 1011 was hit with a lofty injunction after five members were caught by police with weapons that prevented them from mentioning deceased rappers and ordered to gain permission from the MPS to record music and distribute it.
So when 1011 became CGM, it wasn’t a rebrand for aesthetic purposes, it was a middle finger to the establishment when they came out with “No Porkies,” their break-out single as the newly-founded CGM.
That was a year ago and CGM seems to be struggling to navigate under the cumbersome injunction or maybe they just don’t care at all (throwback to certain rappers breaching the conditions of their CBO when they recorded themselves wearing the stolen jewellery off a certain Gun-Leaning rapper. But in the Post-No Porkies arc of the collective, they’re showing strides as well – from multiple plaques to even a Zac-Efron co-sign, they do reward us with their cleanest-sounding work yet.
“10+1” shows CGM doing what they know best: a cut-throat posse cut that shows the depth of *pretty* much every member, spitting a simple 8 bar and weaves out of the Katmandu produced beat. Horrid1 takes the Man of the Match with his take-no-prisoners flow and on the other side of the ring, Striker makes his debut as a transplant ASAP Ferg who’s just gassed to be in the studio. All this track needed was a ZK verse.
Vintage Drop: Harlem Spartans – “Kennington Where It Started” & MizOrMac’s verse on “War”
In 2017, UK Drill was going through a musical explosion: Abra Cadara picked up a MOBO for his drill anthem ‘Robbery,’ helping put North London on the map when Drill was mostly a South London artefact. The work of producers like M1 on The Beat, D Profitt, Quietpvck and Bkay became the new stylistic architecture for rappers to chronicle their nightmarish stories. Kenny Allstar’s freestyle series Mad About Bars with Mixtape Madness continued to garner in millions of views. Manchester’s Samurai (#40) and Birmingham’s Smuggzyace (23 Drillas) were pivotal towards putting their respective cities on the map. If we predicted, that 2017 for Drill at our most optimistic, was going to be the backdrop for an artistic renaissance, and its most sceptical, the controversial genre getting rid of some growing pains. It wouldn’t be myopic to say that the iridescent Kennington-based Harlem Spartans suggested the former.
Released in January 2017, Kennington Where It Started was a love letter to the district sitting on the apex of London Borough of Lambeth, a stone’s throw away from the aggressively-gentrified Brixton and Elephant and Castle. Harlem Spartans gained popularity after an onslaught of drill tracks in 2016 that told twisted capsules that permeated a skill and voice beyond their years. They were associated with drill pioneers Brixton-based 67 but also had a healthy disregard for the genre as they experimented with the parameters of Drill by embracing other genres such in the Afrobeat-tinged “Money on the Road” or trap-ready “Kennington Park Days.” They flexed a preternatural flow that was laser-sharp and striking, but didn’t make them sound like battle rappers on Adderall. This group of ballied up teenagers were the raison d’etre that genuinely made UK drill exciting and unpredictable when naysayers expected the genre to die out within two years or so.
Its blistering popularity went beyond Drake quoting the classical rhetorical question posed by Bis that morphed into the hardest one-liners in UK Drill or Jadon Sancho’s customised Kennington Where It Started shoes. It signified how these young rappers were ushering the new sound of UK drill where their contemporary vignettes on living in the Big Smoke were cinematic and crushing but it was so relatable because it turned the scope inwards, instead of looking towards their American contemporaries for references on how to make drill music. KWIS embodied a new chapter for a group that had the talent and consistency of rising upwards, however, 2017 proved an acrimonious time and irrevocably changed the dynamic of the group too.
In February 2017, MizOrMac and Blanco were caught with weapons in a taxi after an investigation carried by Trident and Area Crime Command and sentenced to 6 and 3 years, respectively. TG Millan was sentenced to 12 years the following year after an intense police car chase while Loski spent the first half of 2017 in prison. Latwaan Griffths, known as SA/Latz was fatally stabbed in July 2017 and Crosslom Davis aka Bis, who took de facto ringleader after most of Harlem Spartans’ manpower got locked up, came through with tunes like “Call It,” “Darling Pardon,” and “Most Wanted Tugs” that prevented Harlem Spartans from getting the B-Side treatment, recently passed this month after a stabbing in Deptford.
Admiring the supreme talent of the young is pointless if we don’t do anything to protect or mentor those voices. It’s depressing to realise the prelapsarian tensions in their work, teenagers having to grow up too fast and keep a steel face in the face of uncertainty and gloom. For every lyric that championed postcode nationalism, their love for scoring points, there’s a lyric about their collective love of Tennessee Chicken (their local chicken shop), Section Boyz, Anime, Jason Bourne or a stanza that exhibited the traumas of living in a borough where 36% of children live in poverty, such as MizOrMac’s crushing verse on “War.”
“Tensions days with funds, school beefs I had hoodie and gloves,
K on the K you’re dumb,
We grip toys like Woody and Buzz,
Samurai sword and guns,
I grew up in the Harlem slums,
Trapped in the trap with packs and cats,
I’m trapped in the trap with drugs,
Now look at what we’ve become.”
All of which builds up to a deafening epiphany: “I think the feds want me dead, red dot to my chest, telling me keep my hands to my legs.”
I’m not going to act like drill is innocuous in the way that it chronicles mostly black men; the genre itself is inherently violent and often a loosely thrown-in misogynistic and homophobic slur can turn one’s stomach. I can’t defend it either, nor do I have all the answers to the epidemic of young adults getting engrossed by the underbelly of inner-city decadence, but imagine being lionized by out-of-touch youts who can’t tell the difference between the sound of fireworks launching and a gunshot, demanding gang members to “ride out” for Bis or Latz via IG/YouTube comments and in the same breath belittle Loski (who was reportedly arrested last year for reasons unknown) for throwing away his music career also via IG/YouTube comments.
Imagine the media tabloids that only talk about drill rappers if they can use their music as unimpeachable testimony that drill single-handedly increases violence while conveniently omitting the lyrics that double as an ugly illumination of the school-to-prison pipeline, corrupt institutions and aggressive austerity that keeps the doors locked, throws away the key and blames them for trying to break in. The same notion of cognitive dissonance that allows Britain to rightfully praise Sancho for transcending the Kennington blocks to playing for England while demonizing anyone that doesn’t fit their rags-to-riches narrative.
We can’t continue to persuade ourselves that drill artist are causing the societal plagues rather than documenting it, “instead of repairing the desolate environments drill rappers describe in their lyrics, the neo-liberal state accuses residents for the deterioration in their surroundings; often attributing such decline to a lack of civility and a cultural propensity for gang violence.” (Fatsis, 2019, pg 1302.) However, we can’t get to that stage of repairing those environments if our conversations orbiting around them are missing two crucial elements that we desperately need to plant our foot in the right direction: empathy and nuance.
The Drop: Best of 2019 Playlist
Tired of your mates playing Aitch? Tired of the haters that complain about drill dying but think Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party” is the best UK Drill song? Well, then consider this a Christmas gift because there’s so many UK Drill tracks, rappers and little subgenres that I, unfortunately, couldn’t write about or had to omit but deserves a listen so I composed a playlist of hardest UK Drill tracks released last year.