Regional styles have played an important role in the development of rap music in the United States. The traditional players have been the east coast, west coast and the south, but Chicago’s “drill” scene is the latest emerging hotspot.
Emerging on the heels of the trap music trend of previous years, Chicago’s newest style of rap rose to international prominence in mid-2012 with the success of rapper Chief Keef’s single “I Don’t Like.” The song was a hit in Chicago but attracted even more attention after it was remixed by Kanye West for his Cruel Summer compilation album. The success of “I Don’t Like” paved the way for more Chicago drill rappers to rise to fame.
Though not the first rap artists to emerge from Chicago — West and Lupe Fiasco being others — Keef and groups such as Glory Boyz Entertainment represent a changing of the guard in the city’s rap scene.
While Fiasco is known for his socially conscious lyrics and West for his experimental style, drill rap is characterized by dark, grimey beats, heavy bass and unflinchingly graphic lyrics about violence and crime that plague the city’s south side.
Chicago’s south side — a poor district with a history of racial segregation — has become notorious in recent years for its increasing levels of gun and gang violence. Because of this, the city has become known as “Chiraq” among locals. The name stems from statistics that show the city’s murder rate is comparable to the number of American deaths in Iraq over the past decade.
In 2013 alone, the city recorded 415 homicides — the lowest number since 1965.
The very name “drill music” reflects these violent themes. “Drilling” is local slang that refers to gang-related actions. Thus drill music is more than a subgenre of rap for the artists — it’s a representation of their surroundings, their upbringing and for some, their day-to-day lives.
Many of the scene’s most prominent artists including Keef and Lil Reese have demonstrated that they have deep ties to the gang violence that plagues Chicago.
In early 2013, 16-year-old Chicago rapper Lil Jojo released a song on YouTube in which he attacked Keef, Reese and other members of the GBE record label as frauds.
In response, Reese exchanged insults with Jojo on Twitter. The argument, which included references to gangs both rappers are thought to be associated with, escalated into a face-to-face confrontation where Reese can be heard heard in a video saying “I’mma kill you” several times. Hours later Jojo was shot and killed.
Keef responded to the news on Twitter with two haunting messages — one of which simply read, “Hahahahahaha” and another which said “It’s sad cuz Jojo wanted to be jus[t] like us.” Though the murder remains unsolved both Jojo’s brother and mother blamed Keef, a GBE associate of Reese’s, for ordering the shooting.
Keef has had his own troubles with the law. In 2011 at age 16, Keef flashed a handgun at a police officer and ended up spending time in juvenile detention. A year later, Keef served another two months in detention for a parole violation after a Pitchfork video feature showed him at a gun range with the magazine’s editors.
Despite the continued success of Chicago’s drill scene, some critics claim the music glorifies the city’s street violence and gang problems.
“Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically, but just the culture he represents. The murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing and you see who’s doing it and who’s perpetuating it — they all look like Chief Keef,” said Fiasco in an interview with a Baltimore-based radio station in 2012.
Further fuelling the controversy are artists like 13-year-old Lil Mouse, whose often-graphic lyrics also contain references to the Gangsta Disciples — a notorious Chicago street gang. Youth involvement with gangs such as the GD has become an increasingly visible issue in recent years. As a result, rappers like Mouse have become the poster children of what many perceive to be a major social problem.
Even with the criticisms, the drill scene doesn’t appear to be slowing down as several of its biggest artists have signed record deals with major labels.
Keef signed a $6 million, three album deal with Interscope Records in 2012 and released his major label debut Finally Rich that December. Reese and GBE affiliate Lil Durk signed with Def Jam records in 2012, but are yet to release albums on the label.
The group’s producer Young Chop also signed a deal with Warner Brothers Records and has produced tracks for big names such as Juicy J, Gucci Mane and Wiz Khalifa.
With more and more drill rappers being signed by major labels everyday, 2014 is set to be a big year for Chicago rap.