When Fredo Santana died in early 2018, the hip hop community reacted with an outpouring of tributes. However, for many consumers of mainstream rap, this dramatic show of support for the Chicago rapper’s tragic death came as a surprise. Why did the death of this lesser-known drill rapper trigger a slew of social media support from rap superstars like Travis Scott, Drake, Gucci Mane and others, or prompt Playboi Carti to break down in tears mid-concert? The micro-genre of rap known as drill often flies under the radar when compared to more well-known styles in the now wildly popular domain of hip hop. Indeed, drill rap has fallen off into relative obscurity since its golden days of the early 2010s. Yet the wide-ranging effects of the genre continue to be felt in the trends towards melodic slurring, lyrical simplicity and media-based diffusion of modern rap.
Drill rap’s emergence in some of the most violent and economically depressed areas of the south and west sides of Chicago casts a sobering light on the genre. Drill differentiated itself from contemporary rap with its dark nihilism, casual apathy for almost everything and a tendency to emphasize glory and fame far less than most other hip hop genres of the time. The grassroots beginnings and authentic nature of the genre betray the unfortunate reality that even the most successful in drill have likely suffered extensive mental trauma from experiences that make up much of the basis for their music. Multiple drill rappers and their associates have fallen victim to gun violence such as Lil Jojo, L’A Capone, Young Pappy and close Chief Keef affiliates Blood Money and Capo. These traumatizing socioeconomic pressures are almost certainly the basis for drill’s characteristic hatefulness for everything around them and defiant indifference towards the world.
Despite the seriously alarming context of drill, the genre’s influences are widespread and can be felt throughout modern rap. Although drill itself was inspired by early trap artists, particularly Gucci Mane and Future, the style has in turn influenced contemporary trap, most notably, “mumble” rap, in profound ways. Before the breakout of Chief Keef and the influential Atlanta trap artists that inspired him, mainstream hip hop was still dominated by gangsta or popular rap, usually defined by clear verses exulting over the wealth, power and women that come with fame. Despite the numerous influential and talented rappers of the time, the field of hip hop was still comparatively narrow in scope, dominated by similar sounds and dictated by major labels. The early 2010s marked the start of a silent revolution, with trap and drill rappers leading the movement.
Much of drill rap’s initial popularity can be attributed to its interconnectedness with the rise of social media. In fact, most drill rappers have fairly low album sales in comparison to their social media activity and Youtube views. Chief Keef’s initial success came from the unique lo-fi videos that captured the imaginations of a new generation; focusing on aesthetics and vibe rather than lyrical content, which complimented his numerous reckless and rebellious media stunts and created a truly larger-than-life character. Keef was one of the first artists in the game to fully realize the potential of media personality and representation for musical success, and cultivated a distinct image. He and others were the precursors to the now wildly popular SoundCloud rappers dominating modern streaming services over seven years later. Viral videos by Tay-K, Bobby Shmurda and others replicate the homemade video style characteristic of drill, while artists like Ski Mask the Slump God and XXXTentacion have expanded on the lo-fi sound production of grassroots subgenres like drill.
Drill rap has touched the hip hop world extensively, with its casual references to violence and simple verse style becoming the norm in new mainstream trap and mumble rap. The most audibly perceivable contribution of drill to mumble rap is likely the style of slurred and mumbled singing Keef and his peers pioneered years before “mumble” rap was even coined. This marked a key shift in hip hop towards a lyrical focus on melody and thematic energy rather than traditionally clear and meaningful verses.
Despite the direct and simplistic style of drill lyrics, the slang and lyrical styles of drill are still profoundly relevant. According to Genius, the first lyrical mention of the phrase “no cap” was by Chicago rapper Gino Marley in 2011’s “Just in Case,” a phrase that has since become a mainstream rap staple. Perhaps an even more notable contribution of drill rap is its liberal use of ad-libs. Keef and other drillers’ extensive and now famous use of the phrases “gang,” “bang bang,” “ay” and other ad-libs have extensively shaped the music of superstar rappers like the Migos, Playboi Carti, Young Thug and other mainstream trap artists.
Drill rap was the spark that helped jumpstart a rap revolution, from the formulaic mainstream hits of the 2000s to the wildly popular and diversified media-driven rap that has taken over the industry in the past few years, starting a new generation of rap based on aesthetic and distinctive personalities. Drill rap has provided a dark but uniquely authentic take on hip hop, with an impressive resume of influenced artists. Rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Juice WRLD, Tay-K, Lil Pump, Tekashi 6ix9ine, 21 Savage and even Kanye West have admitted the influence of Chief Keef on their music. While artists like Lil Durk and G Herbo continue to produce successful projects, the short lived reign of drill rap in mainstream culture has meant that the genre has increasingly been lost in the obscurity of the expanding hip hop. Keef and many of his early peers seem content to keep their current low-profile in music, and while the glory days of the movement may be over, these young artists from Chicago briefly but decisively left their mark on the music industry with a compellingly indifferent and excitingly rebellious take on the dynamic genre of hip hop.
John Wootton is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.