The rappers who make drill rap aren’t glorifying violence, but rather dramatizing and amplifying the real world they live in. That world is a desperate one where gun violence thrives. It’s a world where the most ferocious rivals can have deadly feuds that leave dozens of young people dead. And a place where kids often have few avenues for hope, except for music.
In Brooklyn, 22Gz and Sheff G channeled the daily realities of gang culture to make urgent, visceral music that resonated with their communities. Unlike the rappers who defined the Chicago or UK drill scenes that came before them, Brooklyn’s artists weren’t attempting to glamorize violent lifestyles. Instead, they were describing the tragic ways of life that plague many of the city’s neighborhoods and creating a space for young people to express their frustrations and anxieties.
Then, in 2021, a 27-year-old from Queens named Shawny Binladen flipped the script on New York drill. He may not have kicked off the movement, but he has become the face of it. He was the first to use sampling—a practice foundational to hip-hop—to reimagine drill. Shawny’s “My Everything” and Kay Flock’s XXXTentacion-sampling song “Being Honest” put the genre on the national map.
Since then, a whole host of rappers have picked up the slack. In just a few years, the genre has gone from being the domain of underground locals to a global phenomenon that has helped catapult stars like Chief Keef, Lil Reese, and King Louie into the mainstream. It’s a trend that’s only been accelerated by the rapid rise of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.
But the genre has also come under criticism, especially from educators who worry that it glorifies violence and contributes to a culture of retaliation. In this episode of WHYY’s “Stop and Frisk: Revisit or Resist,” South Philly High School teacher Armond James discusses his concerns about drill music, the depictions of violence in it, and how some Philadelphia artists and community activists are working to change the message.
Drill rap has been criticized for its depictions of violence, but a lot of that comes down to the fact that it’s coming from kids who have been raised in environments that are steeped in gang violence. As such, they have a natural tendency to see that kind of music as an invitation to fight.
Nevertheless, he believes that if young people hear that the music they love can bring them to the top and give them the opportunity to make money and build a career, that could help them turn away from violence. Ultimately, he feels that’s the most important part of the message that drill artists are trying to convey. drill rap radio