By: Daniel Hodgman
Chief Keef (Keith Cozart) burst onto the scene in 2012 as one of Chicago hip-hop’s premier figures conspicuously driven by a new emerging sound. At the time, Keef was an Internet sensation from the Englewood neighborhood and a product of hip-hop’s swelling and congealing drill scene. Defined by dark nihilistic trap-influenced production and auto-tuned verses recapping the daily on Chicago’s streets, Chief Keef and the drill scene as a whole not only took the Southside of Chicago by storm, but hip-hop as well. By 2013, Keef was part of XXL’s Freshman Class, signed to Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad Records, and on his 18th birthday he released the highly anticipated Bang, Pt. 2 mixtape, further pushing his name and influence around the spectrum. Other artists from this scene such as Fredo Santana, Lil Herb, Lil Durk, Lil Reese, King Louie, and Young Chop, have walked similar paths, and as of 2015, drill still stands as a major Chicago staple that has attracted the likes of Kanye West, Common, and Drake, while major labels continue to poach these Windy City artists for contracts.
With everything drill brings, there’s a lot of controversy behind the sub-genre, and it isn’t all that complicated. The scene itself is greatly defined by rough and raw lyricism that casts a dark and violent shadow on the listener. The subject matter stretches from hitting enemies in the streets to rapping about “bitches” and “thots” to glorifying murder and living a gritty lifestyle. The production that backs these artists takes from the new-wave trap-scene that made artists like Gucci Mane and T.I. successful. And although drill beats are usually slower in tempo, playing almost like a sub-genre to trap itself, there are 808s and southern sounds there as well to draw a clear relation. Mix this with the deadpan and auto-tuned lyricism of these artists and you now have a unique mixture on your hands, something that not everyone stands for. Local Chicago rapper Rhymefest was quoted as saying, drill is “the theme music to murder.”
On “’Til I Meet Selena,” King Louie raps about “riding around like Rambo”:
“Niggas ain’t nothing/ They just talking shit up/ Catch ‘em while he walking/ Now they chalking shit up/ Get your ass a motherfucking candle, memorial/ Put ‘em on that motherfucking table, cut em open, autopsy/ T-shirt R.I.P.”
If you look at hip-hop’s recent past, it’s clear that it has gravitated away from the gangsta rap characteristics that legends N.W.A. and Scarface grasped and relayed to the public so well. With Chicago’s drill scene, we now have this new-age gangsta rap sub-genre, with a completely different sound somehow trying to have the same takeaway as hip-hop’s past. With that you have to ask: does Chicago’s drill scene merely reinforce negative hip-hop stereotypes? Or does it reflect the voices of these neighborhoods and accurately portray America’s ongoing problem with segregation, social, and political injustice?
A couple of years ago (2012), Chicago rapper Joseph “Lil Jojo” Coleman, who was only 18, was shot and killed in Chicago. He was a drill artist, but also one that was feuding with Chief Keef. After the news of Lil Jojo’s death, Keef took to twitter in a joking manner: “Its Sad Cuz Dat Nigga Jojo Wanted To Be Jus Like Us #LMAO.”
This event prompted even more heads to turn, and the drill backlash was gaining steam. Hip-hop critic Henry Adaso went as far as to call Keef “garbage wrapped in human skin,” and there were police investigations linking Keef and his crew to Lil Jojo’s death. Compounded on all of this was the name association game, which quickly spread. With mentions of Chief Keef, drill, or even Chicago hip-hop, people from around the hip-hop world looked at this with anger, often ignoring the genre altogether. But with all of this, people missed the bigger picture.
It’s not that hard to look at drill and raise your hand, object, and walk away. In fact, as a hip-hop head still growing up and learning the whole enchilada, this is what I initially did myself. If you look at drill’s deadpan, often mumbled bars of violence and hatred without metaphor, you could deduce that the repetitive nature of such music is careless and without meaning. To the casual listener, you could throw on a down-tempo trap beat and some lyrics that spray about “pistol toting” (“I Don’t Like” –Chief Keef) and dismiss it. In fact, that would be the easy and normal thing to do. But past the surface it’s important for not just detractors, but all of hip-hop, to look at drill from an introspective standpoint, and where it comes from, because there is a direct correlation between drill music and where Chicago stands in the hot bed of America.
As with any city, Chicago takes pride in identity and self-worth. It’s strong here though, and just like cities such as Detroit and Oakland, Chicago manifests itself in a “power to the people” attitude. Of the thousands of labels, record heads, Kanye West’s, and big wigs crawling back to Chicago to pick up and sign Chief Keef or Lil Herb, none of them were loyal to the artists before the local Chicagoans. This included a mixture of children relaying the lyrics in the halls of Chicago Public Schools, to the kids on the corner, hoping one day to brand themselves like their idols and escape a plight they never asked for. In the neighborhoods where drill originated (Southlawn, Englewood, Gresham) and the neighborhoods under similar circumstances, drill isn’t so much an anthem for murder, but rather an anthem for their communities. Tremaine “Tree” Johnson is a rapper from Englewood, and although he isn’t directly tied to the drill scene, he takes note of its popularity, especially when talking about Chief Keef.
“He looks like us, he sounds like us, and his lingo is what we say and how we talk.”
It’s with this swelling appreciation and connectedness to identity that has Southside teenagers gravitating towards drill, but is that enough to justify its position in hip-hop?
The imagery and content for one is still a standalone case for shutting the genre down in its entirety. But if you look at the actual artists coming from this scene, they’re simply figureheads resonating with a growing population of Chicago suffering from the city’s social and political issues that continue to keep these certain communities down and out. If you look at why school kids in Englewood are blasting Lil Durk, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that to them Lil Durk is simply one of them, someone who has and is still suffering from the growing systemic issues surrounding this city?
The counterpoint to this would be that drill helps influence the city’s violence. Many have even considered drill to be the main proponent. And although drill has pushed the term “Chiraq,” there’s a reason to look past this. First, Chicago’s history of violence stands long before drill was even a thought. If you want to count statistics, just look at Chicago’s murder rate now compared to the 90s. When Chief Keef was born in 1995, Chicago accounted for 828 murders. In 2014, the rate was at 432 (what’s hidden behind these statistics is that the homicides in Chicago are happening more frequently within certain neighborhoods, which is becoming more of a problem). The open-and-shut case however is this: before the emergence of Chief Keef and drill, Chicago’s murder rates were for the most part ignored by outsiders and the city’s dwellers alike. However, with the rise of these artists from the drill scene, people are taking notice. It may not be in the brightest sense that drill is being the target for this, but without it, there would never have been a spike in national awareness regarding Chicago’s ongoing problem with violence.
On Lil Herb’s “4 Minutes Of Hell, Part 4,” we can see how drill’s artists resonate with something bigger than just the music. With a tone that bombards louder than the usual drill artist, over a beat that supplements more than just an 808 kick, Lil Herb goes off:
“I’m from the jungle, lions apes and gorillas, lions the police/ Nigga we the apes and gorillas, go ape and gorilla/ Boy, don’t turn your face on a killer/ Fuck the system man, we going back to racism nigga/ Look, the department suffer from fake-ism nigga/ Black police try not to notice, like they ain’t killing niggas and hate killing niggas/ Seen a million bodies, I done shed a thousand tears/ Niggas just turn thousandaires, been selling rocks a thousand years.”
With thunderous force, Lil Herb continues, reflecting on where he is (“posted on that curb, boy”), what could come of him and his surroundings (“it’s a lot of times when I know I coulda been threw in a hearse”), and his direct response to the situation he’s been put in (“so I’m dropping 4s in my soda everytime I’m through with a verse”).
More than most, “4 Minutes Of Hell, Part 4” is drill’s shove-it to the critics and outsiders. It’s no more a throwaway track than it is a window to the looking glass on some of Chicago’s ignored neighborhoods. “And I won’t let that finish me,” Herb catches on the aforementioned track. “Cause I got too much energy.”
Whether you condone the violent and volatile nature of drill, or look at it from a lens that dismisses the very notion of it, there’s no denying the genre’s identity and place within Chicago and its ongoing evolution in the hip-hop sphere. What may be “garbage wrapped in human skin” to some is the daily life and grind for others, a small testament to those who don’t have a chance to share it over the airwaves. And despite drill’s push on negative stereotypes, such as the term “Chiraq” and gang violence, at the very core its music is a representation of those alienated and ignored by this country. Whereas news outlets would rather report about these neighborhoods from outside city lines, drill artists are there living it, and their music is the prompt.