In June of 2018, five members of London’s 1011 drill music group pled guilty to conspiracy to commit violent disorder after they were found armed with machetes. According to police, the group was planning a retaliation on rival drill group 12World, who filmed a video of themselves verbally abusing and threatening the grandmother of a 1011 member. 1011’s convicted members were sentenced to time behind bars and issued Criminal Behaviour Orders designed to temper their involvement with drill music. The orders placed restrictions on what the artists could say in their music, who they could mention, and their ability to meet and make music publicly without police permission, among other things.
While this level of musical censorship is unheard of in the United States, it’s becoming increasingly common in the UK. 1011 isn’t the only group to find their musical creativity stifled by the police: a growing number of drill artists are finding themselves in hot water with the law as more CBOs are being requested by and granted to authorities. To understand these rulings it’s important to discuss what drill is and why this specific genre of hip-hop has caused such an uproar in the UK.
Drill originated in Chicago in the early 2010s. Unlike contemporary and gangsta rap, drill lyrics don’t focus on obtaining wealth or integrate fancy wordplay and punchlines: in drill the artist’s goal is to reflect the reality of life on the streets. Brandon Tatum, a radio host from Chicago’s southside explained to The Epoch Times, “They are just saying what they’ve been through, telling their struggle on how they have to live their life.” With a slower tempo, less emotional vocals (often created with the aid of auto tone à la Soulja Boy), and a more simple flow, drill feels gritty. Artists in the scene are usually young--Chief Keef was 16 when he signed to Interscope and Lil Mouse only 13 when Lil Wayne signed him--making the themes of violence and the mentality of the genre even more striking. At its simplest description, drill reflects the reality of the violence and poverty stricken environment that its artists reside in.
Soon after, the UK created its own brand of drill. Borrowing heavily from the Chicago scene, UK drill maintains the nihilistic vibe and young artists, but ups the tempo and ditches autotune. The music tends to be hyper-localized to areas with violent and low socioeconomic standing, causing the UK drill scene to orbit around existing gangs, their loyalties, and in-person rivalries. Tracks often name-drop victims of stabbings and openly disparage other gangs and drill groups. In fact, scoreboards online often track stabbings and violations of drill rappers, creating a culture both online and off preoccupied with violence. Where US drill aims to reflect a violent and bleak reality, many argue that UK drill aims to shape or incite that reality.
While these accusations may sound far-fetched, evidence supporting the theory has started to grow. In August of 2018, Siddique Karmara, 23, was stabbed to death outside of the London apartments he shared with his parents. The young man, who rapped under the pseudonym Incognito, was a member of drill group Moscow 17 and had recently been cleared of murder charges. Moscow 17 traded diss tracks on YouTube with rival group Zone 2, literally asking them to “check the scoreboard.” Another Moscow 17 member, Rhyhiem Ainsworth Barton, 17, died at the same location as Kamara last May from fatal gunshot wounds. These are only two instances of many violent crimes committed in the name of drill rap feuds. Music producer Dean Anthony Pascale-Modeste, 21, was stabbed 14 times after being surrounded by men on mopeds as he headed to a drill recording session. He died of his injuries. 150 frontman Grizzy survived getting stabbed in the face following spats with 67 and other groups.
In reaction to these crimes, Scotland Yard asked YouTube to remove some 98 drill rap videos from the site. Police argue that the videos allow drill groups to taunt and excite one another to the point of in-person violence. While some of these videos have been taken down, YouTube refused to move all of them.
With such an extreme effort towards censorship, one question remains: is drill to blame for gang violence in the UK? According to a statement Kamara made before his death, “The crime that’s happening right now, music does influence it. You’ve got to put your hands up and say drill music does influence it.” He continued, “Knife crime and gun crime has been going on way before drill music … 10 years, 20 years, people were still getting cheffed up [attacked with knives]. There [are] many ways to solve it – you can bring out youth clubs, you can bring out many other things, invest money in other things to help the community, but you don’t want to do that – you just want to use an excuse with drill music.”
Kamara deftly identified the issue with censoring drill artists. Drill is literally the sound of the streets, and policing drill rap only bandages the symptoms of much larger and devastating problems: poverty, gang culture, violence, and a lack of resources. Without a concerted effort to treat the socio-economic obstacles UK drill artists face, the culture reflected in drill will always live on, even if the genre is stamped out.