After the police murder of George Floyd, amidst waves of Black Lives Matter protests, regret and outrage washed across the conscience of America. Yet again, the lasting hangover of slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation was laid bare.
Protestors sought a voice for the voiceless. But there has been a voice. Hip-hop music has long exposed the injustice of African-American experiences of poverty, over-policing, mass incarceration and violence in song. Nearly one decade ago, Chicago’s version of these songs came to be known collectively as ‘drill’.
Drill was not only a soundtrack to the way that racism and economic forces have dovetailed to oppress black lives in the contemporary American city. It was the mobilising anthem of artists harnessing new technologies to tell their stories at all costs, and survive.
Like the Black Lives Matter movement, drill cross-pollinated to major Western cities around the world via shared videos on the internet. It caught fire amongst the young, poor and demonised; digital natives connected by a common consciousness. It forced governments to sit-up, pay attention and even legislate. And it rebooted how the music industry works.
On 14th September 2012, an 18-year-old rapper known as Lil Jo Jo was shot dead in his South Side neighbourhood of Englewood. His murder marked a watershed moment in the evolution of gang politics and contemporary music. For some months, drill rap had been bubbling away in the city’s most downtrodden, violent nooks. Using his musical voice, Jo Jo helped to instigate a civil war, then got caught in the crossfire.
He was navigating a treacherous Catch-22. A music career has long been a route out of poverty for African-American young men in America. But to succeed in the early drill ecosystem, artists had to take unprecedented risks. Jo Jo needed to provoke his rivals in a song, expressed via a bold video uploaded onto YouTube. On one hand, he would attract fans and elevate towards fame and riches. On the other, he would play with fire.
“The opps were blowing up off rap,” explains Jo Jo’s older brother Swagg Dinero, or John Coleman Junior. The ‘opps’, his enemies, included a 16-year-old rapper making music under the name of Chief Keef. Keef lived in a housing project called Parkway Gardens, or ‘O-Block’. His crew ‘300’ had become the top-rank drill outfit. His music was the first of its kind to reach beyond the city walls. He’d gained an international following. Others followed his lead.
“That shit looked easy. So we was all like, damn, if his shit blowing up, we might actually become rappers, too! It was motivation for us. Of course, do we understand marketing, and do we understand motherfucking controversy? Yeah, we understand that! So it was like, are we gonna support the n*****? Hell nah! We on the other side. So really, it wasn’t a hating thing. There was method to the madness,” Dinero clarifies.
Drill music had arrived as a vehicle of social mobility for young people on the South Side. To catch a ride, rappers had to be online influencers with the know-how to go viral, balancing a strategic game theory with a fearless embrace of chaos.
“It’s disrespectful. That’s the one unique quality drill has,” says Seuss Leroy, one of the most influential drill videographers in Chicago. “Jo Jo was calling out a whole gang, then he got killed. A lot of people have died for this. The reality is that you couldn’t blow up in the scene if you weren’t disrespectful. You had to be disrespectful to get your name out there. You still have to be. To make it out of the hood, you have to risk your life.”
Englewood is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Chicago. It is amongst the most neglected, segregated and demonised urban areas in the United States. Unkempt pavements are lined by as many empty lots and boarded-up homes as inhabited ones. Public infrastructure has been dismembered and commerce drained.
Reporting for The Atlantic in his 2014 seminal essay, ‘The Case for Reparations’, referring to Chicago, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: “it can be said that blacks and whites do not inhabit the same city.” He quoted Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson: “Chicago’s impoverished black neighborhoods—characterized by high unemployment and households headed by single parents—are not simply poor; they are “ecologically distinct.”” Englewood is one such neighbourhood.
Across the 1950s and 1960s, African-Americans arriving in Chicago from the American South were prevented from purchasing properties in white neighbourhoods. Racist segregation was a formal part of urban planning. “Redlining” denied mortgage loans to black people. “Block-busting” scared whites into selling their properties at knockdown prices by convincing them that blacks were moving in. When whites flew to other areas, black people were sold overpriced properties under exploitative contracts by preying real estate agents.
“Millions of dollars were taken every day from the black community for decades. The most ugly violence in Chicago has been driven by the phenomenon of people seeking a home,” says Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute, a civic journalism organisation on Chicago’s South Side.
“Because Chicago was the major site of migration from the South, it is so close to slavery. I know people who lived in public housing here who arrived after being driven off the land of sharecroppers by the KKK. At first, black people could come and get a job easily. They arrived in the centre of the city. But then they gradually moved south, area by area, as segregation was enforced. This is the context for everything that has happened since,” he continues.
Between 1950 and 2013, Englewood and West Englewood lost 67% and 44% of their populations, respectively. Those who could leave, left. In 2017, attempting to halt the exodus, former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel authorised the selling of thousands of vacant properties for $1-a-piece. It didn’t work. Deprivation and violence plagues the lives of many who remain.
“Growing up on the South Side was dangerous, treacherous,” says drill rapper Tay600. “It’s like a Third World country. You are living in a war. You wake up to the smell of gun smoke every day. You go from one day being a normal kid playing in the park to carrying bangers and getting shot at. Yesterday you might not have worried about getting killed. Then suddenly you’re worried about getting killed every five minutes.”
The Gangster Disciples and Black Disciples, or GDs and BDs, are two of Chicago’s most infamous gangs. They formed in the 1960s as African-American citizens self-organised to protect themselves against a system pitted against them. Their members existed under the ‘Folk Nation’, an alliance brought together in 1978 by the chairman of the GDs, Larry Hoover. They were rivalled by the ‘People Nation’. For decades, Chicago’s streets were split into these two supercamps.
“In the 1980s, gangs were ‘corporate’. Their leaders called themselves ‘chairman’ or ‘CEO’,” says Professor Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist at Northwestern University. By the turn of the millennium, however, “the corporate system wasn’t benefiting people any more. Their organisational structures were worn down.”
Towards the end of the 1990s, several gang leaders were sent to prison, leaving a power vacuum at the top of the underworld. The drug game of the 2000s, formerly bolstered by the rise of crack cocaine, became less secure for young men trying to climb its precarious ladder. The biggest housing projects, such as the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green, were razed to the ground. Later, over fifty of the city’s public schools, mostly in black and Latino neighbourhoods, were shut down, scattering students from warring territories across the city. Papachristos argues that these form a mesh of reasons for why gang identities of the past have lost their significance.
Meanwhile, young people on the South Side found new ways to self-identify, communicate and gain influence on the internet. Gang territories became fragmented, shrinking to the size of blocks. They converted into volatile online feuds, and splintered into hundreds of warring sets. Everything became hyperlocal—not least the music being made. The GDs and BDs alliance frayed.
“We’re really not supposed to be into it with each other. GDs and BDs on the same team!” Swagg Dinero explains. “In my dad’s time, if you not Folks, we don’t fuck with you. The Folks supposed to all be on the same team. But now it’s not not even like that, man. That structure has completely gone.”
In 2012, Swagg Dinero and Lil Jo Jo represented ‘Bricksquad 069’, a GD set from 69th Street, roughly 2km from Chief Keef and 300’s O-Block.
Events which would lead to Jo Jo’s death were catalysed after the brothers were listening to the car radio. “L’s Anthem” came on—a song by Lil Durk, an associate of 300, now one of the most successful rappers in America. “Bricksquad, I say fuck ‘em,” went Durk’s provocation. Jo Jo insisted on hitting back in a song.
“I wasn’t advising him not to make the song, because I was like: “I’m with whatever you with, lil bro.” But I did try to get him to think ahead a bit. I knew at some point, someone was gonna catch feelings,” Dinero recalls.
Jo Jo went to the studio and recorded “BDK (3HUNNAK)”. The first half of the title stood for ‘Black Disciple Killer’. The bracketed second half meant ‘300 Killer’. “These n*****s claim 300, but we BDK!” clapped the chorus.
Jo Jo was firing a double-barrel: one at an historic enemy gang, represented by thousands of members; the other at the most popular drill rappers. It was the first time the letter “K”, an offensive colloquialism, was placed in a song title—let alone twice. In one verse Jo Jo responded to Lil Durk: “Durk say, “Fuck Bricksquad,” so I can’t wait to catch him.” In preemptive damage control he also rapped: “This ain’t a diss song, this is just a message.”
In early drill fanship the music releases of gang sets were followed by Chicago high school students sharing gossip, tracks and memes online. But in 2012 rap enthusiasts across the globe began to track Bricksquad, STL, 300 and others on YouTube. Quite suddenly, faraway onlookers had access to the soundtracked warfare of America’s most infamous city. Through drill, bloody disputes became a spectator sport. Its drama played out in video views, likes and comments, and spats on Twitter and Facebook—as well as violence on the street corner.
“It was like the NBA, all basketball teams got their star. Bricksquad was already poppin’ in the streets. So the fans was like: Oh, you rapping now, too? We actually gonna listen to your music, because we’re fans of your team. And we know who the star of your team is!” explains Dinero. Bricksquad’s star was Lil Jo Jo.
“Jo Jo was always a leader, even for people older than him. His word was respected, his jokes was laughed at. Back then, if you know what’s going on in the streets at all, bro—you know about Chicago, about who’s really drilling, who’s really outside, on their block—then you know Lil Jo Jo been out here since he was 10, 11. That mo’fucker was a dawg at shootin’ dice! This was the little boy you gotta look out for in the dice game. You gotta be like: woah, who let this little n***** in? But really, you scared of him! You’d do anything to get him out the game.”
‘BDK (3HUNNAK)’ went viral, gaining hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Jo Jo became a wanted man—for good and for bad.
Days before a mass teachers’ strike delayed the start of the academic year, on 4th September 2012, Lil Jo Jo tweeted a selfie video whilst being driven past O-Block. The 34-second clip shows him shouting profanities from an open window at 300 rapper Lil Reese. “Jo Jo, I’ma kill you!” Reese yelled back from the curbside. That afternoon saw a flurry of back-and-forth taunts on social media. “lmao im on 069 Stop The Fuckin flexin” tweeted Jo Jo when he’d returned to his block, drawing out his opps to step up and try their luck.
Within hours he was dead, murdered in a drive-by shooting. Like most cases in Chicago, especially for African-American victims, the murder remains unsolved.
That evening, Chief Keef’s Twitter account mocked Coleman’s passing. “Hahahahahhahahahahahahahaahh AAHAHAHAHA #RichN****Shit” he tweeted first. “Its Sad Cuz Dat N**** Jojo Wanted To Be Jus Like Us #LMAO” came next. He later claimed his account was hacked and denied any involvement in the killing.
“The city divided,” recalls Dinero. “People were like: I’m BDK! I’m GDK! It still happens to this day.” #BDK and #GDK (‘Gangster Disciple Killers’) became trending hashtags on Twitter. Mourners at Jo Jo’s funeral danced and sang to the chorus of his anthem in the street.
Bricksquad 069 took on a new moniker: ‘Jo Jo World’. This relabelling happens when a gang loses one of its members (the same ritual is now used by mourning crews of young men in London).
“They thought they had to get this n***** out the way,” says Dinero, his voice ringing with lasting pride. “Jo Jo was a threat to their career and their life. His music was gonna be better than theirs. And the boy was dangerous, man.”
Between 2011 and 2012, Chicago drill music was busy redrawing the power map of American hip-hop. Atlanta, in the south—home to icons like OutKast, T.I. and Gucci Mane, and the term given to modern rap’s all-pervading aesthetic, “trap”—lost its capital status.
“It was teenagers from Chicago, real killers, turning the camera on,” says preeminent drill producer, DJ L.
The sound of drill is characterised by heavy basslines, tinny drums, haunting melodies and boastful, hypermasculine lyrics. Prior to 2011, local teenagers had been watching rappers like King Louie and Pac-Man release music onto YouTube. The word “drill”—to do a drill is to go out to attack opps with guns—coalesced around the binding menace of their style, giving it a punchy brand name.
“We didn’t set out to make a subgenre of music,” says Doe, King Louie’s manager. “Before then you would try to make hit records. You wouldn’t waste your time trying to be street. But this is what made people love it: drill wasn’t polished, there was no make-up artist at the video shoot, there was no permits. It was the rawness of Chicago.”
DJ L became known for forging instrumentals with clackety snare drum loops, like a machine gun firing in slow motion. His style reflects the influence of juke and footwork—two fast-paced dance music genres that arose in Chicago’s black communities in the 1990s. More importantly, it also channels the rumble of church marching bands.
In the mid-20th century, hundreds of thousands of African-American families arrived in Chicago from Mississippi. Many Chicagoans still see Mississippi as their spiritual home. The city’s big churches and their marching bands have since allowed black citizens to connect to their southern roots: “I always played the marching drums at church. That’s why my beats are so percussion heavy. The snare drum is the way I understand music.” Through DJ L’s drums, this deep lineage lives on.
And they travel: L’s drums have since been repurposed to form the blueprint of the UK drill scene in London, a sound now being emulated by drillers in cities across the planet.
“Drill was Chicago saying: we are not fucking playing! We got the grittiest rappers,” chuckles DJ L.
On my first morning in Chicago I took a walk towards Michigan Lake and the park which looks out over its waters. I’d organised to have lunch at a diner with David Drake, the first journalist to break the story of drill in the press. When he started writing about it, 16-year-old Chief Keef, or “Sosa”, was starting to grab headlines.
“Hip-hop’s Next Big Thing is On House Arrest at his Grandma’s: Meet Chief Keef” goes the title of Drake’s interview in Gawker magazine from March 2012. A portrait of Barack Obama, who was a community organiser on the South Side in the 1980s, hung in Keef’s grandmother’s living room while he was living there under house arrest. He’d been charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.
Keef’s anthem “Bang” had thrust him into local fame. Its video showed him and his friends looking menacingly down the camera lens, pulling gun fingers, their dreadlocks swaying from side to side, celebrating fraternal force amidst weed smoke in the boarded-up projects.
“Keef taught a whole generation of people how to use YouTube to leverage power within the music industry. YouTube became a clear glass window into these conflicts that have existed in communities across Chicago for generations, but that nobody had been able to see before,” Drake explains.
“Until then, it seemed the only way rap music would break to the masses was through a small bottleneck of blogs. There was a fashion world approach to it, where these publications would define what’s cool: this year you should listen to A$AP Rocky, the next year Future, and so on. The music industry was chasing what was populist, but not popular. It became this feedback loop. No matter how hot you were in your city as a rapper, it was difficult to crossover nationally. But these kids from Chicago were doing traffic on YouTube that was dwarfing big artists with backing from labels. There was this growing feeling that the industry was out of touch. Blogger power wasn’t representative any more.”
In January 2012, Keef was released from house arrest. The website WorldStarHipHop posted a video of a child dancing to one of his songs, “Aimed At You.” It went viral. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what song the kid was vibing to. Their search brought them to Keef’s catalogue. In the spring his song “I Don’t Like” broke the internet. By May, Kanye West had remixed it, stamping it with a golden seal-of-approval—one Chicago hero platforming the next.
“I watched it unfold before my eyes,” says drill rapper Tay600, who was a couple of years below Keef at their Englewood school. “His views started getting bigger. He started doing millions. He suddenly had four, five cars. He was the first one out of all of us to wear designer brands. We hadn’t seen that kind of money before. The transition was mind-boggling. We started to think: if he can do this, anybody can.”
Chief Keef’s lyrics were laced with threats and carefree references to drug-taking, guns and womanising. His raps were lazy and unapologetically off-beat.
Since hip-hop began in New York in the 1970s, MCs have honed their voice, timing, flow and wordplay to get ahead of competitors, like an athlete exercises, or an actor practices lines. Inspired by the slurred style of southern rappers—New Orleans legend Lil Wayne, in particular, whose music dominated global charts in the 2000s—Chicago drill brought a new value system to this training.
As demonstrated by Keef, an apparent disregard for rehearsal, a lack of craftsmanship, mattered. Drillers needed to come across like they had stepped into the recording booth from the street. It was a simple formula. They went out to do a drill, then they entered the studio to make drill music; to yell about their actions, embrace the catharsis of spoken-word, and watch their view counter on YouTube zoom upwards.
“He was the nexus of a lot of different lines. He’d be difficult. He’d not turn up to meetings or video shoots. He was refusing to fit the role of what was expected from a performer. It was a whole generation of artists saying: I don’t have to do this industry shit if I don’t want to. It’s like Miles Davis when he turned his back on the audience. It was a true power shift away from label power. If Keef didn’t show up to a $30,000 video shoot, what were they really gonna do? All he needed was a 23-year-old videographer, a 19-year-old producer, a manager from around the way. His label had very little control,” Drake continues.
Before turning 18, Keef signed a three-album deal with Interscope Records for $6 million. He became label-mates with Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr Dre, and Diddy. His debut album was named: “Finally Rich”.
Before the 2010s, achieving tens of thousands of YouTube views for a music video was impressive. Artists like Keef and his contemporaries would be amongst the first to achieve millions. Everything was being recalibrated—including the way music was listened to, sold and transmitted.
Spotify was still in its infancy: it expanded to the United States in July 2011, with under 7 million users worldwide. It now has over 250 million. YouTube views did not yet count towards chart positioning; they are now a key metric for measuring music industry success. Chicago drill predicted an economic disturbance, whilst reinventing hip-hop’s function and form.
To write his book, Ballad of the Bullet, Professor Forrest Stuart spent two years hanging out with teenage gang members on the South Side. I’ve met Stuart so he can drive me around his old haunts—between the hollowed-out projects and the pristine, ivy-gripped buildings of the University of Chicago.
“I discovered all this flexing on social media,” he recalls. Some of the young men had never even used a gun. Yet they borrowed firearms from elders to stockpile photos and videos of themselves holding weapons, which they would drip-feed onto Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In doing so, they were establishing their personal brands.
“I’d be driving them across town in my car, and when we’d pass a rival block they’d start taking selfies out the window, pretending they were on their way to do a drive-by. Another time I was sitting with a young man who was babysitting his pregnant girlfriend’s children. We were in his living room, watching music videos on the television. But when I checked Instagram, he was there posting photos pretending to be in the blizzard outside, protecting his block.”
According to figures released by Chicago police, in the six square miles of West Englewood there were 45 gang factions in 2015. In the same year, Stuart found that 31 of these factions had filmed and uploaded a drill video onto YouTube. This equates to one music video for every two blocks.
“We’ve gone from an environment of scarcity, where digital content was dominated by gatekeepers, to one of abundance, where everyone is making content. Rappers have to be innovative to cut through the noise. Drill artists showed us how successful cultural production operates when we have too many cultural products. And one way you cut through is to convey authenticity. In this era of abundance, people want the realest stuff—stuff that hasn’t been picked up by the traditional tastemakers. With drill, it was no longer the slick content that got noticed, it’s what was real and rough. So these young men developed lots of ways of being seen as authentic. One of those is by associating with someone who has already proven their authenticity. Maybe someone a few blocks away just got locked up for flashing a rocket launcher on social media? Get on a track with them!”
YouTube has since evolved to deliver personalised user experiences. If you are a football fan looking for football content, you probably don’t want to be shown videos of cats. By using machine learning, Stuart says, “YouTube figured out what your tastes are and delivers content to you to keep you engaged. Cultural gatekeepers used to be people. Now the gatekeeper is the algorithm.”
Drill rappers gamed the algorithm. “They figured out that if they could get their name next to the name of someone who is popular on YouTube, they can blow.” Like Jo Jo did successfully, if with fatal consequences, a lesser-known artist might have a chance at their video being clicked on by consumers, or even better, responded to by their target.
In 2012 and 2013 the “diss video”—where rappers would call out others—became a type of release. It created a wave of successful artists, and increased the capacity for musical feuds to turn into high-profile, violent ones.
Businesses and politicians now invest in algorithms to influence consumers and voters. When we use social media applications, we are often nudged towards products that match our tastes, and pieces of news that affirm what we already think, to keep us scrolling.
Drill exploded because of a similar masterful grasp of technology. Instead of Silicon Valley coders, however, it was poor, African-American communities in the Chicago projects proving they were ahead of the curve.
“Let’s say you’re left-wing, and you vote liberal, and you are pro-immigrant rights and pro-gay rights. The more the machine learns about you and these preferences, the less of any opposing view it is going to show you. They are designed to get narrower, and the narrower they get, the more of a bubble it creates,” Stuart finishes.
“Being a drill rapper involved thinking about how to poke into the filter bubbles and headphones of white, middle class kids on YouTube.”
I’m in the passenger seat of a car passing through Austin, on the West Side—one of the largest, poorest and most violent neighbourhoods in Chicago. I look at my phone to check a Twitter account called ‘Spot News’, which uses a police radio scanner to track crimes in real time. The latest tweet says there has been a shooting. “One dead, one injured,” it reads, specifying a street corner.
It takes eleven minutes to drive there. I climb out of the car near some police tape stretched between trees. A child pokes her head out of a nearby window to watch. An elderly woman carrying two heavy bags of groceries hobbles by. Two police officers lean against a low wooden fence smoking cigars.
In May 2019, Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago. She ran a campaign focused on curbing violence. It was hardly new, but it was popular. She promised to treat violence as a “public health” issue. This contested philosophy, exported around the world—including to Glasgow and London as a theory with which to battle knife crime—sees violence as a symptom of widespread social breakdown. It advocates measures such as improving healthcare and educational opportunities, understanding and curing the psychological impact of trauma on families, and providing employment to steer young men away from the streets.
A total of 14 recorded homicides take place during the nine days of my trip. One week later, on what is known as one of Chicago’s hottest and therefore bloodiest weekends, the July Fourth holiday, six people are killed and 66 injured by guns. Proximate tragedy and death is constantly in the air of my conversations. One sound engineer called Spaceman tells me he has the unreleased music of over 45 dead rappers on his computer hard drive.
“Gangster music has always been a part of Chicago culture. But when the media started shedding a light on all of these young guys doing what they’re doing, it gave it national coverage,” says Bo Deal, an outreach worker at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, a community organisation in Austin which seeks to intercept violence. As a teenager in the 1990s, Deal was one of the most feared gang members on the streets of the city. He says the violence associated with drill predates the genre’s inception, even if the music has given it a louder voice. “The younger generation ain’t doing nothing but emulating what they heard from us. The principles have remained the same. Chicago been gangster, since before I was born, since before Al Capone, even.”
The title of Alex Kotlowitz’s 1991 nonfiction book There Are No Children Here, about two brothers growing up in the now-demolished Henry Horner Homes, in the Near West Side, is taken from a line spoken by the boys’ mother, Lajoe Rivers. “But you know, there are no children here. They’ve seen too much to be children.” The book is handed out as reading to students of Chicago high schools.
“When I was out in Horner every day, there was a very different texture compared to now,” says Kotlowitz. His most recent book, An American Summer, about people affected during a recent summer of violence, fills nearby bookstore windows when we meet for coffee in Oak Park, a leafy suburb.
Chicago used to be much more murderous than it is now. In 1991 there were 929 homicides. In 2019 there were 491. But back when he was reporting, Kotlowitz says the violence seemed more contained within certain patches. “It was completely out of sight, out of mind. People were disconnected from the rest of the city. The violence is considerably less now, but because it is more public, it feels just as intense.”
With a rate of 20.7 homicides-per-100,000 people in 2018, Chicago fell at number sixteen in the rankings of most murderous cities in America. As high as this is objectively, compared to the likes of St Louis or Baltimore, which have nearly three times this rate, relatively speaking its position is surprisingly low. Chicago is, after all, consistently imagined as the most violent city in America. It is referred to as “Chiraq” by rappers.
The city’s semi-true, semi-mythologised reputation explains drill’s capacity to springboard into cultural consciousness. It is laced with inconvenient truth as well as exaggerated bravado.
On my last day in Chicago, I meet 24-year-old El Hitta, one of the leading new generation of Chicago rappers.
“The drill era went on for so long, people was waiting on something else,” explains Hitta, who is tall and smiley. Tattoos cover his neck and arms. “Now it’s monkey see, monkey do. You got a lot of people talking about their life story in the trenches, but they’ve never even been in the trenches, they’re just doing it because they think it’s finna help them move faster and get famous. But if you know music, then you know who has been through what they talk about, through the pain, you know?”
Over the last decade drill music has been emulated across North America, from Atlanta to Toronto, and repurposed in cities around the world. Brooklyn drill—popularised across 2019 by the late Pop Smoke, who was shot dead in his home in February this year—fuses UK drill-style instrumentals with East Coast swagger. It is presently one of the most popular movements in American rap. Meanwhile, London’s drill scene and its remote, DIY infrastructure has thrived under the COVID-19 lockdown. What started as a Windy City secret is now wide open.
“Back then it was more of a thrill thing. People from Chicago were finally getting noticed. Now, people still love drill, but they also think it’s a liability. A lot of people have died out here,” says Rooga, another new-generation MC I speak to. He is careful to define himself as “someone who can make drill rap, not a drill rapper”.
The police have long used drill videos in court cases. They track the social media accounts of the most wanted rappers and videographers. After the passing of his brother, Swagg Dinero was imprisoned for handling a firearm in a music video. During my trip, I was meant to see El Hitta perform alongside Gunna, NBA Youngboy and Kevin Gates at the United Centre, where the Chicago Bulls play basketball. But the concert was cancelled by police fearing violence.
On my walk back to my hotel one night, I saw a fight break out between drunk fans leaving a Rolling Stones concert. One man was bleeding from his head. The police were nowhere to be seen.
Alongside names like Calboy and Lil Zay Osama, El Hitta embodies what Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre calls the “melodic new sound of Chicago street rap.” For some artists from drill’s first generation—including Jo Jo’s original provocateur, Lil Durk—and younger artists coming up, musical expression has respawned, yet again. Whilst still immersed in the same immovable themes of violence and drugs, a vulnerable style of commentating on the pain of street life is now taking centre-stage. If drill exposed the city’s hidden trauma, the new rap wave might be therapy for its post-traumatic stress.
During my trip, the most popular face of this movement, a 20-year-old from the North Side called Polo G has shot to number one in the official charts for “Top Rap Album” in America. It marks a new age for the wider acceptance of Chicagoan talent. His songs play from Uber radios and bar speakers. His lyrics are reflective and poetic. “I come from a dark place, I’ll never be there again,” he states on “Effortless”.
“I started off doing drill, but I started losing too many people,” Hitta continues. “So I felt like I should switch lanes and talk so people feel me instead of fear me. I realised I could really speak to people if I say what I have to say in a certain way. So I make heartfelt music.”
His biggest hit “Aww Yeah”, from 2018, is a triumphant ode to surviving adolescence. “I was in the streets but for survival, not to harm people. In the drill era, I wasn’t playing with pistols and guns and all that, even though I was around that type of stuff every day.”
Swagg Dinero still fights to uphold Lil Jo Jo’s legacy. “At the end of this shit, I want it to be like, that young man was super talented. He went too early, he got taken away too soon. I just want everyone to know that shawty was a real mogul. If he could have changed things I believe he would have changed things to stick around.”
In the evening after seeing El Hitta, I head to LSD Studios in the bustling South Loop. David Drake, DJ L and I are hosted there by VIIbez, a sound engineer who records for many of the biggest names in Chicago rap.
“The music still holds that same feeling that we felt back when Chief Keef and G Herbo was rapping at the start. But it’s more melodic now. The street and the pop records merged. It is much easier to feel what the artists have gone through now. When you’re singing, it’s felt ten times as hard,” VIIbez explains.
I ask whether people still use the term “drill” to describe Chicago music. VIIbez raises one eyebrow and laughs. In 2020, drill might be the hottest thing elsewhere. But in its home, it’s old news.
“Nobody in Chicago uses that word. Now we call it street music, hood pain, street pain music,” she says. She leans over to the computer keyboard to play a Polo G’s “Pop Out” on YouTube. At the time of writing, it sits at over 200 million views.
“That pain that is so real, so organic, that you can’t help but to feel it.”
All portraits Joshua Lott for Tortoise, other photographs Getty Images, YouTube