Drill rap is a style that has emerged in the past decade from young rappers who come from impoverished neighborhoods. They often depict violence in their lyrics and shoot videos that feature local crews pointing weapons at the camera. But this genre of hip hop has been at the center of controversy, both in Philadelphia and nationally, over the perception that it glorifies gun violence. On this episode of our podcast WHYY’s The Take, Philadelphia teacher and community activist Armond James discusses the genre and how some Philadelphia rappers are working to change its messaging.
Drill music draws inspiration from trap music, but it uses a much slower beat per minute and focuses on simple lyrics without wordplay or metaphors. The genre’s popularity has increased as the music industry has shifted to streaming services like TikTok. It has also given rise to a number of new artists who are using the platform to promote their music and build their following.
One of the earliest proponents of drill was Pac-Man, who coined the term “drill” in his 2010 single. He was followed by a number of other Chicago rappers, including King Louie and members of Keef’s GBE crew, who signed with major labels. By 2012, when Keef released his song “I Don’t Like,” the scene went national.
While some critics have declared drill a fad, its popularity hasn’t waned and it has helped birth a whole generation of rappers who grew up on the sound. It has also provided a platform for marginalised youth to goad other groups through rhymes and, in some cases, even inspire violence. But blanket bans on musical styles are likely to work against the wellbeing of these marginalised communities, stoking further social and cultural division and providing the context for further criminalisation.
The Philadelphia community has taken a lot of criticism for its use of violence in their music, but the rappers who have helped to popularise the genre have been quick to point out that it reflects the reality of their communities. Whether it’s gravelly-voiced Brooklyn driller Fivio Foreign (“Shottas & Gritz”); or the 14-year-old Notti Osama, who was killed outside a 137th Street subway station, his lyrics reflect a life of gang violence and drug addiction.
Other Philadelphia rappers have pushed for a more conscious use of lyrics and shooting in their music, including the late Young Pappy (“Killa”). His 2014 song was an early example of the untamed aggression and angst that would become the trademark of the genre. His video – featuring a Hennessy-brandishing squad smoking zaza and a gunshot in the background – felt at home on any drill video from the early part of the decade. The late rapper’s demon-voiced delivery and raging lyricism established him as an underdog of the movement and has since been emulated by artists like Tay-K. drill rap