Sunday Sounds: Chicago Drill Music

South Side Chicago
Young girl playing in a South Side Chicago back yard. Photo by Justin Maxon

One thing I’ve been listening to a little bit on YouTube recently is quote-unquote drill music, Chicago’s take on the trap sound. Basically, it’s heavy 808 bass, moody atmospherics, crispy snares, and rapping about shooting people (i.e. the usual gangster rap staples). I’ve never been someone who cares about lyrics, so the ultra-violent lyrical content basically makes no impression on me (I mean, I hardly pay attention to it). Having said that, I’m obviously not the target audience for the music, being as I am from a very different background to the guys making this music.

Most of the commentary about the music that I’ve read talks about the lyrics, the rappers, and the connections to the very high crime rates on Chicago’s poorer South and West Sides (Chicago has some of the roughest neighborhoods in America). Which I guess is fair enough, that’s what a lot of musical journalism about – placing music in a socio-political context, exploring the urban reality, blah blah blah. But I’m not a music journalist, so for me what’s interesting about the music is not the lyrics, but the music, which BANGS. As a long-term fan of really bass-heavy electronic music, some of these productions are just fucking excellent (if sometimes sadly featuring the horrors of autotune).

One thing for me that’s interesting about this is that this is the first time I can think of that Chicago has become a major rap city – obviously it’s electronic music heritage is well-established, from house to acid to ghetto house and on to juke, but besides individual stars like Kanye West it’s not really been a major city for rap music in America. Something that has obviously changed now.

Anyways, some of these tunes are pretty cool. Here’s four I’ve picked out for you to check:

L’A Capone – Round Here (he was murdered a few months back, aged only 17 … different world from mine, for sure)

Duke Da Beast – Murder Shit

Lil Bibby feat King Louie – How We Move

King Louie – My Niggaz (the guy dancing in the background is called Lil Kemo, and he’s one of the stars of a Chicago dance style called bopping which looks like a lot of fun, as well as not too difficult to do, so I can imagine it crossing over to mainstream America)

And if you want some more info, here’s a new documentary by WorldStar Hip-Hop called The Field, which is about violence in Chicago and the local rap scene’s connection to it:

If you want to do some actual reading, you can check out David Drake’s article in Spin, Chicago Rap Blazes Up from the Streets, which is an interesting prime (weirdly enough, I used to swap music with him via YouSendIt ten years ago):

Then, this year, Chief Keef suddenly shot up out of obscurity. Emerging rap stars like Meek Mill, Danny Brown, and A$AP Rocky enthusiastically co-signed him, culminating in the “I Don’t Like” remix, a label deal with Interscope, and a publishing deal with Dr. Dre. In April, Keef associates Lil Durk and Lil Reese joined the Def Jam fold. Local radio stations Power 92 and WGCI began competing to bring attention to local acts. But what gave all of these elements the most forward momentum was the pressure that had been building up in recent years as large numbers of Chicago’s poorest communities had begun to come online for the first time.

At the forefront of this momentum was the “drill scene,” a grassroots movement that had incubated in a closed, interlocking system: on the streets and through social media, in a network of clubs and parties, and amongst high schools. It was this movement that finally exploded and drew the nation’s eye to a city that had a plethora of radically different sounds developing in isolation.