When rappers 22Gz and Sheff G threw down the first punches of Brooklyn drill in 2021, they weren’t making a name for themselves; they were just reinvigorating a gang-influenced hip hop movement that had lost some of its most charismatic figures to murder (Pop Smoke) or jail (Sheff). Their music channeled the daily realities of gang culture to make extremely urgent, visceral music that connected deeply with their neighborhoods. The lyrical content was cutthroat and ruthless, with a playground-cypher spontaneity that felt refreshing in an era where rap’s mainstream wing had begun to feel increasingly aloof from the streets.
They were a bridge between the Chicago drill scene that had brought gang-influenced rap into the mainstream, and the SoundCloud generation of MCs who had reshaped it with their own style. Unlike the old school rappers who had defined conscious and mainstream hip hop, these artists tended to avoid the faux-aspirational gang-inspired narratives of “get rich quick” anthems, and instead focused on the drugged-up, gunned-down, and bleak realities of life on the city’s gang-ridden blocks.
The thump of drums and 808 bass lines drain glamour from the narratives, evoking a sense of dread and desperation that many fans didn’t understand until they began to live it. When Pop Smoke was killed in February of 2020, the scene exploded. Young New Yorkers spontaneously gathered in the streets, singing his songs in unison, like a church congregation reciting scripture.
While Brooklyn drill didn’t peak the moment Sheff G and 22Gz signed to a major label, the movement continued to grow. Then, this summer, Bobby Shmurda returned from prison with a new single that instantly dropped into the top 20 on the UK charts. His track tapped into the same kinetic energy that percolates through every block and borough of New York City, distilling the colliding pressures of street-level realism and aspirational escapism into an incredibly accessible sound that appeals to a global audience.
But the roar was tempered by concerns that drill is exploiting street violence, with rappers rapping about their feuds for clicks and views on YouTube beef pages. Several prominent figures have criticized the subgenre, and some have even called for an end to it entirely. A 14-year-old Harlem rapper’s murder and the ensuing viral drill hits capitalizing on it have put those concerns at the forefront.
As a Pitchfork writer, Alphonse Pierre covers rappers, mixtapes, albums, Instagram freestyles, memes, weird tweets, and fashion trends. He’s been writing about rap music for over a decade, and is an expert on the rise of the genre known as drill. This is his take on how that trend started, where it’s going now, and why that should matter to all of us. drill rap radio