In the summer of 2012, as Chief Keef’s momentum was picking up steam, a Chicago teenager tearfully and angrily addressed the critiques of his favorite rapper in a viral video filmed from the passenger seat of a parked car. “Fuckers in school always telling me, always in the barbershop, ‘Chief Keef ain’t ’bout this, Chief Keef ain’t ’bout that,’” he screamed. “Shut the fuck up!” Months before, another inescapable Keef-related video had been uploaded to WorldStarHipHop. This clip featured a younger boy, profanely delirious like he’d just won the lottery. “Chief Keef is outta prison!” he squeals. At the time, Chief Keef was 16 years old, with a bubbling street single. He was stuck in his grandmother’s Southside Chicago apartment on house arrest for gun charges. He was nothing more than a local sensation, unknown to just about anyone that didn’t attend a Chicago high school. These two videos were an introduction to the fandom behind Chief Keef. A teenage rapper, leading a burgeoning scene categorized as drill music—taken from the slang usage of “drill,” meaning to shoot someone—who was telling firsthand stories of the violent, gang-dominated Chicago culture that reflected a city with an ongoing history of segregation and neglect of the black community.
That spring, Chief Keef released “I Don’t Like” and drill had its breakthrough moment. Major labels invaded the city: Keef signed a $6 million deal with Interscope; Lil Reese and Lil Durk, members of Keef’s GBE crew, inked deals with Def Jam; and fellow Chicago rapper King Louie signed with Epic. But, later in the year, when Keef released his debut album, Finally Rich, it sold only a disappointing 50,000 copies in its first week. The music industry overreacted, declaring drill a fad. But, like Chicago rap critic David Drake points out in his essay for The Outline, drill’s popularity wasn’t fleeting. Rather, the issue was Billboard’s methods of quantifying listening at the time. Drill was one of the first music scenes to exist almost exclusively via videos and streaming; physical CDs and iTunes downloads were irrelevant. Billboard didn’t begin to adapt its metrics until early 2013.
While the mainstream music industry was questioning the legitimacy of the genre, drill was busy setting the precedent for hip-hop for the rest of the decade. The scene was based around singles, snippets, leaks, and low-budget music videos that could be edited and released instantly—often shot in apartments or on street corners, with the local crew pointing weapons at the camera. The rapping was no frills and tough. The production, established by names like Young Chop and DJ L, incorporated rapid drums, sirens, and church bells, with melodies straight out of a Freddy Krueger nightmare. Drill birthed a flourishing community of producers who replicated its sound and sold their beats on YouTube.
As the music spread across the internet, so did the backlash and controversies. Keef was heavily criticized for mocking the murdered rapper Lil Jojo after his death. He was jailed on a probation violation for holding a rifle during a Pitchfork video filmed at a gun range. (Pitchfork later retracted the video.) L’A Capone was killed in 2013, Young Pappy in 2015. RondoNumbaNine was sentenced to 39 years for murder in 2016 and Famous Dex, a year into his rise, was filmed physically abusing his girlfriend. The stories were often sad, teenage rappers forced to grow up early thrust into the spotlight. Some were against the genre’s candid depiction of violence, but this was the real world these rappers lived, and thus rapped about, a world borne of conditions that racism helped to create. In 2016, Chicago’s violence epidemic reached a bleak milestone of 700 murders in a calendar year, the most in nearly two decades. (Recently, that number has encouragingly decreased.) Drill had to learn to adapt, to take control of its image, while it was in the midst of changing music.
By the end of the decade, drill had gone global. The UK, Brooklyn, Ireland, Boston, and other locales all developed drill scenes of their own. Looking at the past decade in hip-hop, it’s arguable no scene has been as impactful. “The drill scene, I was so influenced by that, that was all I was listening to,” said Cardi B, about her rise in a Rap Radar Podcast interview.
Here, we take a look back—from King Louie’s “Gumbo Mobsters” to the recent emergence of Polo G—and tell the story of the decade’s most influential rap subgenre through its signature moments.
King Louie and Bo$$ Woo: “Gumbo Mobsters” (2011)
“Gumbo Mobsters” arrived nearly a year before Chief Keef broke through, giving an early introduction to the lifestyle through the duo’s lyrics about “drilling”: “Talkin’ shit we come see you/Real G shit, my lil Gs evil,” says Louie, expressionless. Only eight years later, several lifetimes in hip-hop, the song feels thoroughly dated. In the video, the two Chicago rappers post up in white tall tees—they both look like side characters in the 2006 T.I. movie ATL— and rap over horns that sound like hip-hop radio 15 years ago.
Shady: “Go In” (2011)
A wave of women helped put drill on the map before Keef arrived. Among them was Shady, whose single “Go In” became an instant street classic. In the music video, director D Gainz perfected his manic, handheld shooting style, capturing all the girls on the block, out in the local chaos, in their gleefully mad comfort zone (one girl keeps up even while on crutches). On the track, Shady gets two points across: the threats that come out of her mouth are very real, and she will look good while acting on those threats. The video also features the immortal scene of teenage rapper Katie Got Bandz, who would later drop drill classics like “I Need a Hitta” and “Pop Out,” joyfully swaying back and forth while gripping a miniature handgun. “Yeah, it’s real, but that was the old me,” Katie would later say in an interview. “That’s not me anymore.” Regardless, her cameo has turned into a popular GIF.
Chief Keef: “I Don’t Like” [ft. Lil Reese] (2012)
“I Don’t Like” set the blueprint. Chief Keef’s flow is unrushed, moving at the pace of someone who has had about one or five too many. His lyrics are bitter, he hates every single thing: snitches, fake True Religion, and people that don’t like him solely because he doesn’t like them. He’s shirtless in the iconic video, swinging his short dreads, trying to keep his jeans above his knees. The Young Chop beat is cinematic, and now endlessly mimicked. After “I Don’t Like,” the floodgates opened.
Lil Herb and Lil Bibby: “Kill Shit (2012)
On “Kill Shit,” Lil Herb and Lil Bibby are high-energy but emotionless, like the bleak stories they narrate are so normal they could be told with a yawn. The two teen rappers have deep, raspy voices that make them sound like a pair of 50 year olds trying to shake a Newport 100s habit, yet somehow they still maintain a shade of innocence. In three minutes, we learn about their difficult coming of age, a narrative relayed without sacrificing any of their swag. Hooks are unnecessary to the duo, as their one-liners are strong enough to neccesitate repetition on their own: “Know a couple niggas that’s down to ride for a homicide when it’s drama time,” says Herb.
Lil Durk: “Dis Ain’t What U Want” (2013)
On his 2013 mixtape Signed to the Streets, Lil Durk introduced more traditional melody to drill. Durk’s voice was always light and begging for him to take control of his natural rhythm. On “Dis Ain’t What U Want,” Durk does exactly that, without abandoning the street shit: “Daddy doin’ life, snitches doin’ months,” he sings, with Auto-Tune. That this song, with its poppier style, became so anthemic shows drill was more than a particular sound, but a feeling.
L’A Capone and RondoNumbaNine: “Play for Keeps” (2013)
In a 2012 FADER story, King Louie explained the difference between himself and Chief Keef and crew: “Them lil’ niggas wild.” The following year, L’A Capone and RondoNumbaNine emerged as kids even younger and wilder. “Play for Keeps” set the tone for an era that featured rappers barely into their teens writing violent, crime-riddled lyrics that most kids their age couldn’t even comprehend. Their aggression is startling, and sometimes off-putting, but it captured the feeling of an environment that rips away your childhood before you’re ready: “Deadbeat pops got raised by the block,” raps RondoNumbaNine. Like so many Chicago drill artists, their story reached a tragic end: L’A Capone was murdered in 2013 and RondoNumbaNine was sentenced to 39 years in jail for murder in 2016.
Chief Keef: “Faneto” (2014)
On Halloween of 2014, Keef released his most influential (and arguably best) mixtape, Back From the Dead 2. The mixtape was Keef diving further into his narcotized delivery, straying more off beat, and taking a looser approach to song construction. “Faneto” is the mixtape’s centerpiece. The self-produced track is packed with signature Keef moments, including his never-ending beef with the entire state of New Jersey, and the most reckless 30 seconds of ad-libs that he’s ever recorded. For the next year, the rap internet was flooded with infinite remixes of the track, raising the profile of nearly every rapper that graced the beat (see: Young Pappy and Famous Dex). Drill was not a trend. Chief Keef was not a fad. “Faneto” made that indisputable.
Young Pappy: “Killa” (2014)
The late Young Pappy was drill’s underdog. Maybe it was that he hailed, atypically for a drill rapper, from Chicago’s Northside, or maybe it was that his demon-voiced delivery felt like an evolution for the genre. In 2014, Young Pappy went on a run that established the untamed aggression and angst that would later influence the likes of Tay-K (“I’m a shooter like Young Pappy,” says Tay-K on “The Race”). “Killa” is Pappy’s essential track, a three-and-a-half minute journey of the rapper saying the dirtiest shit he can pull from his brain over a manipulated vocal sample and the quintessential drill drum kit.
Famous Dex: “2 Times” (2015)
Before Famous Dex became the disgrace of Chicago drill, he released a string of essential tracks. On “2 Times,” Dex raps with a more character-based approach, a change from drill’s typical deadpan. Dex’s persona later made him the perfect fit for emerging director Cole Bennett, as Dex’s later videos helped to launch the Lyrical Lemonade universe that has since made breakout videos for Lil Tecca, Lil Pump, and Blueface. Early tracks like “2 Times” made the bridge between Chicago drill and the SoundCloud generation possible.
FBG Duck: “Slide” (2018)
FBG Duck’s “Slide” arrived at a time when the drill scenes in both the UK and Brooklyn were picking up steam, but his 2018 single is a reminder that the home of drill will always be Chicago. On the song, Duck perfects a sing-song whisper delivery while shooting a traditional drill video featuring hooded dudes pointing weapons at the camera that could have been recorded in any year throughout the 2010s.
Polo G: “Battle Cry” (2019)
Polo G is the most accessible drill rapper since Chief Keef. He’s managed that through a songwriting approach that’s both structured and self-critical—and a love for softer pianos. His music is heavily aware of the Deep South’s current wave of street tales by the likes of Youngboy Never Broke Again and Kevin Gates, but his influences are distinctly Chicago: the underdog mentality of Young Pappy, G Herbo’s storytelling, and a sense for melody that surpasses even Lil Durk. “Battle Cry” is a song that sounds both of his city and the internet. It’s proof that drill didn’t peak the moment Keef signed that dotted line in 2012 like so many had thought. Instead, the genre has become ingrained into rap’s culture, and continues to impact rising generations as we head into the next decade.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork