Drill rap radio is an essential part of New York’s hip-hop landscape, where artists find the support to make music and listeners connect with a genre that reflects their realities. But critics who equate drill with street violence miss the fact that it is both art and protest, a means of channeling rage and frustration into creativity.
Drill emerged in the early twenty-tens as a grimmer offshoot of trap, the dominant hip-hop style for much of that decade. The subgenre took hold in New York with viral hits by MCs such as Bobby Shmurda, and the arrival of Brooklyn-born rappers like Pop Smoke, who declared his dominance in 2019 with anthems such as “Welcome to the Party.”
The scene has since grown exponentially, fueled by streaming and a booming market for beats whose production values mimic those of top-tier producers. The symphonic sweep of the beats and their dramatic use of sirens, church bells, and melodies straight out of a Freddy Krueger nightmare have earned the genre a cult following among New York youth. But some have criticized the sound for being a dilution of the lyrical, trend-setting styles that New York rap is known for—and for fanning rivalries with the ferocity that can have real-world consequences.
For many people who have gotten their start in the scene, rapping is more than just a hobby: It’s an economic lifeline. But that can also mean that they’re subject to constant police harassment.
That’s one of the reasons that it’s so rare to see New York drill artists perform live. When they do, the show is usually shut down by cops citing gang violence. And that’s why a recent concert headlined by Fivio Foreign, Maino, and Young Devyn was a milestone: It was the first time a major Brooklyn drill event had been allowed to go ahead without NYPD interference.
At a February 16 performance, Flex was in the audience, along with many members of New York’s drill elite. He said that he was amazed by how powerful the show was. It was a testament to how far the genre had evolved from the days when it was confined to YouTube videos and TikToks.
Despite the tumult that surrounds it, the new generation of rappers are still blazing their own trails and bringing the energy of their cities to the world. Artists such as Kenzo B and Polo G have been able to stand out with songs that are both rooted in their neighborhood and connected to a larger, global hip-hop culture.
But the fact is that these artists are still fighting a losing battle against the state, and their successes are only increasing the pressure on all of us to think about what’s behind the sound, and how it’s being propagated. The correlation between drill and street violence elides tricky questions of causation, and plays into the kind of moral panic that has greeted all forms of Black popular culture for generations. drill rap radio