+234 Drill: The Rise of Nigeria’s Drill Culture

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When Styles‘s I See I Saw went viral mid-2020, it introduced the Nigerian mainstream audience to a whole new kind of sound which prior, was slowly gaining popularity among rappers and fans in the underground music space. While some may have caught wind of it while listening to foreign artists like Headie One, Chief Keef, Pop Smoke, Lil Durk, Russ Million, Tion Wayne and King Von, it wasn’t until 2020 that a larger number of people paid attention and opened their minds to it. Although Styles’s “viral success” was rather short-lived, the song, I See I Saw, with its heavy bass synths, catchy hook, and distinct and raw flow played its part in setting the tone for the culture.

From Chicago, IL to the UK to the +234

Although drill music gained global prominence in South London, UK, it was an offspring of the budding trap sub-genre of Hip Hop heralded by rappers like T.I., Soulja Boy, Future, Young Thug, Migos, and newer rappers like Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, and Megan Thee Stallion, drill music emerged from the trenches in the South Side of Chicago. While many argue that Chicago rapper, Pacman originate the drill sound with the song called It’s A Drill off his 2010 project, I’m Still Here, it first gained popularity with Chief Keef’s 2012 debut, I Don’t Like which peaked at #73 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was remixed by Kanye West and Lil Wayne among others and landed on Pitchfork and Complex‘s end-of-year lists. 

‘To drill’ means to ‘hurt a person badly’, ‘retaliate’ or ‘attack a rival gang with gunfire’ in street lingo, hence the constant reference to gang violence in early Chicago drill songs. It was a direct reflection of the struggles of young black kids living in low-income neighborhoods which were at the time, rife with homicide and gang violence. Per Zanda Tsadwa, drill music is defined by its “fatal subject matter, unpolished vocal styles and unfiltered artiste images” which made it as anti-pop as possible. But these factors, along with a heavily trap-influenced sound, nihilistic lyrical content, and catchy raw melodies, were also what made drill popular among black teens.

By 2012, Drill music had found its way into Brixton, South London, the birthplace of UK Drill. UK Drill, just like Chicago Drill, is heavily influenced by the gang lifestyle prevalent in the district of Brixton. As reported on BBC,  “UK Drill differentiates itself from Chicago Drill musically and culturally. There are general similarities in the violent aspects of each sound, but UK drill commits to cold, sparse beats with militant hi-hats, sliding 808s, and more space for vocals.” Three groups have been argued to be responsible for being the originators of UK Drill – 150, Uptop and 67. By 2016 as the Chicago Drill scene started to fizzle out, the UK drill scene was growing stronger with hits like 67 and Giggs‘s Let’s Lurk and the Big Shaq remake Man’s Not Hot winning more fans over. Homerton B by Unknown T became the first UK drill song to officially enter the charts in August 2018. This new milestone, along with 67’s success on the UK albums chart with the mixtapes Let’s Lurk and The Glorious Twelfth released around the same time, set off a snowball effect for the culture. Drake‘s 2019 release, War, was a drill song produced by British producer AXL Beats. The popularity and success of UK Drill have also influenced the emergence of other drill movements across the world, including the New York drill scene, the Netherlands drill scene, the French drill scene, the Ghanaian drill scene known as Asakaa drill, and #234Drill in Nigeria.

Enter, #234Drill

Nigerian rapper, The Underground first caught wind of Drill music in 2011 when he had just “moved to the Midwest Region in the United States. Drill [music] was just getting a buzz in Chicago which was like 25 minutes away. Chief Keef’s Bang was pretty big in the area in 2012 and my folks and I became instant fans. It sounded like trap but had a different bounce, was much darker, and had different slangs and ebonics. Chief Keef dropped Don’t Like and drill music became a nationwide and subsequently, worldwide sensation.”

As fellow 01/02 collective rapper Traqstarr explained, Drill started in Nigeria when “The Underground and I started rapping over Chicago drill beats”. But it wasn’t official until both rappers teamed up in 2015 for 12. O’Six off their collaborative project, Descendants of Non-Slaves (DONS). The Underground goes on to explain, he “got into the drill culture as a result of the kind of lifestyle I lived and the company I kept. Naturally, being a kid from the mixtape era, we began freestyling on instrumentals of songs we f%$ked with and that was it.”

However, the growing popularity of the UK and New York drill scenes in 2019 marked the period when drill music started to intensively penetrate Nigeria and other parts of the world. A 2019 feature on Pitchfork also labeled drill music as “the Decade’s Most Important Rap Subgenre”. Pop Smoke’s Dior, Russ Million’s Gun Lean, Digga D‘s No Diet, Polo G‘s Pop Out, Headie One’s Hard to Believe, and King Von’s Crazy Story all dropped in the same year. To close the year, Drake released War off his Dark Lane Demo Tape which further solidified the ‘arrival’ of a new, formidable hip-hop subculture. It was during the same period, into the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, that Nigerian rappers like Jaiye, Droxx, King Pells, Nero, Mo’Gunz, PSIV, and several others started to grow as independent drill acts, bringing their individual perspectives and uniqueness to the new-found culture. “I’ve always wanted to have the same in Lagos/Nigeria, and I used to make drill records for myself (majorly as a form of therapy), but I never put them out until last year when I released Gangland. [I] also began to discover other drill rappers here like Droxx, LK of Chop Life Crew, Mo’ Gunz and Tomi Obanure,” PSIV explains. Jaiye, a member of the Thirsty Worldwide collective, added that “we (Jaiye and LK) recorded one of the hardest drill songs in early 2019 then I stumbled on Droxx doing his thing. So I’ll say from my perspective, the proper drill started being dropped within my circle.”

Speaking on how the term, 234 Drill was coined, Droxx, who has played a major role in pushing the #234Drill conversation on Twitter explains that 234 Drill has “massive influence from the UK drill scene; Pop Smoke and the viral Asakaa drill in Ghana can be said to be other influences too. A lot of artists like myself had been making drill music for a while now but when it went viral in Africa, first in Ghana, that sort of came as a challenge to 234 Drill artists to rise, it all came about organically though, and the #234Drill tag was created. 234 because that’s Nigeria’s country code.”  Abuja-based rapper, Tomi Obanure adds that “it started in Nigeria in a very organic way. The internet has made the world a global village. We’ve always been influenced by UK culture, urban music, and drill is a consequence of that. The way the stories are told over there, the beats per minute, it’s something that we adapted and we put our spin on, essentially.”

On how he hopped on the 234 drill wave, LK (formerly called OG Lowkey) who is a member of the group, Chop Life Crew, said, “it was Jaiye who first caught my attention. Then, I was doing creative direction with Straffitti and the whole Thirsty Movement. Jaiye started 234 Drill properly and along the lines of writing for Jaiye, one day we ended up in the studio in 2019. I was not yet a music artist then. He was in the studio making a song and he rapped his verse. The guy who did the hook was having a bad day. I called Jaiye, I told him, ‘yo can you let me do this?’ He replied, ‘of course’. That particular song became a hit when he dropped his tape. I was excited. Because when Jaiye was dropping, I told him not to put my name on it, to just put O.G. Lowkey because the producer saved it as ‘Jaiye x Sean’. I didn’t want anybody to know it was me. The first two weeks on Apple Music, that song was ‘starred’. I realized people liked the energy.”

UK rappers are generally first- or second-generation Britons, many of whom have West African roots, thereby creating a relatable connection between UK Drill and 234 Drill. “The 234 is perfect for Drill because the energies match; a charged up genre for a charged up place,” PSIV says. Just like the UK, Chicago, and New York drill scenes have exposed the stark realities of low-income youths of color to public eyes, 234 Drillers, the majority of whom belong to the middle- to low-income bracket, have also been able to effectively channel their creativity to tackle issues that directly affect them and in the process, exposing socio-political ills like corruption, police brutality and institutional decay, to name a few.

These are issues that reflect the reality of the Nigerian middle- to low-income class. As The Underground explains, “my interests changed drastically in 2016 when I became much more concerned with the state of our country, continent, race, and general existence. You’ll probably catch me on a Drill song talking about politics.” 234 Drill rapper, Mo’Gunz who made the song, Officer addressing police brutality on the country’s youths with Droxx after the duo met on Twitter, believes that some of the elements that make drill from the +234 stand out include “the cadence, the language, the swag and the fact that the music is made by actual Nigerians who speak on issues affecting them directly.” Traqstarr adds, “You’re safe out here. Nobody might spin on your block except our common enemy. We all still have the same ‘opps’ – the Federal Government, The Police, SARS.”

Although an emerging economy as experts say, the present situation of (mis)governance and deeply enshrined corruption which have been knitted into the fabric of public and private institutions across the country have been subject to scrutiny by many budding drill rappers. Released during the #EndSars protests of 2020 which rattled the foundations of Nigeria’s nation-state, Droxx and Mo’Gunz’s Officer addresses rot in Nigeria’s police force and the brutality targeted by police officers towards young male Nigerians (especially) stereotyped to be internet fraudsters or to be involved in some form of criminal activities. Starting as an agitation to fix the rot in the police force, young Nigerians have extended their voices into the entire scope of the problems of the country – the presidency’s highhandedness and lack of empathy for the citizens, mismanagement of public funds by government officials, poorly equipped and poorly financed health and educational institutions, terrible state of electricity supply, continued rise of inflation and stringent government policies. The most recent government clampdown on Twitter activities in the country led Blvck Oreo to create a freestyle he titled VPN Visa, a song he uses to lampoon the policy as he raps about the use of a location bypass tool called Virtual Private Network (VPN) by users of the social media app to continue to access the platform from a location different from their actual physical location despite the ban.

Compared to the UK and US drill scenes though, 234 Drill songs tend to contain more toned down lyrics. One of the “elements missing from the Nigerian drill scene is the nihilistic lyrical content”, Pukido mentions. Rather, Nigerian drillers make up for this with their ability to switch flows from Queen’s English to Patois, Nigerian Pidgin and local dialects like Yoruba, Ibo, etc.

Although influenced by UK drill, catalyzed by Styles’ I See I Saw‘s social media popularity, and probably motivated by Asakaa drill’s viral success, the uniqueness of 234 drill and the ability of the artistes to infuse Afrobeats influences, tap into their originality and express their raw, unfiltered personality and reality are what make 234 drill a potential fan favourite and mainstream contender. 234 drill is a pretty new sound/culture which only started finding its footing during the coronavirus lockdown. Artistes still appear to be experimenting with and trying to master the sound and replicate the successes of drill cultures in other parts of the world. It would be interesting to watch, how the movement metamorphoses in the nearest future.

Also worthy of note is the level of positive energy and confidence that rappers like King Pells have in the culture and its potential success: “I think [234] drill can really be something big. I know how creative Nigerians can be and I bet if we get creative with it and make it our own sound, it’ll be very well accepted might even get award categories.” (side-eye, Headies) Droxx also hopes that it becomes “a budding genre that would have matured over time and have a strong community for support.” “We’re giving the mainstream folk a run for their money now,” Mo’Gunz exclaims. “Imagine if with the right tools we could reach a wider audience,” he continues. LK also expresses confidence that in about four years, “Nigerian drill should be big. It should be at a place where Afrobeats is now. Rema just came out with AfroRave, we’ve started out with 234 Drill.”

Sometimes, Damilare writes about stuff he’s passionate about – music, events, pop culture, and humanity. Other times, he’s managing talents and events. He’s on social media as @damilarehakan

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