The Transatlantic Movement of Drill Music
by Wyatt Marshall, a Third Bridge Creative contributor
In February, the English breakout bedroom-pop star PinkPantheress teamed up with Bronx drill sensation Ice Spice to feature in “Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2,” a remix of PinkPantheress’s single released last November. From a distance, it could seem like an odd pairing. Their career trajectories followed similar arcs–both artists found their audiences in the pandemic era and, despite somewhat private personalities, rode similar forms of viral waves from SoundCloud and TikTok to chart success. But PinkPantheress’s ethereal vocals and dreamy, dancy production, awash in hyper pop tint, are a world away from the cocky swagger and raw, punchy flow of Ice Spice, who is typically backed by the distended 808 basslines and sputtering high-hats that are trademarks of New York drill.
Listen to “Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2,” and you can tell they’re onto something special. The song exists at the intersection of established sounds and building movements that have been steadily accumulating cultural capital in recent years. PinkPantheress’s UK alt-pop, Ice Spice’s New York drill, and, with a Mura Masa production treatment, globe-trotting, festival-ready electronic position the song for unique success. It’s got “song of the summer” written all over it.
Fans seem to think so, too.“Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2” debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking a first chart appearance for PinkPantheress and the highest ranking for Ice Spice, and subsequently climbed to No. 3. The track has hit No. 1 in the US on Spotify and SoundCloud, and has reached No. 1 in the US and No. 2 in the UK on TikTok, with more than 2M user-generated videos on TikTok worldwide, according to Chartmetric data.
A certified hit, the song also holds an interesting position in the arc of drill music as a genre. Ice Spice is the latest artist to rise to the top of the New York scene, and she is showing the signs of a true superstar taking form. Collaborating with PinkPantheress has brought unprecedented crossover potential: drill, with its Chicago origins, subsequent UK evolution, and New York adoption, have made the genre global. But Ice Spice is already breaking new ground for drill and has crashed into the mainstream with profiles in The New York Times, Vogue, and Forbes, introducing drill to new audiences. Looking at data, it’s possible to better understand how we got here and to track the cultural legacy of early genre pioneers, the development of regional scenes, and the building momentum that has put drill on the map.
With its origins on the southside of Chicago in the early 2010s, early drill artists vividly captured an unfiltered reality of city life. The scene’s first superstar, Chief Keef, rocketed to renown with “I Don’t Like,” a song featuring fellow Chicago rapper Lil Reese that introduced the world to a raw, mid-paced, and trap-influenced sound that would soon get endorsements from Pusha T, Drake, Kanye West and more. At the age of just 16, Keef would sign a multi-million dollar record deal with Interscope, firmly putting Chicago drill on the map and signaling that a new creative force was in play.
The style’s spread hasn’t slowed since Keef’s rise, and its influence is vast. Even though drill has taken on several sonic mutations across state and international lines since, regional hotbeds created superstars: Keef and his fellow Chicago stalwart Lil Durk are regularly top artists in large markets for drill listeners beyond their hometown. In some of the country’s biggest drill markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta, Keef, and Durk are often among the top 10 most listened to drill artists on Spotify as measured by the number of monthly listeners. In international markets, Keef is influential but less so, appearing regularly as a top 50 artist in markets like London rather than a top 10 staple, while Lil Durk, who has become Chicago’s largest drill export in recent years, more often is among the top 10.
With Chicago setting the stage for drill, other major cities soon picked up the style and followed, and London quickly became the next big drill hotbed. After drill crossed the Atlantic, UK producers put their spin on the genre, borrowing from UK grime music and distorting and stretching 808 bass lines over sparse drum patterns. With British dialects and slang in play–and higher BPMs than Chicago’s methodical pacing–the drill coming out of south London became a distinct and instantly recognizable sound, often both ominous and slightly quirky at once. In London, top artists with the “drill” tag on Spotify since 2020 include Central Cee, Russ Millions, DigDat, Buni, Abra Cadabra, and Loski, but early breakouts like 67’s “Let’s Lurk,” featuring the already established rap star Giggs, are seen as pivotal moments in the rise of UK drill.
On Spotify, London surpassed Chicago in 2020 as the genre’s biggest market as measured by average number of monthly listeners for the top 100 drill artists, with New York and other major drill markets like Sydney and Birmingham not far behind. On YouTube, though, a somewhat different picture of top cities emerges. Drill has long maintained a special relationship with YouTube, as artists embracing guerilla release tactics may drop a track on YouTube before it makes its way to Spotify, other DSPs, and, critically, social media. American cities are the biggest YouTube markets for drill music, with Chicago and New York seeing more than 500K and 300K monthly views, respectively, at the end of 2022; London was registering under 200K.
London’s place at the top, when measured by the number of Spotify monthly listeners for popular drill artists, and a lower ranking on YouTube, correlates with characteristics of drill scenes at different stages of maturity. UK drill artists have found mainstream chart success in the UK, and the genre has been an increasingly influential cultural force for nearly a decade. Though it followed Chicago, it is the most established market in some ways, and labels have built out rosters of UK drill artists. In London, a jump in signings for top drill artists in 2020 has resulted in more than 90 percent of top artists being signed to leading drill labels like Finesse Foreva, according to Spotify data. In more recently-bubbling drill scenes in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where more listening occurs on YouTube, less than 70 percent of the top 100 most listened drill rappers are signed. However, with record labels inking deals with New York drill artists at a quick pace in the last year–including Harlem’s DD Osama, Brooklyn’s Lola Brooke, and the Bronx’s Sha Ek and Ice Spice landing deals in recent months, to name a few–the gap between New York and London should narrow.
While the US, and often New York City specifically, has long been a rap tastemaker, in the case of drill NYC borrowed from London for key elements of the city’s drill sonic palette–what New York’s Pop Smoke would refer to as “the sound of New York.” The UK producer AXL Beats served as the ambassador when, in 2016, Brooklyn drill pioneer 22Gz came across a gloomy, brooding AXL instrumental on YouTube and used it in his song “Suburban.”
AXL Beats was soon providing a distinctive UK flare to New York drill from across the pond, including for Sheff G’s rebuttal “No Suburban.” Many rappers using AXL’s instrumentals would later express surprise when they learned he wasn’t from New York. But the sound had taken hold, and AXL and fellow UK beat makers like 808Melo, who produced for both Headie One in the UK and Pop Smoke’s debut mixtape Meet the Woo, were helping shape the sound of NYC. And while sonically drill’s sound had evolved, thematically, the music channeled similar inspirations that resonated in different cities across time zones. From AXL himself, you could draw a throughline from Chicago to London to New York. AXL told Complex he had grown up listening to Chief Keef, G Herbo, and other Chicago artists that had been players in drill’s origins.
Drill scenes emerged in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan, and as in Chicago and London, artists told raw, energetic stories rooted in local settings and lingo. Brooklyn’s Pop Smoke distinguished himself with a gruff, gravelly lyrical delivery that proved influential to a host of New York drill rappers. But just as Pop Smoke was finding new levels of popularity following the release of his February 2020 second mixtape, Meet The Woo 2, he was killed in Los Angeles in a home invasion. Following the release of his posthumous album Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon later that year, Pop Smoke reached new legions of fans who were getting to know the artist only after he had passed. Measured by Chartmetric Artist Score, an aggregation of listening and social media engagement, Pop Smoke was the 14th most popular artist in the world at the time.
The Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan have produced distinct drill scenes–the Bronx, for example, has leaned more heavily on using samples, and artists often embrace a wild-eyed lyrical delivery. (Note that New York City deserves something of an asterisk in the Spotify monthly listener chart at the beginning of the article, with the broken out boroughs of Manhattan, The Bronx, and Brooklyn each registering individually among the top cities globally for drill.) But as the origin point of New York drill and home to leading artists such as Pop Smoke and Fivio Foreign, artists from Brooklyn have had the greatest cross-borough influence. Pop Smoke, Fivio Foreign, Sleepy Hallow, and Sheff G are regularly among the top ten drill artists in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan, alongside Chicago artists Lil Durk and G Herbo. The Bronx’s Lil TJay, heavily involved in the drill scene, has been the top Bronx export, though Ice Spice is about to enter the picture.
It’s unsurprising, given both the often similar production treatment in the case of Pop Smoke and the global reach of the American music industry, that Pop Smoke and Lil Tjay are regularly among the top ten artists with London listeners. (Pop Smoke’s reach is universal–he’s often the most or one of the most streamed drill artists in global markets.) But while UK producers and influence are keenly felt on NYC drill, New York listeners don’t have the same affinity for UK drill rappers as the UK does for NYC’s, with artists like Central Cee, DigDat, and Buni well outside of the top 20 in Manhattan and nowhere to be found in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Ice Spice’s breakout has been remarkable, and the magnitude of her rise is made clear by her spot in Chartmetric Artist Score: This time last year her Chartmetric score made her roughly the 700,000th most popular artist, now she is the 23rd. Thanks to breakout hits like “Munch (Feelin’ U)” and the meteoric “Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2,” Ice Spice is the most visible of a group of women who are commanding ever more of the drill spotlight. Maiya the Don, Kenzo B, Lola Brooke, Shani Boni, Murda B, and more are increasingly shaping New York drill, and thanks to the crossover success of “Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2,” Ice Spice will likely be the first drill contact for many listeners.
Though New York, London, and Chicago have played the leading roles in drill’s history, the sound and style has traveled worldwide. Every Noise At Once counts 39 distinct drill subgenres, and active drill scenes exist across Africa, Europe, and beyond. Vice’s Noisey has gone to Italy, Ghana, Australia, Nigeria, Ireland, Denmark, and Greece to explore local scenes as part of its Gangsta Rap International documentary series. These different scenes have put their spin on the genre, with each adapting drill’s ethos to its social setting, supplying their accents and vernaculars, and, in some of the most interesting cases, like the blending of Afrobeats into Afrodrill, their own instrumental palettes. But wherever it’s found, touchpoints usually exist for Chicago, London, and New York–in attitude, the cadence of flows, and the sliding bass hits.
This global expansion of drill and the conversations about its social influence have made it the most significant development in hip-hop in recent years. But Ice Spice and her crossover viral hit with PinkPantheress proves that drill’s contours are showing signs of shifting and that drill’s cultural reach is broadening, with women increasingly taking center stage and labels embracing the New York sound. Drill’s history back and forth across the Atlantic has shown there’s room for future developments to have a lasting impact on the genre. From Chicago to the world, its influence only continues to rise.