Drill music on the rise

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Phill Roche, then a DePaul senior finishing his degree in marketing and business management, was sitting in class May 1, when he got a call from an unfamiliar number. Working as a press representative for rising Chicago rapper King Louie and affiliated video producer Duan Gaines, Roche had been trying for months to get major publications interested in his clients to no avail.

Upon calling the number back, he discovered it was MTV, suddenly curious about Louie after hearing him name-dropped by Kanye West on his latest star-studded remix. Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” had been something of a local sensation since March, racking up views on YouTube thanks to a video shot and produced by Gaines. The 16-year-old Keef, whose sound is a more abrasive example of the burgeoning drill scene that Louie also represents, became heavily hyped by the music press at large, despite having been familiar to Chicago-focused hip-hop blogs for some time.

“The media missed them,” said Roche, when contacted by phone. “And the record companies played catch up.”

Thanks to West’s remix, singsong hooks and heavy social media presence, Chief Keef and associated Glory Boyz Entertainment (GBE) artists went from minor celebrities in their South Side neighborhoods to the next big thing in the eyes of recording industry executives. Keef now boasts a respectable six-figure record deal courtesy of Interscope, while GBE affiliates Lil’ Reese and Lil’ Durk have since been picked up by Def Jam, and King Louie by Sony/Epic.

The major labels’ delayed interest in these teenage stars, combined with their meteoric rise to fame based solely on YouTube videos, and lyrics riddled with references to drug use and gang violence, effectively captures the zeitgeist of the hip-hop recording industry today. But in an age when one’s “15 minutes of fame” is often more like 15 seconds, others see drill as a flash in the pan.

“Keef is an organic artist,” said manager and GBE associate Peeda Pan, whose real name is Idris Abdul Wahid. Speaking over the phone, the confidence in his client was palpable.

“This is a 17-year-old rapping about all of the grimy things that take place in the hood, and people can tell that [he] is really living this,” said Pan.

The “hood” Pan speaks of is Chicago’s deep South Side, an area which has experienced a huge increase in gang violence in 2012. Keef and company make it clear that they are no strangers to gang culture, toting firearms in music videos and making references to organized crime connections via hashtags on Twitter. Even the descriptor for their music, known as “drill,” carries connotations to a vicious lifestyle that for them is the norm.

“To ‘do a drill’ means to commit a crime,” said Pan. “It also refers to the musical aspect… [the percussion] sounds like a marching band.”

Stylistically speaking, “drill” is a clear offshoot of the “trap” subgenre that has ruled rap radio in recent years, with producer Lex Luger and rappers like Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame and Juicy J being its most successful trailblazers. Originating from the Southeast, the trap sound has proven undeniably influential and comprises most of what is heard on the radio today. The production, or “beat,” is typically down-tempo and bass-heavy, with lyrics that meander through machine gun-rhythm hi-hats and staccato snare rolls. The vocal hooks are repetitive and easily chanted, which makes for the ideal club anthem that can be at once bombastic and unnerving. Drill maintains all of these aesthetic hallmarks, but implements hooks that are more sung than rapped, as well as synthesized backing melodies doused in spacey reverb. This sonic patchwork, according to Pan, is representative of Chicago’s diversity.

“Drill represents Chicago because it’s a melting pot of different styles and cultures,” he said. “It’s a great representative of trap, but embodies versatility – the beats have their own cadence.”

While evidently striking a chord with the mainstream, drill’s detractors don’t believe the hype.

“Personally, I really am not enjoying the music artists like Chief Keef are producing,” said Jacob Alderman, host of HipHop Times on Radio DePaul. Alderman has little faith in drill as an enduring artistic movement.

“I think drill is a passing fad in popular music, but will definitely remain a part of the rap music scene as more artists copy the style,” said Alderman.

Dustin Ruttenberg, a co-host of HipHop FriDaze on Radio DePaul, pointed out a lack of originality on Keef’s part.

“Chief Keef’s music is really nothing new in hip-hop,” said Ruttenberg. “Unfortunately because of this style’s overwhelming popularity with this new growing demographic, sales will drive the decisions of record producers. Therefore artists like Chief Keef, Waka Flocka Flame, Juicy J, etc. may set the new standard in hip-hop.”

Record company executives are banking on Ruttenberg’s prediction coming true, although, as Roche explains, they are proceeding with caution.

“The labels realized that they can try to capitalize on the YouTube hits and are offering them cheap deals,” he said. “A lot of these young drill artists are thirsty to sign, and if they sell poorly, [record companies] don’t lose much money.”

With Keef’s debut album “Finally Rich” having hit the shelves Dec. 18, it remains to be seen if Interscope’s investment will pay dividends. In any case, the commercial success or failure of drill will continue to be decided not by record execs or YouTube views, but rather on the attention span of its audience.

“That’s business at the end of the day,” said Roche.