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Photographed by Jack Farrar @jack_farrar_

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29 November 2022

The Thrill of Drill

RHEA BUFFINI

I was speaking to a friend about their favourite music genre, and I asked “what attracts you to Drill”?

My friend responded:

"I like Drill because it’s a cinematic experience that shows people taking extraordinary risks in their lives. Risks I would never take. Why do you like ‘Peaky Blinders’ or ‘Scarface’? In both you would not want to experience the reality of the protagonist, but it does make for great entertainment.

 

I was curious to research more about the culture surrounding Drill; a sub-genre with song lyrics entrenched in the violence of gang culture and drug-taking. The aforementioned friend compares the fictional narrative of ‘Peaky Blinders’ to the reality of the Drill artists bars. Drill music promises us the same sadistic kick we get from watching the violence innate in the masculine archetype of Thomas Shelby. Yet, much like Cillian Murphy's role as an actor in constructing a character is there not an element of performativity to the Drill persona? 

 

I decided to investigate two veteran gangsters, Loski and Tupac, whose popularity is arguably intertwined with their affiliation to violence and gang culture. Loski and Tupac are incomparable in terms of  importance or influence but are useful in displaying the cultural fascination with the male gangster-rap figure, spanning from the 1990s in the US (Tupac) to present-day London (Loski). 

 

Drill is an off-shoot of UK rap that originated in South London. The genre has been condemned in the press for its violent content, glorification of gang culture and heavy drug use. Terms frequently used such as ‘bagging’ (stabbing in the lower body) and ‘score’ (to kill an enemy) are merely peripheral examples of the genre’s distinct vernacular that seemingly aims to incite aggression. 

 

Loski is a pioneer in the Drill game as head of the Harlem Spartans, beginning his rap career at the age of 11. Living on the poverty-stricken estate Kennings Way in South London and drug dealing or ‘shotting’ from the young age of 13, Loski has ample ammunition for his loaded lyricism, coining the name the ‘King’ of Kennings-Way. But even this prolific gang-member admitted in an interview to the YouTuber ZeZe Mills that he is prone to exaggeration to encourage viewership: 

"I don’t look scary, so I have to say something that looks scarier than I am. 

You have to sound as real as possible otherwise you don’t get too far...in Drill you antagonise people, you make it sound as outrageous as possible, you take something that someone said and make it even better."  

In Loski’s music there is a degree of violence glorification in order to appeal to the commercial popularity of aggression in rap music. The extreme lyrics may prompt Loski to act on his bars; an exaggeration could manifest into a real action.  

Tupac could be considered as the pinnacle of gangster rap.  Despite principally alluding to  his participation in the West Coast Gangs’ rivalries,  reading into Tupac’s upbringing brought another dimension to the infamous rapper, establishing an alternate narrative to that of gangster raps poster-boy. 

 

An upbringing characterised by hardship and poverty, Tupac grew up in Harlem,  before moving to Baltimore in 1984. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was an addict involved in a series of abusive relationships. Despite this, during his childhood Tupac’s poetic craft was being carefully curated. In her youth, Afeni was an influential member of the Black-Panther party. Tupac’s heritage then was one of political activism; Afeni’s radicalism demonstrated to her son the power of language as a weapon of defiance. The arts also played an important role in Tupac’s early years. Tupac in his 1995 deposition recounts his time studying at Baltimore School of Arts where he learnt ‘ballet, poetry, jazz, music, everything, Shakespeare, acting, everything as well as academic[s].’ His youth was influenced by artistry within the wider backdrop of political radicalism. But Tupac at this point is not the popularised gangster loved by so many. He is a boy navigating life’s difficult circumstances and finding a passion for music. 

 

It was when Tupac moved to LA in 1992 that his affiliation to gang culture began. In an interview, Tupac states that when he first arrived in LA ‘I didn’t have a slingshot, I didn’t have a knife, I didn’t even have sharp nails.’ It was upon entering the fast-paced and cut-throat commercial atmosphere of LA that his gangster persona became well and truly established. 

 

He became fascinated with the culture of gang-life, a fascination clearly extant in his lyrics which allude to his own involvement within the criminality of these warring factions. On the red album cover to ‘Strictly 4 my N*****’ the red alluded to his connection to the Bloods gang (a West Coast gang) whilst he often cruised with the Crips (another West Coast gang). In reality, he was not a member of either gang; the album aiding in the perpetuation of  these rivalries. Morpreme, a rapper and Tupac’s step brother, suggested that Tupac was being accused of being a ‘fake gangster rapper’ (Takedown of Tupac, Bruck) Tupac then made it his mission to disprove this claim. 

 

Tupac consolidated his image of a gangster with the release of ‘thug life’ championing the ‘Thug Life’ tattoo to match. As his career soared, he was walking an increasingly precarious line , wearing ‘red around the Crips, and blue around [the] Bloods’ (Takedown of Tupac, Bruck). In 1993 Tupac shot two off-duty police officers in Atlanta, and later that year he was accused of sexual assault on an unidentified woman. In 1994 Tupac was caught in a shoot-down in a Times Square music studio; the assailants robbed him then fled. Following this in 1995, Tupac was committed to prison for the sexual assault allegation. Tupac’s aspirational gang obsession became his reality. 

 

After serving 9 months of his four-and-a-half-year sentence he was released after Suge Knight (a music executive) offered to finance Tupac’s appeal in exchange for a record deal. Tupac left prison and joined Death Row Records. This marked the beginning of the end. Death Row fueled and encouraged Tupac’s gang-lifestyle; his key role was to pour lyrical gasoline on the fire of East and West Coast rivalries. The feud between the East coast and West coast rappers, whilst beginning verbally, became more extreme: Tupac, alongside with others, brutally attacked a New York record promoter.

 

At an event with the Death Row crew, a Mike Tyson fight in LA,Tupac was shot in a drive-by shooting. Tupac’s murder remains unsolved, yet it is irrefutable that both his rise in Death Row and in the LA rap industry are inextricably connected to his death. 

 

Despite the elapsing of 30 years since Tupac and Loski emerged onto the Drill scene, the trend in prevalence for these rappers remains the same:there exists a positive correlation between involvement in the gangster lifestyle, and the commercial popularity of the artist. 

 

These artists come from difficult beginnings and their bars recount this experience. Initially, the lyrics seemed to be an exaggeration of the truth, a performance aimed at electrifying the audience. But, as a consequence, the rift between the rappers' lived experience and their lyrics began to contract; the rappers’ lives began to mirror their words. It has created a fanbase fascinated by its incendiary lyrics and lifestyle, the allure of commercial interest encouraging rappers to spit these exaggerated lyrics. 

 

So back to my Drill-listening friend (notably a white middle-class male) who sits comfortably on his sofa, watching a YouTube clip of the latest Drill release. Whilst doing so he may wish to ponder his role in eulogising the gangster rapper stereotype, the violence it encourages, and how this plays directly into the hands of the commercial market. 

Works cited:

 

ZeZe Mills Show: FT Loski “These Guys Doing Drill Aren’t Really gangsters.” 2020. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78SnPpSBXMo 

 

Bruck, Connie. “The Takedown of Tupac.” 1997. The New Yorker. 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/07/07/the-takedown-of-tupac

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