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7 September 2023

Drill music is the real global Britain 

We think of the UK’s cultural exports along the Harrods airport concession model, but rappers are also doing their bit.

By Josiah Gogarty

Squint, and it looks like a map of the European Economic Community circa 1986. The cover art for No Borders, a mixtape released last November by the UK drill rapper Headie One, highlights countries the project’s guest artists come from: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Albania. Over 11 songs and in more than half a dozen languages, the album sketches out a rather un-PC version of a frictionless, cosmopolitan Europe. Free movement means Headie One’s Tottenham crew linking up with collaborators in the rougher neighbourhoods of Paris and Milan. Free trade is measured in Balmain jeans and bricks of cocaine.

This drift towards the continent isn’t exceptional. We tend to think of the UK’s cultural exports along the Harrods airport concession model: pubs, Downton Abbey, Harry Potter, tea with the King. But rappers are also doing their bit for global Britain. “Sprinter”, a song by Central Cee and Dave, spent ten straight weeks as the UK number one from 1 June, matching Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. It also went number one in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland, and made it into every major European pop chart. Separately, both artists have collaborated with French rappers to score number ones across the Channel: Dave with “Meridian”, and Central Cee with “Eurostar”, in which he raps about a Parisian groupie taking the train to visit him in London.

These songs are relatively radio-friendly. But a particularly influential UK export is drill, a rap subgenre of nihilistic, violent lyrics accompanied by gunshot sounds and funereal church bells. Drill emerged in Chicago in the early 2010s, before coming to London, where it acquired the lurching sub-bass that’s now a sonic hallmark. From there, it spread across Europe and the world. Central Cee’s song “Eurovision”is a good deal darker than the song contest, but no less international: it cycles through four languages in as many minutes; the music video takes in tower blocks in Milan’s San Siro, London’s Shepherd’s Bush, Barcelona’s La Florida and Paris’s Pantin.

There are now drill scenes pretty much everywhere. People make YouTube videos splicing together eastern European drill or Middle Eastern drill or Asian drill. Stylistic tropes from the UK – tracksuits, football shirts and balaclavas – are usually present. The production is often UK-inspired. And in countries such as Australia, where gun laws are tight, Britain’s abundance of slang for stabbing – drill, ching, splash, dip, drench, kweng, poke, soak, chef and shave – comes in handy. As one of Central Cee’s Italian collaborators, Rondodasosa, said last year, “everyone listens to UK drill”.

Why? Possibly because the US’s level of street violence is simply too exceptional to be relatable. Most US cities have murder rates well into double figures per 100,000 people. In European cities, and those in much of the world outside the Americas, the rate barely ever hits five. A distinct feature of drill, compared with other violent rap music, is specificity: references to individual murders and particular gang rivalries. And though drill is popular in the US, it doesn’t have the dominance within rap music that it does elsewhere. Glamourising violence invites less criticism, and is morally simpler, in places where it’s less debilitating. It can sometimes be unintentionally funny, with rappers trying to make out that the mean streets of Dublin or Copenhagen equate to Baltimore or Chicago.

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Not only does everyone listen to UK drill – the UK seems keen on everyone else’s drill, particularly when it comes from Europe. Pressplay Media, which releases a constant stream of drill videos on YouTube, denotes foreign ones with flag emojis in the title: Turkey, Albania, Ireland, Poland and Greece have popped up in the past few months. Another British channel, Mixtape Madness, has two spin-offs of its “Next Up?” series dedicated to France and Germany. Europeans work with each other too – “Europa”, a “Eurovision”-esque song, has verses in French, Italian, Spanish and Albanian.

In the videos, the language barrier is often dealt with via subtitles. Headie One has a track, for example, with an English translation for French lyrics and vice versa. Just as TV audiences now binge on Korean dramas or French comedies, drill fans are treated to rappers from abroad bragging about their women and weapons – albeit in translations that do no justice to clever rhyme schemes or intricate wordplay. It’s very different from previous cultural dynamics, when Hollywood forced its product on the world, and the few non-US rappers put on American accents and acted like they came from the Bronx.

There are two reasons the European drill and wider rap scene is particularly cohesive. One is football, which European rappers reference a lot, both to signal their wealth and as a source of figurative language (such as saying your knife-work deserves highlights on Match of the Day). European football is the peak of continental cosmopolitanism: players are traded internationally between clubs; clubs play other countries’ clubs in the Champions League. Growing up on this, as these rappers do, provides a shared set of reference points and an existing model of integration to follow.

The other is immigration. Hip hop was born as African American music. In Europe, particularly western Europe, it is largely immigrant music. Most British and French rappers have heritage in their countries’ former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. Many Italian and Spanish rappers have ties to the Maghreb or the Balkans. This makes their music more likely to spread: it’s associated not with a culturally distinct group, as hip hop is in the US, but with the very act of moving around.

Europe has essentially developed a kind of rap Gaullism, or strategic hip hop autonomy. It is self-confident and increasingly immune from American influence. In “UK Rap”, a song from the same EP as Dave and Central Cee’s “Sprinter”, the pair deride a girl for “playin’ hella Americans” on her car stereo. When Central Cee visited a Los Angeles radio station last year, he rapped an entire verse explaining the differences between UK and US slang, as if to say: this is how we do things. Eurodrill, if it can be called that, is no substitute for a proper army or coherent foreign policy. But it’s a corrective to the argument that US cultural power, via exports such as the Black Lives Matter movement, is as irresistible as ever. Uncle Sam no longer has all the best tunes.

[See also: Art shouldn’t be good for you]

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