Drill music and the Belgian rap scene

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The rough sound born in the streets of Chicago is making a lasting impact on the sound of Belgian rap.

Over the past few years, drill has been the latest craze in the global hip hop scene. The rap subgenre is known for its irregular rhythmic beats and intensely dark, often violent lyrics describing the streets' hardships and everyday struggles. Yet, in many ways, it can be seen as a counter-movement grounded in the harsh reality that rejects the bling many rappers parade with.

Chief Kief’s ‘I Don’t Like’ can be considered the first big drill anthem. This track would propel the gritty Chicago sound to cities across the globe. It wouldn’t take long before the hype bounced onto the UK (where it would truly come to fruition), New York and eventually France. In Belgium, too, drill has made a significant impact on today's hip hop scene. Rappers like Dyllz, Duggy D, Frenetik, Freddie Konings, Gotti Maras   and     Hamza   all have put their skills up to the challenge. To take stock of this phenomenon, we’ve checked in with Tarmac’s Maximilienne Lupini, rapper Cedje, JEUNESBOSS label manager Michaël Kash and Check’s Martin Vachiery.

Maximilienne Lupini (BPM host, Tarmac, RTBF)

Who would you call the pioneers of drill music in Belgium?

“It’s hard to say, but the first titles that come to mind are ‘Drill Is Back’ and ‘Blauw Freestyle’, released in 2019 by Cedje, who seems to be one of the first in Belgium to give it a shot. Another mention has to go to Mvnsi, who went for drill on his track ‘Squad’. Later on, guys like Zwangere Guy, Gotti Maras and Gutti would follow, but I wouldn’t label them as pioneers, yet they made a huge impact.”

What sets drill apart from other genres in hip hop?

“The beat is built on lots of heavy kicks and sharp snares. Even if you don’t know the genre at all, it’s fairly easy to recognize. Even though the sound can be quite morbid and dark, people can’t get enough of it! By now, the general lyrics have shifted from talking about life in the streets to more to ‘celebratory’ hymns because not all rappers come from such violent backgrounds as Chicago’s South Side. Everyone is free to develop him or herself into this genre that’s still developing. That’s why it’s hard to define the French or Belgian take on the genre.”

Even if you don’t know the genre at all, it’s fairly easy to recognize.

Who should we keep our eyes on?

“I place my bet on Cedje, Gutti, Gotti Maras, Freddie Konings and Frenetik. At the same time, artists evolve all the time, so it’s possible that drill won’t be a point of fixation for too much longer. Just because we are experiencing a bit of a drill frenzy at the moment, it doesn't mean these artists should be stamped for the rest of their careers. We'll see what the future holds for us.”

Cedje (rapper)

What got you into drill?

“Since I first learned about the drill sound in Chicago, I was thrilled. I love the dark beats and the fast rhythms. Later, when the UK drill movement took shape a couple of years ago, I really got into it. I've kept on digging deeper, and I’m in love with the genre ever since.”

Drill is tough as nails and it draws the attention - people like that.

What makes the audience vibe so much with drill music?

“I think it depicts a reality that, for most people, looks very far away from theirs. Just like in movies, when things are almost too unrealistic, that's when the audience gets hooked. It's tough as nails, and it draws the attention; people like that. For other fans and artists, it's their reality. The lyrics reflect their daily realities, so they relate to the stories being told in the music.”

How do you think drill is going to evolve in Belgium?

“I think we're onto something. If you listen to my songs, you know it’s me. Artists in Belgium can make their own sound, and nobody will copy them. For example, this is different in the UK, where they almost exclusively rap about violence, which doesn't apply here as much. Out here, we tend to give more attention to social issues or personal experiences. That’s how I do, and I talk about my life and the environment around me.”

“Additionally, people are increasingly open to listening to local artists, compared to a few years ago. I predict drill will gradually lean more towards pop music, as you can already hear in subgenres like ‘blije drill’, ‘RnBDrill’ and ‘PopDrill’. These sounds are more suitable for a mainstream audience, not really focused on the violence many artists don't want to be associated with. Others, like me, want to show another side of the story that takes a more positive spin on drill. In the tree of hip hop, the drill branch is developing its own branches over time.”

Michael Kash (JEUNESBOSS label manager)

How would you define the drill genre?

“To me, drill is a derivative of trap music. First, the difference lies in the rhythmicality, where the high hats are different from those in traditional trap music. Drill skips a high hat, which creates the signature rhythm of the genre. Lyrically, it's all quite dark, but what I like most about drill is the motivation to beat the competition.”

Drill tracks rank in the top charts on Spotify, which shows that radio no longer dictates what people listen to.

Why is the genre so appealing to so many rappers?

“It's the energy and competition. Artists always have had a message to pass through; only the medium changes, and today that medium is drill. That's what's hot now, but if we’re all into rumba tomorrow, then that's what we're going to do. For now, we're just looking to see who's the best driller and who adapts best to the market and spin it to their advantage. Take Hamza, for example. His sound and melodies were unique in francophone rap, so he rose to the top. The point is doing something new by doing their own thing and keeping a true message while adapting to the new instrumentals.”

What’s your take on the increase of drill’s popularity in Belgium?

“It's cool to see it go off because our Belgian drill artists handle it well. It's a genre for everybody. Working in radio, I understand why certain songs are not in rotation (mostly because of violent lyrics). Still, drill tracks rank in the top charts on Spotify, which shows that radio no longer dictates what people listen to. In the long run, I think drill is here to stay, and it's probably going to crossbreed with other genres.”

Who should be looked out for?

“For the rappers: Frenetik. And for the producers: Yahmanny    and Rayane Beats.” 

Martin Vachiery (Editor-in-chief at CHECK)

What can you say about the current drill movement in Belgium?

“There's been this interesting race to know who the realest, the most ‘ghetto’ or ‘gang’ driller is. I’d say we don't have that many ‘real drillers’ in Belgium, which isn't a bad thing because even though it's cool, it's a bloody tough image to convey. When a new sound arrives somewhere that has nothing to do with the initial environment or culture, it has less chance to stick around because it’s not as simple as just wearing North Face puffer jackets and balaclava masks.” 

Drill has become so popular that almost every rapper has done a track on drill instrumentals by now.

“Drill has become so popular that almost every rapper has done a track on drill instrumentals by now. Even Romeo Elvis has done so, who, as a young middle-class white guy, incarnates the antithesis of drill's gang culture and where it comes from. The original drill guys from the US and the UK talk about stuff like abducting and murdering rival gang members. You can’t really adapt this to your own reality when you come from Auderghem, can you? It isn't easy to figure where we stand because one can rap on a drill instrumental and say whatever they want. Or you can take on the drill lifestyle, which doesn't match the artistic approach of our local artists.”

Where do you think the genre is going?

“You can find drill everywhere, from Italy to Ukraine and Brazil. It just became a huge trend, and Belgium followed the move. Sometimes, our country can be slow in picking up trends, but we're often a step ahead with other cool movements. Drill has already travelled a lot, and local artists have added their personal touch, but I'm waiting to see someone bring drill to another level.”

I predict drill will have a similar fate as trap, which merged with electronic music and marked many other genres.

"I tend to look for the most authentic driller, rather than someone who will revolutionize the game. Besides, I think drill music has already reached its maturity stage in which it's getting remixed and repurposed. I think it reached its peak time around 2019, early 2020. Some pretty albums have been released, especially in the francophone scene, like the ones of Freeze Corleone or Ashe 22. The genre’s take-off was very fast and powerful, but usually, when a trend gets hype like that, it can easily go down just as quickly. Still, I don't really think drill is going to go away so easily. I predict it will have a similar fate as trap, which merged with electronic music and marked many other genres. I think now is the time to see how long this movement is going to last.”