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A ‘dark cloud’ follows Chicago’s drill scene

King Von’s specialty, for some, is purely entertainment. And for others, it’s the difference between life and death.

“People don’t know the founder of drill and if you heard that music, you wouldn’t know it’s drill,” said Chicago rapper King Louie, of the late drill rapper Pacman.
“People don’t know the founder of drill and if you heard that music, you wouldn’t know it’s drill,” said Chicago rapper King Louie, of the late drill rapper Pacman.
Jessica Koscielniak / Sun-Times

When Chicago rapper King Von, 26, was killed in a shootout in front of an Atlanta nightclub Friday after his album release party, he became the latest cautionary tale of drill, a hip-hop subgenre known for dark and violent lyrics.

The number of murders connected to it often play out on social media, and while it isn’t the only musical style entrenched with violent themes, it seems to dominate mainstream media headlines.

While artists such as Chief Keef, King Louie, Katie Got Bandz, G Herbo and Lil Durk are readily known by music fans, slain drill rapper Pacman is considered to be the innovator of the subgenre.

“People don’t know the founder of drill and, if you heard that music, you wouldn’t know it’s drill,” said King Louie, a Grammy-nominated songwriter for Kanye West’s 2013 single “New Slaves,” when referring to Pacman. “Most people who talk about drill, 90 percent of those people don’t know Pacman, so it’s like thinking that Christopher Columbus discovered America.”

The rise of the subgenre coincides with the interest by right-wing media pundits and elected officials in Chicago violence. When Chicago rapper FBG Duck was murdered on the Gold Coast in August, the content of his music — wherein self-proclaimed gang faction ties and threats toward adversaries are prevalent — spurred Chicago police to warn citizens of a “high probability of retaliatory gang violence” in South Side police districts.

Rapper King Von, from Chicago, was killed Friday in Atlanta.
Audible Treats

“There is an incredibly dark cloud that also is backed up by handcuffs and jail cells,” said sociologist Forrest Stuart, the author of “Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy.” “Drill has become the latest ‘folk devil’ in the city. ... It’s just the latest in a long line of codes that allow policymakers and officials to look the other way like the kinds of structural issues that we know are hamstringing Black communities.”

In the book, Stuart cites a University of Chicago study that says Black teens create more online content than any other racial group. In February, the Sun-Times reported that less than 5 percent of workers at Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are Black.

Drill also crosses paths with hip-hop’s “Blog Era’ — a period where local artists such as The Cool Kids and Kidz in the Hall made names for themselves by releasing new content via music blogs instead of relying on music industry gatekeepers, along with rappers with strong, national DIY followings such as Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Curren$y, and Gary, Indiana, native Freddie Gibbs, among others.

“These guys all blew up and had all these videos with millions of plays, and all this notoriety and songs and mixtapes getting downloaded,” said Andrew Barber, owner-creator of “Fake Shore Drive,” a Chicago music blog. “But none of it counted toward the new certifications that the RIAA has in place or the Billboard charts.”

Due to the subgenre’s reputation, many record companies refused to sign drill artists; their music was banned by venues.

“I just thought you need to have these ridiculous bar guarantees and rental fees, and later in life I find out that was just a Black thing, or a risk assessment type of thing, even though there was never a risk,” said concert promoter and Complex Studios co-founder Marques “Merk” Elliston, who says he partnered with Hologram USA to have Chief Keef’s hologram perform at a Hammond, Indiana, venue before local police shut it down citing safety issues. “That’s why you see the lack of remorse for a lot of these people [struggling to keep venues alive].”

Due to those fears, some of the genre’s artists are opting to move away from the drama.

“It was a part of our lives; we saw it as normal,” said Bronzeville native Sasha Go Hard, who is featured in the theme song for the Comedy Central series “South Side.” “It became a trend to start dissing people. … These are not just songs that people are making; it’s really happening. It was easy for me to branch away from drill. I went a different route by touring overseas and making EDM songs.”

Chicago drill artist Sasha Go Hard
Chicago artist Sasha Go Hard says she branched away from drill music.
Mike Jue/Provided Photo

The current group of artists echoes Sasha’s sentiments through another offshoot of the subgenre called “Melodic Drill,” made popular by chart-topping Cabrini-Green native Polo G, who left the city because of the notoriety — positive and negative — the music brings.

“I just wanted to get away from the city,” Polo G told the Sun-Times in an interview earlier this year. “I just know that ... I’ll always love my hometown, but I just know that you can get in a lot of trouble … especially someone of my caliber; you’re bound to get into something. … I feel like everything happens for a reason, so I don’t necessarily regret it.”

Despite the subgenre’s faults, its legacy looms large as drill is now utilized by New York and British rap artists. And in a similar twist of fate, New York’s drill scene has drawn the ire of local law enforcement who’ve shut down its shows by getting them pulled from concert/festival lineups.

“I think Chicago drill will always have a dark cloud over it no matter what just because of the history and things continuing to happen,” said Barber. “As far as on an industry level, people have always asked me why has New York’s [drill scene] blown up, but it doesn’t get the same criticism as Chicago or London.”

During the Los Angeles Lakers’ post-championship celebration, Chief Keef’s 2014 track “Faneto” was a part of the soundtrack (the video has 33 million YouTube views to date); the Englewood native released the track after he was dropped from Interscope Records.

In September, a photo of a London-based mural of Chief Keef was seen on social media, where local hip-hop fans view that as a reminder that he isn’t allowed to perform in his home city and is relegated to performing virtual concerts — pandemic or not.