Almost two years ago, Kanye West dropped a remixed version of the infectious drill rap single "I Don't Like," changing the life of its original owner, a then-rising 16-year-old street rapper named Keith Cozart, as well as altering the fortunes of an entire community — just not in ways anybody had anticipated.
Thanks in part to its star-heavy remix, "I Don't Like" became an unlikely national crossover hit for Cozart, better known as Chief Keef, and offered mainstream audiences their first exposure to drill. Born out of the violence and chaos on the South Side, drill is hyper-realistic and pitiless; raw-nerved tales told by people who are inside, rather than just observers of the life, set to doomsday beats.
By most reckonings, drill peaked during the summer of 2012, when Keef played the Lollapalooza and Pitchfork music festivals and signed to Interscope Records, a deal reportedly worth almost six million dollars (that figure includes performance targets; he likely won't see all of it). Several other local rappers, including Lil Durk and Lil Reese, also signed deals.
Thanks to drill, Chicago was and mostly still is the hottest hip-hop destination on the planet for music journalists, record label executives, disaster tourists and fans. But almost two years have passed since the Summer of Keef — an eternity in the life of a white-hot microgenre — and only one major drill project (Keef's official debut, "Finally Rich") and a handful of near-great mixtapes (Lil Herb's "Welcome to Fazoland," King Louie's "Drilluminati 2") have been released, Keef spent the winter on a leisurely tour of West Coast rehab facilities, and drill is dead.
"It's definitely not as popular as it once was," says Andrew Barber, editor of hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive (fakeshoredrive.com. "There's been so much bad press surrounding it. People are tired of it. ... People wanted an alternative to drill. There's so much more happening in the city that hasn't received press."
Drill, which once provided a valuable microphone for a voiceless generation of young rappers, was overwhelmed by a crush of imitators: There were too many uninspired mixtapes (several of them from Keef, now an AutoTuned caricature of himself), and not enough stars.
There were other, more serious issues, too: Last week, rapper Blood Money was shot and killed. In 2012 teenage rapper Lil JoJo was killed; Keef, with whom he had feuded, allegedly gloated about the murder on Twitter (he later claimed his account was hacked). A video of rapper Lil Reese allegedly beating a young woman also went viral. "I think there was a lot of things that happened in 2012 that put a black eye on drill," Barber says. "It became a bad word, not that it was ever a positive genre. The Lil JoJo thing, some of the videos that came out gave it a black eye, and a lot of the people who were pumping it up disappeared after that."
Music journalists, who preferred their street violence at an artistic remove, began to distance themselves. "People want to know all this stuff," explains Ibn Inglor, part of a new crop of rappers who have come up in drill's wake, "but they really don't want to know everything."
Drill has made stars out of several Chicago rappers, just not the ones it was meant to. Non-drill artists like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa, leveraging the increased attention from journalists and label executives, became nationally known much faster than they would have otherwise. Nerd-like, experimental and controversy-free, Chance and Mensa have in turn helped foster a new wave of rappers. Many of them, in the time-honored tradition of artists everywhere, draw from both sides, incorporating elements from drill and from Chance's unclassifiable, soul-and-psych-heavy sound, but also from drill antecedent trap, and the clattering industrial beats of West's "Yeezus."
"I like to think of myself as somewhere in between," says Saba, a member of the influential Pivot Gang crew, who landed a career-making feature on Chance's "Acid Rap" mixtape. "Not in the sense of sound, but (in) subject matter, the only difference between me and most of the drill rappers is perspective. They'll talk about drug deals or something like that (in the first person). My raps are a front porch kind of perspective."
The experiences and struggles documented by drill rappers aren't theirs alone, Inglor points out. "The drill artists, even though they're from different areas, we all share the same pain," he says. "The pain of either not having a father or having to deal with family loss or homie loss. I like to attack mine a bit differently...I like to explain things a bit differently and not be so direct, but be honest still, just keep it metaphoric. I don't want to put anybody on blast."
In the wake of Keef and Chance (Chicago hip-hop's "yin and yang, so to speak," says Barber), the national spotlight remains on Chicago, and local artists are jockeying for position. "I feel like drill is dying down because there's only so much you can take of the same stuff just over and over," says Logan, a 19- year-old rapper from Little Village who headlines a show at Reggie's Rock Club Sunday night (Saba will also perform). "I think the window of opportunity for artists such as myself is bigger. ... I look at it as an advantage. People are looking for something different. Chicago's hot right now, and I'm what's different."
YP, a non-drill rapper who frequently collaborates with drill heavyweights like Lil Durk and King Louie, signed a major label deal in the months before Keef broke. "We all had different voices and different views, but (I knew that) the light was coming, it was inevitable." YP was recently dropped from his label. "It was a great experience for me, the things that I got to do," he says. "I got to soak up knowledge. ... I got to see what Canada is like. It's dope."
These days, says YP, he prefers to remain independent. It may be the greatest lesson taken from the Great Gold Rush of 2012: Not one of the rappers interviewed will admit to wanting a major label deal ("I'd consider it," allows Logan). Most everyone is afraid of signing a deal, then being shelved because they weren't ready. "A lot of people get mad when other artists make it before them," says Inglor, 21. "It was (Keef's) time to make it. It's not my time yet. ... Maybe I'm not ready for it yet. I have a lot more developing to do."
2014 could still be the Year of Drill, if enough of those long-gestating major label projects get released and if Keef's official sophomore effort, "Bang 3," (scheduled for June) is a hit. Or drill could revert to its pre-Keef state as an enduringly popular local phenomenon, like hyphy. Talk to almost any professional hip-hop head, and you'll hear the same thing: Everyone has grown tired of drill, except for all the people who listen to it. "I don't know if it's post-drill yet," says Barber. "The kids still listen to it."
Everyone else is hoping to get their moment in the spotlight, before it moves on to another town.
"With Chicago having the spotlight now, even though our music is unrelated, it gave everyone else an opportunity to go national, I feel like," says Saba. "I still don't think Chicago has reached the peak of what's going to happen. I still see a lot more coming."
When: Sunday, 5:30 p.m. (doors)
Where: Reggie's Rock Club, 2105 S. State St.
Price: $7-$10; 312-949-0120 or Ticketfly.com
6 Chicago rappers to watch
This 21-year-old from Altgeld Gardens earned a lot of not-entirely-helpful comparisons to Kanye West when his breakout project, the darkly experimental "New Wave," dropped last September. (His first name is pronounced like "ribbon.")
Find him: On Twitter @IbnInglor
Check out: "New Wave 2," which dropped last week.
This nineteen year-old from Austin has only dropped one project, but he's a well-connected member of the up-and-coming Pivot Gang, and a verified FOC (Friend Of Chance). He specializes in soulful, woozy hip-hop.
Find him: On Twitter @sabaPIVOT
Check out: "Secondhand Smoke," from his long-aborning "COMFORTzone" project, due out later this spring.
Probably the most nationally hyped rapper on this list (Pharrell and Justin Timberlake have both talked him up on Twitter), and the one with the deftest, twistiest wordplay. And he's only seventeen.
Find him: On Twitter @LuckiECKS197
Check out: His "Alternative Trap" mixtape, the purest amalgam of drill and Chance-style experimental rap one could hope to find.
The South Shore rapper and major label escapee could have also made this list of almost-famous locals two years ago. He's that good. And that unlucky.
Find him: On Twitter @YP27
Check out: The King Louie collaboration "X n O's," from his new project, "Backwood Jones."
This Little Village/Pilsen rapper has only been taking a career in hip-hop seriously for about eight months but he's ridiculously good, and might need only one mixtape to go national ("1636," his debut, will likely be released later this year).
Find him: On Twitter @FeoMob_
Check out: No big breakthrough yet, but in March he dropped a track a week on Chicago-based website Fake Shore Drive, all of which are worth a listen.
A member of the Village, a rising local crew that also includes Isaiah Rashad and Kembe X, Deaux sings and raps. We'll know more when her first real project, "Soular System," drops, but all those Lauryn Hill comparisons so far seem reasonable.
Find her: On Twitter @ThatsJeanDeaux
Check out: The video for "Escape," directed by Deaux and featuring her cousin, Saba.