Chicago drill rap is a scene which, some odd eight years ago, practically revolutionized hip hop. The genre’s songs, which are typically hallmarked by furious lyrical outbursts over dark trap beats, have long been controversial due to the violent and nihilist nature of their lyrical content. But the most unsettling aspect of the Chicago drill scene, for unfamiliar onlookers, should not be the egregiously violent lyrics which these artists jam their songs with; but rather, the age, of these artists.
For instance, Chief Keef was 16 when his fame jettisoned him from the Drill-sphere into the eyes of the mainstream public. Or take the case of L’a Capone and RondoNumbaNine. The two rappers were 17 and 16 respectively when their hit single “Play for Keeps” came out, racking up millions of views on YouTube. This rush of young stars, who were all peddling violent lyrics as a selling point, naturally led to more critical scrutiny of the genre — especially when 18-year-old rapper Joseph Coleman, or Lil Jojo, was shot and killed after an internet beef with Chief Keef affiliate Lil Reese. Many critics used Coleman’s death as a platform to disparage the genre for its crass presentation of violence and frequent inciteful taunts, dubbing it a harmful cultural construct which encouraged criminal activity.
But this is something of a misdiagnosis, for these critics having erroneously exchanged the cause with the effect. The medium is not the cause of black struggle, but rather a cultural expression of it — even if the way the medium is packaged and received by white consumers does not reflect this. This is, in large part, the crux of the problem; there is a monumental disconnect between the way these pieces of media are consumed by a near 80% white college-aged male listener base, and the way they ought to be recognized. At times, due to the hypermasculine bravado which insulates the genre, the reality, the truth of struggle that underpins the commercialized product which is received, becomes obfuscated to the consumer. The majority-white consumer base is blind to the socioeconomic conditions of struggle and inequality which the medium is the product of, and the tides of history recede into nothingness in the face of the genre’s flashy jewelry and brazen shit-talking.
But when one pays attention, this reality is clear. Two months after “Play for Keeps” was released, L’a Capone was tragically shot and killed after a late night studio recording session. Shortly after, RondoNumbaNine recorded “Life of a Savage” as a tribute to his fallen friend, filming the music video at Capone’s funeral. Rondo begins by rapping that he “done been through a lotta shit, [and] seen a lotta shit.” But, he continues, in what is something of a furious resignation, “that’s [just] the life of a savage.” On paper, it seems a simple line; but there is something cold and sobering, something that conveys something much deeper, about watching the then 16-year-old rapper recite it as he stares down the camera with angry, beady eyes and low hoodie. He looks almost defeated, as though he has only just come to accept, although not without anger, the suffering and pain which is his to bear.
All the elements of the drill persona of hypermasculinity are present in the song — the vitriolic anger, the taunting finger-pistols, the disdain — and yet, there is a deep pain that can be felt beneath all this. But it is a pain which passes through, and by consequence is altered by, the myth of what urban black masculinity needs to be — to be invincible, to never feel pain but only anger. The end result is a song which is an inextricable synthesis of pain and rage; rage for the death of his friend, rage at being trapped, rage at a world which has never cared to know his struggles. Five months later, RondoNumbaNine was arrested in connection to a murder charge.
GMEBE Pistol’s “Letter to Shayla and Roe, Part 2” is a similar tributary, but it is instead marked by a deep despondency; Pistol delivers the song in a borderline nihilist tone which is enough to tear at the heartstrings of even the most steely listeners. The song, as the name indicates, is dedicated to two of Pistol’s closest friends; his sister Shayla Raymond, who was killed in a hit and run after running into the street to escape several male harassers, and bestfriend Roemello Golden, who was gunned down by a childhood friend just after shaking hands with him.
The beat of the song is a stark departure from the usual dark Chicago drill beats. The song samples the 1979 “Whole Lotta Something Going On” by Raphael Ravenscroft over a pair of somber, melancholic horns, the effect of which is a deeply moving backdrop for Pistol’s raps. The beat and the delivery are paired perfectly; in each, a deep-seated longing can be heard, each one redounding off the other, heightening the other’s effect. The way the sampled singers’ pained voice reaches a breaking point; Pistol’s mournful delivery; the doleful horns recurring intermittently; the dark orange sunset glowing wistfully in the background of the clips as Pistol raps in the street; each element coalesces into one singular, auditory-visual concentration of struggle, pain, and mourning.
In a way, this departure from the typical conventions of Chiacago drill beats is rather emblematic, for what Pistol has encapsulated quite totally in this song is the other side of Chicago drill . The song does not shy away or skirt around emotional vulnerability as other songs in the genre do; it functions as an emotional conduit, a direct corridor into the heart, a humanization of the suffering which is so often depicted by the music industry without a second thought.
In the opening lines, the rapper raps, “Shit real, I never thought it would’ve been you / I’m seventeen, but it’s crazy what I’ve been through.” In the most literalist reading of these lines, it truly is absurd what Pistol has been through. Someone at a young age should know no such poverty and dejection and violence — yet here he is, rapping about dead friends and family members. Worse, as Pistol continues, “Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me / But then I realize this shit affects the whole C.” In this, the volume of the struggle and pain which the song depicts begins to crystallize. This is not just one tragic story, or some wild anomaly of the system — no, this is the story of America’s urban black youth, the natural prognostication of the American system. And this is really the crux of it: Pistol is just one of many, his rap persona merely giving a face to the many faceless who have been left behind, his art an effigy of the great mass of black struggle which lies ignored, sequestered by the public conscience.
In a way, this is what is at stake with the video’s intermittent shots of the glittering, plexiglass Chicago skyscrapers and the dusky downtown roadways carpeted with cars. Much like the arrogant swagger of typical drill rap, when taken at face value, these images, although they may be the public eye’s preferred depiction, do not tell the whole story. They occlude context, obscure a reality. The shots of a glistening city at twilight is just one side of Chicago, one side of the great American narrative we tell ourselves — the shots of Pistol rapping with interlaced family pictures of lost loved ones is entirely another.
That other side of the American narrative is one which finds its roots in a long history of racialized socioeconomic factors. Black residents of Chicago have long faced systemic discrimination at the hands of segregated schools with inadequate funding, a lack of job opportunities, and a number of other institutional failures. The public housing which these rappers are brought up in are often underfunded and neglected, and should put Americans to shame. For instance, Altgeld Gardens, one of the biggest housing projects in Chicago and the birthplace of the late Lil Jojo, lacks basic plumbing and garbage disposal. Further, it is constructed in a location surrounded by 53 toxic waste facilities and 90% of the city’s landfills. The location had been designated all the way back in 1945, when the Chicago Housing Authority built the complex to house returning black World War II veterans that they did not want to live in white neighborhoods.
It is this that demands attention; the incredible economic precarity which many inner city black youth find themselves in is the historical product of decades of systemic oppression and segregation. Chicago in particular has an ugly history of de facto segregation, and is the reason why the city’s black population struggles so much in stark comparison to the city’s majority white, affluent portions. In the early 1900s, redlining allowed banks to refuse loans to black residents trying to move into white neighborhoods, and anti-black homeowner covenants were established across the city’s white neighborhoods where homeowners would vow not to sell to black families. Further, according to Maria Krysan, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “now outlawed lending practices… kept investment out of black neighborhoods.” As a result there was a great dearth of business, and by consequence jobs, in these cordoned black neighborhoods. This means that not only were these communities consciously segregated, but further they were systematically denied capital inflows which possibly could have aided them to develop in isolation, and thus the natural consequence of poverty and crime soon followed.
This segregation was preserved and affirmed in the 1980s, when over 1,000 white Chicagoans petitioned the city’s first black mayor to address their explicit “white ethnic agenda” to preserve their white neighborhoods in what was called the “Save Our Neighborhoods” campaign. One key piece of policy which the group succeeded in getting through was a home-equity insurance which specifically targeted only white neighborhoods. The proposal set up an insurance pool for multiple majority white neighborhoods which would be funded by slight additions in homeowners’ property taxes, that would reimburse those who had to sell their houses for less than an appraised value. This program was a way to preempt any white flight that might have occurred and strongly discourage people in white neighborhoods from selling their houses.
Thus, it should be evident why today there are 18 Chicago neighborhoods where more than 90% of the population is black, and why these neighborhoods are affected by vastly different generational wealth cycles than those of white neighborhoods. ‘Drill’ rap is simply the socio-cultural output of these factors, the expressionary result of a city’s long historical process of abjection and inequality.
With this historical context in mind, when listening to other drill songs which are more on the introspective side, such as Bando Bandz’s “Timberland Boots”, one can begin to make out the outlines of a gargantuan mass of struggle whose conveyance eclipses the conventional parameters of the typical, commercialized way we think about drill rap. In the song, which is grounded by a rather saddening, yet simultaneously beautiful piano sample, Bandz raps, “This the life I choose, I know no other way / … I told all my people we gon’ be okay.” But these lines are something of a paradox, for, if he “knows no other way,” no other path to make his “people … be okay,” then what “choice” does he have, really, at all?
This motif continues when Bandz raps in the chorus, “You wouldn’t last one day if you did what I do / … mamma mad at me because this life I choose.” Again, Bandz here employs this notion of choice. Choice, options, freedoms, the power to act upon them — it is a concept which is at the core of the American mythos. ‘You always have a choice,’ the pundits say, ‘these poor people are simply plagued by poor decision making.’ The comments on the music video reflect this sentiment; heartbreakingly, Bandz was shot and killed on Mother’s Day two weeks after the song’s release, and when one commenter lamented the tragic irony of this situation, another replied, “it’s simple, just don’t join a gang… like what do you expect.”
Bandz’s affirmation of this mythos through his song is to be expected; it is a reflection of the messaging that our society and its auxiliary media apparatus has inundated us with since birth. But when examining Bandz’s employment of this notion, it is not enough to avow that he had a ‘choice’ in a removed, abstract sense; we must also recognize what, precisely, Bandz was choosing between. For, the truth of the matter is that material conditions clip the options we have, dictate our sway, determine the magnitude of victory we can achieve; for, after all, how can you choose an option you do not have?
It is precisely this that the content of drill rap is a direct reflection of. When the economy passes you by, when a racialized capitalism shuts you out without a second look, you have no choice but to create your own economy — ”shoutout my cousin Rico / we done came up off the stove,” raps Bandz, the line repeating multiple times, rebounding off the melancholic, yet almost hopeful, keys of the beat. One does not have to look far for confirmation of this notion; according to a report by the Great Cities Institute, in 2016 the city of Chicago saw 47 percent of black males between the age of 20 and 24 out of work and out of school. These exorbitant unemployment rates were “spatially concentrated” in the neighborhoods that were most racially segregated, or in other words, in the neighborhoods which have been stanchioned off, shuttered from the influx of capital and business that the rest of the city has revelled in for years.
Thus, the ‘choice’ that Bandz has exists, surely; but it exists only insofar as it is a ‘choice’ between resigning himself to poverty or operating outside of the legal system in order to shirk said poverty. In this sense, this American mythos of ‘individual freedom’ and ‘choice’ is something of a false flag operation, in that it is inherently illusory. Long-held historical factors have produced the material conditions which govern Bandz’s life, have set the stage upon which he must act; he is borne of a system which has long cast him off, spurned him entirely, and the set of options history has bequeathed him are its natural product.
When examining the death of Bando Bandz, and the legions of others in the drill scene who have followed a similar fate, many will find it easy to forget this reality, to affirm these rappers merely as racialized iconography which checks all the boxes for malicious stereotypes, to tout them as evidence to justify subconscious prejudices. They will find it all too easy to just say, ‘Well, you just shouldn’t have joined a gang!’ They will find it all too easy to strip these rappers of their humanity, to deny them the sum of decades of racialized socio-economic pressures. But when we look behind the veil of hypermasculine braggadocio which naturally comes with the genre, when we peer through the exterior of record label executives and studio contracts, when we are faced with the humanity, the real human in front of the camera, the one who is the subject to the hard, oppressive whims of history, we will find that these conclusions are untenable, worse, that these conclusions only operate to further dehumanize a people who have been systematically segregated and oppressed for centuries.
So when we are presented a window which allows us to see through the cold, unfeeling bravado which encase, armor even, these rappers, when we are shown one of those infrequent corridors which pierces the genre’s commercialized veneer, which tunnels into the emotions, the trauma, the humanity, of the drill artist, we would be wise to listen. And if we listen to “Timberland Boots,”, really listen, one line in particular sticks out — “I done been through it all, seen it all,” Bando raps, “I just wanna make it out.”