​Larro Wilson in the studio
Larro Wilson in the studio. Photo courtesy of Larro Wilson

The Secret History of Drill

How Chicago pioneered a sound that spread to the UK and the rest of the world, as told by the people who were there.

Drill is everywhere. It has permeated global media to achieve staggering visibility, producing some of the biggest international hits of the last year, with Central Cee’s “Doja” racking up 25 million streams in under a week. 2022 marked a decade of drill on the world stage, ten years since drill-demigod Chief Keef unleashed his breakthrough single “I Don’t Like”, shifting the world’s gaze towards Dro City


When any subculture experiences commercial crossover, purists moan about it being co-opted by imposters unable to fathom its true meaning and thus the dilution of “the real thing”. While its omnipresence is unarguable, the actual definition of drill is the subject of vigorous debate. With various manifestations encompassing diverse sounds and new takes emerging every other day, it’s easy to get confused. 

Drill’s most notorious dynasties – its Chicago originators and UK successors – are very different beasts. UK drill has earned autonomy and is currently enjoying its reign as drill’s most successful incarnation. But if that defines drill in 2023, what of its Chicago roots? What is drill? What will its future sound like? And why has it resonated so profoundly across social and geographical boundaries?

Fifteen minutes into our call, Larro Wilson declares himself “one of the true pioneers of drill music”. It’s not a claim without substance. As “founder, director and sole owner of Lawless Incorporated”, Wilson was responsible for the career of King Louie, often dubbed drill’s godfather. 

The story begins in Chicago’s Racine Courts housing project, in 1996, as gangster rap is busy defining the decade. “In my household, to have a regular job was seen as soft; you were lame, square,” recalls Wilson, when asked if his family discouraged musical endeavours in favour of 'a proper job’. “We were one of the worst families in the neighbourhood. We actually got kicked out the projects, so moved to another crime and gang-infested area. We've always been the most known family in every area.”

Larro Wilson with his mother and father, and Larro graduating

Larro Wilson with his mother and father, and Larro graduating. Photos courtesy of Larro Wilson

With his father incarcerated, Wilson’s mother was more concerned by the prospect of her son ending up in a suit and tie. “My mother sold drugs. My brother got into heavy gang activity very young,” he tells VICE. “But I watched structured households who just seemed boring. They were lame to me. I automatically disrespected anyone going to work. To take orders from a boss means you don’t control your life.” 

He ploughed his enthusiasm and energy into the family business of drug dealing, and claims that he was earning $5,000 a day “hustling the streets of Chicago”. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s legal if you’re focused on triumph,” Wilson says. “I just wanted to provide for my family and get my mom off welfare; not be just another mouth.”

His upbringing was rooted in the reality from which drill first grew. “The stuff you’d go through to get considered a rapper was corny back then, things like talent shows… So I just rapped for fun,” Wilson says. “But as I got older, got into a relationship and had children, I got out of the streets and became a mortgage broker. I was making good money, but that was never going to last.” 

Growing up, Wilson recalls the local rap scene grabbing the most attention was in stark contrast to what would soon form drill’s DNA: Chicago’s proud lineage of conscious backpack hip-hop, including the likes of Common and later Lupe Fiasco. “If you didn’t play by the same rulebook, you weren’t seen as being authentic,” Wilson recalls.

Clockwise from top right: Larro Wilson with his mother and brother, Larro as a young man, and Larro with his mother.

Clockwise from top right: Larro Wilson with his mother and brother, Larro as a young man, and Larro with his mother. Photos courtesy of Larro Wilson

During his stint in the mortgage game, Wilson found himself with an enlightening front row seat to the rise of his best friend’s brother, local rapper Bump J. While Bump J’s ascent pre-dated Wilson’s own move into the music industry, he absorbed the lessons of the man’s fleeting success.

Bump signed to Sony, and his 2005 Kanye West-produced hit “Move Around” heralded an explosive arrival. “He signalled the first wave of Chicago street music, a taste of what was to come,” says Wilson. “His stories weren’t just stories, they were reality. I watched him rise, but also experience bad times. It got so gangster, the industry got scared and closed up to that for a minute.”  

With his triple XL white tee and Bulls kit uniform in the “Move Around” video, and the track itself a classic slice of head-nod hip-hop, Bump J might seem an unlikely drill forefather. But while his sonics and presentation predate drill, he shared its tendency to blur the line between criminal content and behaviour. “Cause every line that I put up in a rhyme is real,” Bump J proclaims on “Move Around”, preemptively inaugurating drill’s trademark rhetoric.

In 2008, Bump J was imprisoned for ten years for armed robbery and was dropped by Sony before the release of his debut album. He would miss drill’s arrival by about 18 months. “I’m at this rap full time, my future's looking great,” Bump announces on “Move Around”, his bravado now ringing somewhat agonisingly.

Larro Wilson and King Louie selling shirts from their car, both of them at the club.

Larro Wilson and King Louie selling shirts from their car, both of them at the club. Photos courtesy of Larro Wilson

The first actual mention of “drill” on record was on Lansing rapper Pacman’s strident 2010 call-to-arms, “It’s A Drill”, a churning beast of a track with engine-like drive. It may have sounded like it was made in the aftermath of trap’s first wave, but it’s definitely not trap. Flicking through the early Chicago opuses – from comrades King Louie and Pacman to Lil Durk and G Herbo – they certainly aren’t bound by production consistency. Beats veer from an almost classic boom-bap energy, to trap-adjacent creations through to twitching minimal monsters, closer to something from late 2010s London. 

“It wasn’t about the beat, that came later. It was just the realness of the message,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t about flow or lyrical skills, either. Artists rapped about things they had caused, witnessed or were involved in. It was the purest street rap imaginable. You were judged on how real you go.” 

In 2011 Wilson abandoned mortgage brokering and returned to the good old family business of narcotics trafficking, deciding to make his mom proud by becoming Chicago’s biggest drug baron. He claims he reached a peak where his monthly income hit $200,000, but with such enormous revenue, he had to start inventing ways of laundering income via less shady enterprises. 

He invested money in local music businesses, including DJ gear rental and radio promotions, eventually bagging an A&R meeting with the man who was then managing Kanye West. The wonderfully-named impresario John Monopoly divulged that if he had a spare couple hundred grand, King Louie would be his top target. 


The two set up Lawless Inc. “We originally did a joint deal in 2011, where I was responsible for spending $60,000 within six months on marketing and promo,” Wilson says. “But I spent that 60k in less than 60 days.”  

Although not a household name, King Louie nonetheless commands a place in any respectable line-up of drill’s most important rappers. “Louie was older than most. Youngsters admired him. Whatever slang he used became gospel,” Wilson recalls. “Soon every gangbanging rapper copied him like they’d learned it in school.”

While drill’s origin story is firmly cemented in the streets of Chicago, its definitive sound is harder to pin down. Many early Chicago soundscapes are a far cry from the current UK sound, but there is at least one notable exception: DJ L, real name London Buckner. “I assumed it must be a DJ L beat,” Wilson says, adding that he did a double take after a friend first sent him a UK drill track. “Those drum patterns, that cadence. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t him.” 

DJ L’s profound influence is another unexpected turn with seismic significance. He was only 18 when he first assembled light-speed snare drum blurs and jittery, twitching high-hats in his childhood bedroom in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side. It’s unlikely he was envisaging the impact his eerie creations would eventually have. 

“If you look at the titles of UK beats from five or six years ago, they all said things like: ‘Lil Herb / G Herbo-style UK drill beat’, so that is [referencing] DJ L,” explains UK mixer Tweeko, trawling YouTube beat archives mid-conversation with VICE to confirm Larro’s observation. 


DJ L was responsible for producing much of Herbo’s definitive early work, as well as that of less highlighted Chi-Town drill heroes like Lil Bibby and King Lil Jay. “Everything was built around the snares, the hats and kicks,” says Tweeko, whose discography includes most notable UK drillers, including Headie One and Skengdo x AM. “It’s impossible to make convincing trap with Tesco speakers. But because there was not much to drill, it was easy to replicate.” 

While grime's genesis coalesced around Music 2000, a free game that came as standard on PlayStation consoles, DJ L's pioneering drill sound was forged from a similarly simple recipe, accessible to any kid with a PC and a cracked copy of FruityLoops. Ian McQuaid, the co-founder of UK label MOVES Recordings, has observed the cultural chords that were struck by DJ L’s imported sonics in the UK. “With all that space for the swooping 808 basslines, it fast became something in keeping with UK soundsystem culture, sounds like jungle, UK garage or dubstep” he explains. “In turn, that resulted in a more rave MC-style delivery; riddled with energy-driving ad-libs.”

Chief Keef, King Louie, and Larro Wilson.

Chief Keef, King Louie, and Larro Wilson. Photos courtesy of Alvin Jacobs Jr

In terms of the biggest UK crossover moments – alongside Headie One landing drill’s first UK Number One album in October 2020 – there is one particularly noteworthy example, according to McQuaid. In January 2019, Deptford-born rapper Russ Millionz bagged the genre’s first Top Ten UK single with “Gun Lean” (the title itself is arguably the sub-genre’s most iconic choreographic reference). “I remember watching early viral YouTube videos of kids’ dance routines to old Russ singles way before the ‘Gun Lean’ phenomenon, and being fascinated at just how much drill was translating as dance music over here in Europe,” says McQuaid. 


At its height, the viral dance craze generated by “Gun Lean” briefly broke the internet, resulting in countless videos from choregraphed troupes, to celebrity ambassadors ranging from Newcastle United winger Allan Saint-Maximin, who chose the moves as his goal-scoring celebration, through to then-PM Teresa May, who became a meme through a snappily edited montage of uncannily similar gyrating.

“Russ and Taze [who regularly performed together for some time] even officiated the distinguishing of their sound by originally branding it as ‘crashment’,” McQuaid adds. “It’s also this UK viral dance trend that birthed the phrase ‘jumpy’ over here – meaning that no matter what else may be going on in a song lyrically, or elsewhere, you could at least dance to it.”

DJ L was notoriously unfussy (“people used to give L shit ‘cos he’d push beats to anybody,” Wilson says), but his collaborative bent and the proliferation of his beats meant that to outsiders, like tween Brits watching from afar, his productions became synonymous with the emergent Chicago scene, and thus the style to emulate. With UK drill’s eventual mainstream crossover, DJ L’s signature formula has ended up as a familiar commercial radio backdrop around the world. It’s just part of the musical ether now – if concepts could be monetised, DJ L could be a very rich man.


UK drill’s influence can be heard in burgeoning scenes from Albania to Australia, Ireland and Kenya, but its most remarkable – not to mention unexpected – impact lies across that famous bridge in good ol’ NYC. While current critics tip the nearby house-fuelled Jersey club sound as drill’s hippest new manifestation, it’s Brooklyn that has set the scene for what is arguably its most historic revelation. 

BK’s three biggest drill rappers, Fivio Foreign, Sheff G and the now-deceased Pop Smoke, all ended up almost exclusively employing the same three (barely acquainted) northeast London producers to supply a distinct breed of beat that has fuelled the borough’s ascendance in the genre.

Upon first hearing Pop Smoke’s breakthrough single, “Welcome To The Party”, you’d be forgiven for double-taking at the combination of distinctly American, gruff rasping barks set to arpeggiated D&B-type bass-quakes that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in the finale of an Andy C set. Produced by Ilford’s 808Melo, here was a very US-sounding rapper riding a very UK-sounding beat – something that any British rap fan born before 1995 thought impossible. 


Alongside Melo in this intriguing line-up of imported London producers is AXL Beats. Flatbush’s Sheff G got him to produce his debut single “No Suburban”, having had “no idea he wasn’t American”. The rapper claims he simply searched YouTube for “drill beat” before stumbling upon what would become the backdrop of “No Suburban”. 

This London production power-trio is completed by Yoz Beats, whose dad is legendary jungle artist, Congo Natty. “UK drill got formulaic fast,” Yoz tells VICE. “With such a limited recipe, it swiftly started sounding the same.” He says that what he, Melo and AXL have in common is an interest in uniting transatlantic trends: UK sounds, like jungle sub-bass, with mainstream American swagger. “The main album I was rocking before sending Pop our last track was 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’,” he recalls. “So it became about seeing how far we could push both extremes at once.”

Drill’s journey from Chicago to London, then back to the Big Apple, is an unlikely trajectory; one of the most ground-breaking results of the genre’s dizzying global takeover. For a scene so maligned for its dangerous, toxic influence, it’s a strangely inspiring outcome.

Chief Keef on the set of the "Aimed at You" music video.

Chief Keef on the set of the "Aimed at You" music video. Photos courtesy of Dgainz

Unfortunately, other notable drill archetypes are less uplifting, and less musical. Controversy has tailed its international adventures, and the near-uniformly negative responses of officialdom, have seen institutional reprimand evolve to astonishing new levels. 


Take Sydney’s ONEFOUR, who found out – the night before commencing their sold-out national Australian debut tour – that the entire thing was getting cancelled. Government officials threatened serious legal repercussions for any venue that continued to stage the group’s events, with a leaked letter to the proprietors of one Melbourne venue saying their liquor licence would be cancelled if the show went ahead. 

At the centre of the Antipodean furore is New South Wales Police’s Strike Force Raptor, a unit founded to target gangs and associated criminal activities. Its head, Sergeant Nathan Trueman, used an interview with ABC News to speak directly to ONEFOUR: "I'm going to use everything in my power to make your life miserable, until you stop doing what you're doing. Every aspect of your life – I’m going to make it uncomfortable for you." 

Aggressive Aussie policing chimes with Met Police strategies in UK drill’s epic legacy of legal wranglings. Project Alpha, Strike Force Raptor’s Anglo cousin, consists of more than 30 officers tasked with scouring social media and the internet to track and tackle gang crime, with drill often publicly cited as a key focus. The database is informed by both “private and open” social networks and has led to vocal privacy and racial profiling concerns from human rights groups like Liberty. 


Part of Alpha’s tactics include issuing YouTube takedown requests for drill videos. According to recent Freedom of Information data obtained by VICE, a staggering 992 requests were issued between June 2021 and May 2022 – an approximate 300 percent jump in the number of requests from 2019. 

This arguably does an exceptional job of eradicating the chances for aspiring rappers to transition toward full-time music: Debut singles and sophomore offerings disappear from YouTube, with potential up-and-comers’ careers obliterated before they begin. The Met previously told VICE that Project Alpha “continues to work to understand the reality of the links between online activity and ‘real world’ offline offending” and that “it does not seek to suppress freedom of expression through any kind of music”.

Musicians have also fallen foul of gang injunctions from the Met, including Brixton drillers Skengdo x AM, signed to McQuaid’s MOVES Recordings. In 2019, they were given a nine-month suspended jail sentence after performing “Attempted 1.0” during a triumphant sold-out London show. At the time, the Met said that the injunction “was breached when they performed drill music that incited and encouraged violence against rival gang members and then posted it on social media”.


Drill’s USP in rap’s universe has always been about holding an unforgiving lens up to the brutality and drudgery of the streets. While trap sought to evolve rap’s most outlandish gangster theatrics, drill responds to hip hop’s age-old fixation with “realness”. Its pioneers forged a fresh take on hip-hop, turning the same fearsome facts and figures – the ones that previously scared off the mainstream music industry – into a new currency. While debate over who coined the term drill may never be fully settled, the scene is built on foundations that remain rooted in the grim realities of 2010s Chicago – a particularly sombre mortar to build on. 

“At the time we was the murder capital of the world,” Wilson says. “They said the murder rate in Chicago was higher than the murder rate in the war in Iraq. So Louie coined the term ‘Chi-Raq’. I knew with us making all those international headlines for this murder rate, that people would want to hear the streets speak.” 

It’s easy for any rap fan to find themselves name-checking “Chi-raq” without fully considering its meaning. But it’s this macabre marketing – turning chilling street warfare into punchy catchphrases – that defines drill lyricism, and has followed its international journey. King Louie’s official debut 2011 mixtape was titled Chiraq Drillinois, and featured a track of the same name, as well as the more pointed, succinct banger simply called “Drill”. It’s fair to say that Louie’s got decent mileage out of the brand, although YouTube scouring will throw up interviews with him crediting his deceased pal Pacman as its original author.

DGainz and Sasha Go Hard.

DGainz and Sasha Go Hard. Photos courtesy of Dgainz

Drill as a scene, sound and subculture, is not low on debate, but the one thing that remains unquestioned is its nuclear moment. When Chief Keef (real name Keith Farrelle Cozart) released the Young Chop-produced track “I Don’t Like”, he was practically unknown outside Chicago’s South Side. At midnight on July 12th 2012, Chief Keef’s video for his “I Don’t Like” premiered on Chicago video don Dgainz’s YouTube channel

“We’d never experienced anything like that before,” says Dgainz. “I released it at midnight and then went home and went to sleep. But I woke up to total chaos.”

Overnight, he became one of the most talked-about rappers in the world, and introduced it to the scene from which he grew. The video for “I Don’t Like” is an unforgiving, almost voyeuristic-feeling snapshot, depicting an often topless Chief Keef leading a throng of young men as they fall about a yellow-lit, sparsely furnished apartment. 

“He was a juvenile on house arrest,” Wilson offers, when asked what inspired the video’s success. “That’s what America wanted to see. Young, active gangbangers. They know who’s committing these crimes, now here’s a chance to hear from them.”


The track’s chorus provides a perfect drill case study: A stark, simple list of grievances, instead of the acrobatic lyrical hooks from rap smashes of yore. “I don't think they had any real idea of the weight of what they’d made,” says Dro (real name Rovan Manuel), Chief Keef’s then-manager. “Just another song. They finished it, then straight onto the next.”

Sixteen years old and fighting indictment for heroin trafficking, the rapper was catapulted to worldwide acclaim and introduced drill in rap’s canon with an entirely unplanned cultural big bang. The accidental classic instantly became drill’s new visual paradigm. “Confusion fuelled its shock value,”  DGainz explains. “‘How did these little kids from the hood afford a real camera?’ No one had seen those gritty crevices of Chicago before.”

“I turned up at Dro’s cousin’s apartment and had to get Young Chop to go get some proper speakers because everyone was crowding round his PC monitors for playback,” he says, laughing now. “You could say that I let the artist take the lead, but a lot of that video came from moments where they had no idea I was recording,” 

It makes the pair’s prior collaboration – “Aimed At You” – feel like an epic cinematic odyssey in comparison. “I wanted to do more conceptual stuff. But [‘I Don’t Like’] was really just a case of showing up and getting it done.” 


It was from this position – almost entirely unknown beyond his own neighbourhood 24 hours prior – that the self-released video drove a million views in under three days. At the time, those numbers were extraordinary for an artist of any genre, but for an unsigned 16-year-old drill rapper they were truly astounding. “No one could fathom what was happening,” Dgainz remembers.

The standard format for any breakthrough underground rap hit hinges upon an inevitable star-studded remix, which generally follows the original a few months later, and is then taken on by a major label with varying degrees of commercial success. When the remix of “I Don’t Like” dropped, just seven weeks after the release of the original, Chief Keef was still an unsigned artist. 

Larro Wilson and Chief Keef.

Larro Wilson and Chief Keef. Photos courtesy of Alvin Jacobs Jr

Remixing duties could only have fallen to one local behemoth, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. But the smash reworking, which also featured Pusha T, Big Sean and Jadakiss, is, technically speaking, a bootleg. It was never actually authorised, as both Chop and Chief Keef declined Ye’s approaches.

In 2012, the prospect of calling your up-and-coming rapper client to tell them Ye is desperate to remix you is the kind of scenario most would-be musical impresarios would never dare even dream of. “[John] Monopoly called me saying, ‘Every time Kanye gets on a plane, it’s the first song he wants to listen to’. So I called up Chop, who was with Keith.” 


Dro pauses, still bemused a decade on: “Both of them said, ‘No way. We don't want Kanye on it.’ Chop said there was no way he would ever risk letting Kanye change his drums. I was just like, ‘What? Really?’” 

The remix was ultimately illicitly commissioned, Dro being left with no choice but to take law into his own hands. You can’t help but respect the pride in Chop’s belligerent refusal. Even as the unapproved bootleg was rocketing to career-changing success, “Keith didn’t care, he was just going with Chop”, Dro explains, “but Chop was still on some bullshit even after it was charting, saying some crazy shit like he was gonna sue Kanye”. 

Chief Keef’s and Dro’s working relationship began after they were introduced by Dgainz, who recognised the heat building around the project. It all began at Keef’s grandma’s house, their main meeting spot. 

“What kind of money are you trying to get?” Dro remembers asking the rapper in their first conversation. “He said, ‘Maybe like a couple 100,000’. I said I’m making that kind of money right now, so that ain’t enough.’ He asked what kind of money I thought was possible: ‘What about a million?’”

“So I said, ‘We can probably try to look for even a little bit more than that’. He said, ‘Fuck it. Let's get some football numbers. Let's try to get 10 million’. From then on we saw each other every day. We were like Bonnie and Clyde.” 


As Dro recounts the duo’s joint rollercoaster ride, it becomes clear just how much stranger the truth really can be than fiction. “Fast forward a few weeks and we’re hanging out, listening through some new music with a couple of my property renovator friends in one of their nice new pieces of real estate,” recalls Dro, whose biggest prior success was helping Chamillionaire transition from basketballer to rapper a few years before.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Dro noticed that Keef had produced a gun and was “sat there just playing around with it”. After his friends left, Dro says, “‘I turned to him and was like, ‘Man, you do need to be careful with that.’” 

“I ain't worried about no one round here,” Keef replied. “I’ll put one in their head, and have one left in the chamber.”

Attempting to clarify his advice, Dro explained at the time: “Yeah, I’m not talking about you with the neighbours, I'm talking about the police.” Keef returned the weapon into his jacket and made a swift exit. A few hours later, Dro remembers getting a call informing him of Keef’s death – a rumour that eventually inspired the title of his 2012 mixtape, Back from the Dead. 

“I get a call from someone saying ‘Man, your artist that talks about killing people already got killed. They shot him’. So I am suddenly extremely confused. Partly, because at that same time, I was also managing another local group and one of them actually did get murdered that same day.’”


Of course, as it turns out, the Keef shooting didn’t end in tragedy – although, digesting Dro’s blow-by-blow account of the incident that caused it, how he actually managed to remain relatively unscathed is one of the biggest mysteries of the whole saga. 

“Fredo, Keith’s brother, got into it with some guys in front of his house, so Keith ran inside, grabbed his gun and came out shooting,” Dro remembers. “Only it turned out they were undercover detectives, who were there because of another incident between him and Fredo. Police opened fire, shooting over 40 bullets, but didn't hit him once.

“Neighbours automatically assumed he was dead. Then he got arrested and went to jail, so everyone took his disappearance as confirmation he was dead.”

According to Dro, he and Chief Keef are on good terms today: “Me and my wife still go to his house for dinner.” But their relationship was not always peaceful. As the rapper’s career kicked off, so too did a plot hatched by senior members of Chief Keef’s own gang aiming to extort money from Dro, he claims, ultimately leading to lies spreading about his motives and threats against him and his family. Eventually, after months of Keef defending him, they both “tired of the drama” and parted ways. 

“I wasn’t used to this,” says Dro, “I was a guy from the suburbs. How did I get involved with this whole scene? It’s his game, right?” 

King Louie and Larro Wilson holding King Louie's demo, Louie and Larro kicking it.

King Louie and Larro Wilson holding King Louie's demo, Louie and Larro kicking it. Photos courtesy of Larro Wilson

Meanwhile, tensions were rising at Lawless Inc back in Chicago. Wilson discovered that, despite the ties linking himself, John Monopoly and King Louie, that Louie’s feature on Ye’s “I Don’t Like” remix was not the foregone conclusion he had assumed it would be. “I caused a major problem and didn't want to deal with John after that,” Wilson recalls. “I was angry I couldn't get an artist that I directly signed to our joint company on the one song I knew was about to get worldwide attention.” 

Ye name-checks Louie in his remix verse with undeniable reverence, but Wilson still feels they deserved more. “That wasn't enough,” Wilson says, shaking his head – he and Monopoly split, leaving Lawless under the former’s sole supervision. “But that didn't extinguish my fire. I just had to go in even harder." 

Wilson is adamant that true gangster principles are the building blocks of drill. He claims its ultimate goal is vividly illustrating criminal activities whilst withholding any specifics that may risk helping authorities. “You can tell stories of violence, but you should never make things hot. That’s the real gangster mentality,” he reasons. 

“When any artist gets attention, it gets hot. So you can't ever get real money from rapping and gang-banging at the same time. When you start revealing details by name-dropping, you’re making individuals hot. Once the spotlight is on, you need to be careful what’s shared.”


For better or worse, Zone 2’s “No Censor” is one of UK drill’s landmark moments – and also perhaps the most extreme incarnation of the kind of “name-dropping” that Wilson condemns. A 2019 monument to the troubles underpinning the scene, the track’s somber, monotonous refrain catalogues the Peckham clique’s dead gang rivals, with each name accompanied by a Mario-style “one-up” sound effect as well as the gruesome details of their alleged murders.

These days, you can only watch “No Censor” on the occasional YouTube re-upload and less-policed channels like PornHub. But when the video first appeared, its arrival seemed like one giant conclusion to the question of just how far the scene could push its shock tactics. It felt like the ultimate embodiment of the jousting, boundary-pushing lyricism that had become its heartbeat.

But there’s unquestionably more to Zone 2 than gang conflict. The sublimely spooky, Akuma-produced “No Hook” – its sonics, rhythms, rhetoric, punchlines, catch-phrasing – is arguably one of the most definitive and important tracks of UK’s drill emergence. On paper, though, the group almost appear to be the results of a Project Alpha marketing brainstorm. 

The anarchic attitude typified by Zone 2 may represent the antithesis of Wilson’s principled gangster mentality, but it’s hard to imagine the UK’s typhoon-like impact and subsequent global influence without it. The fact that New York recently chose to take its lead from the UK over its neighbouring countrymen maybe says it all – the Brits were this time doing something right. 


“Our lives are a double-edged sword,” reflects Zone 2 lynchpin PS from the undisclosed prison he’s resided in since January. “People listen to us for the mad shit we rap about, but living that life means your freedom is always at risk. You take the bitter with the sweet.”

Rumours of incarceration have dogged nearly every member of Zone 2 at some point this year, but every track since “No Censor” has only exploded in popularity. Kwengface’s recent performance on Colors saw metrics matching those of its biggest recent stars, including Billie Eilish and Quavo, and PS’s upcoming mixtape is one of  the most highly anticipated UK drill releases to date.

Zone 2’s exhaustive level of detail defiantly tears up Lawless Inc’s rulebook; gangster rap, but not as we know it. Rap battles, for instance, traditionally comprise retorting opposition jibes, but Zone 2’s dystopian battling revels in their own disses. As Trizzac explains his prized alias, Judas, on “No Censor”: “Why’d do think they call me Judas? I laugh and giggle at my dead opp cousin”.

From top: Tweeko with Headie One; PS in prison

From top: Tweeko with Headie One; PS in prison. Photos courtesy of Tweeko and PS

Despite his bandmate’s brutal bravado, PS comes off intriguingly nostalgic, his cynical grumbling eerily reminiscent of Wilson's own. “We’re in an epidemic,” he says. “Bare drill rappers don’t know any street life. They grab a shank and mask, then suddenly you’re a driller. They don’t know any code.

“If they pull up on someone, it has to be on Snapchat,” he adds, referencing to the proliferation of criminal incidents on the platform, a trend that powers the scene’s virality. “I should have been from a different generation. My generation have no clue about any gang code. It’s only about the attention. We’ve never been on that.” 

The way PS sees it, their most notorious track is based on a creative formula in line with the original building blocks of rap. “People think ‘No Censor’ was planned to get banned, but that just is not true. That session started with some of the most reckless bars anyone there had ever heard, which inspired us all to respond, trying to top the bars before. It was never about marketing. It was about our creativity.”

Maybe it’s unsurprising that one drill generation has to question their successors’ credentials. Today’s controversial vanguard are tomorrow’s jaded cynics. Back in Chicago, Wilson doesn’t hide the frustration that this is one of his first interviews with the international press. “One word: ‘recognition’,” he says. “This was the first label to market drill music. Lawless Incorporated birthed the sub-genre. Why hasn't that been recognised? Maybe because I'm not good at brown-nosing or ‘playing the game’. 

“Growing up, that stuff was lame. Some opportunistically abuse another scene to push their agenda. I wait to do it my way. Drill was me understanding the music and message needing to be presented.”

Larro Wilson as a child, and him with his mom.

Larro Wilson as a child, and him with his mom. Photos courtesy of Larro Wilson

The traits that make some recoil are the same that fuel drill’s connectivity, its potency transgressing geographic or cultural borders. “Everywhere got a hood. Everybody got poverty and stories to tell,” Wilson says. He’s spent time considering his narrative and manifesto, and makes clear he wants what he says next to be recorded: “The truth has no parental advisory. The truth can be ugly, harsh, sometimes unbearable. But I held a mirror to the streets of Chicago so the world could see.” 

Whatever you make of their importance, each subsequent derivative of drill is naturally further removed from that original scene. But characterizing those incarnations as part of drill’s demise makes no sense: Each new wave is further proof the scene is alive and well, strengthening its extraordinary story and ever-evolving forms.

The fact that now, more than a decade on from “I Don’t Like”, drill’s biggest achievements are consistently being topped, highlights a relevance that trumps most rap scenes. Cynics will always search for signs signalling the death of drill, and there’s no shortage of opportunities: Sidemen’s “Christmas Drillings” showcased drill’s festive potential just for lols, while Brighton’s self-styled “cheeky chappy” Arrdee somehow manages to remain straight-faced while sampling Westlife for “Come and Go”, continuing the latest craze for shiny pop getting drill makeovers.

But drill’s resilience is also entwined with its forward-thinking independence. Rap’s fairytale of unimaginable wealth once was only possible by signing your life away. Aspiring rappers could only reach superstardom if prepared to, as Wilson sniffs, “play the game”. In 1993, regardless of talent, you’d inevitably have to engage with the budgets and infrastructure associated with major labels in order to join your childhood idols in rap’s hall of fame. With drill, we’re witnessing a new generation of postmodern rap superstars who don’t need the majors and, in fact, now often actively avoids them. 

“The holy grail is keeping as much control over your music and how it’s released,” explains Tweeko. “Now the dream is forging a career where you own your own masters and give away as few royalties as possible.” 

When Central Cee’s “Doja” amassed 25 million streams in a week, approximately 80 percent of that revenue should have theoretically ended up back in his own pocket. This distribution of royalties would be from the vantage point of an increasingly popular artist-friendly distribution style deal, where the artist essentially runs their own label, retaining close control of the release campaign and copyright of their recordings. 

But the phenomenal groundwork amassing huge DIY numbers meant that Cee was able to land exactly the kind of deal that Lawless Inc desperately sought at its height. Although Cee's team recently inked a new contract with Sony-owned major Columbia, apparently mainly intended to focus on international expansion, the London rapper is now a game-changing showcase for the long-speculated, limitless commercial triumphs now achievable for truly independent artists.

While Wilson was maybe ahead of his time, those inheriting drill’s throne are realizing his vision a decade on. Despite the omnipresent vendetta from government institutions, drill stars are breaking ground with financial and creative autonomy. For a sub-genre defined by harsh truths and opposed by the establishment, drill’s success stories are ones that turn dreams of independence into realities. 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect Central Cee’s newly announced deal with Columbia.