Headie One
Illustration: Lily Blakely

The Third Phase of UK Drill Is Here

Moving away from its early rap sound, UK drill is experimenting in 2020 – from Headie One's club ready tape to M1llionz's melodic flow.

"I was depressed / now I'm in the press," raps Headie One over a beat of heavy, pulsating bass and skittering snares. With looped vocals leading up to dubstep-like drops, the sound seems designed for the dancefloor.

This is "Know Me", from the UK drill titan and BRIT-winning producer Fred Again's 2020 collab mixtape GANG. Released a day after Headie's release from prison in early April, the bold, cinematic project expands the frontiers of UK drill from gritty road rap to music ready to hit clubs and raves. It's the first banner release of the genre's third, alternative phase.


LISTEN: "When Life Gives You Pain, Make Champagne" – a podcast about UK drill from the VENT Documentaries series, produced by VICE UK and the young people of Brent.

Several artists have brought their own flavour to the genre in the past couple of months. Birmingham spitter M1llionz released the melodic, minimalist "Y PREE". Coventry's Pa Salieu mastered his Gambian-infused sound on collab track "Year of the Real", while Homerton rapper KO linked up with Joy Orbison, creating an amalgamation of drill and jungle.

This isn't the first time drill has fused with other sounds – Krept and Konan's 2019 track "I Spy" birthed a sound its producer BKay dubbed "garage drill" – but we're now seeing UK drillers from across the genre respond with new experimentation.

So: how did we get here?

Phase One (2014-2018): The Emergence of a Gritty Group-Based Genre

Unlike the homegrown sounds of grime and UK garage, drill originated in Chicago in the early 2010s, crossing the Atlantic and landing in the cold streets of south London in around 2014. It soon became its own distinctly British entity: balaclava-clad rappers shot videos outside council estates; unique UK slang like "four door" (a car), "24's" (all day), and "ten toes" (to run) was used in the lyrics; and references to soap operas like Eastenders made the music feel local.

The scene popped off in 2016, when Brixton's 67 teamed up with UK rap giant Giggs to drop legendary street anthem "Let's Lurk". 67 were immediately catapulted into stardom, becoming the faces of UK drill. Alongside Kennington's Harlem Spartans, Hackney's Homerton, Brixton's 150 and Croydon's Section Boyz, they exemplified UK drill's first wave – large groups making music that provided an uncompromising narration of their lives on the road.


However, violent lyrics, masked characters and a menacing aesthetic and sound meant UK drill faced major backlash from the media and police. The 696 form, once used to silence grime MCs, was being used to cancel shows from upcoming drill artists. But this did very little to slow down drill's massive rise, perhaps even having the opposite effect. Supported largely through social media, the genre remained immensely popular – it was London's new sound.

Phase Two (2018): The Growth of Radio-Ready Music

Soon after, drill's first solo stars started to emerge. Today, Headie One is at the forefront, but in 2018 he was still developing his style. Repping Tottenham's OFB, the rapper became known for his versatility, easily switching between choppy flows and melodic hooks on 2018 tapes The One and The One Two. His success allowed new styles to flourish – from the hypnotic flows of Tropical Drill, as pioneered by SL, to the tuneful hooks on tracks like AM's "Attempted 1.0".

Drill was still associated with the intense firing of bars, but some artists developed a laid-back delivery. Loski had 2018 banger "Cool Kid", while SL's "Gentleman" – released when he was only 15 – was similarly relaxed in comparison to earlier drill tunes. But despite feeling more chilled out, it still had school kids screaming lyrics. In SL's case: "Mum said I lost the plot / At least I never lost my crop!"

With the arrival of younger stars, drill became marketable, which only facilitated its growth. You started to hear poppy tunes with hooks and choruses as artists began to follow a more radio-friendly song formula.


Unknown T's deep-toned voice and catchy hook "It's Unknown T / Homerton B / I got gally on me…" on 2018 summer anthem "Homerton B" was a clear stand-out, while Lewisham's DigDat made waves with his song "Air Force". And let's not forget Russ's "Gun Lean", which, boosted by a viral dance, became the first drill song to enter the UK Top Ten in 2018. The success of so many artists was a clear message to the genre's critics: like it or not, UK drill was here to stay.

Phase Three: The Current Rise of Alternative Sounds

By 2020, the genre was ready to move forward. On April mixtape GANG, Headie One shifted the parameters of the sound. Distorted vocals and slowed-down samples on singles "GANG" and "Charades" pushed the genre into new territory, while the features on the project – FKA twigs, Sampha and Jamie xx – are symbolic of drill's integration into the wider UK scene. Considering the genre's current trajectory, it'd be no surprise if collaborations like these become a regular occurrence.

Once confined within the M25, the drill sound has now spread nationwide. Birmingham's M1llionz is a great example – he's already established himself as one of 2020's most exciting drill talents. New track "Y Pree" is a sign of one direction UK drill might take as it extends its global reach, with M1llionz leaning into his Caribbean roots, using Jamaican patois in his lyrics and shooting the video in sunny Kingston – a far cry from the inner estates of early drill videos.

Meanwhile, Drake's December 2019 drill track "War" and Travis Scott and Pop Smoke's "GATTI" were both produced by London drill producer AXL Beats, showing UK drill's burgeoning worldwide appeal.

In a matter of years, UK drill has moved from the peripheries of urban music to a central UK sound. It's difficult to predict where the genre will go next, but given the huge impact it's had in such a short time, it seems the only way is up. Whatever your take on the Headie album, make no mistake – the genre is evolving once again.


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