These are the most exciting UK drill producers right now
From the underground mixtape beatmakers, to those crossing over into the rap mainstream and drill scenes at home and abroad, Colin Gannon asks — who are the producers shaping UK drill right now?
Like dance music, rap has a tendency to splinter into specialised subgenres. Back in 2012, Chicago producers Young Chop, DJ L and Smylez began warping trap instrumentals into something skincrawlingly new. Soundtracking the terse, violent verses of rappers like Chief Keef and King Louie, who hailed from the city’s gang-segregated southside, they blended together furious 808 drums with dread-inducing sound effects — muffled gunfire, church bells, string stabs, organs and carnival ride synths.
Aside from Young Chop’s signature, crisp snares, though, easy categorisation always evaded Chicago drill: its sonic markers were obvious, but it was more about the culture that suffused the rapping. Drill, and the DIY way in which it flourished, gave way to communities of producers, who hustled their own imaginings of the genre on YouTube. Drill then sailed across the world, reaching young artists in London who identified with the genre’s aural aggressiveness and proud localism.
But in the same way that American hip-hop was not the antecedent to grime, Chicago drill is not the only ancestor to its London cousin. The wobbly gloom of drill’s UK incarnation is the lovechild of Chicago drill and homegrown genres: garage, grime, and road rap. Road rap, which took cues from American street rap, was the English gangsta rap scene from which Giggs and Nines emerged. It resisted the hypertechnical rapping and whirring futurism of grime, and its lyrical essence carried into drill.
While the producer Carns Hill spent the mid 2010s making some of best early UK drill beats for Brixton group 67, he remained a keen road rap beatmaker. Many of the first wave of UK drill rappers played around with road rap beats. This cross-pollination should not be written out of drill history.
Other pioneering UK drill producers — Mazza, Ras, LA Beats, Quiet Pack — helped mutate the sound beyond a simple copy-and-paste of road rap aesthetics onto Young Chop’s template. Melodically distinct from its Chicago relation, the beautifully bleak UK sound fused what Young Chop and his acolytes had made before with garage-inspired bass and grime-recalling vocal splices.
Even echoes from house, techno, and jungle can be heard underneath and between the sound’s drums and bass. Ambient hums, machine whirring, and woodblock knocks appear throughout productions; a general sense, or feeling, of rave culture lurks.
It wasn’t until the arrival of teenage producers like MK The Plug and M1 On the Beat that the contemporary sound emerged from its Chicago-shaped carapace fully formed, taking it farther away from its American roots — and lightyears farther still from road rap. “The drums are fast, the bass is sliding everywhere, the kicks hit hard, the melody is always dark. You can’t really avoid it,” says young Welsh producer Chris Rich Beats. “It surrounds you.”
The songs Chris Rich Beats, MK, M1 and their peers produce are sonic booms, breathlessly bassy and nervous hives of kick drums and sliding 808s. An essential UK drill beat will quake and slither in equal measure, laying a blackened canvass for rappers to get their bravado bars off about attacking arch-enemies, football players, territorial rivalries, sex, and British pop culture.
“In Chicago drill, the drums were hitting, but in terms of the kicks and the snares, they were nowhere near as punchy as in UK drill now,” drill alchemist Ghosty tells DJ Mag. “And the UK has always been known to take drum patterns and make 2-step, and 4-step, and garage, making it all a little bit grittier.” Lyrics-wise, the songs in UK drill articulate the granularity of life in impoverished estates in English cities, with songs that are direct, funny, violent, scornful and ostentatious. But it’s drill’s heady sound that gives rappers space to shine.
Even though critics and producers themselves might hesitate to admit it, UK drill is bass and drum puritanism in the classic sense. Belligerent as it may be, it’s danceable, like many of the most innovative dance music subgenres that have sprung up throughout music history.
Drill is a fitting name for the sound, piercing and ominous, but it’s become much more than that: a greycast worldview with its own British-bent catalogue of phonetics, semiotics, and slang. Many of the sound’s producers are still in their teens and its veterans are barely out of them, but their influence is already being felt across the globe. In Brooklyn, where its own drill scene started off by following the Chicago blueprint, artists have in recent years looked to UK drill for inspiration and instrumentals.
Now, UK drill is in vogue. Stormzy recorded an eviscerating Wiley diss over a 808Melo beat, Dave released a Ghosty-produced drill song, and rap superstars like Drake and Travis Scott continue to toy with the sound. The following are the best — and most exciting — producers in UK drill, which, at this stage, deserves its very own genre classification.
Whether as a formidable Batman-and-Batman duo or under their respective aliases, M1 On The Beat and MK The Plug’s menacing beats have become synonymous with the UK drill sound. They were among the first producers to build on the early scene’s Chicago-beholden songs, strangling more simplistic drum patterns into something new. Their chunky garage bass and twitching drums are now hallmarks of the sound.
On their own, M1 (Lotski’s ‘Intro’) and MK (RV’s ‘Crep Shop’) are potent, but their best, most vital work normally comes from collaboration. It’d be difficult to whittle their sprawling discographies down to a definitive list, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more characteristically unsmiling MK-and-M1 beats than CB’s ‘Take That Risk’ and CMG’s ‘Play for The Pagans’. Two early street hits of theirs, they sound like gasping for air as rigor mortis sets in.
But their production on KO and Unknown T’s ‘9er Ting’ is perhaps more illuminating of their philosophy. The drums are rendered in molecular detail, rattling and chattering, as if in conversation with the rapper’s burly verses. They’re now the two most sought-after producers in the genre; the Young Chop and DJ L of a new drill universe.
East London’s 808Melo made his name as the beat consigliere of late Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, who stumbled upon his YouTube beats and was struck by the audaciousness of the sliding 808s. Now, alongside AXL Beats, he’s responsible for connecting the London sound with kids in Brooklyn, many of whom resonated with its melodic force and in-your-face drumwork.
A member of producer collective Trap House Mob, Melo has produced two of drill’s biggest hits to date — ‘Dior’ and ‘Welcome to the Party’, both Pop Smoke songs. The latter’s cosmic drums are a thing to behold: they dart uncontrollably from side to side, with only a gigantic bass acting as the glue, enticing Pop Smoke’s growling rasp.
The crown in his jewels is ‘Know Better’, the haunting street hit he concocted for Headie One. As the Tottenham rapper’s ad-lib—ssh—hisses conspiratorially beneath the track, a mangled vocal sample cries out, colliding with the song’s closely bunched kick drums and woodwork thumps. It’s UK drill at its vital and menacing best.
It’s become a running joke in drill that east London’s Ghosty doesn’t sleep. He’s been absurdly prolific ever since music production became his full-time job, cranking out beat after beat without significantly changing his formula. Owing to some combination of mastery and consistency, he’s become the most reliable producer in the UK scene.
When he was 12, Ghosty fell in love with the percussive blasts of jungle and drum and bass, which he mixed on a Serato Mixtrack Pro that he was gifted for his birthday. Years after he first started churning out emotionless trap beats, he’s developed a distinct, deliriously wonky style of his own. When his production tag accompanies a track, it’s a harbinger for rippling kick drums, big, stuttering 808s, even bigger bass. His beat for Digga D’s ‘No Diet’ is an urtext in the genre: slow and degenerative, uncomplicated yet detailed.
When it comes to melody, Ghosty prizes eeriness over everything else. His songs are borderline frightening. The music-box-from-hell keys and jittery drums on Chuks’ ‘Profit’; the pounding kick drums and earth-swallowing bass on Brooklyn drill rapper’s 22Gz’s ‘Suburban Pt. 2’; the abjection of OFB’s ‘Horrid’, replate with sound effects of swords sheathing and crescendo-building keys.
“England,” he replies drily, when DJ Mag asks him about non-musical influences. “I mean, it’s just a gloomy place, innit? That’s why the sound came to be like it is: gloomy grey skies almost 24/7. It’s a product of its environment, in a way. That’s what drill is: it’s just raw energy. I love it.”
Like many producers in UK drill, and rap subgenres writ large, HARGO’s reputation was carved out on his YouTube channel, where he regularly posts Type Beats to his nearly 30,000 subscribers. One of his earliest beats, Harlem Spartans’ 67-featuring ‘Splash and Cash’, predates some of his more trendy bass-heavy sledgehammers, but it captured a producer in growth.
Fast forward to 2019, and HARGO oversaw the production on one of the scene's biggest hits — arch-jester Poundz’s guitar-sampling ‘Opp Thot’, the kind of drill song equally at home in a club setting as on tinny earphones on a miserably rainy London morning.
HARGO’s beats are becoming more cinematic and refined — so much as a genuinely thrilling drill song can sound refined. Take the sabre rattling, home-from-prison edict issued by Unknown T, ‘Fresh Home’ — long dead are the trap and Chicago drill aesthetic nods. When HARGO’s unsettling keys washed in reverb kick the song off, they announce an especially doom-laden drill beat, a sign that UK drill has become its own animal.
These 30-or-so seconds of virtually nothing but scene-setting could be played aloud on city-sized speakers and kids across London would know precisely what’s coming next: gloopy lumps of sub-bass, snapping hi-hats, Young Chop snares, propulsive kick drums, and gritty rapping.
Last year, Enfield producer Bkay posted a video on Twitter, captioned ‘Call this Drill Garage’, which went as viral as grainy 1-minute-long clips by relatively unknown music producers plausibly go. Picking up hundreds of thousands of views within days, the video’s song included a whimsical garage-like vocal, which swam across his worming bass and pounding drums. It felt like a tantalisingly new species of drill, a glimpse into how his producer-mind works.
An admirer of R&B and immersive game soundtracks, his compositions often have earworm melodies, and catchiness is never sacrificed for heaviness. After flirting with trap beats, BKay got in on UK drill in 2016, producing the Chicago drill-aping ‘Think Again’ for a youthful Skengdo & AM. CGM’s piano-lavished ‘No Porkies’, meanwhile, showcased his ear for kaleidoscopic colour, as female vocals buried deep in the mix give the group’s hook an added layer of wistfulness.
One of his most gravity-defying beats, though, is KO’s ‘Never Know’, whose distorted vocal interpolation drags you into its vortex; a drill beat falling apart at the seams. His work on Krept & Konan’s ‘I Spy’, a relatively straight-forward UK rap beat overlaid with chirpy vocals and a drill bass, was his most commercially successful song to date and an indication of just how deep drill has sunk its claws into the UK rap mainstream.
150 miles or so away from the drill heartlands, a 17-year-old student from Cardiff is making an impact on the London-centric genre. All kids talk about at producer Chris Rich Beats’ school is drill music: the social media beefs, the near-daily rages landing on YouTube channels like GRM Daily and Mixtape Madness, the discourse surrounding up-and-coming artists and those falling from their perch.
His narrative is not much different to other producers of his generation. He experimented, to varying degrees of success, with basic traps beats, long before he found a home in drill. Today, armed with FL Studio and occasionally dipping into ProTools, his beats are richly referential and full of interesting ribbons of detail, alongside the usual drill motifs.
For DigDat and Aitch’s ‘Ei8ht Mile’, a Top 10-charting song he co-produced, the Aphex Twin and Brian Eno fan dug out a Spanish bullfighting trumpet as a sample. His stature in drill is growing, having recently made beats for rising Tottenham group OFB and east end rapper Morrison. “The aggression, the heavy bass — it’s empowering,” he says of the sound’s appeal. “If you hear the right drill beat, it can make you feel better about yourself. It can be motivational.”
As the in-house producer for drill behemoth Headie One, Sykes Beats has had his fingerprints all over the recently incarcerated Tottenham star’s most bellicose hits. That said, his tuneful beats often complement Headie’s half-sung rapping: ‘Numbed Down’, co-produced with Ghosty, pairs drill’s inescapable bass with mournful-yet-dreamy keys; ‘Let’s Go’ is driven forward by jangly, off-kilter guitar plucks.
Despite his predilection for discovering brightness in drill’s charred arrangements, his best beat yet — ‘Ambush’ by OFB — is hard-nosed drill, complete with nightmarish keys and drum patterns. These types of beats are ideal canvases for drill rappers’ vicious, unbothered verses, and Sykes — like all good producers — understands that the voice is another instrument to take advantage of. More drill rappers, if contractually possible, should pass heed to his talents.
Some UK producers have bypassed local renown altogether. AXL Beats is the producer of choice for many Brooklyn rappers, the architect of some of the borough’s biggest hits, as well as UK drill’s two most high-profile crossover songs to date: Drake’s ‘War’ and Travis Scott’s ‘GATTI’ with Pop Smoke.
AXL’s YouTube instrumentals eventually reached Brooklyn’s 22Gz, who released the church-bell-chiming ‘Suburban’ in December 2016. Though icy and pared down to its most essential parts, it was closer to Chicago drill’s origins than anything popping off in London. Fellow Brooklynite Sheff G’s response, ‘No Suburban’, also AXL-produced, was another nerve-wracking slice of drill.
It wasn’t until his beat for Fivio Foreign’s ‘Big Drip’, released just last year, that the London producer tapped into the quintessence of UK drill. Though more elusive and less prolific than some of his peers, it’s conceivable that AXL Beats is the UK producer that brings the sound to the wider world.
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