Drill: Exploring Ireland’s most uncompromising rap scene

Words: Words: Dean Van Nguyen
Photography: George Voronov

Words: Words: Dean Van Nguyen
Photography: George Voronov

“There’s not really a nice way you can express those types of feelings or surroundings”, Dean Van Nguyen tracks down some of the elusive artists who are putting Ireland on the map in the Drill sub-genre.

The backdrop of the video for Reggie’s ‘New Eire Flow #1’ could be any estate in Ireland. Sitting underneath a grey sky you see a fairly typical semi-detached house, concrete driveway with enough room for a single car, and shrubbery where a garden wall might sit. Stranger is the microphone stand we see perched in front of the unremarkable building. Behind the mic is a curious figure clutching a fashionable backpack, his face obscured by a black hoodie, flanked by an equally mysterious associate in a balaclava. You never see his features, but the man front and centre is one of the leading stars of Irish drill music. The man front and centre is Reggie, aka Reggie B.

Over a sinister beat, the young rapper unleashes two minutes of murky flows in menacing baritone. This is tough, uncompromising rap, devoid of all pop leanings, ostentatious stunting or bling braggadocio.

‘New Eire Flow #1’ encapsulates Irish drill, a blood- raw strand of homegrown hip hop being blazed by artists almost exclusively in their teenage years. Even in the country’s tightly knit music scene, few will have heard of young cats like Reggie, J.B2, Jug Jug, Ink, or crews like the numerically named AV9, D15 and 090 (the latter of which is made up of Cubez, N9, Julius, and formerly J.B2 and Reggie himself). Everything about drill feels like a swipe at the core tenets of Irish rap, yet the music has gained major traction both here and in the UK.

Tracing the genesis of Irish drill is difficult. From a journalistic point of view, it’s almost impossible to cover in traditional ways. I found artists incredibly tough to reach.

Those I do speak to don’t always want to tell me their real names or where they are living, and I’m talking down to the county. Live shows are few and far between. The best route we have into this world is the shadowy window of YouTube, where you can view a burgeoning culture that’s not just underground, it’s subterranean.

The scene has built itself slowly and stealthily. A kind of breakthrough moment came when J.B2 and Chuks collaborated with UK rapper Russ on ‘Link Up’. Posted last October, the video has over seven million YouTube views as we post this.

Dublin artist Ink and his clip for ‘Bad Intentions’ has racked up over 1,000,000 views. This is heavy rotation for Irish rappers. To put it into context, Rusangano Family, one of Ireland’s most successful and revered hip hop acts, have reached 58,000 views with their most-watched video, ‘Lights On’. I suspect this is due to the genre’s young base and its tendency to absorb music through YouTube. And, crucially, the sizeable British audience ravenous for this stuff.

The term “New Eire” comes from New Eire TV, the label and video production hub behind Reggie and plenty of other rising drill stars. Obviously, there’s a lot to the name. The talent of New Eire TV see themselves proudly representing the island through an art form that borrows almost nothing from its history.

“It’s a new kind of Ireland musically in terms of people expressing themselves in the genre,” says Reggie, who has roots in Athlone, one of drill’s real strongholds. “[New Eire TV] just shows new talents and people who want to do music, it just gives them a chance to get out there.”

Photography from George Voronov.

Rhyming came naturally to Reggie. In school he’d battle friends with low-stakes lunchtime freestyles just for fun, “I was getting wolved like, but I didn’t really take music seriously,” he admits. That was until last year, when Cubez and J.B2 took him into the studio and his sense of artistic identity began to take shape. “I started writing and they put me on the song and it ended up banging,” he explains. “So that’s how I got involved in music.”

One of the scene’s key players, and the man behind Reggie’s ‘New Eire #1’ video, is Sequence. You may know him as a solo artist who cuts more dance- hall-inspired rap songs. See, ‘TNM’ and ‘Stunna’. But it was Sequence who co-founded Dearfach TV alongside Solomon Adesiyan in 2017. He now operates New Eire TV. Both institutions have become crucial in driving drill forward. It was the 090 crew that brought Sequence into drill music when they stepped to Dearfach TV.

“Basically, 090 approached me and then they were like, ‘This is the type of music we do’. I was like, ‘Ok’. We started uploading the music and it pretty much kicked off from there. That’s how I got involved in it. Because everyone started seeing that they were doing it and what they were doing were like nobody else. Everybody else was trying to jump on the top of this wave.”

090 remain New Eire TV’s flagship group. I’m extremely partial to ‘Different Type of Sauce (Gelato Remix)’, featuring Cubez, N9 and J.B2. Then there’s the misty ‘Exotic Finish’ by AC-130, whose wicked whispers are easily comparable to that of 21 Savage.

Both videos again see all artists wearing balaclavas, ski masks, surgical masks and more to conceal their faces. This, on its surface, might add an extra layer of threat to already ominous art, but there’s other reasons why ski masks fill these kids’ bottom drawers.

“I thought that the balaclava thing was maybe for police, maybe parents, maybe family, maybe people they have problems with. I also see a sense of being comfortable,” explains Sequence. “I feel like when they put on the balaclavas, they can do anything. It gives them that ego boost. That’s what I see. When nobody really knows about you, it gives that mystery as well so people will be more keen to go, ‘Who’s this guy?’.”

The ancestral home of drill is Chicago’s south side, where this wrought- iron brand of hip hop was first forged back in the early flickers of the decade. One glance at the video for Chief Keef’s ‘I Don’t Like’ and you knew this was going to be a pop culture phenom. The video features an all-male cabal of teenagers, no shirts necessary, moshing to Young Chop’s hard-banging beat. Lil Durk, King Louie and G Herbo came through as new regional stars. Chi-town’s most famous son, Kanye West, was sufficiently moved by drill to funnel huge components of the sound into ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Cruel Summer’. But it couldn’t last. Built on the artistry of young, often troubled, stars, the scene burned itself out.

If Chicago drill is the grandfather to Irish drill, then it’s the UK scene that is its dad. A lot of our local heroes hat-tip London crews such as Section Boyz and 67 (pronounced six seven) as their most direct influences and, no doubt, their sound features many of the same core tenets. This is a stark, violent, unforgiving subgenre built on hard angles and concrete walls. Plus, Irish drill rappers tend to follow the vocal stylings of their UK counterparts, as well as using slang like calling cops “feds”, stuff like that.

Constantly tethered to London’s terrible knife crime problems, drill in Britain has proved toxic to the touch. Last year, The Spectator called it “the brutal rap that fuels gang murder”. Videos have been ripped off YouTube after being accused of inciting violence. It’s the oldest game in town – identifying a certain strand of pop culture to whip up a moral panic. Headlines mean the music will be permanently associated with criminality.

The Irish drill rappers I’ve connected with vaguely speak about gang membership and street life as their artistic fuel. Their music and videos rejoice in gang imagery. Yet statistically, gang crime levels in Ireland are not comparable to the UK, so you take these assertions as seriously as you want to take them. Or maybe you don’t take them at all. Whatever the case, it’s Reggie who gives perhaps the most level-headed encapsulation of this element of the music.

“There’s not really a nice way you can express those types of feelings or surroundings. It’s all about talking about your surroundings and your day-to- day life. If your day-to-day life isn’t really rainbows and sunshine, you’re not really going to express that. That’s our reality so that’s how we feel it.”

Less London-centric than your average is Ink, a man with thick Dublin cadences and aspirations to match his sense of position in the drill scene. Being in his 30s makes Ink a genre oddity.

“I’m the first Irish drill rapper ever,” he tells me. “I opened the door here for all the youth today. That’s why they’re calling me the godfather of Irish drill, the dad and the king of Irish drill because I started it all and they’re all coming back now paying their respect. I’ve actually opened a brand new scene for Ireland. We actually have a [drill] scene and it’s because I started it all. I’m not going to let anybody try take me down off me horse, that’s what happened, y’know?”

It’s fair to say that this is not a universally accepted hypothesis. But Ink doesn’t do understated – just check out the aforementioned ‘Bad Intentions’ video, which features women in balaclavas shaking their near-bare asses to camera while the crew mean-mug down the lens through ski masks. What is undeniable, though, is that Ink’s album ‘Eye for an Eye’ offers one of the most trenchant long-form depictions of Irish drill. It’s all hard beats, punchy bars and plenty of ominous vibes.

“Me, I take my whole music thing as it’s rebellion music for a new age,” says Ink. “The way they had the Wolfe Tones and all, this is just a new age. I am them and I want to hold a flag and a torch for them into the next generation, you know what I mean? I want people singing them songs as well and shouting out against other people.”

Ink has bigger dreams than simply being part of a curious subgenre. He wants to blow up. And why not? Irish drill in its current form will always be too acidic for the mainstream, but it’s not impossible to successfully commercialise. If there’s any justice in Athlone, Reggie won’t be shooting clips in front gardens for the rest of his musical lifespan.

“I’d like to see it go very far,” says Reggie of Irish drill music. “I’d like to see it make people recognised. I’d like to see it employ people – I like to see music employ people and take them out of bad situations and all that. Yeah, I’d like to see it go that far. I think it can go very far because right now in England, the drill scene has taken people far and is making people money. I think it can do the same for Irish drill. Why not?”

For Ink, it’s all about garnishing a rep for himself, bursting into another realm of relevance, and lifting up the younger generation.

“I want them all to get up as well and have status for themselves,” he affirms. “Having a music scene, that’s the whole object of this. I want to be the one that pushes through and gets everybody in. I don’t want everybody pulling each other down.”