The long, hot winter of St. Louis drill

Since St. Louis’ biggest rap stars fell out of the spotlight, new generations have drawn from Chicago drill to make music that reflects the region’s deep political struggles.


The St. Louis rap scene. Art by Tyler Farmer.



The drive from St. Louis to Chicago is about four or five hours long. The gap between them is long stretches of highway, forests of corn, and small towns with curious names. Along this path, the two cities have repeatedly passed sounds and cadences back and forth—part of a long cultural exchange that oscillates between kinship and rivalry. 

St. Louis hip-hop has been an especially liminal space, often drawing from bigger scenes in Chicago, Memphis, and Atlanta. Many up-and-coming artists feel like they have to leave the city if they want to get big. For example, Metro Boomin’s mom would drive the future superproducer to and from Atlanta to record while he was in high school in St. Louis. Since the 2000s, with the exception of a few key outliers, the rappers and producers who’ve stayed tend to take a DIY approach, relying on local shows, social media, and small indie labels to promote their brands. There’s maybe no better example of this mode of career-building than the metro area’s cutting edge: a wave of contentious street rap that’s been called St. Louis drill or “high speed music.” Its biggest viral hits pick apart gang wars, highway chases, and homegrown riches with driving 808s and a plain-spoken drawl, with subtle bits of keys, horns, and synths accentuating the space in between. 

As the line between pop and rap has fundamentally blurred—and as the internet has replaced the radio as these genres’ central mediators—we’re seeing rap become both hyper-regional and post-regional. Drill’s most popular iteration at the moment (New York via the UK via Chicago) is a direct result of that process, and the ongoing synthesis of New York drill and Jersey club suggests that it might transform in front of us again. Part of what makes St. Louis drill so fascinating is how it sidestepped that story, growing in tandem with the original superstars of the Chicago scene. In the process, it synthesized a wide cross-section of influences into something that speaks to St. Louis’ unique social and political pressures. According to Tef Poe, a longtime St. Louis rapper and political organizer, “We’re always kinda tweaking the formula… St. Louis people have always tried to take whatever was going on in the streets and flip it.”

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The metro area has always had an understated connection to hip-hop’s evolution. East St. Louis radio station WESL was the first station in the country to play Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” on air, escorting the genre into the national spotlight. But when most people think of St. Louis hip-hop, they think of its golden era between 1995 and 2010, when artists like Nelly, Murphy Lee, Chingy, J-Kwon, Jibbs, and Huey were running the charts with pop rap hits and ringtone fodder. 

That moment in the region was just one among many—Poe being one key example. A twenty-year veteran of St. Louis hip-hop’s more alternative corner, he’s seen the metro area’s cultural, political, and economic shifts firsthand. From Poe’s vantage point, that Y2K-era pop rap felt like a distinct shift from the early and mid-90s, when street rappers like Deadly Deuce and Sylk Smoov were some of the first locals to get attention outside the city. “St. Louis was so Crips and Bloods,” he adds. “Even though you knew they had some gang ties, they was more about partying and clicking with the girls and just being on a certain type of wave.”

As those hits slowed down in the Obama years—and the rise of social media made “ringtone rap” less relevant—the distance between St. Louis’ biggest stars and the neighborhoods they left behind grew more palpable. As some younger artists tried to replicate their success, a cross-section of the rap ecosystem formed a “counter-movement,” fighting to keep the region from getting defined by one sensibility. As Poe remembers it, “Every sub-sector of hip-hop in St. Louis was trying to find a person who could challenge the ‘Nelly theory’: who could run the same routes, on some Marshall Faulk or Isaac Bruce, and score a touchdown.”



A key artist from this transitional period was LaDon Merriweather, better known as Yo Banga. A former Blood who grew up in St. Louis City’s JeffVanderLou (JVL) neighborhood, the spark for Banga’s rap career came in 2003, when rival Crips killed his friend Bimp in a drive-by. On the 2011 track “Goon Anthem,” Banga memorialized the event in heart-wrenching detail: “Bimp breathed the hood, Bimp hugged the block / saw his eyes roll, knew his heart stopped / God took him from me, but He let me live / physical gone, but his soul on Natural Bridge.” In the fallout from this attack, city police dismantled Banga’s neighborhood crew and sent him to prison, where he learned to rap as St. Louis hip-hop was in its commercial heyday.

Once Banga got out on parole in 2008, he started selling records and merch by hand, trying to offer something different. Compared to what he was hearing on the radio—which was “naturally playful, poppy, and flamboyant”—Banga’s writing veered plain-spoken and confessional: “Throwing money and stunting just ain’t me / I want my family chilling and all my homies free,” he raps on “Goon Anthem.” As he grew in popularity, opening for Southern rap stars like T.I. and Rick Ross, local nonprofits and anti-violence organizers began recruiting him to talk with at-risk youth about his experiences. You’re much more likely to find Banga outside a studio these days, working with a community hotline that intervenes in potentially violent conflicts.

During his music career, Banga frequently critiqued mainstream rap’s artificial relationship to gang culture. His lyrics and interviews foreground the trauma of block warfare with a clear-eyed view. A year after King Louie coined the term “Chiraq” to describe the scope of Chicago’s gun violence, Banga used similar language while recalling youthful gang conflicts in JVL: “It was like Iraq… There was nothing you could do about it but lace up your boots.” He also kept a close eye on the younger rappers who were coming up around him, riffing on his approach in new and surprising ways.

Between 2011 and 2015, a wave of youthful rap groups ushered in a turn from that Bush-era heyday, blending the playful flamboyance of St. Louis’ 2000s hits with a caustic grittiness informed by the region’s gun violence. Up-and-comers like RLMG (Red Laserz Music Group), 3 Problems, and Downtown Taliban were some early forerunners of what would become St. Louis drill. Many of these rappers were teenagers, like RLMG’s four members Nikee Turbo, Jizzle Bandz, Lyric, and Lil Joe. (Lyric was one of the only prominent girls in this wave, and openly gay.) 3 Problems saw the most exposure out of everyone: its three members, Swagg Huncho, Lil Tay, and Rello (fka Relly Rel), blew up as 18 year old high schoolers, getting coverage in major outlets like Rolling Stone and The Guardian. All three were cousins living in North St. Louis County, and Rello’s father served as the group’s manager.



Along with an assortment of other crews and collectives like DBIMG, Drama Squad Space Camp, and Fly As Ever (FAE), these groups pushed a sound that straddled blown-out pop rap and spacey, hard-hitting street rap. A local production style driven by folks like Trak Starz, Jason “Jay E” Epperson, and Jermaine Dupri began to take on new influences from Lex Luger and Young Chop. Tracks like Nikee Turbo’s “Overwhelming” and Downtown Taliban’s “Dopeboy” feel particularly reminiscent of Chicago drill’s earliest forms, blending plastic-sounding horns, aggressive synths, and flourishes of strings with uneven spurts of snares and booming 808s. While rappers like Yo Banga tended to be moody and reflective, these groups were more brash and playful, occasionally dipping into discordant autotune. They ran through vignettes of drug dealing, gang warfare, and parkouring away from cops and feds with the lighthearted abandon of counting stacks of bills or stealing your girl.



Key to this movement was the “weaponization of YouTube,” as Poe puts it, capitalizing on the viral spectacle of youthful street rap. “I’m seeing coliseums of people singing these goddamn records. Blogs are paying attention to these dudes, these dudes got streams, rappers from other markets are acknowledging these cats, but for some reason we can’t hear it on St. Louis radio.” In the process, these groups sacrificed a certain major-label appeal for something more fleeting and grassroots—even if it meant confronting neighborhood and regional politics with a renewed intensity.

By 2015, when Chicago drill had caught the country by storm, many St. Louis rappers saw their style as closely related. 3 Problems’ Lil Tay told Passion of the Weiss at the time that “a lot of people down here are on that drill music.” Still, he asserted that 3 Problems wasn’t interested in responding to Chicago’s scene: “we don’t say ‘opp’ or ‘thot’ because that’s not our lingo. You might hear our ‘vlatt’ but we don’t do what they do. We try to stay in our own line and keep our own sound.” 

There’s always been a deep sense of competition between St. Louis and Chicago; in that light, other local artists took Chicago’s influence much less kindly. In 2012, drill rapper Lil Reese scheduled a show in St. Louis for the day after Christmas. A number of local artists opened for him, including RLMG and 3 Problems. But Reese supposedly showed up minutes before the venue was set to close, and screenshots of a tweet began to circulate suggesting that he lacked respect for the St. Louis scene.



The exact details of this show are apocryphal, but word quickly spread on social media about Reese’s “diss.” Another local up-and-comer, City Stylez, penned a number of tracks between 2013 and 2014 aimed at Reese, Chief Keef’s label Glory Boyz Entertainment, and the idea that “Chiraq” had a grittiness that St. Louis lacked. On his 2014 track “(Fuck) Chiraq,” for example, Stylez remixes Nicki Minaj and G Herbo’s single “Chi-Raq,” which was quickly becoming a Chicago standard after a viral freestyle by Montana of 300. “Fuck wrong with you niggas? Like St. Louis ain’t got clips,” Stylez sneers over a pulsing beat from Boi-1da, Vinylz, and Allen Ritter. “Fuck wrong with you niggas? Like St. Louis ain’t drillin’ shit.”

Many fans and critics in the city saw Stylez as a standout artist; he also took 3 Problems under his wing, and Swagg Huncho dropped his own “Chi-Raq” freestyle a few months later. But their bright futures were ultimately cut short by the neighborhood politics that shaped their careers. 

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Almost a hundred cities, towns, villages, and unincorporated land patches sit inside St. Louis County. Cross the Mississippi River to the east, and the Illinois side of the metro area adds almost a hundred more. In 1876, the City of St. Louis voted to secede from the county—it’s one of a handful of U.S. cities to have this kind of independence. 

Although north St. Louis City was historically white, white folks began leaving for the county in the early 20th century, founding an array of new suburbs of varying sizes. When the county’s housing market began opening up after World War II, over 60,000 Black folks left the city in a twenty year span. Rather than live in integrated communities, white folks moved again in droves, heading even further west and south. Poe’s seen the effects growing up in the same North County suburbs where many local drill rappers come from: “We could be in the same neighborhood, but right across the street, that’s a whole different municipality.” Over the past century, the northside and North County have become a patchwork of semi-independent, heavily-policed Black communities that jostle for limited resources—and that fragmentation is embedded in the region’s culture.



The BigBuckz crew dropped two separate tapes in 2021 referencing a single North County street: SOLWAY OR NO WAY by BigBuckz Von (or 2Buckz), and Welcome 2 Solway by BigBuckz Trey. Solway Avenue cuts straight through Jennings, Missouri, a small suburb close to the city-county border with a reputation for high crime and abandoned development projects. On “Stuck in Our Ways,” Trey takes us there step by step, like if the Maps app on your phone had a deep, curt Midwestern accent: “Say you riding down 70, right? Get off at Lucas & Hunt, make a left on West Florissant and buck that right by that pawn shop—welcome to Solway.”



For most of its history, Jennings ran a tiny, majority-white police force, even though the city is almost 90 percent Black. After getting repeatedly investigated for corruption and excessive force, the Jennings Police Department was disbanded by City Council in 2011. The entire force was fired, and many of them moved on to small departments elsewhere in the county—including a white officer named Darren Wilson. 

On August 9, 2014, Wilson murdered 18-year-old Michael Brown in a nearby suburb, Ferguson—setting off a year of Black-led uprisings across the metro area. Poe, who gained a national profile during that time, remembers it as “a meeting point for hip-hop and a certain kind of rebellious activity.” Three weeks after protests began, Chicago drill rapper Lil Bibby arrived to perform at a music festival in another neighboring suburb, Kinloch. A number of artists from the surrounding neighborhoods came to perform alongside Bibby, 3 Problems included. The oldest all-Black city in Missouri, three fourths of its population were forced out by an airport expansion in the 80s and 90s—leaving behind a shell of a city to battle with rubble, overgrown vegetation, and violent crime. 

It’s no coincidence that the epicenter of St. Louis street rap has also been the site of heated debates over community safety. In the wake of the Ferguson uprisings, key members of that “first-wave” drill scene were taken off the map due to gun violence or incarceration. In the summer of 2015, Rello was sentenced to ten years in prison for second-degree murder. (He was eventually released in 2022.) Then in the fall, St. Louis City police found City Stylez shot to death in a BMW, leaving behind his five children. And three months after Stylez was killed, Swagg Huncho was murdered in JVL—the same neighborhood where Yo Banga grew up. As local police and the FBI waged war on protesters in the streets, rappers and gangs continued to fight their own wars alongside it. 

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Since 2015, the region’s entered what we might call St. Louis drill’s second wave. Guys like Jizzle Buckz, Skamm, C4 Murda, and CTS Luh Wick have gotten large local followings—along with crews like AMR Records and BigBuckz—while the scene’s sonic palette has expanded.

The influence of first wave drill (and Chicagoans like Keef and Herbo) is certainly still present: for example, Fl3x has dropped a number of tracks that pair the instrumentation of classic Chicago drill with more current trap drums, along with a freestyle over Keef’s generational hit “Faneto.” Some recent tracks from ratchet wunderkind Sexyy Red—St. Louis’ biggest rapper at the moment—also sit firmly in this tradition. While much of her recent output draws from Memphis and Atlanta, several tracks on the deluxe edition of her Hood Hottest Princess tape feel distinctly Chicago-influenced, like “Ghetto Princess” (where Keef drops a bombastic guest verse) and “Shake Yo Dreads.”



But the path between Chicago and St. Louis drill isn’t so straightforward. For one thing, that influence has gone both ways: “they just got noticed first,” Lil Tay remarked back in 2015, “but everything they doing, that’s the same thing we do.” Trap and drill producer Chopsquad DJ grew up in St. Louis before joining Young Chop’s producing team in 2014. Since then, he’s become a key part of Chicago drill’s current sound, crafting some of Lil Durk and King Von’s most recognizable work. St. Louis’ recent sound and cadence often seem to be in conversation with Durk and King Von, who have worked with a number of St. Louis artists in the past nine years. “Second-wave” St. Louis drill frequently uses hopscotching piano loops or abrupt stabs of keys, and soft, eerie synth lines; the flows are sharp and clunky, putting emphasis on unexpected syllables to fit the rhythm.



A few of these rappers have gained bigger exposure outside the metro area, like 30 Deep Grimeyy. Grimeyy shared the same management as King Von, and the two became friends and collaborators before King Von was killed in 2020. He’s also got a number of viral hits under his belt, like “Drill Lessons”—a piano-driven manual on “the rules to sliding”—and “Dead Goofies,” a 4-minute sprint through the kind of morbid gossip that keeps DJ Vlad and Akademiks awake at night. It stacks names of opps like Legos while detailing their downfalls with an icy humor: “gon’ have your gang at your service dressed up like the Heartbeats / that nigga seen us, started shaking, think I heard his heartbeat.”



Just like in the first wave, not everyone agrees with the term “drill.” Guys like BigBuckz Von and AMR Dee Huncho have called their style “high speed music” instead (not to be confused with “sped up music”), invoking St. Louis’ high rates of auto theft and frequently-televised police chases. 

Car culture plays a big role in St. Louis rap’s shared vocabulary: 5% tints, stolen whips, and highway acrobatics become vital tactics for avoiding police detection and drive-bys. The high speed chase is so commonplace there that the NAACP has called on local police departments to overhaul their policies on when and how they pursue suspects. 

On 2023’s “Suicide Pt. 2,” Mo P touts “fast and furious” escapes over string plucks and soft waves of horns, swapping cars like gun attachments: “they throw spike strips, might swipe my whip, but I’m still getting past ‘em.” There are ongoing disputes about who exactly coined “high speed music,” but the BigBuckz crew has a special relationship to it: multiple Missouri police departments have blamed them for a slate of car break-ins and thefts in the past four years. On “Solway Exotics,” a 2022 collab by Trey and Von, Trey narrates a frantic chase down to the exit he takes on I-70: “Bird in the sky, two minivans to the right, it’s a fusion / like, where the highway at? We hit the e-way, we gon’ lose ‘em / they blocked off Lucas & Hunt, I’m getting off at Bermuda.”



Like its New York and Chicago counterparts, St. Louis drill has become highly politicized as gangs and repressive policing reinforce the conditions that fuel the music. Artists and their crews are struggling to navigate the dangers of promoting “authentic” street rap in a gun violence epidemic: this is why local music videos and IG accounts frequently flash disclaimers that any guns shown on camera are props, while telling stories of home invasions, drive-bys, and surprise raids. “I like fucking with drillers, dreadhead killers,” Sexyy Red raps on “Shake Yo Dreads,” and her raucous, irreverent tone highlights what it takes to survive and thrive in a region that seems caught up in an endless theatre of working-class wars.



Now that social media’s become even more important to sustaining indie rap careers, the line between artistic conflicts and gang conflicts has gotten blurrier. On YouTube channels like “SAINT LOUIS GANGS” and the r/SaintLouisDrill subreddit, rap pundits and fans meticulously analyze local beefs and territorial disputes. The regional rap industry is saturated with overlapping fanbases, but the politics of its various crews, gangs, and neighborhoods can often stop artists from coordinating more fully. Longtime 3 Problems affiliate LA4SS has described the risks of crossing gang rivalries to work with other rappers: “we could do that, [but] a nigga might backdoor him on his side for that.” Once again, the spectacle of block warfare is taking local musicians as casualties. For example, BigBuckz Eloo B, a close associate of Trey and Von, was killed by a 17-year-old assailant in a 2019 shootout that’s rumored to be gang-related. 

In turn, metro area police have increasingly coordinated with federal law enforcement to take down rappers with suspected gang ties—building on a legacy of targeting rappers like Poe in the shadow of the Ferguson uprisings. “When I would go out, I knew we had undercovers in the crowd,” Poe recalls. “The police would go to the venue owners a day or two before the shows and try to get them to cancel. I know for a fact that the St. Louis hip-hop police is a real thing.”

Since 2020, the Department of Justice’s “Operation Legend” has allocated more federal funding for anti-gang operations in the region. In June 2022, LA4SS was arrested after a high speed chase through St. Louis City; he now faces gun charges and accusations that he tossed over 400 capsules of fentanyl before his arrest. Jizzle Buckz and an associate named Luh Half were indicted that same month, as ATF and City police claimed that their 55 Boyz crew was operating a fentanyl distribution ring. 18-year-old CTS Luh Wick was charged with first-degree murder four months later—although he was acquitted this past January—and in February 2023, following a year-long ATF investigation, Grimeyy was sentenced to seven years in prison on a gun charge.

The energy of St. Louis drill—its rawness and playfulness, its boisterous critiques of policing and gentrification, its utter refusal to pull punches—captures a vast playbook of survival tactics that the region has developed. Consider that inmates at St. Louis City’s downtown jail have started multiple uprisings in the past three years, while Missouri’s Republican state government has fought against police reform in the city and county. One part of the northside has been torn up by the construction of a $2  billion dollar national security complex. Drill’s complex relationship to St. Louis’ survival has allowed it to intervene in regional politics in a deeply flawed way: if you listen close, there are key insights on what’s driving so many communities toward death and dispossession—and what’s keeping people going in the face of it all. 

BigBuckz Trey and BigBuckz Von have spent their own time in Missouri’s justice system over the past few years; the county’s been particularly shaken up since Von was recently sent away on a gun charge. When Trey got out last summer after a probation violation, he dropped “First Day Out,” a brash cut driven by frizzy layers of horns and pulsing bass; the sound’s instantly reminiscent of Keef, but Trey’s tone and cadence are slicker and sharper. It’s a reassertion of business as usual—dice games, dalliances, cop-dodging—with the prison firmly in the rearview. Still, there’s a latent anxiety about how long it might last. Between quick vignettes from his sentence and celebratory brags, Trey drops tips for staying vigilant on the “free” streets of the County: “Shootout at nighttime, you can’t see, but you gotta reload / That’s why when I’m at home, I practice loading my shit blindfolded.” For the artists reporting from the northside’s long winter, it often seems like the only way out is through.

1 thought on “The long, hot winter of St. Louis drill”

  1. Excellent piece, loved it. I have to also shout out one of my favorite recent STL rappers Curry B who was tragically killed in late 2023, he has a lot of great songs with Mo P and they were close friends

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