Before UK Drill found its polished sound, there was a time where UK Drill was a mimic of the Chicago-bred Drill that stood out with rapid-fire 808’s, creepingly piano notes and unflinching stories and threats. It’s undeniable that UK Drill is indebted by the streets of Chicago as it crossed the waters of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and settled in London. It was a transition that conveyed a sense of journey and we see this journey reflected in UK Drill rappers like Headie One who rapped earnestly over trap-infused US beats before finding their sound.
There was also somebody else whose music embodied the promises UK Drill hid in hyper-violent lyrics. He even had a rarely-found video of him spitting awkwardly but with ambition over a Hudson Mohawke beat. The oft-forgotten rapper was Leoandro Osemeke, known as Showkey whose artistic approach helped breathed life into a genre that was predicted to die out.
Showkey started his career with the four-man group ‘PHSB’ (Play Hard, Spray Bars) composed of M.Dot, Slimzy and IQ. They gained traction from songs like “Anthem” and “Federally,” a hodgepodge of Dancehall, Trap and Road Rap. M.Dot and Showkey’s bars showcased their lifestyle and it was bookended with a melodic trappy hook sung by IQ and Slimzy. Their tracks were a structural blueprint that contemporary UK Drill artists follow.
After honing his skills with PSHB, his versatility shined in his million-plus views on his Mad About Bars freestyle, BlackBox freestyle, Tim Westwood’s Crib Session and Daily Duppy. He’ll rap viciously over a handful of Drill beats but blink for a second and his vocals would be submerged in autotune over a Dancehall beat. It wasn’t only his versatility but his youthfulness that knighted him as a poster boy for the ever-approaching New UK Drill. In a scene that was dominated by elders; Showkey proved he was more than capable to hold his own against UK rap stalwarts, standing out in those star-studded linkups with an effortless delivery and bars that warranted rewinds.
When UK Drill caught the attention from listeners outside of its target audience, its popularity skyrocketed, for better and for worse. A tirade of censorship surfaced: The Metropolitan Police Service and YouTube bolstering lyrical content as unimpeachable testimony and banning artists from performing or uploading any of their creations. Showkey was one of the first artists to show that Drill was like a lenticular print; if you peer at it from a singular point of view, you’ll just see an image encouraging violence with hubris but look at it from multiple angles and it shows a complex image of trauma, poverty and grief.
Showkey’s tribute for PSHB’s M.Dot “Letter to M.Dot” goes beyond the scoreboards and braggadocio as he croons in autotune: “Oh Lord, Oh Lord, they’re taking my friends / Got many men, wish death on me in most of my ends.” Showkey’s BlackBox freestyle paints a writerly ode to close friend Slitz over funeral-ready piano keys and violin strings before spinning off into his dynamic wordplay. Death lurks within the margins of Showkey’s music; not just the threat but the process of mourning.
Four months after the release of Letter to M.Dot, Showkey’s life was cut short after he was stabbed at a party. Shortly after, the Media used his death as fuel for their agendas to blame Drill for increasing crime while Drill listeners dismissed his authenticity for partaking in a BBC5 documentary ‘Gangland,’ a searing look into gang culture in London. Without having dropped a mixtape in tandem with the rush of younger rappers coming into the framework.
Only seasoned fans reminiscence about Showkey and it always concludes with this question: What if he was still there?” I think about that question, not only when I revisit Showkey’s music but also when I see Drill artists deliver hard-hitting one-liners, barrelling flows with a keen ear for experimentation. The question becomes more pressing when Drill artists are hitting UK Charts and speaking in the House of Commons. It’s possible to believe the scene is indebted to him for the talent, complexity and life he offered to the scene during its growing pains. Even if it was brief.
Words by Ethan H-L