Fivio Foreign 'We made drill different'
Rapper Fivio Foreign: 'We made drill different. We made it mainstream'
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"Pop was the king of New York," Fivio Foreign raps on his debut album BIBLE. That's "Pop" as in Pop Smoke, the Brooklyn rapper who was murdered in 2020. Fivio adds that he is now the one "in charge".
Like Smoke, the New Yorker is a star of rap's fastest-growing, most controversial sub-genre. Drill music first emerged in Chicago in the early 2010s and is now a worldwide phenomenon. New York's main hub is in Brooklyn, where Fivio (pronounced "Favio") grew up. "We made it different, we made it mainstream," he says of its drill scene.
His first studio album is a big-budget affair. Among its large cast of guests is Kanye West, whose 2021 album Dondafeatured a scene-stealing cameo from Fivio. "He's smart," Fivio says of working with West. "For the whole process of thinking how I wanted to put my album together, I had him in mind. I was still on that Ye time."
Released last month by major label Columbia Records, BIBLE debuted in the Billboard top 10. For Fivio, drill's world of YouTube views has been replaced by the traditional music-industry metric of success, the album charts. "I had to explain to people who didn't know that, yo, 29,000 sales for debut numbers, this is pretty good. I'm proud," Fivio says.
He is speaking from his home in New Jersey. It's noon, and the self-styled king of the city across the Hudson is holding court from the regal location of his bed following a late-night session in a recording studio. I am unable to assess the splendour of his crib. He has his video off for our Zoom call. I can hear children somewhere in the background: he has three.
At 32, Fivio isn't in the first flush of youth. A fear of failure flickers throughout BIBLE's lyrics, a shadowy flipside to its predominant air of polish and confidence. "All the time I'm always battling those demons in my head, about not wanting to lose, because I just can't lose right now," he says. "I've got too many people depending on me. So I always battle rap, you know what I'm saying? I always battle rap."
Battling is a key element of drill, and also the cause of the notoriety of this hard, minimalist variety of rap, the product of an environment beset by gang rivalries and extreme violence. Fivio first became aware of it about a decade ago. "I liked the aggression. I liked the beats," he says.
A stylistic shift came with a move across the Atlantic. UK drill added slower tempos and sinuously menacing basslines. In the hip-hop equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle, this London-based variant was then picked up by Brooklyn rappers. Among BIBLE's stable of producers is the Londoner AXL Beats, who produced Fivio's breakthrough anthem "Big Drip", a summer hit in 2019. It led to the rapper's deal with Columbia Records, for a reputed seven-figure sum.
Real name Maxie Lee Ryles III, Fivio was raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. His father served in the US Army and his mother was a teacher. She died in 2016 after suffering a stroke. "That one hit kinda hard," he says. "She made me feel like I was a winner."
Like its cousins in Chicago and the UK, Brooklyn drill has a violent reputation. Its first crossover star, Pop Smoke, was shot dead aged 20 during a robbery in Los Angeles. BIBLE opens with a shout-out to another murdered rapper, TDott Woo, who was killed in Brooklyn this February, hours after signing his first record deal.
"Definitely it should stop," Fivio says of the rising toll of slain rappers. The extent of drill's responsibility has provoked the same arguments about cause and effect as gangsta rap did in the 1990s. The line separating fact from fiction is blurry. In April last year, Fivio was arrested for possession of a loaded gun (he has yet to be charged for it).
Earlier this year, he joined a group of rappers who met with New York mayor Eric Adams to argue against plans to ban drill videos on social media. He supports a proposed law drawn up by two US senators and endorsed by Jay-Z to prevent rap lyrics from being used as evidence in criminal trials.
"I don't think you can use rap lyrics in court," he says. "Basically because it's entertainment. It's like a movie. And there are some people who don't write their own raps. How do you say you want to use these lyrics when people don't even write their own raps?"
He usually freestyles his own verses in the recording booth, making them up on the spot. The ones on BIBLE include the usual drill threats towards enemies, or "opps", but they're generalised rather than specific. Attempts are made to soften Fivio's image. "Know I'm a gangsta but I get affectionate," he raps at one point. "It's just like, be free and be confident in who you are," he says of these efforts to expand his appeal.
A favourite term in his raps is "viral". Kanye West borrows it for a cameo appearance on the album when he declares, "Fivi is viral and this is the 'BIBLE'." The endorsement feels "big" to the pretender to the throne of New York rap. "Yeah," Fivio says. "That means I really am viral, right?"
'BIBLE' is out now on RichFish/Columbia Records. Fivio Foreign is touring the US now and plays Wireless Festival, London, in July