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Shawny Binladen and the rise of sample drill

A man sings into a microphone in a concert setting while surrounded by a large crowd of people pointing mobile phones at him.
Photo by GShotEm
For Shawny Binladen and his collective the Yellow Tape Boys, sampling is a sacred act — the highest form of respect.

After Pop Smoke's tragic death in 2020, many wondered what would become of New York drill, and many naysayers claimed it died with him. Over the next year, several booming voices would knock at that door, but the man who broke it down was one who raps in whispers.

27-year-old Queens rapper Shawny Binladen's reimagination of drill music opened up a new world of possibilities by calling on a practice foundational to hip-hop: sampling. There may never be another King of New York — but Shawny Binladen is the King of Samples.

Sample drill didn't invent sampling in drill. A few songs previously relied on samples in one-off ventures; Sleepy Hallow's "Deep End Freestyle," for example, sampled a vocal loop that singer-songwriter Fousheé had originally uploaded to a royalty-free database called Splice, laying it over minimalist, fixed percussion. But it wasn't until Shawny that the concept of "sample drill" was born.

Drill flips of clearly communicated (and often widely recognizable) samples became a pillar of a new collective sound, and eventually the basis for a new subgenre, breathing new life into the gloomy severity of drill production.

The songs flip everything — from Daft Punk to Kanye to Dick Dale & the Deltones. Sample drill's explosion has been largely fueled by TikTok, and many staple tracks have a tongue-in-cheek feel, playing at a certain attention-grabbing contrast (like Dthang, Bando & T Dot's "Talk Facts," which samples Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know").

Some records, like Kyle Ricch & Jenn Carter's JoJo-sampling "do what you want," rely on teenage nostalgia. Many effectively executed samples feel earnest (DD Osama & Notti Osama's "Without You"), and the most affecting ones play into the song's sentimentality or enhance its underlying mood, like Edot Baby's "Where Are You Now."

In this space, Shawny Binladen has revealed that the right whisper can be more commanding than a yell. His vocal is breathy and guttural all at once, chiseling through dense, amorphous 808s but never overpowering even the softest R&B sample. SB raps in hushed tones that draw the listener in closer, as if sharing a secret.

He tends to err on the side of restraint, always backing off just a moment too soon, ensuring each punch-in is more exhilarating than the last. While many young, explosive rappers tend to attack the beat ("They be bugging on them s****!" he notes), Shawny prefers to engage it in conversation. "I'll let that b**** breathe for a minute," he explains — there's not much point in sampling if you don't "give the sample its shine."

Shawny's "Wick Season," a 2020 drill flip of the repeatedly sampled Isley Brothers slow jam "Footsteps in the Dark," was one of his earliest experiments with the form. His vision rings clear, almost as if he's completing a rite of passage — first, paying homage to the Isley Brothers for evoking an unreplicable feeling, and, second, to the expansive list of greats who've embraced that feeling before, Compton's Most Wanted, Ice Cube, J Dilla, Usher, Alicia Keys and more. As the song fades out, Shawny issues a personal decree: "Any sample these n***** give me, I'ma walk on that s***, King of this s***."

Less than three years later, he's damn near run out of material. "N***** done sampled everybody in the game, bro," Shawny declares proudly. "LL Cool J, A$AP Rocky, Gunna, Post Malone, Eem, Yeat" — to name a few. "And that was the flip on it," his close friend and collaborator Four50 grins, "When everybody started going back, we like, 'We sampled a n**** that dropped this year! How bout that?'" After Yeat dropped, "I already had the sample out a few weeks later," Shawny recalls, "N***** like, 'Nah, you crazy!'"

For the love of sampling, Shawny walks a treacherous edge — the latest iteration of a battle that hip-hop has fought for decades. Even as the digital age transforms the way that music is both produced and consumed, the American legal system remains so culturally incompetent that an act of reverence is legally misconstrued as theft.

A man in a brightly colored coat smiles at the camera while holding up a gold chain with the Mona Lisa out of focus in the background.
/ Photo by Antoine Duchamp
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Photo by Antoine Duchamp
Shawny Binladen's most impactful sampling sets out to harness the power of memory or pay respect to trailblazers.

SB makes money uploading through independent digital distributors; ensuring his music isn't removed thus becomes a matter of livelihood. Through trial and error, he's found a careful equilibrium, relying on producers to obscure samples just enough to evade A.I. detection while still being identifiable to a careful listener.

Though informed by a bleak reality, SB still manages to transform this intricate balance into a stylistic strength: His samples to outline the shape of a memory but don't transport the listener completely, allowing a feeling from the past to seep into the present.

I met up with Shawny in his usual haunt: at the studio with Four50, Big Yaya and Big GLTAOW. All are members of the Queens-born rap collective Yellow Tape Boys (YTB). Within a few minutes, it's clear these bonds span the better part of a decade. Answers pour out in chorus, sentences are split down the middle, and sheer breadth of shared experiences engenders a rich lore. The time Big Yaya tripped over a barricade and took a full minute to regain his balance ("That n**** was tripping for mad long!") becomes a traditional campfire tale told around an ashtray in the middle of the studio.

Before the members of YTB ever put out a mixtape, they were growing up together in Woodhull, listening to Lloyd Banks and posting freestyle videos on Facebook. Shawny, Four50, and Yaya all attended Van Buren High School together, and Big GLTAOW was sure to join in on the antics after the bell rang.

In 2015, SB and Four50 — the only two rapping at the time — decided to take their craft to a new level, trading out the freewheeling four-minute freestyles they were making for more traditionally structured songs. "When we started, it was nothing. It was just 'I'm a rapper, you a rapper', and we formed YTB."

As everything came together, the members of YTB set out to create a new personal sound. Shawny Binladen (a name chosen with an appropriate dose of anti-patriotism, but also because he "drops bombs on these beats") had been gravitating towards samples for the better part of 2020, calling on trusted producers like Cash Cobain, EPondabeat and Cotton Candy Caleb to weave an eclectic array of snippets around the classic sliding basslines definitive to NYC drill (and its UK forebear). On Christmas Eve of 2020, Shawny dropped Merry Wickmas, his first project centering sample drill beats.

With a crucial assist from Brooklyn drill torch-carrier Bizzy Banks, SB premiered the video for the tape's leading track, "Whole Lotta Wickery," on WorldStar in January of 2021. Their performance broke the dam: "That's what really woke 'em up on that s***," Shawny remembers. EP's elegant, stripped-down production allows the contrast between his dream-pop sample and cavernous 808s to hit home, and leaves room for Shawny's less-is-more approach to resonate.

Within a month, Shawny followed up with a deluxe version and a video for its leading, Cash Cobain-produced, Lauryn Hill-sampling track "Yellow Tears," which would quickly become another mainstay in the NYC circuit. Later that year, Cash, a pioneer of sample drill production, would go on to produce Bronx rapper B-Lovee's "My Everything," a drill flip of the similarly titled Mary J. Blige single. On the song's chorus, B-Lovee raps, "Feelin' like Wick 'cause the way that I aim it" — a clear nod to Shawny, who goes by many monikers inspired by the Keanu Reeves-portrayed action-movie assassin.

Just a few months before "My Everything," Kay Flock dropped his breakout, XXXTentacion-sampling track "Being Honest" in the summer of 2021. Both tracks catapulted the artists from regional frontrunners to streaming stars with global reach — a first for the scene since 2019 — and led to an explosion of sample drill in the Bronx, in Harlem and soon all over New York.

Sample drill has become the popular term for the subgenre, but SB makes a distinction: "Soul drill" is something a little more specific. For Shawny Binladen and the Yellow Tape Boys, sampling is a sacred act — the highest form of respect. In their world, every sample is chosen with intention, even if, at times, irreverently.

Sometimes, it's a nod to a contemporary, because "it's fun, why the f*** not?" Often, a sample is entwined with pangs of personal significance, conjuring memories of family, of childhood homes, of lost loved ones. "That's the meaning of soul drill," SB clarifies, "That s*** bring you back to when you was about five, 10 years old. A simpler time." Four50 chimes in to set the scene: "Ma cooking in the kitchen, playing that song on the radio, sweet potatoes is boiling."

Shawny has a handful of years on the average rapper; to him, those few years make a world of difference. "We're old souls," he muses, "N***** is '90s babies, so we just amazed with what was going on in our time. Ain't no young n****s listening to no f****** Jadakiss or no Lox."

Growing up, he was inspired by his uncle Stretch, a rapper and producer who collaborated closely with 2Pac and whose impact instilled in SB an adoration for music that both defines and transcends time. Now an artist in his own right, Shawny's most impactful sampling sets out to harness the power of memory or pay respect to trailblazers.

In looking back on the past, Shawny inspired a new future. With eager participation from essentially every rapper in the scene, sample drill has become the dominant sound of the city. Even Ice Spice, one of rap's brightest emerging stars, first gained traction with sample drill tracks like "No Clarity" and "Name of Love," eventually debuting on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with "Gangsta Boo," a flip of P. Diddy's "I Need a Girl (Pt. 2)."

The wave that Shawny set in motion has brought all eyes back to New York, yet many conversations about the movement fail to place Shawny and YTB in their proper context: at the trend's origin.

For many locals, and disgruntled YouTube commenters, the timeline feels obvious. When Shawny's whispery growl first emerged, drill songs constructed around clear, uncut samples were mind-bogglingly novel. "I still think he doesn't get enough credit," declares SoTalented, a central figure in the scene who's booked shows for every major drill act in the city. "He's the person who started [rapping on] sample beats and created the whole wave. Shawny brought a whole new sound to New York City."

But the Yellow Tape Boys aren't losing much sleep. "You know who invented the paper clip? No. Toilet paper?" Four50 reasons, "When you start something and it branch out, you can't control it. Once you create a genre, it becomes deeper than yourself."

As artists who understand sampling to be a hallowed tradition, they're more concerned with perpetuity than credit. In their eyes, fretting too much about the things you can't control defeats the whole point of making music in the first place.

"We literally do this for fun. We do this s*** because of how it bring us together," SB explains, "That's why I feel like nobody ever gonna outwork us. A lot of people don't have fun with their s*** bro, they catching headaches and s*** over music. We dead be laughing at s***." So, Shawny chalks it up to "pioneer s***" — and everyone nods in agreement.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nora Lee