Awol Erizku’s New Show Is—and Is Not—a Drill

Photography by Tom Carter. All images courtesy of the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts.

The haunting dings of a Casio A, B flat, C flat, and D ​chime in jarring unison as they ​reverberate around Awol Erizku's Downtown Los Angeles studio. But the voice that follows ​the familiar keyboard riffs ​is not Crystal Waters nor any of the hundreds of remixes and reworks of her 1991 dance hit "Gypsy Woman (La da dee la da da​),​" but rather ​JAYPROB, a New York-based, self-described “photogRapper” who released the song "Bronxlyn" with recording artist Rocky Snyda as an NFT earlier this year. I’m slightly thrown off. “This is drill,” explains Erizku, happy with the success of his intended effect. Wearing a black snapback that reads “Esoteric” in chunky Medieval font, he bounces his head to the beat.

“It's a cousin of trap—but distant. They deviated,” notes Erizku, geeking out on the genres’ histories and subsequent cultural scenes. “I feel really connected to drill even though there isn’t too much discourse around it.” 

His fascination with music is an extension of his continuous study of Black culture, and has long paralleled the multidisciplinary artist’s practice—and no, not just because of Beyoncé. Ethiopian-born, South Bronx, New York-raised Erizku attended Cooper Union thinking he wanted to be a painter, but ended up in Yale’s MFA photo program two years later, where he focused on sculptural and installation works. Along the way, he DJed with the likes of Bradley Soileau and DJ SOSUPERSAM, making mixtapes that informed (and often shared titles with) his work in the studio. No doubt, Erizku's mixes remain an integral part of the artist’s mixed-media presentations, and he inaugurates each new body of work live on his turntables.

As Erizku’s past works—like his 2021 photo-sculpture exhibition “Scorched Earth" at Night Gallery, which analyzed the organic beside the artificial—have explored, there are endless subcultures within the realm of hip-hop. But drill, with its bass-heavy production and unexpected sampling of pivotal cultural hits, has a sound that is uniquely nostalgic and modern. “Because you’re familiar with it, it does something to you,” continues Erizku as Crystal Waters swims around my mind. “You’re thinking, Oh, I just hope this person doesn’t fuck this up. In some way, drill artists are trying to make a name for themselves by associating themselves to something familiar.” 

Erizku likes this process of sampling; the idea of bringing newness to something already seen—or, in the case of drill, heard—before. It’s a motif that runs through his new works in "Cosmic Drill," which opens today at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London. But rather than remixing an existing category into one’s own—as he says of the young musical artists—Erizku is reworking his own practice while layering in a myriad influences, from galactic imagery by NASA to street markings.

“My interest in cosmic space—literally, metaphorically, and otherwise—was a backdrop to then make these new paintings,” he says beside an aluminum panel that must be at least nine feet tall and seven feet wide. “But it’s not a new concept. I’ve always been using the cosmos as a way to disassociate from the universality of tradition, of what’s considered common.” These colossal canvases, a massive shift from the oriented strand boards the artist once used, were the foundation for many of Erizku’s new multimedia works, 10 of which are on view in “Cosmic Drill.” (The show also includes a totemic sculpture in the shape of a dice, Head Crack [Stack or Starve], 2022, that is saturated by the colors of the pan-African flag.)

Vivid and celestial photographic imagery captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was printed onto Erizku’s metal surfaces before being spray painted in radioactive green and severe fuschia. The markings, many of them made impromptu, recast the graffiti tags the artist has observed on his daily runs across the neighborhoods of LA. The aerosol branding on works like Kyrie’s Lament (Shawny BinLaden Type Beat), 2022, do not amount to any kind of statement on gang culture, but rather are the transference of a narrative: one that is constantly being written, erased, written over, “buffed out,” and so on like tags in the real world. Mounted neon basketball hoops affixed with metal chains recall the Bronx courts of Erizku’s childhood, which he connects as both surveillant and a place of uncharted territory.    

“All of these historical aspects sit and linger in the background as I’m making these choices,” says Erizku, still scrolling through Spotify. “I am deliberately putting these marks on it.” The show’s working playlist shares the name of the body of work, and boasts 52 songs and counting. Listening through the one-hour-forty-five-minute mix, I do find moments of clarity after having briefly recognized a particular chord. But as each song continues and I try to articulate exactly what I’m reminded of, it’s clear that the comfort stays suspended ahead, just slightly out of grasp.

"Cosmic Drill" is on view through April 6, 2023 at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London.