Sorry for being almost a week late with this one! Ran into some technical difficulties (original got deleted) and haven’t had a chance to finish it until today.
The relationship between drugs and hip-hop has a long history, dating back to when rap was just emerging on the streets of New York. And although hip-hop has been around for less than a half-century, there exists a complex union linking the two. A brief examination of the relationship provides a better context in which to place the current state of hip-hop, in regards to the culture’s relations with drugs. Once this has been accomplished, it is necessary to look at the various ways rap music glorifies drugs, focusing on lyrics but also paying attention to the drug related personal actions (arrests, etc.) of rappers. What are the consequences of a drug-friendly hip-hop community? And what about the other side of hip-hop, the side that reveals a more realistic, and less glorified, image of drugs and drug use? This week I explore the love/hate relationship that is drugs and hip-hop.
If I wasn’t in the rap game, I’d probably have a key
Knee-deep in the crack game,
Because the streets is a short stop,
Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot
-Notorious B.I.G., “Things Done Changed”
These famous lyrics, from one of hip-hop’s most well-known and popular emcees of all time, reveal what many people believe to be the cold reality: if you’re from the streets, the only means of escaping poverty are rap, professional sports, or crime. In Biggie’s case, crime meant dealing drugs. In reality, of course, there are other means of escaping a life of poverty, including one that is often overlooked by the rappers glorifying the distribution and use of drugs – death. Fortunately, statistics work to prove Notorious B.I.G.’s belief to be inaccurate. An education and a hard work ethic have been shown to do more for a person’s upward social mobility than music, sports, or crime, whether that person is black or white. What causes people to buy into the idea that crime – drugs – is the only realistic possibility of moving out of the slums? A major contributing factor is the way drugs – manufacturing, selling, and using – are presented by the hip-hop community through the lyrics and actions of rappers.
The relationship between drugs and rap music is nothing new. In the early days of rap, artists referenced drugs in their stage names. The first rapper to ever have a certified gold record was Kurtis Blow, whose name paid tribute to powder cocaine. At the same time, some emcees used the power that came with releasing music in hopes of curbing the prevalence of drugs in their communities. By speaking of the devastation crack cocaine had on neighborhoods, Public Enemy used their classic “Night of the Living Baseheads” to campaign against the use of crack:
He knew a brother that stayed all day in the street
And at night he went to sleep
And in the morning all he had was sneakers on his feet
The culprit used to jam and rock the mic,
Yo, he stripped the Jeep to fill his pipe
And wander around to find a place
Where they rocked to a different kind of…BASS
Since its inception, rap music has portrayed drugs in positive and negative ways. As time went on and hip-hop became more commercially viable, however, the cautionary tales became less common and less popular. Why might this have been the case? Perhaps it was the fact that rap created new economic opportunities for poverty stricken individuals at the same time drug dealing and the crack epidemic were making certain men very wealthy. This combination resulted in the emergence of “ghetto entrepreneurs” – drug dealers with rap labels (Small, Deborah. Getting the Message: Hip-Hop and the Drug War.
Some of the original independently owned hip-hop labels, such as Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, were initially funded by the profits that came from drug sales. Eazy-E is not the only person to use drug sales to start a label, but the Ruthless Records example has unmatched significance when it comes to the relationship between drugs and hip-hop. In Why Hip-Hop Culture is Hooked on Drugs, Dr. Boyce Watkins explains how “NWA was the genesis of most hip-hop we hear on the radio right now. Given that NWA was financed by drug money, one could easily argue that a huge segment of hip-hop has been fueled by the dope game” (Watkins). According to Watkins, NWA represents a change in the direction of rap music – when the cautionary tales about cocaine and crack were replaced by gangsta rap. At this time, popular rap lyrics became increasingly filled with drug references – a trend that has continued ever since.
In 2008, the University of California, Berkeley conducted a study examining the content of rap music over the span of twenty years – 1979 to 1999. The study, which was the first of its kind, revealed a 58% increase in drug references, jumping from 11% in the years 1979-1984 to 69% by 1999 (ScienceDaily, April 2008). Although the study did not analyze any music released in the past 13 years, it may be safe to assume the trend has continued – we have Brick Squad, Coke Boys, and everybody’s favorite correctional officer, the Teflon Don himself, Mr. Ricky Rozay. And that’s just their stage names! Finding evidence of “an increase in songs featuring positive attitudes toward drugs and the consequences of drug use, and an increase in references of drug use to signify glamour, wealth and sociability” is as easy as listening to some of today’s most popular rap songs (Preidt, Robert. Rap Music Glorifying Drug Use).
Whether rappers are discussing how they’ve been involved in selling drugs, or they’re rapping about how they use the drugs in order to have a good time, it is not difficult to find examples of songs glorifying all sorts of drugs, ranging from marijuana to cocaine and crack to promethazine. I’m not going to spend time discussing marijuana references, because honestly, “the times, they are a’changin’.” Anybody who still thinks marijuana should be a schedule I drug needs to do a little research. Now, I’m not saying everyone should be getting lifted legally. But our country needs to realize the potential money we can make from a properly regulated cannabis industry – as well as the overall usefulness of the plant – and weigh that against the lack of potential physical and mental harm. Sorry, I don’t mean to cannabitch about this, so let’s get back to the topic at hand.
Usually drugs are glorified by rappers in one of two ways – glamorized tales of pushing illegal substances, and/or braggadocios tales of drug use. In either scenario, the potential influence of an emcee on listeners can have severe consequences. Before I go into any more detail, I would like to make clear that I do not believe rappers – or any artist, celebrity, etc. – should ever be held responsible for the actions of their fans. Just because Lil Wayne brags about ‘lean’ does not mean he is to blame for his listeners sipping on purple drink. Now, that’s not to say he isn’t the individual who influenced his fans to try it. Clearly artists influence their fans in a number of ways – but that doesn’t mean they should be held responsible for the lack of responsibility of their fans. I understand this probably sounds a little confusing – they are the influence, but they aren’t to blame? But hopefully you get what I’m trying to say. You can be influenced in a number of ways by a variety of different people. The only person responsible for your actions is you. Placing blame on any other person is a cop-out. Again though – and this is a crucial point to get across – artists do have an immense power in their ability to influence.
In hip-hop, the drug-boy trope is commonly utilized by rappers – some speaking truthfully about their past, others exaggerating or just straight up lying. Usually, this is done with the intention of creating and maintaining an image with street credibility. When emcees rap about their previous or current involvement in the drug game, it presents the idea to underprivileged youth that selling drugs can help you escape poverty. Jay-Z may have been able to escape the drug game and use the profits he made selling drugs to start a label. But Jay-Z is an exception to the rule – the rule being that most people selling drugs end up locked up or dead. And Jay-Z knew when to call it quits – barely. If you read his book Decoded, he explains how he was one pick-up/drop-off away from getting pinched by the Ds. Jay’s a good example because his lyrics are often times misunderstood. Seldom is Jay glorifying selling drugs – he may brag about it, but Jay is more of an ‘artistic journalist’, revealing what was/is really going on in the streets. But nonetheless, many of his fans, especially those trapped in poverty, listen to his records and decide selling drugs is the best escape. What they don’t understand is without his intelligence and work ethic, Jay-Z would not be the star he is. It wasn’t drugs that got Jay-Z money, fame and success. It was his brain.
Of course, Jay-Z was actually in the streets selling drugs. And because of that experience, he uses his music to tell people what it was really like – not fun, not pretty, not something anyone should strive for. Although he does not usually get credit for this, Jay-Z is an example of hip-hop using drugs to turn listeners away from that lifestyle. More often than not, emcees – usually the ones who did not actually live that life – glorify the drug selling lifestyle. The best example, obviously, is William Leonard Roberts II – better known by his stage name, Rick Ross. Ross, who took his rap name from an infamous real-life drug dealer, often raps about his drug trafficking, gun-toting, gangster lifestyle. He shies away from mentioning his past occupation – a correctional officer.
Keep it trilla, nigga
Never had a gun and badge
When reports first surfaced about his C.O. past, Ross denied these claims. He continued his denial, stating photos of him in his uniform were fakes, doctored to appear like they were real pictures of the rapper. Eventually, the evidence was too great to deny – so he changed his story. You see, Mr. Rozay was in fact a correctional officer. But he was also dealing drugs and being a ‘gangsta’ at the same time. Why was he unable to admit he had fabricated his past? Most likely to maintain his street cred and save his career.
So, instead of admitting he had a real job that was beneficial to the community, Ross made up stories of drug dealing, drug using and partying. All because it makes him seem more legitimate when he raps. Unfortunately, by glorifying his make-believe lifestyle and denying his true past, Ross presents the idea to his listeners that having a legitimate occupation – one that does not involve drugs – is not cool. There is no doubt that cocaine and other drug distribution operations of many emcees – not including William Leonard Roberts II, who was not actually involved in the drug trade he so frequently raps about – have played a significant role in damaging or ending thousands of lives. It is commonplace in the narrative of hip-hop to not only justify this unfortunate fact, but go so far as to celebrate it. The glorification and justification of drug dealing in rap music highlights the ugliest aspects of capitalism – sacrificing the well-being of others to advance oneself. Imagine if Rick Ross rapped about being a C.O., was proud of the fact he had a legitimate occupation, and didn’t lie and try to hide his past. What a positive role model Ross could have been for impoverished youth. Instead, Ross pretends to be a high level drug dealer, basically telling his listeners that selling drugs is the best way out of the hood. Why get a real job, why help the community by being a police officer or correctional officer, when you can make money, fuck bitches and party by selling drugs?
Remember last week’s editorial, explaining why the drug war is a system of institutionalized racism? African Americans are targeted more for drug crimes. So Rick Ross should be trying to get his fans to stay away from that life. Instead, he glorifies it. Proof that hip-hop has done its share of work to sustain the perpetual love affair between African American males and the systems designed to destroy them. Young black people actually have similar or lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse compared to their white peers. Most of society would not guess that based on lyrics in rap music. And that certainly doesn’t add up to the level of arrests black people encounter for drug related offenses.
Speaking of arrests, plenty of famous rappers (black and white) have been arrested for drug crimes. When an emcee gets arrested for anything, drugs included, it sends a message to society that this person lives the life they rap about. In some twisted way, getting arrested for drugs verifies that an emcee is authentic. Think about it this way – if Rick Ross had an arrest record to go along with his claims of drug trafficking, he wouldn’t be seen as such a phony for being a C.O.
Something interesting about emcees being arrested for drugs, of course, is the drugs they are caught with. In most cases, rappers are not arrested for small amounts of cheap drugs – the type of things you might expect a rap fan to be caught for. Take, for example, Lil Wayne, who was arrested in January 2008 after being stopped at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Arizona. Agents who arrested Wayne “reported finding 105 grams of marijuana, 29 grams of cocaine, 41 grams of ecstasy and miscellaneous drug paraphernalia on board. They also found $22,000 in cash on the bus” (ABC News, January 23, 2008). Unless you’re rich and famous, the only way you have that amount of those types of drugs is through involvement in the drug game. Obviously Weezy is famous and wealthy enough to have such ample supplies of narcotics. But most of the people who listen to Lil Wayne are not. Most people that decide they want to use the drug game to escape poverty will never have the money necessary to be around that kind of drug supply. Most people who listen to rap music and decide drugs are the answer – in terms of recreational use or an occupation – will end up dead or in prison before they even come close to that level of drugs. Rappers don’t get caught for the petty drug crimes the fans are arrested for. Rappers such as Lil Wayne, who glorify drug use and drug sales, give false hope and unreal aspirations to impressionable listeners. Is it hip-hop’s fault that listeners are unable to separate reality from fantasy? No, but rap music is a heavy source of influence and tainted inspiration.
Studies have shown that young people may be influenced by frequent exposure to music lyrics that make positive references to substance use. According to one such study, “rap music was consistently associated with alcohol use, potential alcohol use disorder, illicit drug use and aggressive behavior.” The same report explains how “nearly half of rap/hip-hop songs mentioned alcohol as compared to around 10 percent or less of other popular music genres. Nearly two-thirds of rap songs mentioned illicit drugs as compared with one-tenth of songs from other genres.” Whether it wants to be or not, hip-hop has a monumental influence on those who listen to it, especially the younger fans who are still trying to find their way in life. However, there is a brighter side to hip-hop. Unfortunately, the mainstream is overcrowded with negative influences glorifying drugs. More often than not, one must look to the underground for examples of hip-hop that present drugs in a realistic light.
The study that revealed the increasing trend in drug references was focused on the most popular hip-hop songs during the time period. So, that would be your N.W.A.s, your 50 Cents, and your Lil Waynes. But what about the artists that aren’t selling millions of records or getting constant radio play?
The media and all hip-hop critics who attack the genre for glorifying drugs focus primarily on the most popular – and usually less lyrically impressive – rap music. If various forms of media chose to play ‘conscious’ hip-hop, it would be easier for the world to understand that not all rap music is about getting fucked up and selling drugs. There is quite a bit of music out there doing its best to let the youth know the truth about using and selling narcotics. Drugs are not all fun and games, sex and money – drugs can and do lead to addiction, prison and death. Again, however, this message is not popular with the mainstream, so the songs we do hear usually glorify and lie about drug use.
As I’ve mentioned, real depictions of what drugs can do are out there. It just takes a little more effort to find them. One of my favorite songs – that coincidentally is about drugs, and how rap artists who talk about drugs have the power to influence listeners one way or the other – is “Otherside” by Macklemore. Although Macklemore has been getting some well deserved attention lately thanks to the 2012 XXL Freshman list, he is still not a mainstream artist. Just give the song a listen and you’ll see what I mean when I say there’s more out there in hip-hop than the cliché, over-used drug-boy trope.
Not only is it a great song, but Macklemore touches on a number of drugs, explaining the dangers that come with each one. He even goes so far as to say, “weed’s not a drug?, that’s denial, groundhog day, life repeat each time.” Without a doubt, “Otherside” is one of the most honest depictions of drug use and the role rappers play when it comes to hip-hop fans getting involved in their favorite artists’ recreational past times. Anytime you hear somebody say rap only glorifies drugs, play them Macklemore’s song. It should shut them up pretty quickly.
Another anti-drug song I really enjoy is also by one of this year’s XXL Freshmen. Hopsin’s “Chris Dolmeth” takes the listener on Jessie’s journey towards addiction.
What I love about this song is how Jessie’s teachers are OK with him doing drugs if it means he’s doing his work. This reminds me of conversations I’ve heard teachers have at the high school I substitute at. I’ve listened to teachers go on and on about how drugs like Adderall are overprescribed and dangerous, only to hear them finish their rant with something like, “Oh well, it makes my job easier if the students are on those drugs. They don’t act up.” Sickening. As a society, we need to better educate the youth about drugs – we need to tell them the truth about all drugs. When students are told how bad marijuana is their whole lives, what do you think happens when they first start to smoke it and realize they’ve been lied to? Maybe all those other drugs we’ve been told are bad are actually just as harmless as weed. You see, weed is not a gateway drug. Weed is only a gateway to the fridge. Lies are the gateway to harder drugs – drugs that you really should be avoiding…. I’m gonna stop now, because I’m about to start ranting about the subject of drug education and I don’t want to get so far off topic….
Rap music and drugs have a long, storied history. Unfortunately, drugs are frequently glorified and listeners commonly decide to follow in the footsteps of their favorite artists. Who is to blame for rap fans using drugs or believing drugs are the only way out of poverty? Many would say it’s the artists who rap about living that lifestyle. I disagree – I put the blame on the individuals listening and deciding to fuck their lives up, and on the higher-ups who decide what to play, what to distribute. In that sense, rap music is like a drug, and the industry is full of dirty drug dealers who sell poison to the youth. They continue to push this poison, even though a healthy alternative is readily available for anyone willing to search for it. Go listen to Weezy. Then go listen to Macklemore. Weezy may be selling more records, but Macklemore is easily the more creative, talented, lyrical rapper. Wayne’s getting fucked up with lean. Macklemore learned from his mistakes and is spreading the truth about drugs. Lean or learn. Drugs and hip-hop. Glorification and reality. Love and hate. It’s a complex relationship. As a listener, you are responsible for your own actions. If you want to say the artist is to blame for higher levels of drug use by rap fans, I’ll say you should listen to different artists. Besides, Lil Wayne sucks anyway.