Drug references and hip-hop go hand in hand like Donald Trump and controversy. Today, it’s difficult to find a rap record with no references to drugs; about taking them, making them, or selling them. As a genre that is listened to not just by the American youth, but teens worldwide, it’s clear to see how this is a major health and safety issue.
Yes, I hear you, drug referencing is not a problem that exists solely in hip-hop, but it is definitely more prevalent than in other genres.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine conducted a study of the 279 most popular songs of 2005 – analyzing drug references in each one of these tracks. The conclusion: 77% of rap songs had lyrics related to drugs, compared to 36% for country songs, 20% for R&B and hip-hop songs, and 14% for rock songs (I see your eyebrow going up in confusion, they categorized rap and hip-hop as different genres but this only proves our point further).
Funnily enough, hip hop records released as early as 1984 warned against the dangers of drug use. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five released “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” a track that highlighted the dangers of cocaine use.
Either up your nose or through your vein, with nothing to gain except killing your brain
This track was followed by Kool Moe Dee’s “Monster Crack,” a song personifying crack as a monster that is “More deadly than The Omen” and “Like the devil in The Exorcist”. So when did hip-hop tracks start glorifying drug use, rather than condemning it?
In 2008, a study carried out by the University of Berkeley found that drug references in rap music jumped sixfold between 1979 and 1999. The Dean for Student Affairs at the School of Public Health Denise Herd and her team’s research found that between 1979 and 1984, only 11% of the most popular rap songs contained drug references. However, this rate jumped sharply to 45% in the early 90’s, only to keep increasing to 69 percent of the top rap songs between 1994 and 1997. This trend rose at an alarming rate, making this a worrying issue for the younger, more vulnerable listeners.
Meng-Jinn Chen, a research scientist at the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, surveyed 1000 college students regarding hip hop fans and their drug use. He concluded that “Young people who listen to rap and hip-hop music are more likely to have problems with alcohol, drugs and violence than listeners of other types of music.”
But how did this all begin?
Aside from marijuana references, which have always existed within hip hop tracks, the use of cocaine and harder drugs were never accepted. In fact, this was frowned upon until the 2000s. Hip-hop went from glorifying selling hard drugs to glamorizing their effects. One of the most popular tracks of the 2000s that glorified hard drugs was probably “Purple Pills” by D12, which reached #19 on the Billboard top 100. If you haven’t heard it, it’s a fun song that glorifies the use of ecstasy – Eminem (part of D12) has always been known for his shock value, so it’s not surprising that he was one of the first to reach a large audience by glamorizing a drug that kids should stay away from.
Songs from 1979 to 1999 depicted the dangers of illegal drugs; however the use of these illicit substances became increasingly glorified at the start of the new millennium.
Before “Purple Pills,” Cypress Hill’s highly successful debut album in 1991 was stuffed (pardon the pun) with marijuana references. Other rappers also followed suit, most notably Dr.Dre (the title of his 1992 album ‘The Chronic”, one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time, is a reference to a strain of marijuana) and Snoop Dogg, two of the most popular hip hop artists of all time. Funnily enough, Dr.Dre was previously against marijuana and drug use, as he says in “Express Yourself” by NWA, with lyrics such as : ”I don’t smoke weed” and that he doesn’t “Smoke weed or sess, cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage”
By 1995, the percentage of rap songs with drug references increased from four tracks in the early 80s to 45 percent of all hip-hop tracks. This was definitely a turning point in the glamorization of illicit substances, but most of the references during these years were linked to marijuana use.
This changed rapidly – by 1998, the most talked about drug switched to cocaine.
Take a look at the following graph by Genius:
I’m sure most parents would prefer their kid to smoke some marijuana rather than snort lines of cocaine. I know I would.
One of Herd’s studies found that greater exposure to music videos lead to a greater risk of alcohol and drug use among teens over the following year. Another one of her studies associated the use of codeine (AKA sizzurp AKA lean) among Houston teens due to a new form of music in the region, “screw music.”
In fact, screw music’s most influential figure, DJ Screw, died from a codeine overdose. This didn’t stop other influential figures to glorify its use; Three 6 Mafia released a track called “Sippin On Some Syrup” in 2000. The whole song was based around abusing the lethal drug. Other artists such as UGK, Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane all made lean a part of their sounds, sadly to the detriment of youth worldwide. Unfortunately, its abuse took the life of A$AP YAMS 15 years later. His final tweet? “Bodeine Brazy” (that means “Codeine Crazy” in blood lingo).
More recently Gucci Mane seems to have turned over a new leaf, becoming an “ambassador” for healthy living. This comes as quite a surprise to an artist with a history of drug use who never shied away from speaking about it in his music.
He told The New York Times: “I felt like I couldn’t make music sober, I couldn’t enjoy my money sober. Why would I wanna go to a club and couldn’t smoke or drink? I felt like sex wouldn’t be good sober. I associated everything with being high. In hindsight I see it for what it was: I was a drug addict. I was naïve to the fact that I was numb.”
Not only has he quit drugs competely (even weed), he has even advised his younger listeners to stay away from lean. This is quite a refreshing attitude from an artist who was previously known to be a heavy drug user.
Prison might have been a blessing in disguise for one of the most influential trap artists of all time. He contributes his new healthy look to a sober way of life.
Even in modern hip-hop, codeine is still making its presence known – one of the most influential rappers of today, Future, often raps about his addiction to lean, with one of his mixtapes even being called Purple Reign. This is not to say that some rappers haven’t spoken out against lean. Schoolboy Q was addicted to the drug. He quit after he drank some lean, passed out, and woke up breathing heavily due to asthma.
Q had this to say of his lean experience: “I don’t know if it was a near death experience but I felt like I was about to die.” He even warned A$AP Rocky about it, “I got on him like, bro, you gotta quit it, bro.” Lil Wayne stopped drinking lean in 2009 after his life began to spiral out of control, as his addiction eventually resulted in seizures.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time Weezy battled with this dangerous drug, a substance that Taxstone claims is worse than crack. According to TMZ, he relapsed last July and ended in hospital only hours later, after suffering from a pair of seizures. However, reps for the artist have claimed that this was not true, and that these seizures were due to doctors prescribing him drugs for his epilepsy that shouldn’t be taken together.
MDMA is another drug that started to be mentioned in rap music, commonly referred to as “molly.” For example, Kanye West’s “Mercy” mentioned the drug: “Something about Mary, she gone off that molly/now the whole party is melted like Dali.” Molly lyrics can be heard spouted in hip hop lyrics, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that emergency room visits involving molly grew by 128% between 2005 and 2011. That’s not to say that this was completely influenced by hip-hop, as many electronic music fans also love the drug, but the mentioning of the drug in hip-hop lyrics did nothing to slow down its usage among teens.
While hip-hop music can also be a force for good, such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, with its uplifting tracks like “Alright,” there’s no denying that it can have an extremely negative impact on American youth. Kendrick spoke against the glorification of drug use in music in an interview with Arsenio Hall in 2013. He warned his fans not to follow trends blindly just because it has become popular. “Sometimes you have the trends that’s not cool,” he says. “You may have certain artists portraying these trends and don’t really have that lifestyle and then it gives off the wrong thing. And it becomes kinda corny after a while. It’s really about keeping hip-hop original and pushing away the corniness in it.” Truer words have never been spoken. Kendrick for president?
Studies show that youth who listen to hip-hop music were more likely to get involved with drugs (Thandi,21).The problem is that younger listeners hear their favorite artists glorifying these substances – and if their highly successful role models were doing it, why wouldn’t they? This way of thinking has the potential to lead to long term addiction.
Hip-Hop artists are often seen as heroes to today’s youth. Unfortunately with this prestige, imitation only comes naturally – leading to the detriment of the young hip hop heads of today.
“If we’re all saying that rap is an art form then we gotta be more responsible for our lyrics. If you see everybody dying because of what you’re saying, it don’t matter that you didn’t make them die, it just matters that you didn’t save them.” – Tupac Shakur