The Evolution of Drugs in Hip-Hop

The Evolution of Drugs in Hip-Hop

From 'White Lines' to Molly,Shaka Shaw reflects on the history of drug culture in rap music

by Shaka Shaw, September 11, 2013

The Evolution of Drugs in Hip-Hop

Capsules of the street drug "molly" 

Most hip-hop heads can probably remember  the moment when they realized that the song "White Lines" by Grandmaster Melle Mel was actually about cocaine.  While the party vibe and famous bassline might distract the casual listener, the lyrics definitely indicate many drug references, both veiled and outright.  "White Lines" was an anti-coke warning ("don't do it") deftly disguised as a viable party anthem.  In Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton wrote that "Melle Mel's record 'White Lines' actually started life as an ironic celebration of cocaine, with the 'Don't do it' message tacked on for commercial reasons".  This was more than likely an effort to, in addition to appeasing wary sponsors, simplify its message for listeners, who may have either missed the call to action (or rather inaction) or assumed the song promoted cocaine sale or use.

Marijuana, the third most popular recreational drug in America behind tobacco and alcohol, has always been a mainstay in hip hop when it comes to its actual presence in the lives of rappers and fans, alike, as well as its ubiquity in song lyrics.  Acts like Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg and Method Man are well known for their affinity for weed to the point that their public personas are often linked to the substance.  As in mainstream society, weed is trivialized in hip hop as something that just comes with the territory, so to speak.  Promotion of marijuana has always taken a hard back seat to promotion of mysogyny and violence when pundits are drawing straws for what to lambaste hip hop for.

Aside from the occasional reference to "woo blunts" (marijuana laced in cocaine that is then sealed into a blunt wrap), use of drugs other than weed seemed to be something that was not largely accepted until the 2000s.  While sale of hard drugs, from crack to even heroin, has been promoted even to the point of glamorization, references to exploration would seep through the cracks every now and then. Some rappers have mentioned "embalming fluid" as an additive to marijuana, actually referring to the drug phencyclidine, or PCP, known colloquially as "wet" or "angel dust".  On "You, Me, Him & Her" by Jay Z (from The Dynasty: Roc La Familia), Beanie Sigel seems to quickly touch on this with a few bars regarding past indiscretions:

Since a young buck / Violent as fuck / Wasn't me dog /The high will do it
I used to wild off embalming fluid / I sent niggas to the trauma unit

Even in these lines, the rapper seems to regret his actions and note the effect it had on his decision-making.  One of the most horrendous accounts of PCP usage has to be the story of Texan rapper Big Lurch, who is currently serving a life sentence for the vicious murder of his 21-year-old roommate.  The rapper reportedly was under the influence of PCP when he stabbed and proceeded to consume the flesh and organs of Tynisha Ysais.  Though PCP remains relatively taboo in rap music, recent experimentation with drugs other than weed might lead one to believe that previous boundaries may soon be overlooked.

The first really notable and largely popular song actually celebrating the use of drugs other than the standard fare of coke or marijuana is probably "Purple Pills" by Eminem proteges D12.  The song reached #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 under the censored title "Purple Hills" and with lyrical substitutions being made in an attempt to remove some of the drug and sex references.  Two videos were also made for both versions.  The song is mostly about ecstasy pills, but references in the song run the gamut of nearly everything on the market, from Valium to mescaline.  The shocking nature of the song was probably easier to accept considering the bizarre nature of the group (one of the members is actually named Bizarre) and the tendency of the group's mentor to rely on shock value to garner attention.  Nevertheless, this was still a marked step toward acceptance of "other drugs" into hip-hop culture.

Another deviation from the norm can be attributed to what was once a regional trend.  "Syrup", prescription-strength cough syrup containing codeine and promethazine (and sometimes hydrocodone), originated in Houston, Texas, and was wildly popular among the city's rap community.  Three Six Mafia's "Sippin' On Some Syrup" featuring UGK brought the drug notoriety in 2000, the same year DJ Screw, who first popularized the drug, passed away from an overdose.  Pimp C, one half of UGK, died in 2007, his death believed to have been caused by his sleep apnea combined with the use of the drug, which further inhibited his breathing during sleep.  Most recently, Li'l Wayne was reportedly rushed to a Los Angeles ICU and needed his stomach pumped three times for excessive amounts of codeine.  Companies have even gone so far as to capitalize off of this dangerous trend (namely the beverage "Drank"), creating legal anti-energy drinks and marketing them in a way that appeals to a young hip-hop audience.

"Molly" (short for molecule) is currently the hot-button issue when it comes to drugs in hip hop, with rappers like Trinidad James popularizing lines like "Popped a Molly, I'm sweatin' (W000)" in the party-time jingle "All Gold Everything".  Even more notably, Rick Ross came under heavy fire for insinuating drugging and date rape using the drug during his contribution to the song "U.O.E.N.O.", sparking the ire of many individuals and groups protesting his flippant reference and paper-thin apology some days later when faced with loss of endorsements. While the most poignant issue in this case was clearly making light of date rape in music, the underlying issue is figuring out how far mainstream rap is going to go with promoting drug use and specifically drugs many don't actually know enough about.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, is the drug component found in ecstasy, though Molly is the street name for when it is (supposedly) found in its purest form, crystallized or powdered.  Ecstasy is known for being "cut" with other elements like caffeine or methamphetamine when pressed into pill form.  The assumed purity is largely based on Molly's strength in comparison to ecstasy, although actual purity and source of the drug is impossible to determine by the casual user.

While we'll never get musicians and especially rappers to be responsible for promotion of illicit behavior, it's important that people who decide to take part in the drugs being promoted these days understand the risks, which aren't often rapped about.  The list of negative aftereffects and overdose reactions read uglier than Dick Tracy's rogue's gallery, with hemorrhage, renal failure, coma and death being very real possibilities, among many others.  

Unfortunately, we're in an age where, songs like, "Hey Young World," are a thing of the past because on the surface, straits don't look as dire as they did during the crack era. Today's youth seem more obsessed with party anthems and actual substances than they are with substance in music.  Will there ever be another "White Lines"?  As impressionable kids suffer, ill-equipped to handle the influences that drug-promoting in rap may have on them, hip hop seems more ripe for one than ever.  

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