Earlier this week, Showtime announced that director John Singleton is developing Snowfall, an original series revisiting the stomping grounds of South Central, California (where Singleton’s classic Boyz in the Hood was set). According to Shadow and Act, the show will be about “a young black kid from Compton, who will grow to become the world’s first ‘superstar’ drug dealer, a Mexican wrestler, and a CIA agent charged with laundering money for the Contras.”
Looking back at the great crack plague that swooped down on Black America 30 years ago (happy anniversary), the drug had the power of Godzilla, wreaking havoc on the homes and communities in low-income neighborhoods throughout the country, and later, the world.
However, while the crack era turned our streets into warzones and thousands into zombie junkies, it also inspired many pop culture films, albums, fiction and TV shows. Almost from the beginning of the crack cocaine era, the drug quickly became a pop cultural signifier for artistic creators like screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper (New Jack City), novelist Ray Shell (Iced) and Spike Lee (Jungle Fever). Countless rappers—including Jay Z, Biggie Smalls, the Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, Public Enemy, Rick Ross and the Clipse—also documented the rise of rock.
“From the middle ’80s to the early 2000s, crack kind of took over our culture,” says DJ Jazzy Jay. A well-known turntablist who began his career working with Zulu Nation pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, the Bronx native produced the 1986 track “Cracked Out” for Grand Puba’s first group Masters of Ceremony. “People would sell everything in their house, including the couch and bed, just to get high.”
In Iced, author Ray Shell’s brilliant, underrated novel about crack addiction, main character Cornelius Washington Jr. realizes he’s hit crack-rock bottom when he begins selling the furniture his mother left in the apartment. “After I sold the television and the stereo for crack money, I freaked and knew I needed help,” he writes in his diary.
Crafted in a prose poem style that was both smart and streetwise, Shell seemed to be writing with the spirits of narcotic novelists William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr. and Clarance Cooper Jr. hovering overhead.
One of my favorite hip-hop groups during the crack era was Public Enemy, whose masterful 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back featured the anti-crack track “Night of the Living Baseheads.” Talking about an old school rapper he knew who’d become a crackhead, Chuck D rapped, “The culprit used to jam and rock the mic.” The irony of the Chuck’s anti-crack sentiments on the song was the number of dealers who pumped the song in their jeeps and cars, never realizing (or caring) that the track was anti-everything they represented.
Still, as native New Yorker and former 30 Rock cast member Tracy Morgan pointed out during our recent interview, “We didn’t bring those drugs into our community, but they came from somewhere.” Author Gary Phillips, a crime writer from South Central, explains, “In the 1980s, with President Reagan and the administration’s support of the contras, there was more to the story about crack than what was later portrayed in movies like New Jack City.”
During those early crack years, while Tracy Morgan was navigating the wild streets of Brooklyn, I lived uptown in Harlem, six blocks away the fast-food spot where Jay Z used to meet his coke connect—and immortalized on “Empire State of Mind” when he rapped, “I used to cop in Harlem, all of my Dominicanos/Right there up on Broadway, brought me back to that McDonald’s.”
In 2007, while pop’s most famous former crack dealer was working on the American Gangster soundtrack, Jay and I traded New York City crack stories about those bad old days of the 1980s. “With the introduction of crack in the ’80s, being a gangster changed from being a gentlemen’s game to a vicious young man’s game,” Jay-Z, who’s made no secret of his drug dealing past, told me. “There were no more rules—teenagers had automatic weapons, the money was bigger and it just got out of control.”
Over the years, folks have given Jay much grief over his former profession. “I make no apologies for the path that I chose,” he told me then. “People think that kids who become drug dealers are monsters. They’re not monsters, they’re just regular kids who are pushed up against the odds, and the odds keep putting the lights out on their hopes. Kids understand the dangers of dealing drugs or being a gangster, but often it’s better than what they already have in their lives.”
No matter Jay Z’s rationale, the strange stories and mind-boggling mythologies of that time included kids selling rock for their parents; deranged dealers leaving dead bodies in vacant buildings for the rats to devour; a boss named Preacher playing William Tell with crackheads; and kids being abandoned for hours in squalor.
“There was no hiding it, no shame,” said Jay Z. “There wasn’t even shame from the addicts. People were just standing around smoking crack outside like it was normal. That’s not normal. People in those communities just lost control.” The next block over from where Jay used to score was where the notorious drug trio AZ, Alpo and Rich Porter (whose story was told in 2002’s gritty Paid in Full) sold their own brand of powerful rock.
“Harlem is split off in two sections: Before Crack and After Crack,” New Jack City screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper said in 2007. “BC and AC. Moreover, you can really see the profound change when that drug hit Harlem. The scary thing was, it seemed as though it happened overnight.”
Written in his adopted town of Baltimore, the city where The Wire took place, Cooper penned the first draft of New Jack City at the public library. With the poetic flair of Victor Hernandez Cruz and the pulp sensibility of Iceberg Slim, he used the guys he grew up with in Harlem—their language, their movement, the way they fought, the way they spoke, the places they hung out.
The Harlem drug kingpin in New Jack City, played with bravado by Wesley Snipes, was Nino Brown, but it was the Chris Rock’s infamous fiend Pookie that stole the movie. Unfortunately, we all knew more people like Pookie than like Nino Brown. As comedian Tracy Morgan told me recently. “We all had a crackhead in our family.”
From the Dickensian success of The Wire to the recent unveiling of the brilliant Time Is Illmatic Nas documentary to Singleton’s upcoming Snowfall, crack is everywhere. Thirty years after the deadly drug appeared on the scene, the streets of New York City might be cleaner, but crack in pop culture is still smokin’.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.